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                                  Herb Thomas
                                                         Born: April 6, 1923   -   Died: August 9, 2000
                                                                                   Home: Olivia, NC

Born on April 6, 1923, in Hartnett County, North Carolina, Herb Thomas started a sawmill business, supplying the military with lumber during World War II. After the war Thomas discovered racing, becoming a race car owner first, then competing in wildcat races as a driver. Thomas joined NASCAR as soon as it was started in 1947, and went on the Grand National (now Winston Cup) circuit as soon as it was organized two years later. Thomas won his first Grand National race with a Plymouth at Martinsville, Virginia in 1950. In 1951, racing a Hudson Hornet, Thomas won the Grand National Championship. Thomas won 48 NASCAR Winston Cup races during his driving career. He won the Grand National Championship twice (1951 and 1953), and came in second for that title three times (1952,1954, and 1956). Thomas was the first person to win three Southern 500's (1951, 1954 and 1955). Herb Thomas was seriously injured in a Shelby, NC race in October 1956, ending his racing career.

Thomas, a former truck driver, won 48 races in 230 starts, picking up 38 pole positions along the way, which is still 10th on the all-time list. Thomas won the Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway in 1951, 1954 and 1955; his '55 Southern 500 victory came despite being badly injured in racing accident three-and-a-half months earlier. He was first in laps led and races led for three consecutive seasons, beginning in 1952. Thomas was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association's Hall of Fame at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway in 1965 and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in 1994. Thomas died in August 2000.

Ed Samples (9) and Herb Thomas (92) Door Handle to Door Handle

The Quiet Passing of Herb Thomas, A NASCAR Champion.
By Michael Smith


NASCAR recently lost one of its pioneers with the passing of Herb Thomas on August 9, 2000. History shouldn’t be the study of obituary notices, but there is no escaping the fact that those who were great will eventually leave us one way or another. Recent events have shown us that, occasionally, our racing heroes depart this earth in a sudden, startling flash and we grieve all the more because of the suddenness of the whole thing. Far more frequent however is the mellow passing of years in retirement or some other racing-related line of work. Thankfully, the fact is, most of racing’s great drivers will age gracefully and leave this world in ways that seem strangely ordinary. Certainly, they are no less heroes than those who are taken quickly and violently.

Herb Thomas, the man who was a farmer during the week and a racecar driver on weekends, claimed NASCAR’s top driving championship in 1951 and 1953, but many of today’s fans would be hard pressed to pick this early champion out of a line up of NASCAR’s Top 50 and that may speak volumes about where the sport is heading.

Born on April 6, 1923, Herbert Watson Thomas was born into a family that had no connection to automobile racing. Young Herb spent his growing up years working the family farm and working at a sawmill owned by his father in Barbecue Township, North Carolina. During World War II, Thomas continued working at the sawmill, married and started a family. In fact, Thomas was a workingman, husband and father of two sons before he ever saw his first auto race. But from the start, Thomas was hooked.

With his interest piqued, Thomas entered the field of stockcar racing as something of a hobby, not to interfere with business and farm operations. However, by the time Big Bill France came around to begin organizing races and racecar drivers under the banner of NASCAR sanctioning, Thomas was beginning to see the lucrative side of weekends spend at the track.

There was something of the natural talent in Herb Thomas, something that allowed him to slide behind the wheel of a stockcar and gain success without the previous experience of running moonshine or working as a mechanic in a local garage tuning engines for more horsepower.

When NASCAR’s first Strictly Stock event rolled to the green flag at Charlotte Speedway in June 1949, Herb Thomas was there, piloting a 1947 Ford. Suspension failure relegated Thomas to a non-paying twenty-ninth place finish but in the next race, the first Daytona Beach race sanctioned by NASCAR, Thomas finished 12th and pocketed $50 in prize money.

It would be a little more than a year before Thomas would claim his first victory, when, at Martinsville Speedway, he beat Lee Petty to the checkered flag in October 1950. The following year, having switched from Plymouths to Hudson Hornets at the urging of fellow driver Marshall Teague, Herb Thomas set about writing his name in the history books.

At the second annual running of the Southern 500, Thomas fairly well ran away with the show, leading 310 of the 400 laps in the event to claim the first of seven victories for the season and the series championship. Thomas’s $21,050 winnings put him at the head of the earnings chart and probably convinced any reluctant family members that stockcar racing could indeed provide a worthwhile living.

In 1952 things were not much different in the win category, in fact Thomas improved his tally by notching eight victories, but Tim Flock who also drove a Hornet to eight victories that season edged him out for the championship.

True to form, Thomas improved further the following year to amass an amazing 12 victories on his way to clinching the 1953 championship. The following season found Thomas driving for legendary builder-owner Smokey Yunick. The combination proved fruitful as Thomas again racked up 12 victories including a second Southern 500 win. Despite his dominating performance, Thomas was again edged out in the championship chase, this time by Lee Petty.

By the time the 1955 season rolled around the once fabulous Hudson Hornets were beginning to lose some of their luster. The dirt tracks where the Hornet proved to be so dominant were falling by the wayside as NASCAR continued to upgrade its facilities. Additionally, the other manufacturers were bringing better and better equipment to the tracks. Nevertheless, the Hornet still had a sting and it was Herb Thomas who would bring the Hudson Hornet to Victory Lane the final time, with a win at West Palm Beach.

Within weeks, however, the Smokey Yunick team switched to Chevrolets and as September rolled around Herb Thomas vowed to notch his third Southern 500 victory, despite having suffered a broken leg earlier in the season. Few took the promise to heart. The consensus of opinion sided with the Flock brothers, Tim and Fonty in their speedy Chrysler 300s. Other teams to beat were fielding Oldsmobile Rocket 88s. Against the Chrysler 300s and the Oldsmobile 88s, the smaller, lower horse powered Chevy’s weren’t seen as much of a threat. Folks who counted out Herb Thomas and his Chevrolet, forgot to consider the genius of wily car owner Smokey Yunick.

Yunick used the Chevrolet’s lightweight design to its best advantage. Mounting a set of specially designed Firestone SuperSport racing tires on the car, Yunick instructed Thomas to set an even pace to conserve the tires while other teams were forced to pit for fresh rubber. Thomas started the race in 8th place and did not fully assert himself until lap 279 of 366 laps, when he pulled into the lead. When Joe Weatherly, the only real competition in the race, was sidelined by a collapsed wheel and the ensuing wreck, Thomas’s way was clear to roll to Victory Circle for his third Southern 500 triumph. Yunick’s strategy had paid off – Thomas had run the entire race on a single set of tires.

Herb Thomas finished 5th in the championship standings in 1955 and the 1956 season saw him return to the track in cars owned and prepared by Smokey Yunick. However, for whatever reason, the two would not finish out the season together. Ten races into the 1956 season Thomas opted to join the powerhouse Karl Kiekhaefer team to drive a Chrysler 300. Thomas joined a stellar group at the Kiekhaefer stable, driving beside teammates Tim and Fonty Flock, Buck Baker and Speedy Thompson.

Thomas signed on with the team at the oddly circular Langhorne speedway in April of 1956 and notched three of the teams thirty victories for the season before deciding to pilot his own Chevy three months later. Again, the reasons are unclear, however it is very likely that the strictly regimented lifestyle of a Kiekhaefer team member grated on Thomas’ nerves.

With consistent finishes as an owner-driver, coupled with his five victories with the Yunick and Kiekhaefer teams, Thomas seemed poised to capture another championship when a terrifying wreck left him partially paralyzed and fighting to survive. Despite being sidelined late in the season, Thomas managed to finish third in championship points.

There are greater endeavors in life than piloting a stockcar around the track at breakneck speed; this is a fact with which even hardcore fans will agree. Herb Thomas, having proven his skill in the life or death pursuit of driving a racecar next set about regaining his life, struggling back from the horrific effects of his injuries to regain the full use of his right arm. Perhaps it is this off track success that truly marks the man that was Herbert Watson Thomas.

Following his recovery, Thomas did attempt a number of comebacks as a driver and as an owner, but as is so often the case, success was out of reach. Herb Thomas ran his last race on the track in April of 1962 and retired from racing at the age of forty. Thomas was named to the National Motorsports Press Association’s Hall of Fame in 1965 and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1994. During NASCAR’s 50th anniversary celebration in 1998, Thomas was named one of the all-time top-fifty drivers. Smokey Yunick, a man not prone to giving empty praise, said of Thomas: “Herb Thomas could really drive. He was smart in a race. He knew how to pace himself. He was as good as they came and they have never given him enough credit for his ability.”

Herb Thomas’ true race of life ended peacefully at the age of 77 in Sanford, North Carolina on August 9, 2000. In a year that has seen so much tragedy and death on the racetrack, we would do well to remember that most drivers simply fade into the brightly colored background as the seasons tick off one by one. Those who burn out in a flash blind us in their passing while the likes of Herb Thomas seem to move along seemingly unnoticed. Perhaps that is what old-timers mean when they talk about “what’s wrong with NASCAR these days.”                
copyright 2000. Michael Smith

Herb Thomas Strictly Stock/Grand National
DRIVER Statistics

Year Age Races Win T5 T10 Pole Laps Led Earnings Rank AvSt AvFn
1949 26 4 of 8 0 1 1 0 197 0 225 25   18.0
1950 27 13 of 19 1 4 6 0 719 176 2,945 11 13.0 11.4
1951 28 34 of 41 7 16 18 4 2015 954 21,025 1 8.9 11.5
1952 29 32 of 34 8 19 22 10 5134 1509 18,965 2 4.2 8.3
1953 30 37 of 37 12 27 31 12 4292 1420 28,910 1 2.6 5.2
1954 31 34 of 37 12 19 27 8 5605 1366 29,974 2 3.6 7.7
1955 32 23 of 45 3 14 15 2 3248 250 18,023 5 6.6 9.3
1956 33 48 of 56 5 22 36 3 7890 522 19,351 2 7.5 8.4
1957 34 2 of 53 0 0 0 0 146 0 25 148 13.5 37.0
1962 39 1 of 53 0 0 0 0 377 0 200 97 23.0 14.0
10 years 228 48 122 156 39 29623 6197 139,643   6.2 8.9
Grand National race number 23 of 37
July 22, 1953 at Rapid Valley Speedway, Rapid City, SD
200 laps on a .500 mile dirt track (100.0 miles)
Time of race: 1:44:46
Average Speed: 57.27 mph
Pole Speed: 55.727 mph
Cautions: n/a
Margin of Victory: n/a
Attendance: n/a





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Herb Thomas

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