My first week in the States, I watched a “Beyond the Glory” program which focused on NFL quarterback Kurt Warner. Not knowing his story — remember, I’m a transplanted Brit — I was mesmerized by Warner’s meteoric rise from shelf stacker to Super Bowl MVP. Whether you like the guy or not, it would be churlish to deny his is an incredible “against all odds” tale — the very sort that makes sport so compelling to all of us.
After coming so late (and so fast) into NASCAR, one of the most enjoyable parts of learning the sport has been researching the history of drivers and teams long past. Already through this column, I’ve exchanged email with a man whose father took him to the very earliest races on Daytona Beach — a reminder that the sport’s beginnings are still not forgotten 60 years after NASCAR began in 1948. I’ve learned quickly that there are many legendary drivers I’ve already missed out on, and so many stories that have already played out. They’re stories about the sort of drivers the longtime fans wax lyrical about: legends who were anything but politically correct, drivers who were real characters and not sponsor-jabbering automatons, and wheelmen who helped shape the sport back when NASCAR was still true to its roots.
This list of drivers I never saw but wish I had is about as unscientific as you’re going to get. I’ve not restricted myself at all in terms of criteria, and in a couple of cases, I quote from sources that know much more than I. Where relevant, I’ve explained my reasoning, so you know I’m just not pulling these things right out of thin air. Some choices are obvious and others may surprise you; so if you think I’m missing someone, write in and tell me why.
Without further ado… here’s the list.
Robert “Red” Byron
“Red” Byron was NASCAR’s first ever Strictly Stock champion. He won twice in the inaugural eight-race 1949 season, driving a ’49 Oldsmobile owned by Raymond Parks at places like Langhorne, Pa., Hamburg, N.Y., and the road course at Daytona Beach. Byron started racing in the early ’30s, but he put his burgeoning career on hold to serve his country as a rear gunner on a B-24 Liberator in World War II — a heavy bomber. On his 58th mission, that plane was shot down over Kikta in the Aleutian Islands, injuring Byron while in the line of duty. Doctors feared he would never walk again — let alone drive — but Red had other ideas. It took some 27 months to rebuild his leg, but he returned to racing, winning the first ever NASCAR-sanctioned race run on the Daytona Beach road course in 1948. He went on to win the championship that year before becoming Strictly Stock’s first official champion.
“The King” Richard Petty
200 wins? Now that’s a NASCAR record that will never be broken. Think about it — the next closest is David Pearson with 115. Plus, Petty got to drive that Plymouth Superbird, which, in my eyes, is the coolest car in NASCAR history.
Perhaps my favorite story as I researched the history of NASCAR was that of Parsons winning the Winston Cup at Rockingham in 1973. The improbable tale of different teams in the garage coming together with parts and pieces to miraculously put BP’s mangled racecar back on the track is nothing short of brilliant, and it’s both a testament and tribute to the man himself. Their grit and determination were enough to get BP a 25th-place finish after an early wreck, which earned him the points needed for a title over heavyweights Cale Yarborough and Petty. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is as good as it gets.
The legendary moonshiner won 50 races before picking up six Winston Cup titles as a car owner — three apiece for Darrell Waltrip and Yarborough. He was the subject of a critically acclaimed 1973 movie The Last American Hero starring Jeff Bridges — and also the recipient of a presidential pardon for his 1956 moonshining conviction. That pardon allowed Johnson to once again vote and receive a passport. Talk about a life fully lived… and he’s still going strong at 76, producing fried pork skin and country ham after retiring from the racing scene in 1995.
Two reasons for picking the man from Newburgh, Maine: first, that amazing finish at Darlington when he out-dragged Kurt Busch, one that’ll live on the highlight reels for generations to come. As a driver, he won just two Cup races in 278 tries — but if you’re going to win one, you may as well do it with arguably the best ever finish to a NASCAR race.
Secondly, I absolutely love Craven’s articles as a NASCAR scribe. As a columnist, he has a simple and easy way of explaining the technical aspects of driving, making his a must-read column each week for this journalist.
Someone who was more than just a little bit different. I could write on, but my colleague, Tommy Thompson, wrote an excellent profile, that says it far more eloquently than I possibly could.
I still find it hard to separate DW — the hard-nosed, don’t-give-an-inch racer — from the avuncular and gregarious presenter I’ve grown to enjoy. But his clear passion for racing is what does it for me more than anything else (I’m definitely on the pro side of the “Boogity argument”). I also have to give a tip of the cap to perhaps the worst celebration in sporting history. Yep, I’m talking about the Icky Shuffle in Victory Lane at Daytona back in 1989. Seriously, Darrell…
A quick aside: I’d like to see his brother Michael win another race, if only to see how much he would flaunt it on “Inside Sprint Cup” on SPEED Channel. In all honesty, he might spontaneously combust with happiness.
At the start of this season, the Frontstretch writing team had a conference call to talk about plans for the season. We all introduced ourselves (especially the new writers like myself) and as part of the intro, we all mentioned our favorite drivers. Now, Yarborough is a name you might have expected to hear, but I was struck by the answer of one of the columnists: “Favorite driver… (pause)… Cale… (another pause) No one’s come close since.”
Marty Smith of ESPN lists Allison as his favorite driver of all time. As he puts it: “[Allison was] always consistent and with underappreciated talent. I loved the No. 28 Thunderbird, too — especially the white-front, black-back, metallic-gold No. 28 Thunderbird. That was the baddest car in NASCAR history.” Can’t argue with my man Marty on that one.
Another unbelievable story with such a tragic ending. Would NASCAR be different had he lived? There are those that say it would. For me, it’s the age-old story of one man against the rest of the world that I like more than anything. And in one sense, he marked the end of an era: Kulwicki will surely be the last single-car owner-driver to win a points championship.
Writer’s Note: I wrote the next portion of the column before the announcement that Mark Martin would drive Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 Chevrolet next year. I wanted to include it for the record, however, and also to give a shout out to the extremely loyal Martin fans out there hoping that next year is their wish that comes true.
Yes, I am aware Martin is still driving, but I’m talking about the Martin that hadn’t yet lost those 46 points in 1990 for an illegal but non-performance enhancing part. I only got to see him at the tail end of his career and — although he did make the Chase in my first season as a fan, and even went to Homestead with an outside chance of winning it all — you couldn’t help but feel his time had passed.
Still, four second-place points finishes and the love of a legion of loyal fans is more than good enough for me to put him on this list. Nice guys don’t always finish first — and Martin’s the prime example of that — but he’s had a great time racing, and he’ll leave with a ton of memories on his own terms, with the affection of everyone involved in the sport and millions of fans throughout the country.
The man. The myth. The legend. No explanation needed.