Name: Ned Jarrett
Birthdate: October 12, 1932
Hometown: Newton, N.C.
Nextel Cup Debut: Hickory, N.C.
Top Fives: 185
Top 10s: 239
Championships: 2 (1961, 1965)
Career Highlights: Two-time Grand National (now Nextel Cup), two-time Sportsman (now Busch Series) champion. Winner of 50 Cup races (10th all-time), including the 1965 Southern 500 at Darlington. The only driver to retire so close to a championship, doing so following the end of the 1966 season (one year removed from his second title). Accomplished broadcaster, and father of three: 1999 Winston Cup champion and three-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett, racer turned broadcaster Glenn Jarrett and Patti Makar, wife of famous Joe Gibbs Racing guru Jimmy Makar.
Ned Jarrett was one of the first bonafide superstars of the sport, helping to bring NASCAR to the next level in the early to mid-1960s. What started out as a regional sport with an underground following began to rise to national prominence by the mid-1950s, with factory involvement from Ford and Chrysler. At the time, the heroes of the sport were characters that seemed right out of central casting from Dukes Of Hazzard: Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly and the Flock brothers. Ned Jarrett was the antithesis of the hell raisers of the early years. He was a family man who truly earned the nickname “Gentleman Ned.”
Raised in the countryside of North Carolina, there were three industries Ned had to choose from growing up: moonshine, textiles, and lumber. Ned chose the latter, working for his father at a saw mill when he was 17 years old. Many like Ned were mashing pulp at lumber mills, mashing their time cards in textile factories or brewing sour mash whiskey at stills in the mountains. But what young Ned really wanted was to mash was the gas and be a racecar driver. Catching the racing bug early on – as have many drivers and gearheads alike through the years – young Jarrett was aided by his own father, who would let him drive the family car to church at the tender age of nine years old.
As he grew into manhood, Jarrett drove his first Sportsman race in 1952 at a track where so many drivers of the southeast have made their starts over the years: Hickory, N.C. In his first race ever, he would come home with a 10th-place finish; but while many would cheer this accomplishment, it flew in the face of his parents’ wishes. His dad told him he could work on cars… but not race them. Young Ned grudgingly agreed, but an opportunity presented itself not much later when a driver was sick for a race. Asking Ned to fill in for him, Jarrett raced under that driver’s name and came home a career-best second place. Racer “X” was onto something, and Ned Jarrett couldn’t fight the urge; he went and drove in a handful of races under an assumed name, but his dad eventually uncovered the secret. His father told him that if he was going to drive, he might as well use his real name; and slowly, resistance turned into acceptance and support.
Moving up through the ranks, Jarrett made his first Cup start in North Carolina the following year, also at that same Hickory Speedway: in what would amount to a modest beginning, he finished 11th in a field of 12 cars in the summer of 1953. His next start would be the Southern 500, lasting all of eight laps before an oil line failed. Switching divisions, Jarrett would then go on to claim the Sportsman championship (now Busch Grand National) in 1957 and 1958, before making the move to the big time in 1959. His first taste of Victory Lane at the Cup level would come that year, when back-to-back wins at Myrtle Beach, S.C. and the dirt track at Charlotte, N.C. were the highlight of a season in which Jarrett scored seven top-10 finishes in 17 starts. In 1960, he notched five wins driving his own No. 11 Ford, backing it up the next year with his first of two championships; that year, he won just one race in his new Chevrolet, but his 34 top-10 finishes were enough to outlast all competition. It was during these years that Jarrett began to make a name for himself; while superspeedways were beginning to come into prominence, the short tracks still ruled the scene, a scenario which continually played to Jarrett’s driving strengths. He won six races in 1962 and eight in 1963; all of them were on short tracks and dirt tracks.
As NASCAR was coming age in the early 1960s, so was the rest of the country. Unfortunately, there were still some aspects of Southern life that hadn’t changed. A developing superstar, Jarrett helped to ease those tensions by helping a struggling African-American driver by the name of Wendell Scott get going in the stock car ranks. He sold Scott his ’61 Chevrolet as Jarrett was making a move back to Ford for 1962; that gave Scott the opportunity to compete on the circuit full-time. It was just one of many examples where kindness matched talent for this surefire Hall of Famer.
But Jarrett wasn’t one to have anything handed to him, either. In 1959, while attempting to compete in the Sportsman division (today’s Busch Series), he bought a used Ford from Junior Johnson. To pay for it, he scratched a $2,000 check that never would have cleared the bank. Ned waited until the banks were closed until he wrote the check to Junior, because the only way he would be able to cover it was if he won the races in which he would enter it. He did just that – winning back-to-back races that weekend and depositing the money in time for the check to clear.
In 1964, Jarrett appeared to reach his peak as a driver; he claimed 15 wins and finally claimed his first superspeedway victory at Atlanta, winning by half a lap over eventual champion Richard Petty. But the low point of the year, and his career, came when Jarrett was involved in a wreck early in the World 600 at Charlotte. Junior Johnson plowed into the back of Jarrett, triggering one of the most horrific accidents in racing history. The wreck collected Roberts, sending him backwards into the inside retaining wall on the backstretch. Roberts’s car flipped upside down and burst into flames; a ruptured fuel tank dumped gasoline into the cockpit, fueling an inferno where Roberts was being burned alive. Jarrett rushed to the scene without regard for his own safety, and helped extricate Roberts from his car. But sadly, one of NASCAR’s early legends would eventually succumb to his injuries six weeks later.
In 1965, with Chrysler boycotting NASCAR after the 426 Hemi engine was banned for not being a regular production piece, Jarrett in his Bondy Long-owned Fords sped to his second title with 13 wins. He won the biggest race of his career that season, the Southern 500 at Darlington. With less than 50 laps to go, race leader Fred Lorenzen‘s engine let go. Moments later, second-place runner Darrell Dieringer dropped a cylinder and cleared the way for Jarrett earn win number 49 of 50. His next win came in the final race of the season at Moyock.
In 1966, after running 21 races and going winless, Jarrett would retire from the sport that he had ascended to in a short amount of time. Drivers back then didn’t race forever; the money wasn’t what it was today, and, as in the case of fellow competitors Roberts and Weatherly – who both perished in 1964, safety was an afterthought. Jarrett had a family to provide for and was not one to squander his good fortune.
After taking public speaking classes, he would make his way into broadcasting, becoming a fixture for CBS as they began flag-to-flag race coverage in 1979 and into the early 1980s. Perhaps his most memorable moment was calling home his son Dale Jarrett to his first Daytona 500 win in 1993, almost coaching him from the booth through the final lap with Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Geoff Bodine in hot pursuit. In the days following the race, Ned sought out Earnhardt, wanting to apologize for losing all objectivity and pulling for his son to beat him. Earnhardt smiled, reassuring Jarrett that all was well by saying,
“I understand. I’m a daddy too.”