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"Then Junior Said to Jeff ..."
The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told
By David Poole, Jim McLaurin, Tom Gillispie
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2012 David Poole, James McLaurin, and Tom Gillispie
All rights reserved.
In the Beginning ...
In the sport's earliest days, "organized racing" was almost an oxymoron.
School of Hard Knocks
In racing's formative years, some race promoters were notorious for taking off with the gate receipts before the race, leaving the drivers — whether they liked it or not — to race just for fun.
The drivers themselves were an unruly lot, often making up the rules — and the tracks — as they went. Safety equipment, what there was of it, was rudimentary at best, and more often than not, non-existent.
Long-time racing official Ernie Moore once described a race somewhere in southern Georgia in which "one old boy knocked himself ... about five times." The race was a 15-lap feature run in a recently harvested cornfield. The "track" quickly deteriorated, Moore said, particularly in one corner.
"There was a hole about 5 feet deep," he remembered. "The cars would hit that hole and the driver's head would bang against the roof of the car. They'd hang out of those cars when they hit that hole. That one old boy knocked himself cuckoo about five times, and every time, he'd crash into another car."
That day, Moore said, the fans saved that driver from himself: "Some of the spectators would pour water on him, and he'd take off again. The fifth time he did it, they didn't bother waking him up." — J.M. (Hunter, pp. 16)
Feels Like the First Time
The first race in what is now known as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series took place on June 19, 1949, on a three-quarter-mile dirt track in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The track is no longer there — now it's just a field between two highways near the city's airport. But on that afternoon, a 150-mile race on a rutted track that took its toll on man and machine gave birth to what is now America's premier motorsports series.
The idea was to have cars come straight to the race track from off the showroom floor. The name of the series outlined the rulebook — it was NASCAR's new "strictly stock" series that had its first official race scheduled for that day.
The drivers were allowed to make only the most minor adjustments — removing wheel covers and adding seat belts, things like that. Many drivers went to military surplus stores and got belts to tie themselves in, while others simply used, well, belts, the ones they used to hold their pants up.
There were 33 cars entered. One was driven by a young man from Denton, North Carolina, named Archie Smith.
"It cost $25 to enter," Smith recalls. "Nobody had that. I was working for 75¢ an hour and my daddy didn't want me to go. But he finally agreed to loan me the money."
Smith had heard about the race in a radio advertisement. Jim Roper, who was from Kansas, had read about it in a comic strip in his local newspaper and made the long drive. That would turn out to be a good decision.
Smith brought his personal car down to Charlotte, taped up the headlights, buckled the doors closed with a leather belt, and strapped himself in with an old horse harness he bought at a hardware store.
But first, he made a little side trip.
"I wanted to be smarter than anybody else," Smith says. "We went to the airport and filled up with airplane gas. They came out and caught us and wanted to know what we were doing. We told them we were buying gas for the race. They were about to make us pump it all out."
But just before the race started, Smith's car would not start. He had a buddy, who was helping him in the pits, paged over the public address system. The friend brought an air tank and he and Smith blew out the gas lines and started the race.
Drivers weren't the only ones who'd heard about the race, of course. A boy living just across the Catawba River in the town of Belmont knew there was a race that day, so he walked from Belmont Abbey College, where his father was the athletics director, down to the intersection of US 74 and hitchhiked his way to the show. The young man, Howard Wheeler, later picked up the same nickname his father had: Humpy.
Archie Smith wasn't the only North Carolina driver to come to the state's largest city to race that day, either. Lee Petty drove down from Level Cross with two carloads of family and friends.
One of the cars was the one Lee raced in the event. During the race, he hooked a tire in one of the ruts the heavy cars had worn into the track's surface and flipped it. Not only did that end Petty's race, it also rendered one of the cars the Petty clan had used to get to Charlotte unworthy of making the trip back home. So after the race, the womenfolk took the working car home. Lee stayed back in Charlotte to get the other car fixed. And his young son, Richard, hitchhiked home.
When the checkered flag flew after 200 laps, Glenn Dunnaway from nearby Gastonia was the winner.
Or was he?
The springs in the 1947 Ford that Dunnaway drove had been altered. And since this was a strictly stock race, that was illegal.
So Roper, the Kansan who'd literally seen it in the funny papers, was declared the winner. — D.P.
Racing Like a Lady
To the everlasting delight of the automobile racing crowd, Louise Smith talked as good a game as she played.
"You had to fight all the time," Smith once said. "I thought men weren't supposed to hit women and women weren't supposed to hit men, but I found out it went both ways. If you won a race, you just about had to fight."
A Greenville, South Carolina, native, Smith was born in 1916 and was one of the true pioneers in racing. She was a racer before there was a NASCAR, winning 38 races in the modified division in the 1940s and '50s.
She managed to catch the eye of a young promoter named Bill France and, when she finished third in her first race at Greenville-Pickens Speedway, she and France figured they had a good thing.
"Coming in third made a lot of them mad," she said. "I think a lot of them are mad at me now. ... But Bill France and I became good friends, and he let me race. I think I turned out to be a pretty good driver."
Racing was a novelty in itself in the early days, and Smith's presence in a male-dominated sport may have been looked at as a gimmick. But her opponents came to know her as a hard-knocking competitor who gave as good as she took.
"I let them push me around to start with," she said, "but Buddy Shuman ... we were in Asheville and all out at a party one night — a big racing shebang with them and their wives — and he came up and told me he wanted to take me out to the speedway the next morning and show me something.
"He took me out to Weaverville Speedway and showed me how to bump them on the back fender and make them flip [spin out]. We practiced that thing all day Saturday, and I got to where I could do it pretty good.
"He got killed that night, but I got to where they called me 'Little Buddy Shuman' after that. I didn't have to hit but two guys who were hitting on me. I cut them a flip, and nobody didn't bother me no more."
In 1999 Smith was voted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega, Alabama. As of 2005, she was still one of only two women (drag racing legend Shirley Muldowney being the other) in the Hall.
She was as tough a competitor as there was in racing's wild and wooly days, gender be damned.
"They were all rough," she said. "I don't know who was the roughest. We were all friends, but once you hit that race track, you ain't got no friends.
"It's every man for hisself. And on my part, it was every woman for hisself." — J.M.
Long before Danica Patrick, Lyn St. James, or Janet Guthrie, there was Louise Smith. She was hell on wheels, but she had her share of wrecks.
Her first automobile accident was with her daddy's Model T. The tot took the wheel, couldn't stop the car, and drove it right into the chicken coop.
Then she had her racing wrecks.
Once in Hillsborough, North Carolina, Curtis Turner was teaching her how to slide a car through the turns on a dirt track, then apply the gas as she left the corners. She broke the track record in qualifying, but on her third circuit, the car went airborne and wiped out some small trees. They cut her out of the wreckage with a torch; she needed 48 stitches, and four pins were inserted in her left knee.
Her signature wreck, though, came in 1947. She took Noah's new Ford coupe to Daytona Beach to watch the beach races, but she wanted to race. So she raced the new car and, naturally, wrecked it. She didn't want to tell Noah. She got home, and when he asked about the car, she said it broke down in Augusta, Georgia.
Then he showed her the local newspaper and the front-page photo of his crumpled coupe.
Oops. — T.G.
X Marks the Spot
Francis Eduardo Menendez, better known as Frank Mundy because his buddies in his hometown of Atlanta found that easier to pronounce than the former, made a couple of marks in NASCAR in its formative years.
But he was better known as a stunt car driver. Mundy spent seven years with Lucky Teter's Hell Drivers and became an expert at somersaulting a car, jumping it 120', and crashing it head-on. Especially crashing it head-on.
"I volunteered for the head-on crash because it paid $10 more a week," Mundy said. "The secret to a perfect head-on was to be able to drive the car from the back seat. You ducked behind a mattress just before impact."
Mundy won three races on NASCAR's Grand National circuit, and he even won the pole for the second Southern 500 at Darlington — in a Studebaker — in 1951.
But he cut his racing teeth at the old Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta in the pre–World War II era. "I was knocked cold only once on a track, and it came in those early days at Lakewood," he said.
Lakewood was a dirt oval with a lake in the infield, and one of the dustier tracks around.
"The stockers kicked up so much dust you couldn't see the other cars," Mundy said. "Anytime you drive blind, you drive scared. I was judging the turns on the backstretch by a bunch of trees. When I saw them, I'd count to five or six and then straighten the car. I was busy counting when I plowed into six other cars who must have been counting, too.
"I woke up in the ambulance. After they found no broken bones, I raced back, borrowed a car, and finished second in the feature."
Mundy was one of the few drivers of that era who flew to races and let whoever he was driving for haul the car to the track. That semi-backfired on him in 1956, when he arrived at a track near Los Angeles to find his car hadn't made it.
He rented a car, painted an X on the door, and finished eighth in the race without a pit crew, extra tires, or gas. He won $100, and the car rental only came to $37, so Mundy still came out ahead. — J.M. (Cutter, pp. 432–33)
Long Time Running
Dick Rathmann's win in a 250-lap race at California's Oakland Speedway in 1954 was the first last-place-to-first-place victory in NASCAR history, but that's not the half of it.
Rathmann's journey to the checkered flag was more like a marathon than a 125-mile sprint.
Rathmann, a Californian who had come east to race stock cars, and his mechanic Jim Ellis picked up a brand new Hudson Hornet race car in Atlanta, Georgia, four days before the race to haul it out to California. The pair took turns sleeping while the other one drove, at one point motoring through a snowstorm, until they were about 100 miles from Oakland.
Then the car they were using to tow the race car broke down. Rathmann decided to use the race car to tow the other car to the track, and he and Ellis arrived at 1:00 am on the day of the race. They spent the morning getting the race car in shape for qualifying and then, during his qualifying lap, the gas tank fell off, evidently having been weakened by towing the tow car, and it was unlikely that they would find a replacement.
However, another Hudson just like Rathmann's crashed during qualifying and destroyed everything on the car but the gas tank. Rathmann borrowed the tank and made it into the field, taking the 26th (and last) qualifying spot.
By then, the crowd had gotten wind of his extraordinary efforts in just getting to the race, and they cheered wildly as he took the lead on lap 143 and led the rest of the way.
After the race, someone pointed out to Rathmann that it had taken him less than 21/2 hours (2 hours, 27 minutes, and 57 seconds) to finish the race.
A weary Rathmann smiled and said it felt more like a week. — J.M. (Engel, pp. 106)CHAPTER 2
Curtis and Smokey and Harry and 'Em
NASCAR history is replete with colorful characters, men who've made their mark on the sport in many ways.
Well Suited to the Task
Curtis Turner made and lost several fortunes in the timber business, and no doubt could have won more NASCAR races if he'd approached racing differently. But it was said that if Turner did lose a race, he never lost a party.
Turner's parties were legendary affairs that sometimes lasted for days, and when one was over, his favorite phrase was, "There's another party startin' in 15 minutes."
On the race track, Turner's philosophy was that if it took beating and banging to get to the front — indeed, he once won a race in Asheville, North Carolina, when his was the only car left running at the end — then all the better.
The venue changes occasionally, as does the color of the suit, but Turner once drove a race in a three-piece business suit — the result of having shown up late for a race with a crushing hangover.
Or, depending on who was telling the story, about half-smashed.
"I was about half-tuned when I got to the race and didn't even have time to change my clothes," Turner himself said. "So I just got in the car with my suit and tie on and took off runnin'. Blew a tire and finished fourth.
"I told my sponsors they ought to want their drivers to dress like gentlemen." — J.M. (Chapin, pp. 41)
The Honor System?
Country and western star Marty Robbins loved racing as much as he did singing, often leaving the Grand Ole Opry show as soon as his number was over to go out to the speedway in Nashville to beat and bang with the locals.
If he didn't have an engagement, he sometimes followed the show on the road.
Racing was his hobby. And while he didn't have the money it took to run up front, he enjoyed racing back in the pack with the rest of the "independents."
Well, except maybe once.
In 1972 at Talladega Superspeedway, Robbins surprised even himself by going a lot faster than he'd ever gone, certainly faster than NASCAR had expected him to. Late in the race, he was clocked at 188 mph, when he had only qualified at 177. He finished 18th in the race.
Even he suspected something fishy, so he asked NASCAR technical inspector Bill Gazaway to have a look at his carburetor. Someone had given him one that was a trifle larger than it should have been.
Robbins refused the $250 bonus for being the highest-finishing rookie in the race, and NASCAR disqualified him for the illegal carburetor. The incident cost him more than $1,000.
Robbins didn't care, saying that it was worth it just to see the look on Joe Frasson's face when he blew by. — J.M.
No Taxi Driver
Benny Parsons was known as the racing cab driver, but it's not really true.
Here's how it came about: Benny's parents, Harold and Hazel, took Benny's younger brother, Phil, and moved to Detroit to make a living. Benny stayed behind to live with Julia Parsons, the young Benny's beloved great-grandmother. Eventually, he joined the family in Detroit, where they had a gas station and a cabstand, and he mostly worked on cabs but occasionally drove one if needed.
When Benny filled out an application for a NASCAR license, he wrote "taxicab business" where it said "occupation." From then on, he was stuck with being called "the racing cab driver." — T.G.
Just a Guy Doing His Job
Sam McQuagg, who raced on NASCAR's Grand National circuit in the 1960s, might be best remembered as the other guy in the photo when Cale Yarborough jumped the fence at Darlington in 1965.
But McQuagg did have his one day in the sun.
McQuagg, in fact, was more remarkable by the fact that there was little remarkable about him in an era when bigger-than-life heroes such as Yarborough, David Pearson, and Richard Petty ruled racing.
McQuagg was the son of a carpenter from Columbus, Georgia, and was a man of simple pleasures. Devoted to his wife, McQuagg did not race on Friday nights because that's when he took her out to dinner. Once, when asked why he would not attend a racing dinner on Sunday evening, he said, "My favorite TV program, Bonanza, is on, and I wouldn't miss it for the world."
Excerpted from "Then Junior Said to Jeff ..." by David Poole, Jim McLaurin, Tom Gillispie. Copyright © 2012 David Poole, James McLaurin, and Tom Gillispie. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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