75 things for NASCAR’s 75th anniversary: Greatest pre-Modern Era drivers

Sports

We are closing in on the final handful of weeks of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, the stock car series’ 75th anniversary campaign. To celebrate, each week through the end of the season, Ryan McGee is presenting his favorite top-five things about the sport.

The five best-looking cars? Check. The five toughest drivers? We’ve got it. Top five mustaches? There can be only one, so maybe not.

Without further ado, our 75 favorite things about NASCAR, celebrating 75 years of stock car racing.

Previous installments: Toughest drivers | Greatest races | Best title fights | Best-looking cars | Worst-looking cars | Biggest cheaters | Biggest what-ifs | Weirdest racetracks | Best racetracks | Biggest scandals | Weirdest announcements | Greatest fights | Greatest rivalries


Five greatest pre-Modern Era drivers

There are only two lists remaining in our NASCAR 75th anniversary best-of celebration, and after tackling every subject from racetracks and rivalries to awesome cars and not-awesome headlines, it is time to buckle down and break down the true driving force behind stock car racing: the drivers themselves.

For those who don’t know, NASCAR’s history is broken up into two chapters, pre- and post-1972. That’s when the Grand National Series — founded in 1949 as Strictly Stock — became the Cup Series and the schedule was slashed from 40, 50, even 60-plus events per season down to the speedway-heavy 30-ish calendar model that it still follows to this day. From ’72 forward is known as the Modern Era. We’ll get to those guys next week. But today we’re kicking it old school, ranking the greatest racers of NASCAR’s rough hewn formative years, from 1949 through 1971.

So, grab a pair of aviator goggles, strap your seatbelt fashioned from a leather pants belt (it’s true, they did that) and read ahead as we present our top 5 pre-Modern Era NASCAR drivers.

Honorable Mention: Lloyd Seay

Seay was a Georgia-born moonshine runner who blistered the red clay tracks that were plowed into countryside so they could race and see who had the fastest bootlegging machine.

Anyone and everyone who saw Seay on those bullrings in the years that led up to World War II swore he was the best stock car racer who ever lived. That included NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr., who invoked Seay’s name as wondered aloud about where Dale Earnhardt ranked among the best ever shortly after The Intimidator’s death in 2001.

Seay won an untold number of pre-NASCAR stock car races piloting machines owned by cousin Raymond Parks and tuned by pal Red Vogt, the same men who won NASCAR’s first championships with Red Byron behind the wheel.

Why was Seay no longer piloting those rides? Because he was shot and killed by another cousin amid an argument over whether Seay had charged a purchase of sugar for moonshine cooking to that cousin’s bank account. That was in September 1941, the day after he’d won three races in fifteen days. He is buried in Dawsonville, Georgia, not far from the road where he once hauled liquor.

5. Joe Weatherly and Curtis Turner

Yes, the first real entry in this countdown is a total punt, including two drivers where there would normally be one. But anyone who knows anything about the Clown Prince of Racing and Pops also know that the two Virginians were rarely not in the same place at the same time, whether it was banging their doors for wins in NASCAR’s Grand National and Convertible Series, banging the wings of their self-piloted airplanes midair en route to the next race or banging beer mugs in the bar of a roadhouse the nights before and after all of those races.

Weatherly won 25 races and added back-to-back championships in 1962 and ’63 and was no doubt on his way to a lot more of each before he was tragically killed while running on the Riverside Raceway road course in the fifth race of the ’64 season. Turner won 17 races but never came close to winning a championship because, as was commonplace back in the day, he never ran a full schedule to battle for a title but was widely considered the best raw talent on the racetrack.

Turner’s resume also comes with the asterisk of feeling incomplete because of a lifetime ban that was slapped on him in 1961 for helping form a drivers’ union, requested by the Teamsters after they helped fund construction of his dream facility, the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Turns out “lifetime” meant four-ish years, when Turner came back in dramatic fashion to win the inaugural Rockingham race in 1965.

My favorite Turner/Weatherly story came from the late, great NASCAR radio legend Barney Hall, who once described for me a late night scene at the Holiday Inn that used to be across the street from Martinsville Speedway: “It was the night before a big race and none of us could get any sleep because our room doors were all open out to the hotel swimming pool and these guys were out there raising hell all night. I went out there to tell them to quiet down and there was Joe, Curtis, with Fireball (Roberts, who nearly made this list) and a bunch of girls. They were all running around, naked as the day they were born. Not the girls. Curtis and Joe!”

4. Ned Jarrett

Perhaps the greatest dichotomy in the history of sports nicknames is the one that was long ago bestowed upon Jarrett. “Gentleman Ned” is indeed one of the sweetest, kindest, most unselfish human beings I have had the pleasure of knowing and even working with during his years as an ESPN analyst. On the racetrack, though, he was genuine not-to-be-messed-with steely-eyed missile man, the winner of 50 races, the 1961 and ’65 Grand National championships, with another two Sportsman Division titles (grandfather of the Xfinity Series) to boot.

His signature win came in the 1965 Southern 500, when he won by 14 laps. The following year, frustrated by Ford’s withdrawal from the sport, he became the first and still only sitting Cup champ to retire.

All he did from there was become the greatest driver-turned-broadcaster in NASCAR history and begat another Cup champ, Dale Jarrett. All you need to know about the man that Ned Jarrett is you can learn in this story I wrote 12 years ago, about his relationship with another series champion, Bobby Isaac.

3. Buck Baker

Elzie Wylie Baker Sr. won 46 races, 45 poles and was NASCAR’s first back-to-back champion, winning Grand National titles in 1956 and ’57. He also won three Southern 500s and was a series runner-up twice.

As the 1960s arrived, so did his son Buddy, who won 19 races and a Daytona 500 to join his father in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. They ran 187 races together because Buck’s first start came in NASCAR’s first Strictly Stock race, on June 19, 1949 at the Charlotte Fairgrounds and his final start on Oct. 10, 1976 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a span of 27 years, 3 months, 22 days.

He had his greatest success as teammates with Tim Flock and Herb Thomas, two of the drivers he edged out for this spot in these rankings, all driving for the OG super team owner, Carl Kiekhaefer. I have almost too many favorite Buck Baker stories to tell, thanks to my friendships with Buddy and legendary NASCAR writer Tom Higgins, but the go-to has to be a story he told me about racing in the earliest days at Darlington.

“I used to keep a rubber bladder with cold drink in it stuck behind my seat, with a big straw I could suck on, and I really liked to drink tomato juice. I had a crash and that bag got tore up. When the ambulance came to get me the first guy who got to me saw that red tomato juice all over the place. He hollered, ‘Oh no! The sumb—h done cut his head off!’ and he passed out.”

2. Junior Johnson

I mean, come on, he’s the Last American Hero, right? There’s a reason Sports Illustrated in 1998 named Johnson the greatest all-time NASCAR driver, a fact that Junior loved to remind everyone of, especially drivers like Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip, who won championships driving for Johnson during his amazing career as a team owner.

He won 50 Grand National races as a driver, despite only 10 seasons of double-digit starts. He also never ran for a championship, but in 1965, the year before his sudden driving retirement, he won 13 times in 36 starts. He’s credited with discovering the aerodynamic draft during practice for the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959 and also won more races than anyone will ever know, not on the racetrack but outrunning federal agents as he hammered through the foothills of North Carolina running moonshine. As solely a team owner, he won another 119 races and added six Cups, split evenly between Yarborough and Waltrip.

Speaking of the Cup, he’s also the man who initiated the conversations that resulted in that trophy and series becoming Winston Cup.

My favorite Johnson story: When the NASCAR Hall of Fame was being built in Charlotte, the curators had all of the parts and pieces to build a moonshine still for display but couldn’t figure out how to put it together. They called Johnson, who drove down from Ronda, North Carolina, climbed behind the display glass, and went to work, overalls and all. The Hall called me, so I went down and saw it for myself. Afterward, Junior gave me a jar of cherry ‘shine, “the real stuff, not what we sell in the liquor stores, so be careful” and I stowed it away. Nine years later, in December 2019, Johnson died. I broke out that jar and took a gulp to pay tribute. I genuinely do not remember the rest of that night and there is still a spot of dead grass in my backyard where my wife saved me by pouring out the white lightning that was left.

1. Lee Petty

In order to make a genuine case for consideration for this prestigious list, it isn’t enough just to win races, one must also win championships, set records and have a considerable impact on the direction of the sport as a whole. No one in NASCAR’s pre-Modern Era accomplished all of the above like Petty.

First, he ran in that initial Strictly Stock race in ’49, borrowing a neighbor’s car and wrecking it. Second, he won the series’ fifth-ever race later that summer. Third, he won 54 races, which stood as the all-time record for six years until it was finally topped by his son Richard (you might have heard of him). Fourth, he won the race that changed NASCAR forever, the inaugural Daytona 500 that took days to sort out via a literal photo finish over Johnny Beauchamp, a story that dominated the national sports headlines. Fifth, he was the first three-time Grand National champion, another mark that wasn’t matched or topped until his son did it. He also was the guiding force for the sport’s juggernaut team, Petty Enterprises, who continued to win for decades after his driving retirement, still managing the business from the front lawn where he hit golf balls and kept an eye on the race shop next door. And finally, he was the first person to take the plunge and make stock car racing his full-time job, stepping aside from his trucking business, which, as far he would ever tell, was not involved in any alcohol transportation (yeah, right).

My favorite Lee Petty story: In 1999, when Petty Enterprises held a press event to commemorate the team’s 50th anniversary, the patriarch fidgeted around on stage and said nothing, then tried to bolt out the side door for his house. I caught him and tried to ask a question about his longevity. He was 85, a year away from his passing, just days before grandson Adam made his Cup Series debut and five weeks before Adam died in a crash. Lee Petty interrupted me and said, “It’s like something that happened just the other day, you know what I mean? I was at the golf course this guy said to me, ‘Man, I’m damn glad to meet you!’ And I told him, ‘Hell, man, I’m damn glad I’m still here you so can meet me!'”

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