Birthplace of Speed
Fireball Roberts



By Steve Samples

One of the long running television series of the 1950's and 1960's was the ever popular cops and robbers drama "Dragnet." The show featured Jack Webb playing the part of hard-nosed career cop Joe Friday, a tough but fair man, who seeded special privileges to no one. When interrogating a witness his patented by line was, "Just the facts please." No fluff, no speculation, no opinion. Just tell me what you know to be true.

It's a shame 'ol Joe couldn't have landed a job with FOX Sports, NBC, or even NASCAR. You see the facts of NASCAR's storied history have been distorted by those groups and other media outlets, to the point that it appears they share a public relations department with the World Wrestling Federation. Oh there are no conspiracies going on here. Just sheer incompetence mixed with well meaning but uninformed reporters making conclusions about events they never witnessed.

For the sake of historical clarification and accuracy, this "Beyond the Grandstand" column is devoted to setting the record straight. I'll begin by examining popular myths perpetrated and promoted by the media, and end our discussion with an analysis of NASCAR "experts" selection of the sport's 50 greatest drivers, which more appropriately should be named "NASCAR's 35 Greatest Drivers, and 15 Most Overrated Drivers." So buckle your seat belt while we take a short but rigorous ride from fiction to truth.

Let's start with the Daytona 500.

MYTH #1: The Daytona 500 has been NASCAR's season opening and premier event since it's inception.
For decades the opening event on the NASCAR schedule was the Riverside 500 held at Riverside Raceway in Riverside, California. The twisting road course where Hall of Famer Joe Weatherly lost his life was held in January, the month before Daytona. And in the mid 1960's the World 600 at Charlotte boasted NASCAR's biggest purse. In fact in 1965 when David Pearson was asked which Grand National race he would prefer to win, he stated bluntly, "Charlotte. Because it pays the most." At the time the number two event on the schedule, in the eyes of both driver's and fans was the Southern 500 in Darlington. Long considered the "Granddaddy of Superspeedways" and the toughest track to drive, no driver was considered great until he had mastered the egg shaped oval.

MYTH #2: Richard Petty was the only Grand National/Winston Cup driver to portray himself in a feature length movie.
In 1966 a feature film about NASCAR star Fred Lorenzen was produced on location in Atlanta. The film received positive reviews, and played to sell out crowds throughout the south. The actor who portrayed Lorenzen? Fred Lorenzen himself, who actually delivered his lines, proving that driving a race car was not the only thing he did better than Richard Petty.

MYTH #3: "The Last American Hero," a film about Junior Johnson in which Jeff Bridges portrayed the Hall of Fame driver, was accurate in depicting the career of "The Ronda Roadrunner."
Junior Johnson was a former moonshine runner from the North Carolina hills who served time in prison. Johnson was gruff, abrasive, and frequently hostile to the media. He ran over, around, and through his competitors, and endeared himself to few drivers or fans. With a protruding midsection and a constant scowl, Junior was perhaps the most classic villain NASCAR has ever known.

MYTH #4: Hall of Fame driver Ned Jarrett, who recently appeared on a Wheaties Box, was one of NASCAR's all time greats.
TRUTH: Ned Jarrett acquired 48 of his 50 Grand National victories on small tracks. Many of his wins were 100 milers on quarters and halves, and dirt tracks where few factory cars were entered. One of his two superspeedway wins came at Darlington in 1965. In that event he trailed the leaders by MULTIPLE laps throughout much of the race, and won only after Fred Lorenzen's engine expired, and Cale Yarborough went over the wall. A few years earlier while racing in the 1962 Firecracker 250 at Daytona, Ned caught the draft of Fireball Roberts on the backstretch. The track public address announcer immediately picked up the microphone and said to the crowd, "Folks Ned Jarrett has just caught Fireball Roberts' draft, and that's the fastest Ned has ever traveled." The crowd roared with laughter. Now if someone will just bring that Wheaties box to Fireball's grave site, I guarantee you'll hear him turn over.

MYTH #5: Competition today is tougher than at anytime in NASCAR history.
Competition is actually about the same as it was forty years ago. We see factory participation from Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge, and Pontiac today. In 1961, Chrysler's banner was flown by Buck and Buddy Baker, Chevrolet by Ned Jarrett and Rex White, Pontiac by Fireball Roberts, David Pearson, Jack Smith, Bob Welborn, Joe Weatherly and others. Ford was led by Fred Lorenzen and Nelson Stacy, and Plymonth by Richard and Lee Petty. Winning NASCAR races has always been tough.

MYTH #6: Stock car racing is more popular today than at anytime in the history of the sport.
While it's true that NASCAR shares a broader appeal today than at anytime in it's history, due primarily to television exposure, it is also true that NASCAR racing has been very popular for decades. When Bristol Speedway opened in July of 1961, its inaugural race was sold out. Standing room tickets were purchased for $5 while they lasted, by patrons who wished to sit on a nearby hillside, and view about half of the race track. Others unable to purchase tickets or get into the hillside standing area, watched from nearby vantage points, seeing about a fourth of the track. At the age of 10, I was one of the long distance race watchers along with my parents (I should have ordered tickets earlier!) During that same time frame the World 600 at Charlotte was drawing more than 100,000,and crowds of over 50,000 were commonplace at the superspeedways. While today's crowds are indeed larger, so is the population. Suffice to say that NASCAR has always been a very popular spectator sport.

MYTH #7: The most accurate means to compare drivers of different eras is to look at their total victories and number of Winston Cup championships.
TRUTH: While points and victories are a valid means of comparing talent over the past 20 years, such criteria were not applicable forty years ago. In the early and intermediate years of NASCAR many race teams ran only the big events, choosing not to participate in the weekly 100 milers which filled out the Grand National schedule. In those days the Grand National (now Winston Cup) champion was laughingly referred to as the Grand National LAP champion. Because of vast differences in the number of quality cars entered, and the length of events, races were at that time classified as "major" and "minor." A major event being 250 miles or more on a half mile or larger paved track. By the mid 1970's, NASCAR historians unofficially decided to simply drop the sub group and combine all Grand National/Winston Cup wins. The result was a fiasco. Suddenly hundred mile "heat" races at Bowman-Gray Stadiums quarter mile track, with three factory cars entered, counted as one career victory just like a 500 miler on a superspeedway, with fifteen factory cars entered. In the 1960's many of NASCAR's all time greats, including Fred Lorenzen and Fireball Roberts, had numerous year ending finishes in the top ten in points, while running only HALF the scheduled races. The $1,000 winner's check at the Savannah Fairgrounds wasn't worth the drive to pick up.


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