The Original Golden Boy… by: Matt McLaughlin
50 Years of NASCAR Racing ~ Post 11
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor’s note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin’s “50 Years of NASCAR Racing”, written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR ‘s 50th Anniversary celebration that year. In keeping with the RacersReunion mission of passing the history of our sport down to younger fans, Matt has kindly granted us permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
Love him or despise him, there’s no denying Jeff Gordon has taken the stock car world by storm, and indeed has become the face of NASCAR particularly in newer fan’s and casual fan’s of our sport’s minds. In a short period of time Gordon has emerged as a leading contender at almost every race he enters and has run up incredible streaks of wins. But long before Jeff was even born NASCAR had another Golden Boy, a good looking young man whose name and image helped define NASCAR in an earlier age. Fred Lorenzen was, in his prime, one of the finest drivers ever to run in NASCAR.
A native of Elmhurst Illinois, Lorenzen was fascinated with automobiles as a teenager and an active street racer in a 1952 Olds he built at the filling station where he worked. His first attempt at oval type racing was with a bunch of buddies one beery evening, competing to see who could get an old jalopy to roll first. From there he moved onto more conventional forms of short track racing.
At the tender age of 21 Lorenzen decided to try his hand at Grand National racing. He bought a 56 Chevy from Grand national racer Tom Pistone, and drove off to compete at the infamous circular track in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, with as he put it, “no spare clothes and less money.” Recollecting that day, Lorenzen claimed he knew he had to finish in the top thirty to earn enough money to get home. A fuel pump failure relegated him to 26th finishing position, which was good for a $25 pay day. He must have used a siphon to get home. All told, Lorenzen competed in 7 races that year and earned $235. Chastened by the experience, he wisely decided to give his NASCAR career a break. Instead, Lorenzen turned his attention to the USAC stock car racing series, which ran closer to his Midwest home. He won the championship in that series in both 1958 and 1959, driving what would become his trademark, white Fords carrying the number 28, which has been associated with winning Fords ever since. With more experience and better financing, Lorenzen decided to have another go at NASCAR racing in 1960, lured by the bigger purses Bill France’s organization offered.
Like so many drivers who have come after him, Lorenzen packed up his belongings, his hopes and his dreams and moved south. He took up residence in a tiny house trailer in a friend’s backyard and began looking for a ride. Fred, a great mechanic, landed a job turning wrenches at the Holman and Moody shop, which was the premiere Ford team of the day. But he had come south to drive not be a mechanic, and Lorenzen left the team shortly thereafter, bought another race car and struck out on his own. Like most drivers from lesser leagues, Lorenzen had competed only on short tracks and his first race that year was at Daytona, which he admitted scared him half silly the first time he saw it. Joe Weatherly and Fireball Roberts offered a little advice and Lorenzen stunned everyone by finishing third is his qualifying race and eighth in the Daytona 500. It was to be the highlight of his abbreviated season, which was cut short when he was forced to quit the circuit due to financial problems. After being unable to find a team that would take him on as a driver, Fred sold his car and returned home with his tail between his legs to resume working as a carpenter.
Christmas eve of that year, days before his 26th birthday, Lorenzen received a special present. Ralph Moody, the “Moody” half of Holman and Moody, called to ask if Lorenzen was still seeking a ride for the 1961 season. Though the car he was promised was not ready in time for the event, Fred went to Daytona anyway and was able to land a ride the day before the race in a lightly regarded car owned by Tubby Gonzales, which was qualified in the 45th position. Lorenzen drove that car to a fourth place finish.
In his first race with Holman and Moody at Atlanta in March, Fred led for a short while before a blown tire put him into the wall. His very next start for the team that April, he won the rain shortened Virginia 500 at Martinsville. The Ford fans had a new hero.
It was never Ralph Moody or Fred Lorenzen’s idea to run for a championship. Lorenzen ran only the major events, paved tracks of a half-mile or more, and particularly the new superspeedways that were popping up all over in that period, a trend that started at Daytona and Charlotte. Lorenzen became the master of the big track, high profile events that got all the headlines, and left the tiny dirt ovals and the $600 dollar pay days to the others. Ford was delighted. Besides being a great race driver, Lorenzen was also Hollywood handsome, with short blonde hair and a toothpaste commercial perfect smile. He was well spoken, good with the media and never forgot to mention his sponsor’s name while smiling pretty for the cameras. In an age where most race car drivers were still hell raisers who showed up in victory lane occasionally with a bottle of Jack Daniels in a paper sack, Lorenzen was not the sort to get arrested for running a load of shine, playing demolition derby with rental cars, or tossing naked woman from motel balconies into the swimming pool. In short he was Ford’s answer to a lanky smiling young man who drove Plymouth’s with no little success, Richard Petty.
That was the first of three victories that season for Lorenzen, who also won at the big tracks at Darlington and Atlanta.
In 1962, Lorenzen ran in 19 races with sponsorship from Lafayette Ford in Fayetteville North Carolina, an agency that would sponsor him most of his career, in immaculately prepared Holman and Moody Fords with factory backing. He won two times and finished in the top 10 twelve times that year. Lorenzen wound up 7th in the points despite only starting 19 of 53 races. As an interesting footnote, that fall the car Fred drove was officially listed as owned by Mamie Reynolds, the 19 year-old daughter of Senator Robert Reynolds. Lorenzen’s win at Augusta, Georgia made her the youngest car owner ever to have won a race.
1963 was a banner year for both Lorenzen and the Holman and Moody team. Early that spring, Ralph Moody was able to sign NASCAR legend Fireball Roberts to drive a team car as well, mainly because GM was not backing the Pontiac team Fireball had been driving for as well as a top rank team needed. In the very first race where the two teammates competed against each other, on March 31st at Bristol, Roberts and Lorenzen finished one two. That year also marked the most races Fred Lorenzen would drive in a single season, 29, and he would win six of them. He won the highly coveted World 600 at Charlotte, the Atlanta 500, an event he was becoming dominant in, and the fall race at Bristol, another track he was very successful at. Just to keep everyone honest, Lorenzen also won a race on the .375 mile track at Huntington, West Virginia, in a rare short track appearance. Despite running only 29 of 55 races, Lorenzen finished third in the points. Even more remarkably, he won over $122,000, more than the drivers that finished first and second in the points. In fact, to that point no driver had ever won more than $75,000 in a season, and the six figure mark was thought an impossible dream. There were some rumblings from older drivers that they had gotten into the sport too early, before “The big money” was available. Roberts added four more victories to the Holman and Moody total and finished fifth in the points.
1964 was a year of both triumph and tragedy for Lorenzen. That year he set marks that still rank as almost unbelievable. Of the 16 races he entered Lorenzen led 11 , qualified for the pole seven times, won eight events, and finished in the top four 10 times. The incredible feat earned him almost $74,000 in just 16 races. But 1964 was a brutal year, as the cars were much faster than the tires could handle. Three drivers, including two time champion Joe Weatherly and Jimmy Pardue died in race cars. The third driver to lose his life was Lorenzen’s teammate, Fireball Roberts. Roberts had fought an incredible battle trying to recover from the injuries sustained in the fiery wreck at that year’s World 600, but succumbed to his injuries on July 2nd. The very next day there were two qualifying races of 20 laps apiece to determine the starting order for the Firecracker 400. Lorenzen got involved in a terrifying wreck of his own that nearly tore off the left side of his car. Lorenzen staggered out of the car and collapsed, bleeding profusely with a severed artery in his hand. Surgeons were able to control the bleeding and spare his life, but Fred was badly shaken, both by the loss of his teammate and friend and his own close call. Shortly thereafter he announced he thought the speeds were too high and he was retiring from racing. Within the week he reconsidered and returned to the track, after NASCAR assured the frightened drivers they would find a way to control the speeds.
The measures NASCAR tried to institute to slow the cars down led to the Chrysler Boycott of 1965. Had he made a concerted drive for the championship that year, certainly Lorenzen could have given Ned Jarrett a good battle for the title. Lorenzen chose to remain on a limited schedule and ran 17 races. He won four of those, but one of them was a biggie. Lorenzen won the 1965 Daytona 500, which actually had to be halted at 332.5 miles due to rain. Still that single victory was worth $27,000 plus, not to mention the prestige of winning the greatest event in stock car racing. He added another World 600 trophy to his awards cabinet that year as well. In fact Lorenzen looked to have a lock on the Southern 500, which would have given him the three crown jewels of NASCAR racing (and the Winston Million in modern times) when he lost an engine late in the race. That day another race car driver, Buren Skeen was fatally injured during the race, and once again Lorenzen spoke openly about retiring, citing the danger and the pressure. Lorenzen won the National 400 at Charlotte in the fall, prevailing in a three wide side by side battle to the checkers. In that race yet another NASCAR driver, Harold Kite was fatally injured in a wreck.
Ford launched a boycott of their own early in the 1966 season, and Lorenzen obediently obeyed the factory’s orders not to compete. When Ford did finally return to racing, Lorenzen drove the notorious and highly illegal Yellow Banana at Atlanta. Though he competed in only 11 races once Ford reentered the fray, Lorenzen won two of them, including the big season finale at Rockingham.
In 1967, Ford was applying heavy pressure on all its drivers to try to derail Richard Petty, who was dominating in his Plymouth. Lorenzen won his qualifying race at Daytona (which paid points in those days) leading a one-two-three-four race sweep over Richard Petty and that electric blue Plymouth. He also placed second in the Daytona 500 that year behind Mario Andretti in another Holman and Moody Ford. After that it was all downhill. Ford was once again threatening to boycott. The pressure got to Fred and he developed a massive stomach ulcer as a result of both the corporate pressure cooker and his own drive to win. He missed races at Martinsville and North Wilkesboro as a result of his stomach problems. On April 24th, Fred Lorenzen told the stunned media he was retiring from stock car racing, noting “I want to go out on top.” echoing sentiments Ned Jarrett had used announcing his retirement near the end of the previous season. “I’ve won everything you can win and there’s nowhere to go but down.” he added sadly. It is ironic that the increased pressures of the sport that Fred Lorenzen helped build up, coupled with his own relentless perfectionism, wound up driving him away from the Superspeedway tracks that he had been the master of.
AFTERMATH- Later in 1967 Ford asked Fred Lorenzen for advice on what they could do to stop the Petty express. When his answer didn’t agree with their “experts” the powers that be at Ford basically told him if he was so certain he knew more than they did he should start his own team. Lorenzen did just that, obtaining a car from Holman and Moody, and enlisting the services of “Suitcase Jake” Elder as a crew chief, and an up and coming driver from Alabama by the name of Bobby Allison. The team won the last two races of the year. Naturally, the team was asked to stay together for the 1968 season and Lorenzen partnered up with veteran car owner Buddy Long. Allison started out the 68 season with a win at Macon, a second at Montgomery, a fourth at Riverside in the team’s new Torino, and a third place at Daytona. He was leading the points battle when he lost an engine at the next race in Bristol, finishing dead last, but still Allison trailed Petty by a mere 23 points. At that point, Ford announced to Allison and Lorenzen they would not be funded to run every race for the championship, but only at the larger events. Allison eventually quit in disgust, wanting to run every race. Lorenzen’s health problems resurfaced and he began missing races, and finally resigned from the team in July. In 1970, Charlotte promoter Richard Howard arranged a ride for Lorenzen, who was still a fan favorite, in another of Howard’s creative projects to sell tickets. While his car still carried the familiar number 28, it was a red and gold Dodge Daytona, not a white Ford. In his very first race back at the World 600 in Charlotte, Lorenzen charged to the front and was leading the race to the delight of the crowd when his engine expired. Lorenzen would start seven races that year, six in the Dodge and one filling in for LeeRoy Yarbrough in Junior Johnson’s Ford. His best finish of the year was aboard the winged warrior at the Fall race at Charlotte, where Lorenzen finished third.
In 1971, Lorenzen started the year in a Plymouth owned by Ray Nichels and sponsored by a newcomer to the sport, STP. He finished fifth in both his qualifying race and the Daytona 500. At Ontario he led many laps but lost an engine late in the going. Fred also placed second at the June race in Dover, his best finish of the year. At the Southern 500 Lorenzen filled in, in place of the Wood Brothers regular driver, Donnie Allison who was driving in the California Indy car race that weekend. In practice he lost control of the car, hit the outside wall and rebounded into the pit wall. Lorenzen suffered a broken foot, concussion, facial cuts and a nasty laceration to his throat that required surgery and sidelined him six weeks. He eventually quit the team, citing differences with his crew chief. Lorenzen returned to Fords, and even one ride in a Chevy in 1972, starting eight races and with a best finish of fourth on three separate occasions, before retiring racing for good. In addition to driving, Lorenzen also did a brief stint in broadcasting covering races.
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