Clinton, South Carolina, Friday, January 30, 2015, 10:52 a.m.
Five men – Bill Elliott, Fred Lorenzen, Wendell Scott, Joe Weatherly, and Rex White – are being inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
At some point in my life, back before I wrote about NASCAR for a living, when I was a fan and didn’t know too much, two of them were favorite drivers of mine. The first was Lorenzen. Fearless Freddie. The Elmhurst Express. The prettiest stock car I ever saw was the one Lorenzen drove at Bristol, started on the pole and finished twentieth, when I was seven years old, on July 25, 1965. Ned Jarrett won the Volunteer 500 that day.
That Ford Galaxie wasn’t just white. It was sparkling, pearly white, with sky-blue interior and wheels. Two cars stood out to me that Sunday afternoon. One was Lorenzen’s Holman-Moody Ford. The other was Richard Petty’s Plymouth. From that day to this, Petty blue has seemed to me the perfect color of a race car. I never liked it when STP added its garish orange (in photos, it’s made to look red, but in person, it was as orange as orange can be) because it broke up the perfection of Petty blue. At times, the Number 43 had a simple inscription over its rear fenders: “Plymouth by Petty.” That I thought was cool.
My greatest racing hero was David Pearson. He became my hero when he replaced Lorenzen, who retired in 1967 for several years and never won again after he returned. Lorenzen had been Number 28, but Pearson replaced him in Number 17. Lorenzen had never won a championship and never tried. He competed only in the big races and yet still won 26 out of a career total of only 158, meaning that he won 16.5 percent of them. Dale Earnhardt’s career winning percent was 11.2.
By the way, my two early heroes were born eight days apart in December 1934.
I never met Lorenzen. One of my favorite memories was the two hours I spent talking with him on the phone in 1997. Offhand, the only other interview to which I can compare it is the afternoon I spent penned into a motel room with Bob Feller in 1981 during a fierce thunderstorm.
Perhaps, as I got older, experiences like those excited me less.
Lorenzen told me he regretted the abortive retirement. He admitted that Fireball Roberts’ death, in 1964, threw him for a loop, but, he said, retiring in his prime (age 33) was the greatest of his life’s regrets. I wish I had that story now. A copy of the magazine could be in a box or cabinet somewhere.
In 1981, slightly more than three years before he won the first of 44 Cup races, Bill Elliott became my third favorite driver, succeeding Lorenzen and Pearson. I was covering the Southern 500 at Darlington, and I found myself rooting for Elliott for one reason. He was, and still is, the only driver who reminded me of Pearson as I watched him lap my favorite track. Elliott, like Pearson, was “natural-born smooth.”
He wasn’t that off the track. Unlike Lorenzen and Pearson, I got to know Elliott, and while I liked him, and got along with him, I found him one of the more moody men I’d ever known. I learned to read him in the same manner that later came in handy with Tony Stewart. When Elliott had “his ass on his shoulders,” a term common to my upbringing, I let him be. When in a good mood, he was one of my favorites, and he was one of the few who would just sidle up alongside me at times to volunteer some information I might find useful.
Wendell Scott I watched in that first race at Bristol – he finished seventh, albeit 21 laps off the pace, and I remember him spending a good deal of the day driving around the apron of the turns (Bristol was only lightly banked in those days) – and many times over the years at Greenville-Pickens and Darlington.
What Scott could have done, no one will ever know. He was the most independent of independents, and the color of his skin was one big reason, but lots of drivers were underfunded back then, and the same questions must be considered when evaluating the careers of Big John Sears, Elmo Langley, Soapy Castles, Jabe Thomas, J.D. McDuffie, Cecil Gordon, and many others.
Once I had Kodak Instamatic photos of me posing with many drivers – Bobby Allison, Petty, Pete Hamilton, Buddy Baker, Tiny Lund, and others – in the Greenville-Pickens pits. I hope the photo of me –wearing a black sweatshirt that I had turned into a homemade football jersey with painted cutouts from iron-on knee patches — posing with Scott is in a shoe box somewhere at my mother’s house. I wish I’d kept it when I saw it about twenty years ago. It’ll probably turn up after I’m dead.
I’ve often thought that the common impression of Scott was wrong. When I watched him race, I don’t remember hearing him booed. In fact, it seemed that the attitude of the fans was one of respectful condescension. They liked and respected Scott. Had he been a frontrunner, a more serious threat to the white racers, it might have turned ugly, but I never saw any ugliness. When I had my picture taken with Scott, I had to stand in line. At about the age of twelve, my perception of Wendell Scott was that he was a very nice man.
All I remember about Joe Weatherly was his death. His fatal crash, at Riverside, occurred during the first year I have any memories at all of stock car racing. I know he was considered quite the prankster. I know he once said that the difference between oval racers and road racers was that the former drank whisky and chased women, and the latter drank wine and chased each other. He and Curtis Turner were best friends, and had one not been killed in a racing crash and the other in a plane crash, they’d have probably drunk each other to death long before now. They were racers once or twice a week but daredevils full-time.
Lorenzen’s last victory was at 33. Weatherly died at 41, Roberts at 35.
Finally, there’s Rex White, whom I got to know after Rick Minter introduced us at Atlanta Motor Speedway. White won the championship when I was two. The last of his 28 victories occurred at age 32 (him) and four (me). He raced six times in 1964, Chevrolet mainly left NASCAR, and White took to driving trucks for a living.
One of the reasons I liked Atlanta was that Minter’s farm was nearby, and another was that Rex was always there. They don’t come any better than those two. Typically, every visit to Atlanta Motor Speedway included a five-minute chat about old times with Rex. I never saw him race, but he is remembered for a gold No. 4 Chevy, and I always liked gold cars: Dick Hutcherson’s No. 29, the top of Pearson’s No. 17 Holman-Moody Fords, James Hylton in No. 48 during the 1960s, and Bobby Allison in the late 1980s with Miller High Life and No. 22.
While my memories are comparatively sparse, I’ve had some interaction with four of the five honorees, and I wouldn’t trade it for a high-dollar motor coach in the infield.
If you think of it, read my short fiction at www.wellpilgrim.wordpress.com, and give my books some consideration here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1