Tribute to a Legend – Fred Lorenzen
by SM Staff On Wed, Aug. 03, 2011
by Steve Samples
It was a warm fall day in Mount Airy, NC, in late September of nineteen sixty two.
I was eleven years old. In 1961 I had attended my first stock car race. It was the inaugural event at Bristol International Speedway. Like most young boys that age my interest in sports was just beginning. I’d recently moved from West Virginia to North Carolina. My seldom combed blonde hair and pronunciation of the word “on” was not being well received by new classmates. I suppose I’m stubborn. To this day I’ve never turned a light “own.”
The significance of this particular Sunday was a NASCAR race in Martinsville, Virginia. One year earlier I had discovered a love for racing. Two years before my dad had begun listening to stock car races on the radio which ignited my interest. In those days people rooted for makes of cars not drivers. Most people anyway. In my case I always liked the underdog. And since my family drove Fords, there were plenty of them to choose from. In ‘61 the Pontiacs of Fireball Roberts, David Pearson, Junior Johnson and others were the terror of the speedways. Their larger displacement engines out horse powered the Fords and Chevys. The MOPAR crowd was competitive on the short tracks, but seldom a threat at the superspeedways. So dominant were the powerful Pontiacs that they would often fill the first half dozen or more spots in qualifying. Most of the driver’s had simply accepted this competitive plight, be they Ford or Chrysler. Most, but not all.
Ford had this sandy haired guy who had signed a contract with Holman and Moody the year before. His hair was frequently tousled. He was an outsider. He came from the north. I could identify.
Back in ’61 I had heard him in a post-race interview. “I won this race to show everyone a Ford is just as good as a Pontiac,” he said. The comment was like Davy Crockett announcing he just shot a Mexican at the Alamo. But I liked it. Bravado in the face of the neighborhood bullies.
Before 1961 ended I was a dyed in the wool Fred Lorenzen fan. And so were a lot of other people. As 1962 rolled around the disparity in competition remained. The “Pontiac Pack” as they were called, relied on the brute force of their 421 cubic inch engines, while Ford’s 406 and Chevys 409 struggled to keep up. A repeat of 1961 appeared to be on the way.
There was however one advantage for the underpowered Fords. Handling. And on the half mile turns of Atlanta and the short tracks, the Fords showed their mettle. The promise of a Ford win at Martinsville that September day was thus a realistic possibility.
I had tossed and turned the night before that fall morning excited about the next day’s events. I would be attending this race with my father, my buddy Chuck Early, and his dad Ed. Although the race was not scheduled to start until 1PM, and the track only an hour away, we left at daybreak.
As we negotiated the twisty roads from Mount Airy to Martinsville,Chuck and I took notice of a seemingly never ending series of posters advertising the race. “The Old Dominion 500 Martinsville Speedway –September 25, 1962.”It seemed with every sign the excitement grew. After what seemed to be an eternity we arrived at the track. It must have been around eight AM when we pulled in close to the box office. Tickets had been reserved for us by Chuck’s uncle Clay, who just happened to own the race track. Row six at the start finish line. Six dollars a seat. After picking up the tickets we walked toward the fourth turn gate. Just inside the gate was a man standing in front of a velvet board attached to an easel. The board contained pin on buttons with driver’s photos. They had only eight or so drivers to choose from. One of them was Fred Lorenzen. My dad bought me a button for fifty cents. It was one of my great treasures. I must have worn that pin to school for two months. After we found our seats and settled in, a man selling peanuts walked by. He was a heavy set man in his 30’s. His hair was solid white and he wore thick black horn rimmed glasses. As he walked past us he must have noticed my button. Staring at me he said slowly in a sing song voice, “Feeeearless Freddie, ‘gonna eat up Petty.” There was no expression on his face and he continued to walk. I smiled and sat down. Ed then made an observation. “This will be a great place to be at the start of the race, and a great place to be at the finish. Now all that time in between, I don’t know.” For Chuck and I it was just the place to be. We watched mechanics probing engines in the garage area for hours. We scoured the area looking for our favorite drivers, Fred Lorenzen and Joe Weatherly. At the same time a steady stream of cars was being ushered to the infield. It seemed like an eternity but the race cars were finally rolled out. Right in front of us on the track was a painted grid which marked where cars would start the race. There were white rectangles the size of a car plotted in sets of two. The grid continued from the starting line toward the fourth turn where we lost site.
As one o’clock approached the driver’s climbed in their cars and drove to the middle of the second turn. The PA announcer introduced them one at a time and each car proceeded around the track to their place on the marked grid. I remember asking my father if I could go down to the fence and ask Freddie for his autograph. He put his hand on my shoulder and said,
“He’s a bundle of nerves right now. Let’s wait till after the race. We’ll find him and you can get an autograph then.” When the commentator eventually said, “start your engines,”I felt like I had been there a month. But it was a good month. A never ending trove of racing treasure to view. A never ending series of questions directed to my father.
When the green flag fell the noise was deafening. I had been to Bristol, but viewed the race at a distance. Although we attended the spring Martinsville race and the Firecracker 250 in Daytona during the summer, the sound seemed to resonate at an even higher level. I remember watching the cars circle the track for what seemed like days. At one point I looked up and saw lap 80 on the board. Could that be right? All this time and only 80 laps went by? In those days there was a scoreboard on top of turn one. It showed laps completed and the top five drivers’ in a horizontal listing. If the car you were following was out of the top five, you had better be keeping a keen eye on its place in the field. That day Freddie and Joe seemed to be running between fifth and tenth all day. Each would appear on the board from time to time, and then drop off. As the laps progressed Fireball Roberts took the lead in his gold Pontiac. Coming up behind was Lorenzen. Soon the two began to rub. Fred banged the bumper of the big GM car in his white Ford. The crowd loved it. You could hear their roar over the racing engines. Finally the banging got too severe. Lorenzen knocked a hole in his radiator and the Holman-Moody Ford began to smoke. A lap later it was over for the Golden Boy. But damage had occurred to the Pontiac as well. Roberts would soon end his day with damage sustained in the incident. Nelson Stacy would go on to win the race in a Ford.
True to his word my father took us to the pits to run down Fred Lorenzen for me, and Joe Weatherly for Chuck. There seemed to be driver’s everywhere, but those two had escaped us. In frustration we finally left for the short drive back to Mount Airy, listening to the race wrap up on a small transistor radio. As we reached the fourth turn exit I noticed someone that looked familiar. It was a young race driver with blonde hair carrying a large suitcase. The case had side by side duel handles. He held one handle with his left hand, while someone on the other side gripped the matching handle. To this day I have no idea what was in that case, but it must have been heavy. Chuck and I followed them a short way, with our parents trailing. Finally I managed the nerve to stop them. Approaching from behind I said, “Mr. Lorenzen can I have your autograph?” Both men stopped. As he turned toward me I handed Fred a picture post card I had brought to the race. It was a card of his ’62 Ford taken at Daytona. My father quickly walked up and handed him a fountain pen. Fred knelt to use his knee to rest the card as he wrote. He asked my name. As he signed the card, I mentioned a post-race interview I had just heard from Fireball. During the interview Roberts remarked how,“the only thing that banging incident with Lorenzen proved is that the back end of a Pontiac is tougher than the front end of a Ford.”Fred replied in a somewhat monotone, yet slightly cynical voice, “Did he say that?” I confirmed the comment and then quickly changed the subject. “I’ve been a fan of yours since 1961.” That was all of a year, but it seemed like forever for an 11 year old. Fred responded, “That’s as long as I’ve been running Ford’s.” We finally parted company and went our separate ways. I had no idea he would go on to re-write the NASCAR record book. Just five years later when he retired at 32, Fred Lorenzen had become the all-time superspeedway winner with a dozen victories at Daytona, Charlotte, Atlanta, Darlington, and Rockingham.He was the first driver to win races at all five of the South’s original superspeedways. And the first driver to win $100,000 in a season. He would also win three straight Atlanta 500’s, and five consecutive major races. All records at the time. And the firsts will stand forever.
I couldn’t help but think about that September day when I was informed recently Fred Lorenzen had been hospitalized with dementia. His long term memory is still keen, but recent events seem blurred. That blond headed hero to thousands of kids. NASCAR’s version of the,“Lone Ranger.” Always chasing the bad guys in his familiar pearl white Ford, and seemingly never losing a battle. So young and full of energy. So talented. It seems like only yesterday.