Back in NASCAR's early
days, the sport's roots were entirely in the Southeast. Though some
of the tracks were in the north, the top Grand National drivers were
southern born and raised. Sure, Jim Roper from Kansas won the first
Grand National race at the old Charlotte Fairgrounds and Johnny
Manta from California won the first Southern 500. But these two
Yankees were the exception rather than the rule. The real stars, Tim
Flock, Herb Thomas, Fireball Roberts, Buck Baker, Curtis Turner, Joe
Weatherly and company were from south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Things changed in a big way in 1961 when a young driver from
Elmhurst, Illinois stormed into Rebel country with a winning
vengeance! Of course I'm referring to the Golden Boy, Fred Lorenzen.
If circumstances had been different, we might be calling Fred "the
King" instead of Richard Petty.
Born in the Chicago suburb
in 1935, Fred's life revolved around speed. At the age of 12, the
police confiscated a home build go-kart the young Mr. Lorenzen had
been using to terrorize the neighborhood. They had to pick the kart
up at his house, for Fred had outrun the police cruiser! He sat in a
tent with a radio in the backyard listening to broadcasts of the
Southern 500, marveling at the exploits of his heroes "Pops" Turner
and "the Fireball". At the age of 16, with money saved from working
with his dad, a carpenter, Fred bought an old Plymouth and promptly
rolled it over on a makeshift race track. Soon, he was legitimately
racing at Soldier's Field, a track promoted by Andy Granatelli.
Befriended by another driver, "Tiger Tom" Pistone whom had already
had a taste of racing in NASCAR country, Fred devised a plan of his
own. Buying a supercharged '55 Chevy from Pistone, Fred headed south
with few dollars but a ton of determination to join the Grand
National circuit in 1956.
After blowing his only
engine in a race in Hillsboro, NC, Fred headed back to Elmhurst
broke and decided a different game plan was in order. Joining the
USAC stock car circuit which held races closer to his home, Fred won
the Championship in 1958 and 1959. His Ford was sponsored by a pizza
shop and Fred would make pizzas until closing time. Then he'd go to
the back of the shop, which was his race garage and work on his race
car all night. Quite a handy arrangement, I'd say, particularly if
you needed a late night snack.
Using his USAC success as a
stepping stone, Fred headed south again with a new '60 Ford racer in
tow for another stab at the Grand National circuit. Though his
equipment wasn't the equal of the established stars, Fred's talent
caught the eye of a gentleman named Ralph Moody. Ralph was the
mechanical genius behind Holman-Moody, through whom Ford was easing
back into the sport after the AMA 1957 ban on auto racing! Fred's
stubbornness prevailed, and he turned down the ride. With his own
team sponsored by the Rupert Seat Belt Company and working part-time
for H&M in the garage, Fred made 10 starts, had 3 top 5's and 5 top
10's. He was also hopelessly in debt and had to sell his equipment
to pay the bills at the end of the season. Fred bought himself a
used car with the few dollars left, resumed his career as a
carpenter and was facing a very bleak winter. On Christmas Eve of
1960, fate prevailed in the form of a phone call that changed his
life forever. It was from Ralph Moody, asking Fred if he would like
to drive his race car for the 1961 season! This time Fred said YES,
and hopped a plane to Charlotte as quickly as he could!
Ralph became Fred's mentor
and friend as well as his car owner. Not having a car prepped for
the '61 Daytona 500, a ride was arranged for Fred with Tubby
Gonzales, who was leaving for the service in his '60 Ford. After the
race, Fred kept a larger percentage of the purse than agreed upon.
Moody told Fred that to be a respected star, he needed to build
integrity. Fred sent the extra money to Gonzales. Ralph also taught
Fred to watch his mechanics and double check their work as it was
his butt on the line in that race car. Being the nervous type, it
also gave Fred something to do before a race.
Lorenzen's first win came
in the Rebel 300 in '61, outfoxing Curtis Turner on the last lap.
After that, wins came quickly for the Golden Boy. Passing up many of
the short tracks for the higher paying events, by the end of 1963,
he became the first driver to win over $100, 000 in a single season.
Back then, the Championship didn't pay well, and many drivers didn't
find it worthwhile to bother with the smaller tracks. Some of the
Southern fans and drivers resented a Yankee from Chicago taking all
of the marbles in their turf and gave him the derisive nickname
"Lucky Lorenzen". He was the Jeff Gordon of the day in some ways.
The jeers soon turned to cheers as Fred proved the wins weren't a
fluke. He also became known as the Elmhurst Express because like an
express train, nothing would stand in his way of winning.
Lorenzen was the first true
driver/businessman, passing on the partying and investing his
winnings in the stock market. I know no risqué stories about Fred
during his racing years. He was articulate, could give a good
interview, handsome and spent plenty of time with his fans. Richard
Petty was becoming a star at the same time. Though sometimes bitter
rivals, they both possessed the same superstar qualities. This is
why I believe that Fred could've become the King, if it weren't for
the tragedies of 1964.
At the Riverside CA road
course (which used to be the first race of the season) in '64, Joe
Weatherly lost his life in a freak accident. Coupled with the loss
of another friend, Fireball Roberts at the World 600, Fred developed
ulcers and began to rethink his life. Though it was never said, I
believe Fred lost his heart for the sport after the Fireball died.
But he won 8 races during that heartbreaking year. Though he had a
couple of girlfriends, ironically both named Nancy, Fred refused to
marry while he was driving. His reasoning was that he didn't want to
leave a widow so young.
Continuing his winning
ways, Fred won the rain shortened '65 Daytona and 3 other races that
year. In 1966, he won 2. By 1967, the ulcers got the better of Fred
and he retired with much fanfare after the Atlanta 500. He was 32
years old and had won 26 Grand National races. Lorenzen then spent
the next 3 years water skiing and having the sort of fun he hadn't
the time for during his racing days. One of his best friends was Joe
Namath. For a brief period of time, Fred became mentor and car owner
to another hungry young driver. His name was Bobby Allison.
Eventually, like most
retired drivers Fred got the itch to drive again. His ulcers were
healed and he was still a young man. But by 1970, the factories were
getting out of racing and Ford had no ride for Fred. Realizing what
a fan draw an un-retired Fred Lorenzen would be, Richard Howard,
promoter extraordinaire of Charlotte Motor Speedway provided him
with a Dodge Daytona for 7 races. In 1971, old friend and STP mogul
Andy Granatelli sponsored a Plymouth owned by Ray Nichols for
Lorenzen. But the equipment nor team were as good as the driver. A
real break came calling for Fred when the Wood Brothers offered him
their potent Mercury for the '71 Southern 500. But perhaps trying
too hard to impress his cars owners, Fred wrecked the car badly in
practice. The Woods didn't offer Fred another chance. Fred drove a
few races for Hoss Ellington in '72 with little success, then
suddenly quit mid-season to marry one of his Nancy's and return to
Chicago for a very successful real estate career. It seemed the
magic was gone, so Lorenzen was retired for good this time. But I'll
always believe that if Fred had been given a second chance with the
Wood Brothers, he would have won many more races.
I hope that you enjoyed
reading this story as much as I enjoyed writing it. This one is
extra special to me. Fred Lorenzen was 'my' first driver in the
Grand National series and I hope my writings did him the justice he
deserves. Let's never forget the Elmhurst Express!