WWS: Legendary driver Hershel McGriff retires

Legendary driver Hershel Mcgriff recalls long, illustrious career. DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (May 3, 2002)-- A racing career that spanned the generations of NASCAR has come to an end. At 74 years of age, Hershel McGriff has decided to hang up his ...

Legendary driver Hershel Mcgriff recalls long, illustrious career.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (May 3, 2002)-- A racing career that spanned the generations of NASCAR has come to an end. At 74 years of age, Hershel McGriff has decided to hang up his helmet.

His sudden decision came during the recent NASCAR Winston West Series event at California Speedway. The legendary driver simply pulled into the pits, climbed out of his car and walked away with little fanfare. It was typical of McGriff-- who never sought the spotlight, despite his numerous accomplishments and being named as one of the 50 Greatest Drivers in NASCAR.

"Well, I just retired," McGriff said after his departure from the race. "If I cannot keep up, be near the front, have fun and be comfortable-- which is how it has been-- then I think the time has come. I know I'll miss it. I've always enjoyed the people and everything that surrounds it. And I always liked the competitiveness of it."

McGriff's career is one that pre-dates NASCAR and spans seven decades of racing. "Hershel started with us about the same time NASCAR was founded and he has always championed NASCAR's cause since day one," said NASCAR Chairman Bill France Jr. "He was quite a race-car driver through the years and even, more importantly, a great ambassador for the sport. Although he is retiring-- and we wish him well in his retirement-- we hope he continues as an ambassador to our sport."

McGriff's fascination with racing stemmed from an early interest in cars that developed while growing up in Sioux Falls, S.D. He owned a motor scooter when he was about 9 years old and drove farm machinery while working summer jobs before becoming a teenager. "My dad let me use the family car when I was 12," McGriff recalled of living in a time and place that did not require a drivers' license. "I bought my first car when I was 13."

His first race was at 17 years of age after his family had moved to Portland, Ore. He borrowed his father's car to compete at Portland Speedway in September of 1945. "They advertised this 250-lap race at Portland Speedway, which was dirt," McGriff said. "My dad agreed to let me use his car, a 1940 Hudson. The following year I was offered a 1946 Ford coupe. In the meantime, they had blacktopped the track. I won that race, a 100-lapper.

"It just went from there," McGriff said of his career. "It was always a weekend thing. Everybody worked. We would take the car... then, we just drove them on the street. That's the way we would run them-- tied the doors shut and put a number on the side and went at it."

One of what McGriff considers his biggest accomplishments came in 1950 when he won the Pan American road race in Mexico. His encounter during that event with fellow competitor Bill France Sr., led to a lifelong friendship. "From that time on we were always pretty close," McGriff said. "I think I learned a lot from him. He was so knowledgeable and looked so far ahead."

That same year, France invited McGriff to compete in the first Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. After driving his car cross-country, McGriff raced it to a ninth-place finish and then drove it home to Portland.

"We didn't have the big races in the Northwest like they did back there," McGriff said. "So, occasionally when something would pop up, Bill would call me and I'd go back there. I was always back and forth."

McGriff's venture into what is now known as the NASCAR Winston Cup Series was most extensive in 1954. Although he only competed in about half of the races that season, he netted four wins and finished sixth in the final point standings. He is also credited for winning five pole positions in NASCAR's premier division.

The season was one in which McGriff became very active with public relations for the events. The senior France helped him in making many of those appearances, McGriff said. "He would fly me into town and drop me off," McGriff said, who was living at the time in Daytona Beach, Fla. "A lot of times he would come to the race and then pick me up and fly me back. We spent a lot of hours in the airplane together."

Rather than pursue a full-time racing effort, McGriff opted to return home to Portland the following season to focus on his family and a lumber business. "I know he (France) was pretty disappointed when I didn't come back there in 1955, because he lined up the Carl Kiekhaefer Chrysler for me to drive. I just felt I should stay home and get something started with my family. I stayed home for a while and started a lumber business."

Meanwhile, Tim Flock got the Kiekhaefer ride and won the championship that year. "Probably my history would have been a lot different, had I gone back there," McGriff said. "But you can't look back. I felt bad about not doing it later. At the time I didn't really know what the operation was. But I have no regrets. You just got to keep going forward."

Busy building a successful lumber business, McGriff was basically away from racing from 1955 to 1967 before eventually getting involved again. During his racing career, McGriff competed against some of the best names in NASCAR-- including three generations of the Petty family. He went door-to-door with Lee Petty early in his career, later raced against Richard Petty and even competed against Kyle Petty.

Perhaps McGriff's most remarkable talent was on a road course. With 14 wins, he was the all-time leading race-winner at Riverside (Calif.) International Raceway. He also won the first-ever NASCAR Winston West Series street race on the streets of Tacoma, Wash., in 1986.

Never one to shy away from a challenge or an adventure, McGriff also carried the NASCAR banner overseas on more than one occasion. In addition to competing in a NASCAR Winston Cup car in the 24 Hours of LeMans in France, he raced in Australia and Japan.

Besides his accomplishments on the track, McGriff was also noted for his efforts off the track. His contributions to the sport were reflected with McGriff being presented with the NASCAR Award of Excellence.

McGriff's popularity among fans was indicated by the record 12 consecutive years, from 1981 to 1992, that he was named as the Most Popular Driver in the NASCAR Winston West Series.

"He has always been the all-time big name out here," former NASCAR Vice President for Western Operations Ken Clapp said of his close friend. "There's never been anybody like him. He clearly was our Richard Petty. He was almost unbeatable in his day. He had incredible patience. And he had such charisma. He'd never walk away from autographs after a race, no matter how tired he was. He went out of his way to be a good person."

McGriff, who was named to the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame, leaves his name etched throughout the NASCAR Winston West Series record book. In addition to winning the series championship in 1986, he is third on the list of series career victories with 34. In terms of pole positions won in the modern era (1971 to present), McGriff leads the way with 35. His record 12 victories in 1972 still stands as the most in a season-- as does his record that year for winning the most pole positions, with 12. McGriff also set a record that year for most consecutive races won with five and for the most top-five finishes in a season with 22.

In the modern era alone, McGriff started 236 NASCAR Winston West Series races, one short of the record. He is second in that era for top-fives, with 96, and also second on the list of top-10s with 144. McGriff led 4,094 laps of competition in the modern era, which also ranks second for that time span. When he visited victory lane at Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield, Calif., in 1989-- he became the oldest driver to win in the series at 61 years and four months old.

McGriff, who sold his lumber business and moved to Nevada in 1986 to work full-time with a mining operation, trimmed back his racing effort in the series through the 1990s. He returned to run the full NASCAR Winston West Series in 2001. In 14 races that season, McGriff notched one top-five and five top 10s. He kicked off the 2002 season with a seventh-place finish in the season opener at Phoenix.

While McGriff has announced his retirement from driving, he plans to keep busy with his many other activities, including his full-time job. "We only had about nine races this year," McGriff said of the 2002 schedule. "That leaves me 42 or 43 weekends that I was doing something else anyway. I will keep busy with other work and things will not change that much for me."


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About this article
Series History , NASCAR
Drivers Kyle Petty , Richard Petty , Hershel McGriff , Tim Flock , Lee Petty