Hometown: Elmhurst, Ill.
Top Fives: 75
Top 10s: 84
Chicago is home to a number of things. Wind. Da Bears. Polish Sausage. Ditka, Ditka, and this weekend’s race at Chicagoland. While the Chicagoland area is home to both Jake and Elwood Blues, it is also home to one of the 50 Greatest Drivers in NASCAR history. “The Golden Boy,” Fred Lorenzen of Elmhurst, Illinois (or as it is pronounced on the other side of Lake Michigan, “Ill-uh-noise”) was well on his way to writing a most impressive chapter in racing history when inexplicably, at the age of 32 years old and seemingly in his prime, he called it quits.
To make it racing today, you have to get your career started at an early age. Lorenzen got started early in racing’s golden era as well, having built his first car when he was 13 years old. His first race in NASCAR’s premier division was as at 1-mile dirt track in Langhorne, Penn. He took home a paltry $25 for his efforts, but it was the beginning of a very successful, if short-lived, career. USAC championships in 1958 and 1959 would follow; however, his career really took off in 1961. A 1960 Christmas present in the form of a December 24th phone call from John Holman, half of the legendary Ford affiliated racing team Holman-Moody, was the gift that launched Lorenzen into NASCAR.
John Holman and Ralph Moody were the Roush-Yates of NASCAR for Ford in the 1960s. Having won everywhere from Daytona to LeMans, Holman-Moody was the standard bearer for the Blue Oval during the hot rod ’60s. Lorenzen’s first win in their No. 28 machine came at Martinsville in April of 1961; followed with a victory over Curtis Turner at Darlington and another win at Atlanta in July.
In 1963, Lorenzen and the Holman-Moody team would make an indelible mark in NASCAR’s history books. Lorenzen won his qualifying race for the Daytona 500, and was runner-up to Tiny Lund in the Great American Race. Fords would sweep the top five positions; second, third, and fifth were all Holman-Moody cars, with Ned Jarrett and, perhaps the greatest driver of his generation, Dan Gurney backing up Lorenzen that day. The first non-Ford car was Richard Petty‘s Plymouth Fury in sixth place, two laps down. This display of domination by Holman-Moody and Ford proved to be the catalyst for Chrysler’s development and introduction of the 426 Hemi engine in an attempt to compete. At season’s end, Lorenzen racked up six victories, was third in points after running little more than half of the year’s races, and would become the first driver in history to win more than $100,000 in a single season.
In 1964, Lorenzen, who never ran a full schedule in his career, entered 16 races and scored wins in half of them; including a stretch of five in a row. He ended the year with a total of 10 top-10 finishes to go along with an average finish of 10.0; all the more impressive when you tally up his six DNFs.
With Chrysler boycotting the 1965 season, Ford ran amok around the speedways of America, and they got off to a grand start with Lorenzen winning the Daytona 500 by one full lap over Darel Dieringer and his Bud Moore Mercury. Out of the top 21 cars, only two were non-Ford/Mercury products. From there he would go on to win both Charlotte events and again at Martinsville. The second Charlotte race was especially memorable, as he battled AJ Foyt and Dick Hutcherson three-wide over the final 90 laps that had the entire crowd on the edge of their seat; and not just because Foyt nearly exited the racetrack in the closing laps.
His teammate Jarrett would win the championship that year before retiring. Little did anyone know, but Lorenzen would not be far behind.
Lorenzen was fortunate to pedal not only some of the most potent Waddell Wilson-prepared motors of the day, but also some of the most ingenious machines on the circuit. He drove Junior Johnson’s famed “Yellow Banana” at Atlanta in 1966. The car was deemed as such because it looked as if it was bent over someone’s knee. Its hood and front fenders sloped downward, its windshield laid back as if it had driven under a semi-trailer, and the tail section of the car had been arched. Although it somehow fit a template, NASCAR suggested they no longer bring it back. Crew chief Herb Nab would show Lorenzen a button mounted under the dash to push before the race started, just in case he needed a little extra fuel. On another occasion, NASCAR found Lorenzen’s car to hold a couple of more gallons than the prescribed 22-gallon fuel cell. They ordered the crew to remove and replace the fuel tank. Which they did, with a 28-gallon tank. NASCAR never bothered to re-inspect the car.
Following the 1967 season, Lorenzen would effectively retire. At 32 years old and his career seemingly just beginning to blossom, he walked away from racing. It’s not hard to see why, considering that during those days many drivers didn’t race into their 50s as they do today. The money certainly wasn’t what it is now, and the cars were much more unruly then today’s machines. They had no power steering, form-fitted seats, cold air units, or helmets that would survive much more than a Brian Urlacher blind-side hit.
Not to mention, Freddy hated traveling. Coupled with the death of teammate Fireball Roberts from severe burns suffered in the 1964 World 600, it gave him pause for reflection as far as his career was concerned. Lorenzen once remarked that racing following his passing was like Christmas without Santa Claus. He would return to run a handful of races in the early ’70s, with a runner-up finish at Dover in 1971.
During his career, Fred Lorenzen helped change the face of NASCAR. Although it was for the most part an underground regional sport until the 1980s, he was the prototype of today’s driver: Well-mannered, media-savvy, presentable, and articulate. He wanted to go out while on top of the sport, much like his teammate Jarrett did in 1965. He also shared a few other things with Jarrett besides racecars and career aspirations; namely class, admiration, and the respect of drivers and fans alike.