One of the long running television series of the 1950's and 1960's was
the ever popular cops and robbers drama "Dragnet." The show featured
Jack Webb playing the part of hard-nosed career cop Joe Friday, a tough
but fair man, who seeded special privileges to no one.
When interrogating a witness his patented by line was, "Just the facts
please." No fluff, no speculation, no opinion.
Just tell me what you know to be true.
It's a shame 'ol Joe couldn't have landed a job with FOX Sports, NBC, or even
NASCAR. You see the facts of NASCAR's storied history have been distorted
by those groups and other media outlets, to the point that it appears they
share a public relations department with the World Wrestling Federation.
Oh there are no conspiracies going on here. Just sheer incompetence mixed
with well meaning but uninformed reporters making conclusions about events
they never witnessed.
For the sake of historical clarification and accuracy, this month's "Beyond
the Grandstand" column is devoted to setting the record straight.
I'll begin by examining popular myths perpetrated and promoted by the
media, and end our discussion with
an analysis of NASCAR "experts" selection of the sport's 50 greatest
drivers, which more appropriately should be
named "NASCAR's 35 Greatest Drivers, and 15 Most Overrated Drivers."
So buckle your seat belt while we take a short but rigorous ride from
fiction to truth.
Let's start with the Daytona 500.
MYTH #1: The Daytona 500 has been NASCAR's season opening and premier
event since it's inception.
TRUTH: For decades the opening event on the NASCAR schedule was the
Riverside 500 held at Riverside Raceway in Riverside, California. The
twisting road course where Hall of Famer Joe Weatherly lost his life was
held in January, the month before Daytona. And in the mid 1960's the World
600 at Charlotte boasted NASCAR's biggest purse. In fact in 1965 when David
Pearson was asked which Grand National race he would prefer to win, he stated bluntly,
"Charlotte. Because it pays the most."
At the time the number two event on the schedule, in the eyes of both
driver's and fans was the Southern 500 in Darlington. Long considered the
"Granddaddy of Superspeedways" and the toughest track to drive, no driver
was considered great until he had mastered the egg shaped oval.
MYTH #2: Richard Petty was the only Grand National/Winston Cup driver to
portray himself in a feature length movie.
TRUTH: In 1966 a feature film about NASCAR star Fred Lorenzen was produced
on location in Atlanta. The film received positive reviews, and played to sell out crowds
throughout the south. The actor who portrayed Lorenzen? Fred Lorenzen
himself, who actually delivered his lines, proving that driving a race car
was not the only thing he did better than Richard Petty.
MYTH #3: "The Last American Hero," a film about Junior Johnson in which
Jeff Bridges portrayed the Hall of Fame driver, was accurate in depicting
the career of "The Ronda Roadrunner."
TRUTH: Junior Johnson was a former moonshine runner from the
North Carolina hills who served time in prison. Johnson was gruff,
abrasive, and frequently hostile to the media. He ran over, around, and
through his competitors, and
endeared himself to few drivers or fans. With a protruding midsection and
a constant scowl, Junior was perhaps the most classic villain NASCAR has
MYTH #4: Hall of Fame driver Ned Jarrett, who recently appeared on a
Wheaties Box, was one of NASCAR's all time greats.
TRUTH: Ned Jarrett acquired 48 of his 50 Grand National victories on small
tracks. Many of his wins were 100 milers on quarters and halves, and dirt
tracks where few factory cars were entered. One of his two superspeedway
wins came at Darlington in 1965. In that event he trailed the leaders by
MULTIPLE laps throughout much of the race, and won only after Fred Lorenzen's
engine expired, and Cale Yarborough went over the wall.
A few years earlier while racing in the 1962
Firecracker 250 at Daytona, Ned caught the draft of Fireball Roberts on the
backstretch. The track public address announcer immediately picked up the
microphone and said to the crowd, "Folks Ned Jarrett has just caught
Fireball Roberts' draft, and that's the fastest Ned has ever traveled."
The crowd roared with laughter. Now if someone will just bring that
Wheaties box to Fireball's grave site, I guarantee you'll hear him turn
MYTH #5: Competition today is tougher than at anytime in NASCAR history.
TRUTH: Competition is actually about the same as it was forty years ago. We see
factory participation from Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge, and Pontiac today. In
1961, Chrysler's banner was flown by Buck and Buddy Baker, Chevrolet by Ned
Jarrett and Rex White, Pontiac by Fireball Roberts, David Pearson, Jack
Smith, Bob Welborn, Joe Weatherly and others. Ford was led by Fred Lorenzen and
Nelson Stacy, and Plymonth by Richard and Lee Petty. Winning NASCAR races
has always been tough.
MYTH #6: Stock car racing is more popular today than at anytime in the
history of the sport.
TRUTH: While it's true that NASCAR shares a broader appeal today than at
anytime in it's history, due primarily to television exposure, it is also
true that NASCAR racing has been very popular for decades. When Bristol
Speedway opened in July of 1961, its inaugural race was sold out. Standing
room tickets were purchased for $5 while they lasted, by patrons who wished
to sit on a nearby hillside, and view about half of the race track. Others
unable to purchase tickets or get into the hillside standing area, watched from nearby vantage points,
seeing about a fourth of the track. At the age of 10, I was one of
the long distance race watchers along with my parents (I should have ordered
tickets earlier!) During that same time frame the World 600 at Charlotte
was drawing more than 100,000, and crowds of over 50,000 were
commonplace at the superspeedways.
While today's crowds are indeed larger, so is the population. Suffice to
say that NASCAR has always been a very popular spectator sport.
MYTH #7: The most accurate means to compare drivers of different eras is
to look at their total victories and
number of Winston Cup championships.
TRUTH: While points and victories are a valid means of comparing talent over
the past 20 years, such criteria were not applicable forty years ago. In
the early and intermediate years of NASCAR many race teams ran only the big
events, choosing not to participate in the weekly 100 milers which filled
out the Grand National schedule. In those days the Grand National (now
Winston Cup) champion was laughingly referred to as the Grand National LAP
champion. Because of vast differences in the number of quality cars
entered, and the length of events, races were at that time classified as
"major" and "minor." A major event being 250 miles or more on a half mile
or larger paved track. By the mid 1970's, NASCAR historians unofficially
decided to simply drop the sub group and combine all Grand National/Winston
Cup wins. The result was a fiasco.
Suddenly hundred mile "heat" races at Bowman-Gray Stadiums quarter mile
track, with three factory cars entered, counted as one career victory
just like a 500 miler on a superspeedway, with fifteen factory cars entered.
In the 1960's many of NASCAR's all time greats, including Fred Lorenzen and Fireball
Roberts, had numerous year ending finishes in the top ten in points, while
running only HALF the scheduled races. The $1,000 winner's check at the
Savannah Fairgrounds wasn't worth the drive to pick up.
MYTH #8: The official NASCAR web site refers to Tim Flock, Tiny Lund, and Fred Lorenzen as
TRUTH: Tim Flock was indeed a pioneer establishing himself as perhaps the
greatest driver of the 1950's, while compiling a 21.2 win percentage on all
tracks. Lund and Lorenzen were many things. Pioneers was not among them.
Lund peaked as a driver in the 1960's long after the decade of NASCAR
pioneers was over. Lorenzen was busy winning two USAC stock car
championships in the 1950's, and only appeared in NASCAR races briefly in
MYTH #9: The "50 Greatest Drivers in NASCAR history"
are listed on the official NASCAR web site.
TRUTH: In the true spirit of Vince McMahon (Owner of the World
Wrestling Federation), NASCAR has listed the sport's "50
Greatest Drivers" as voted on by a panel of experts.
Unlike other major sports where busts of all time greats have equal stature,
NASCAR has chosen to highlight six drivers by providing a photograph of
each. The implication is clear. Those six stand out.
At least in NASCAR's mind. As a sanctioning body they have chosen to
participate in the Willie Mays is better than Mickey Mantle argument.
Needless to say, major league baseball,
the NFL, and the NBA would not partake in such a trite, bias, and flagrant
classification of its participating players, although the NBA is getting
close with their public adulation for Michael Jordan.
So what's wrong with NASCAR's "All Time Top 50." An awful lot.
Conspicuously absent are Dick Hutcherson, a tough hard nosed driver who ran
the full NASCAR circuit for Holman-Moody from 1965 through 1967. In just
three years, Dick won 14 races on an assortment of tracks, and earned a
reputation as one of the circuits best. Few times in NASCAR history has
anyone won 14 times in three years. Another MUST on anyone's all time list
is Jim Paschal, perhaps the smoothest driver in NASCAR history.
He won 25 races while driving mostly for Petty Enterprises, and frequently
did so in marginal cars. Also missing from the list is Jack Smith.
Jack was a dominant driver in the 1960's who won the inaugural 500 lapper
at Bristol, and another 20 races to go with it.
Jack was a hard charger who could drive circles around many on NASCAR's
50 Greatest list.
Yet another omission of magnanimous proportion is Speedy Thompson.
Speedy peaked in the 1950's, and saw victory circle 20 times in his career.
Although only a part time Grand National competitor, Indy ace Paul Goldsmith
racked up nine career NASCAR victories. Respected by driver's in both stock
and championship car competition, Paul was one of the best.
And if A.J. Foyt gets in with just seven career wins, why not Goldsmith
with nine? Darel Derringer is another curious omission.
Driving a factory Mercury, Darel had seven career wins, and always ran with
the leaders. Ironically Tiny Lund with only five wins,
(some say four, as many records of his era were poorly kept) and a much
lower win percentage gets in. Tiny, a genuine hero who helped rescue
Marvin Panch from a burning Massarati at Daytona in 1963,
seldom ran up front, and usually raced in a pack of cars several laps
behind Darel Derringer.
If we are rating drivers on sheer
ability, which is evidently the idea since A. J. Foyt makes
the field with seven wins,
let's include perhaps the greatest short track driver of all time- "Tiger"
Tom Pistone. Tiger, which he preferred to be called, was about 5'3" and
130 pounds. But don't mess with Tom, he was one tough customer, long before
the late Dale Earnhardt was born. He won only two NASCAR races because he
seldom raced in NASCAR. Tom was the "King" of Solider Field, and once out
ran a bevy of factory cars in an independent Ford at Martinsville. And
speaking of omissions, Nelson Stacy a World 600 and Southern 500 champion,
with short track wins as well, should have made the roster.
So who else doesn't belong on the Top 50 list? Red Byron with two career
wins. Hershall McGriff, a great road course driver, who seldom competed at
non-road course events, and Glen Wood a master car builder, a good driver,
but not a great one. And what about...... we could go on forever, but the
point has been made. It's time the public demand truth in the media
reporting of NASCAR's past. More Joe Friday, less Vince McMahon.
We owe that to future generations.