Edwin Keith "Banjo"
February 14, 1932 - October 2, 1996
Edwin Keith "Banjo"
Matthews, a native of Akron, Ohio, had a high degree of success behind
the wheel of Modified race cars, winning hundreds of races during his
career, but his primary claim to fame is the cars he built for others to
drive. His shop, Banjo's Performance Center near Asheville, NC, is
perhaps the second-most famous building in town, running a close second
to the prestigious Biltmore House.
After moving to Miami from
Ohio, he ran his first race at age 15 in a Ford Roadster at Pompano
Beach Speedway in 1947, and won, After five years of racing and working
on cars, Matthews decided he wanted to race for a living, and moved to
Asheville, NC in 1952. He raced both dirt and asphalt, building a
reputation as one of the best modified drivers around, and he was ready
when NASCAR went to the superspeedways in the early 1960's. Banjo raced
50 times on the Grand National circuit, with a second at Atlanta being
his closest encounter with victory lane.
In 1963, he left the driving
to others, joining the Ford factory team building cars for Parnelli
Jones, A. J. Foyt, Donnie Allison, Pete Hamilton and Bobby Isaac. When
the factories pulled out, Banjo opened his own shop, and the legend
began. He made a deal with John Holman of Holman-Moody, and built
kit-type Fords in 1971. Matthews built the body and framework, and H-M
put in the motors. After that, he built cars for Chevrolet.
Cars owned by Matthews won
nine races and 14 poles in 160 starts, including three Firecracker 400's
at Daytona. But he decided to turn all of his energies to building cars
for others to own, and that is when he really made a name for himself
Cars built by Matthews won
262 of 362 NASCAR Winston Cup races from 1974-1985, including all 30
races in 1978, and four consecutive Winston Cup championships (1975-78).
On many occasions, cars built by Banjo Matthews comprised over half the
field, Not only did he build them, he also repaired them. In addition to
Winston Cup cars, he built Limited Sportsman, Modifieds and IROC cars.
His greatest joy
was helping someone else, and his goal was to build each car as
competitive and safe as the one before it. Despite not seeking the glory
that comes with driving, Matthews still has a room frill of recognition
from various groups. In the months before he died of heart and
respiratory disease in 1996, he was honored by being awarded the Buddy
Shuman Award, the Smokey Yunick Award for lifetime mechanical
achievement, and has been inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame at
(Information from the International Motorsports Hall of Fame)
Fireball Roberts #M-3 and Banjo
Matthews #49JR pair up in the North Turn in the 1955 Modified-Sportsman race.
Roberts was driving a '37 Chevrolet packed with a souped up 1954
Cadillac engine. Team owner Bob Fish affectionately called it a "Chevrolac".
Matthews was in a '40 Ford owned by Melvin Joseph and wrenched by Joe
Wolfe. Roberts led from the outset until his engine blew. Matthews
picked up the pace and drove to victory.
The Henry Ford of
The Life of an
By Bob Myers
For a half century, Stock
car racing was Banjo
Matthews' life, and probably
his death. Banjo's
Performance Center at Arden,
a suburb of Asheville, North
Carolina, is as well-known
to racers as the Biltmore
House is to tourists. Some
drivers and car owners have
better records, but Matthews
had no peer as a race-car
builder. And it didn't
matter that most of the
glory and the cheers of the
crowd went to others.
Cars built by Matthews won
262 of 362 (72 percent)
Winston Cup races from '74
through '85--all 30 races in
'78 --and four consecutive
championships from '75-'78.
For many races his cars
composed half the field, or
more. Edwin Keith Matthews
died on October 2, 1996 of
heart and respiratory
disease at age 64. He had
been in declining health for
a decade and was seriously
ill for two years.
"Banjo was a friend for
almost 50 years," says hall
of fame engineer Smokey
Yunick. "He was the Henry
Ford of race cars. When we
go back and look at what he
did for racers, fans, and
the industry, he was
probably one of the 25 main
building blocks of Stock car
"I think we can say in all
honesty that he gave his
life to the sport. I firmly
believe what eventually
killed him was the affects
of exhaust gases he breathed
in the early days when he
drove cars with flat-head
engines without headers
because he got 10 more
horsepower out of them."
Matthews, who was born in
Akron, Ohio, on Valentine's
Day in 1932, drove his first
race at Pompano Beach (FL)
Speedway at age 15, going on
to win hundreds of Modified
events. As a Grand
National/Winston Cup driver,
he had a best of second at
Atlanta and grossed $29,455
in 50 career starts.
As an owner, Matthews' cars
scored nine victories and
sat on 14 poles in 160
starts, grossing $371,000.
His cars won the Firecracker
400 at Daytona three times
with drivers Fireball
Roberts, A.J. Foyt and
Donnie Allison. Allison also
won a World 600 at Charlotte
and two other races, one at
Rockingham in 1968.
"My biggest memory was in
Victory Lane that day (at
Rockingham)," says Allison.
"Banjo, standing there with
tears running down his
cheeks, says to me, 'I knew
that I could win another
race.' As a car owner, he
just never had the
opportunity to have a
regular driver who could
concentrate on winning
races. As a person, Banjo
was as good as I ever knew.
As a racer, he was the most
knowledgeable I've ever
Junior Johnson also won two
races in Matthews-owned
cars. "I was a friend and
associate of Banjo's my
entire racing career," says
Johnson. "We worked together
a lot on chassis development
and most of the stuff used
today resulted from that
relationship. We used to
talk on the phone five or
six times a day. He was
devoted to helping others a
lot more than himself."
Establishing his business in
1970, Matthews built Ford
race cars for Holman and
Moody Co. [Indeed, his
chassis surface plates came
from that fabled shop --Ed.]
and later Chevrolets for
General Motors. Since 1974,
Matthews' shops have built
about 750 new race cars and
repaired another 375,
including Limited Sportsman,
Modifieds, and IROC Series
Nickname: Matthews, hung with the
nickname "Banjo Eyes" in
grade school because of his
thick-lensed spectacles, was
a stocky, down-to-earth,
unpretentious man who didn't
solicit the attention nor
seek the recognition he
"The basic construction of a
car is not what wins races,"
Matthews said in a 1980
interview. "It's the team
effort after the car leaves
our facility that separates
the winners and losers. We
strive to build our cars as
good for one customer as we
do for another. The credit
for their performance goes
to the people who operate
I get my
kicks, and so do my
employees, from how well
cars that we have built
perform and the satisfaction
they bring to the customers.
That's all the recognition I
Craftsmanship was Matthews'
hallmark. He treated each
car like a bottle of fine
wine. "When I was driving I
couldn't stand to get outrun
by somebody with better
equipment," he said in 1980.
"That's the way I feel about
my business. I believe in
and admire craftsmanship.
I'm a man of simple tastes,
but one reason I collect
antiques is because of the
way they were made. I like
things that it has taken
somebody a long time to
Some of the recognition due
Matthews came in the
before his death. He
received the Buddy Shuman
Award for contributions to
the sport, the Smokey Yunick
Award presented by Charlotte
Motor Speedway for lifetime
mechanical achievement and,
last September, was inducted
into the National
Association (NMPA) Hall of
Fame by Yunick.
Matthews' son, Jody, 31,
(who accepted the hall of
fame award in his father's
absence) continues to
operate the business,
building cars and
parts. "My dad was real
emotional about the hall of
fame and I'm just so happy
that he got to enjoy the
honor before he passed
away," says Jody. "He never
was a trophy-chaser, but he
appreciated recognition by
"He was hard on me the last
few years. He had decades of
racing experience, he knew
what was going on with his
body and he tried to
force-feed me all the
information that he could. I
understand that now and wish
I had paid more attention.
We had a special
relationship, though. I was
around him long enough to
know what he expected and I
always tried to do more. I
will continue to do that."
Gentlemen, start your memories
Locals claim their place in racing
by Brian Sarzynski
Thomas Wolfe once wrote a
book about his hometown – making fun of a lot of people and
telling some tall tales in a language resembling English,
thereby pleasing a bunch of Yankee literary types while pissing
off the locals to the point that they ran him out of town.
But time heals all wounds, or so they say: Wolfe's Asheville
home is now a museum. We even named an auditorium after the guy.
Banjo Matthews, on the other hand, lived in west
Asheville for many years, never went to college, lived hard and
drove fast – and chances are he never read Look Homeward,
Angel. Matthews, though, had an uncanny ability to fix cars.
Actually, he could do more than just fix them – he could take
mass-produced "stock" cars and turn them into thundering beasts
He's been called the Henry Ford of racecars and a maestro
mechanic. On the NASCAR circuit, Banjo accomplished the
following: From 1974 to 1985, cars he built won 262 of 362
Winston Cup races. In 1978, his cars won all 30 races held by
NASCAR that year.
Oh, and he could drive, too.
In fact, after winning 13 consecutive races at one Asheville
track back in the 1950s, the track promoter asked him to "back
off." It seems attendance was dropping because the outcome of
the race was a given if Matthews was running.
Being a man of pride and honor, Matthews refused to throw the
race – but he did agree to be handicapped. So the promoter
started him in the back of the pack – with his car facing
backward, no less.
When the green flag dropped, Matthews spun his car around,
passed the pack and, yes, won the race.
And that, my friends, is the stuff of legends.
Local racing left to rust
Today, however, your average Asheville resident couldn't tell
you a thing about old Banjo (who didn't play his namesake
instrument, by the way). There are no museums named in his
honor. No auditoriums. Not even a filling station.
Racing, it seems, has been all but erased from Asheville's
cultural persona – except among the surviving older members of
the local racing community.
Meeting history head-on
The story of stock-car racing is steeped in oft-told tales of
moonshine-running, shade-tree mechanics and men who brawled as
hard as they drove. How much of it is truth and how much is lore
is hard to discern. But when that history is told in the
time-honored tradition of Appalachian storytellers, trivial
matters such as veracity take a back seat to the necessity of
spinning a good yarn.
One rich tale recounts a spectacular crash at a local
Banjo Matthews and Ralph Earnhardt (Dale's dad) had
been trading paint all night, neither driver wanting to back off
in front of the screaming fans. Coming out of the final turn,
Matthews gave Earnhardt one last kiss on the bumper and sent him
careening off the track – and straight into the first-base
Yep, the dugout. And if you think this writer is mixing his
metaphors, or simply confusing baseball terminology with racing
slang, well, you obviously don't know much Asheville sports
Jack Smith:"In February 1960, I went to Daytona. I'd go
down the backstretch in my '60 Pontiac and spin the wheels,"
said former racer Jack Smith. "I told the mechanics, and they
said the car wasn't streamlined enough, that all I was doing was
running up against a wall and pushing the wall. Then two years
later Ford Motor Company realized they could not run their cars
through the air. Ford hired (chassis builder)
Banjo took the car and cut the floor pan out of it, lowered the
car about four inches, changed the contour of the windshield.
Then they found out that Ford would run. The word got out quick,
and pretty soon Banjo had orders to build more race cars than he
could do. He was the first one I ever knew that cut down or
streamlined the cars. This was '62 or '63 at Daytona."
Melvin Joseph was a
pioneer in the development of NASCAR. His passion for racing began on
the back roads of Sussex County in his suped-up Mercurys which led to
the beaches of Daytona, FL. In 1955, his cars won both the NASCAR
Sportsman and Modified Events on the sands of Daytona Beach, FL. In
1959, Joseph's car, driven by Banjo Matthews, won the race by an amazing
3 miles in the first NASCAR Modified race on the newly built Daytona
International Speedway. Another racing highlight includes owning one of
the cars that Bobby Allison drove to many victories. His racing
involvement led to lifelong friendships with racing legends such as
Bobby Allison, Ralph Moody, Bobby Unser, AJ Foyt, Junior Johnson, Junie
Donlavey and numerous others. Melvin designed and built Dover Downs
International Speedway (now Dover International Speedway (motorsports)
and Dover Downs Raceway (harness racing)) and gave drivers the command
to start their engines at every NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Race in Dover since
The late Banjo Matthews had a sign in his race
"Banjo's, where money buys speed -
How fast do you
want to go?!"
Donnie Allison: It was
Banjo Matthews who gave
Donnie his big break in 1968. Donnie
said Banjo was the best thing that ever
happened to him and Banjo was the
smartest man he had ever been around in
He enjoyed the best
season of his career in 1970 while
driving for Matthews. Allison never
competed in more than 21 races in a
single season, won the World 600 at
Charlotte, the Firecracker 400 at
Daytona and the Southwestern 400 at
Bristol that year and in 19 starts,
Allison had 10 top five finishes.
Donnie also finished fourth in the
Indianapolis 500, winning honors as the
series' top rookie while driving for A.
made some comeback attempts in 1974 through 1976. He drove his
final Winston Cup race in 1976 for Banjo Matthews. While racing in a Late Model Sportsman event at Hickory Bobby
Isaac once again pulled his car off the track without warning.
He suffered a heart attack and died later at a local hospital.
I wonder if some small members of the Yarborough clan share
at show 'n' tell how Cale once nearly met his maker in the
infield (yes, infield) when the car he was riding in, driven
by another racing legend, Banjo Matthews, struck a light pole, that
Matthews did not see. The car was returned to a
rental agency with a "damaged radiator." Damaged, perhaps,
because it was practically in the two men's laps?
Cage: When NASCAR was created at the end of the forties, the strictly stock
rule implied that the frames of the cars used in racing were identical
to those one could buy from the dealer. Today's frames are fabricated
from welded steel tubing which guarantee a very high level of safety.
The usage of the "cage" was introduced by companies such as
Performance and Hutcherson-Pagan at the beginning of the Sixties, after
several pilots were killed in accidents. The first company was founded
by Banjo Matthews who became one of the most famous body manufacturers
after he retired from his racing career.
This car was
campaigned in the first Daytona 500 race in 1959. The #64
Holman-Moody Thunderbird was the car driven by Fritz Wilson who
finished in 56th place with a blown piston. He actually only made 15
laps before leaving the race. The car that finished in 2nd place was
driven by Johnny Beauchamp in the #73 car. In a photo finish,
the #73 was
initially declared the winner.
(Info courtesy of
Bill Van Ess)
1959 Thunderbird NASCAR convertible Holman-Moody
modified this 1959 Thunderbird. This was a "zipper top" T-Bird whose
hardtop could be removed for the convertible races popular at the
time. This car was driven by Banjo Matthews.
Michael Franzen's NASCAR
Banjo's Matthew's 1962
Which one is a "real"
They ALL are! Yep. These are
well made models with great
Cale Yarborough skirted death at the Charlotte (now Lowes) Motor Speedway. But it
wasn't on the track. It was in the infield. On this particular day, Cale
had been driving around town in a rental car with Banjo Matthews.
Matthews was fond of racing at full speed through the tunnel, and
into the infield.
Matthews had been talking to Cale about something as he sped out
of the tunnel, and did not see the light pole that was rapidly closing
Cale saw it, though.
Matthews kept talking and looked at Cale as his foot remained
firmly planted on the floor.
"Banjo!!!" Cale again yelled.
It feel on deaf ears.
Watch out for that......."
It was a dead-center, head-on collision. The front-end of the car looked
like an inverted 'V'. Neither men were hurt, but Banjo had one helluva story for the rental car company that day.
He told them that "something had happened to the radiator", and
suggested they come get it with a tow truck.
Matthews IROC Car
Chevrolet IROC Camaro is number 17 of
the 15 vehicles built for the 2nd series
of the International Race of Champions.
Banjo Mathews built the chassis. It was
his 20th in that series for Roger Penske. These cars were
raced for 5 years then retired. Some
other notable drivers were Peter Gregg,
A.J. Foyt, Bobby and Al Unser, Mario
Andretti and Bobby Allison.
Jocko Maggiacomo and his
Jocko had been
successful racing an ex-Penske/Donahue Javelin in theTrans-Am series and
had even won the championship (for his class) one year. So the team had
an available supply of Traco engines that could be used in NASCAR.
These where a little bit down on power from the ones Penske had, but
this was good for reliability.
There was very
little help from AMC. The team got no help from Penske or Allison
built the Matador from a junkyard body and a Banjo Mathews frame. They
had never built an oval track car, so a team member went to the Daytona
500 and snuck in to the garage area with the help of some friends in the
broadcasting business. He spent three whole days, taking hundreds of
pictures of every detail he could imagine. With these they went to work
and showed up at Pocono with the a car that no one in NASCAR knew was
being built. It had some different building techniques and details they
had learned while road racing so it was tough getting it through.
One of the few
things they did get from AMC was the slope nose kit. NASCAR never
allowed the nose pieces but did allow the
rear side window changes. This shrunk that large side window down
to a small port hole and greatly reduced lift.
They never got the car to handle properly and
coupled with the horsepower disadvantage, decided to switch to GM. The
Chevy engines where built in their shop, and the Matador body was
replaced by an Oldsmobile body. They believe the only thing that was
saved was a door panel which may be still hanging up in the workshop.
Who's with Banjo?
4/17/07 Update: According to Tom Waddell:
A Nascar driver from North Wilkesboro NC. Jimmy was killed while
testing tires at Charlotte
in 1964. He was just coming into his own as a driver and was a good