Legendary drivers: the pioneers DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 16, 1998) (Note: This is the first of monthly features that will coinicide with the quarterly themes celebrating NASCAR's 50th Anniversary. This particular article is part one of a ...
Legendary drivers: the pioneers
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 16, 1998)
(Note: This is the first of monthly features that will coinicide with the quarterly themes celebrating NASCAR's 50th Anniversary. This particular article is part one of a three-part series on NASCAR's legendary drivers)
The future facing Herb Thomas during the adult portion of his life was one of delivering goods across the Coastal Plain and Sandhill sections of North Carolina as a truck driver.
Then, a dreamer named Bill France Sr. founded an organization named NASCAR -- the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing -- that began staging stock car races, in 1949. Thomas suddenly found himself on a different route, one that would make him a motorsports hero and lead to his induction into several motorsports halls of fame.
Outwardly, Thomas was somewhat shy and unassuming -- but on the inside he brimmed with daring and determination. The combination of these traits transformed the native of Sanford, N.C.., into a major star and destined him to become the first of several extraordinary NASCAR drivers to reach "legendary" status.
Thomas won the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in 1951 and 1954 driving Hudson Hornets. He again took that race, NASCAR's biggest at the time, in 1955 at the wheel of a Chevrolet.
The latter victory assured Thomas a revered spot in NASCAR history. He had been injured in May of 1955 in a racing accident. Doctors told Thomas it would take six months for his injuries to heal. He vowed to be back earlier and, indeed, returned approximately 3 1/2 months later to triumph at Darlington.
Thomas was NASCAR's point champion in 1951 and 1953. He posted 48 victories in 230 starts during a racing career spanning the 1949-62 seasons.
Thomas remains a respected and popular participant each September in activities related to National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame ceremonies at Darlington.
The legendary drivers of NASCAR's first 50 years generally can be grouped into three categories.
There are "The Pioneers," such as Thomas. Next came those who drove during what some observers call "The Golden Age" of NASCAR, the mid-1960s through the 1970s. Finally, there are the competitors of "The Modern Era," who remain active.
Several drivers likely deserve to be regarded as legends.
Here, joining Thomas to make a baker's dozen, are stars that certainly do:
As Thomas did, Baker gave up one driving job for another when he became a racer. Baker wheeled a city bus in Charlotte before the excitement and money offered by France lured him away.
A feisty South Carolinian, Baker won the Southern 500 in his home state three times and was champion of what is now NASCAR's Winston Cup circuit in 1956-57. He logged 46 victories in 636 starts from 1949-76.
"Ol' Buck," as Baker is known, was followed into the sport by son Buddy, also a Hall of Famer who posted 19 triumphs, including three Coca-Cola 600 wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway and victory in the 1980 Daytona 500. The elder Baker now operates high performance driving schools at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga.; and North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham, N.C.
There are three Flock brothers in the NMPA Hall Of Fame -- Bob, Fonty and Tim. Old time fans rate Tim, the youngest, the most talented of the trio.
His record is astounding. Tim sped to 40 victories and two championships, and won the storied race on the Daytona Beach and Road Course back-to-back in 1955-56. His 18 triumphs in 1955 stood as a single-season record until Richard Petty won 27 times in 1967.
Tim Flock is the only NASCAR driver to take a pet, his monkey, "Jocko Flocko," along in his car during races. Jocko Flocko, who had seat belts, a uniform and helmet, was a passenger in eight races before retiring.
During the early 1950s Bob, Fonty and Tim were joined in a NASCAR race by a sister, Ethel Flock Mobley. It marked the only time four siblings raced against each other in the sanctioning body's history.
"The three of us boys had trouble and Ethel finished ahead of us," recalls Tim. "The teasing got so bad for a couple weeks we about had to go into hiding." Tim has a theory on the Flock family's success in racing.
"Our father, Carl Lee Flock, was a daredevil and I'm sure we inherited being adventuresome from him," said Tim, who was born in Alabama but grew up in Atlanta. "He was great at doing tricks on bicycles and he walked tightropes. He had an incredible sense of balance.
"I think we got those genes from him and they helped make us good race car drivers."
He began his racing career at the famed Hickory Motor Speedway in North Carolina during the early 1950s under an assumed name -- John Lentz. This was because his father frowned on him becoming a racer.
Jarrett's natural talent manifested itself early, however, and he had to go to Victory Lane. He was recognized, and the secret was out.
"Son, if you're going to drive, you might as well get the credit for it," reasoned Homer Jarrett. At that moment, the alias was dropped.
And what terrific credit Ned Jarrett went on to earn before his retirement in 1966 -- when he was still only 35.
He won two championships in NASCAR's Sportsman Division (now the NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division) before moving up to the major league level of NASCAR Grand National, which became the NASCAR Winston Cup Series in the early 1970s. Ned Jarrett also claimed two titles on the big-time tour, in 1961 and 1965.
Jarrett lists 50 victories, most memorable of which came in the 1965 Southern 500. He won the race by a whopping 14 laps.
Jarrett, known for his gentlemanly manner, endures in the sport as a highly-respected analyst on racing telecasts for CBS, ESPN and TNN: The Nashville Network. He's the father of current star Dale Jarrett, a two-time Daytona 500 winner and a victor in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway; broadcaster Glenn Jarrett, who also had a driving career; and grandfather to rookie NASCAR Busch Series driver Jason Jarrett.
Two colorful nicknames were tagged on Junior Johnson: "The Wilkes County Wild Man," and "The Ronda Roadrunner."
Johnson knew only one driving style -- full bore -- so he often seemed a wild man on the track. Before his NASCAR days, Johnson was known as the fastest and most uncatchable of the moonshine haulers, running distilled spirits out of the hills near rural Ronda in Wilkes County, N.C.
Johnson roared to 50 victories in 313 starts from 1953-66, including 13 of 36 in 1965. He won the 1960 Daytona 500.
Johnson retired in his prime in 1966, but continued in the sport to become one of the most successful NASCAR team owners of all time. Prior to retiring from NASCAR Winston Cup Series racing for good in 1996, Johnson guided his teams to 139 victories and six NASCAR Winston Cup Series championships.
Part of his life was depicted in a movie, "The Last American Hero," which starred Beau Bridges.
Speed appealed to Lee Petty, especially when it was in a competitive form.
Like racing at night on the lonely roads of Piedmont North Carolina in the late 1940s with a wager on the outcome.
Not surprisingly, then, Petty was among the first to register to run when Bill France Sr. inaugurated NASCAR Strictly Stocks on a hot June weekend in 1949 in Charlotte.
Petty wrecked a borrowed street car in that race. It was an inglorious beginning for the father of two sons from Level Cross, N.C. But he was undaunted and set about to become part of France's tour on a full-time basis.
Was he ever undaunted. Before ending his driving career in 1964, Petty won 54 races and three championships. Among his triumphs was victory in the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959.
Petty, whose competitiveness now is directed at rivals on golf courses, was followed as a driver by son Richard, "The King," who reigned over "The Golden Age."
Glenn Roberts, a Floridian from Daytona Beach, wasn't given his nickname because of his speed on the track. He got it as a pitcher on the University of Florida baseball team. Roberts had a smooth, consistent driving style that was rarely seen in NASCAR's early years.
His ability not to abuse his cars accounted for many of the 33 triumphs he posted, the biggest of which came in the 1962 Daytona 500, a year in which he swept the pole and his qualifying race as well. The most memorable of Roberts' wins for many fans, however, was his victory in the 1958 Southern 500. The race was marred by a multitude of wrecks. The Turn 1 railing at Darlington Raceway took such a beating that finally it was declared beyond repair.
The drivers were told to slow down and run low in Turn 1 because a long stretch of the outer rail was missing. Most did, but Roberts maintained the high line, or groove, that he'd used previously. He won the race by five laps in his 1957 Chevrolet.
Roberts died in 1964 after being severely burned in a racing accident at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Source: NASCAR Online