Herb Thomas is being inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Friday night. The driver most famous for driving No. 92, the “Fabulous Hudson Hornet,” passed away on Aug. 9, 2000, at the age of 77.
I talked to him once. It was at Martinsville Speedway in 1998. NASCAR was publicizing its list of 50 greatest drivers in the ruling body’s first 50 years. Herb and Bobby Allison came up to the press box and mainly mingled but also answered questions.
No one knew what to do with him.
The old champion had his career cut short by a terrible crash at the Shelby (Cleveland County, N.C.) fairgrounds track in 1956. It was one of the worst episodes in NASCAR history because most who saw it felt Speedy Thompson wrecked Thomas at the order of Carl Kiekhaefer, who wanted Thomas out of the way so that his driver, Buck Baker (another inductee), could win the Grand National title. There was bad blood between Thomas and Kiekhaefer. Thomas had quit on Kiekhaefer in the middle of the season and gone back out on his own. Many of Kiekhaefer’s drivers, including Baker and Tim Flock, bristled at the millionaire owner’s arbitrary ways and quit driving his immaculately prepared Chryslers at one time or another during Kiekhaefer’s two seasons of domination. Kiekhaefer had already gotten Big Bill France to add the Shelby race (and another) to the schedule, which gave Baker a chance to wrest the point lead from Thomas, who had already won championships in 1951 and ’53.
It might come as a surprise to many modern fans, but that 100 miler was run at night on a Tuesday, Oct. 23, 1956.
Thomas and Flock are in a virtual tie for the highest winning percentage in the history of NASCAR’s premier series. Thomas won 48 races in 228 tries (.210.), while Flock had 39 wins in 187 races (.209). One of the reasons for the distinction is that neither driver experienced a twilight. Thomas ran only a few more races after suffering a skull fracture and many more injuries in 1956, and France banned Flock for life when he and Curtis Turner tried to organize a drivers’ union in 1961. For very different reasons, both careers essentially ended in their primes.
It’s pretty easy to determine the dominant NASCAR drivers of the 1950s. In order, beginning with 1951, the championships were won by Thomas, Flock, Thomas, Lee Petty, Flock, Baker, Baker, Petty and Petty.
I’ve seldom felt sorrier for a fellow than Thomas that day in the Martinsville press box. He obviously felt uncomfortable. He was a plain-spoken, simple old man, wearing khaki work pants, a plaid flannel shirt and a windbreaker that didn’t have any sponsor decals on it. Most of the writers who deigned to interview him didn’t have a clue who he was and what he’d done. They were vaguely aware that once upon a time, he had been great. Most of the attention was on Allison, who seemed embarrassed for the ordeal that Thomas was going through.
One writer, trying and failing to come up a coherent question, asked Thomas what it was like to race against Bobby Allison, which caused him to stutter and stammer for good reason since they were not of the same generation. Thomas ran one final race in 1962, after five years away, and finished 14th at North Wilkesboro. Allison’s first Grand National start was in 1961, but he wasn’t in the field that day. Richard Petty won, and Thomas finished 23 laps behind. He called it quits for good.
So the media conference didn’t get off to a good start. The whole affair was mainly embarrassing. When asked about Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett and other luminaries of the day, Thomas had no idea what to say. Later, Allison strolled over to chat and console Thomas a bit.
I had paid my respects and was in earshot when Herb turned to Allison and asked, “Bobby, who in hell is Jeff Gordon? What did he ever do?”
At the time, Gordon was in the midst of winning 47 races in a period of five years.