CALL TO HALL WAS LONG TIME COMING FOR
FROM: July 18, 2014, Zack
6-time race winner's inclusion in the Class of 2015
To hear it told by those
close to him, there are good days and bad days for
NASCAR legend Fred Lorenzen. A trove of racing memories
still resonates but advancing dementia has made recall
of the most mundane everyday activities difficult.
May 21, 2014 was one of the good days, one of the best
in years. Four names -- all drivers -- had already been
called for the 2015 induction class into the NASCAR Hall
of Fame that Wednesday afternoon, leading to an
anxiety-ridden wait for Amanda Lorenzen Gardstrom,
several hundred miles away. It wasn't until NASCAR
Chairman and CEO Brian France opened the fifth and final
envelope that the suspense finally subsided.
"As the fifth one was announced, we were so nervous,"
Gardstrom said in the days after the announcement. "We
thought it wasn't going to be this year again, and when
they said, 'And from the North ...,' I think my heart
skipped a beat and it was pure happy tears of joy. ..."
Once her heart rate normalized, it was time to inform
her father, who spends his days in an assisted living
home in his home state of Illinois. Gardstrom had
hesitated to tell her father to tune in to the
announcement, knowing the years of disappointment the
family had endured on past Voting Days.
Though Lorenzen still has trouble understanding certain
concepts, hearing the news of his approaching
enshrinement came with crystal clarity.
"It couldn't have been more picture-perfect," Gardstrom
said, mentioning that her father initially chuckled when
receiving word. "I'd fantasized about what the moment
would be like, to talk to my dad. I told him, 'Dad, you
are in the elite group of the NASCAR Hall of Fame now.'
It knocked his socks off. ... My whole life, he's always
been very humble and quiet about his accomplishments and
it hasn't been until the last five or six years that I
realized what a true legend and hero he is in NASCAR, a
pioneer in the sport. To hear this news, it's the icing
on the cake. It's the final victory, and just a huge,
The memories of Lorenzen's heyday will be more top of
mind this weekend as the NASCAR Nationwide Series returns
Speedway, less than an hour from the Chicago suburb of
Elmhurst, the racing legend's hometown. Though he hailed
from the Land of Lincoln, Lorenzen's appeal broadened
the sport's reach beyond its Southern roots and spawned
numerous nicknames -- "Fearless Freddie" for his sheer
speed, the "Golden Boy" for his matinee-idol looks and
"The Elmhurst Express" in a nod to his hometown.
Though the Windy City holds many ties to Lorenzen's
legacy, it's the hub of Charlotte, North Carolina where
Fearless Freddie hung his shingle in NASCAR.
In the southern outskirts of the Queen City sits a
stately but otherwise nondescript brick warehouse in an
industrial park. Venture inside the brick walls and
there's treasure to be found.
Just outside the office doors, an impeccably restored
1963 Ford Galaxie with Fireball Roberts' name over the
door. High-powered engines in various states of build.
Low-slung Ford GT40 sports car chassis. A blood-red
Ferrari roadster. A Shelby-striped vintage Mustang
parked not far from special-edition current models.
The daily car show is all part of the surroundings at
Holman-Moody, the company formed by mechanical
masterminds John Holman and Ralph Moody that served as
the Ford factory team as NASCAR transitioned toward its
modern era. At its height, Holman-Moody had an estimated
450 employees, making it the Hendrick
its day. Today, Lee Holman says that number is closer to
"six or seven," all helping to carry on his father's
tradition by building engines, cars, parts and more.
Holman-Moody fielded cars for some of the most famous
names in racing -- Pearson, Yarborough, Foyt, Weatherly,
Allison, Unser, Jarrett, Andretti. But the name Lorenzen
was most famously associated with the team's powerful
machines -- ivory with a blue No. 28 -- in the early to
"All he'd ever done is race," said Lee Holman, a
teenager working for his father at the time Lorenzen
joined the team. "He was a famous Illinois dirt-tracker
before he came to us and had done real well in other
series, so it wasn't like we trained him and made him
what he was. We just gave him an opportunity to move
That chance at stock-car racing's big leagues came in
the form of an early Christmas present in the winter of
"Ralph Moody, my dad had seen him race back in the day
at a USAC race, I believe," Gardstrom said. "Ralph had
gone, pulled up his car with his trailer about half an
hour before the race was going to start, pulls up the
trailer, takes his car out, runs 10 laps, sits on the
pole and wins the race, puts his car back and gets out
of there. My dad says, 'Wow, well that guy's pretty
sharp. I want to be like him.' They started talking and
he says, 'You're a great driver, but I'll tell you
what's wrong with your car. You need to get these
springs.' So my dad sent him $400, Ralph sent him some
springs from Holman-Moody and that was the beginning of
my dad really taking off. But Ralph had an eye on my dad
for a while and on Christmas Eve, he called and said,
'Hey, you wanna drive for us? We want you.'
Gardstrom said her father balked at first, lacking the
money for travel, but Moody was insistent: "We're paying
for you. We'll send a plane up there, you just get on it
and that's it.' It was the best present my dad could've
gotten his whole life was that call from Ralph Moody.
Ralph Moody was like a dad to my dad."
The outsider turned fan favorite
What Holman-Moody got in Lorenzen was a
far contrast from their past driver rosters. Curtis
Turner and Joe Weatherly, two of the earliest and most
swashbuckling stars in NASCAR, drove and partied with
equally reckless abandon, abusing their equipment to the
dismay of their mechanics and their competition.
"This race in Darlington, Dad had me
sneak gin into Weatherly's Thermos cooler because he was
so hung over Sunday morning when he got to the track
that he thought a little hair off the dog might help,"
Lee Holman said. "Lorenzen came to race and took racing
very seriously and thought that he needed to do what it
took to be ready for the race and go."
That included knowing his car frontward
and backward as an active participant in making sure his
car was in tip-top condition before it ever reached the
track. Lorenzen's perfectionist personality also meant
that he expected a lot from his crew in return.
"(Other drivers) partied, they were out
to go fast and live the life, but when my dad came in,
he was business," Gardstrom said. "... After every time
he won a race, he'd call the stock broker and want to
know the best way to invest that. He insisted that his
pit crew was ready to go at 7 o'clock in the morning
every day -- clean white suits and ready to work. They
all worked and they planned and had strategies as a
While Lorenzen had the backing of one of
Ford's flagship operations, he was a stickler for doing
a significant portion of the work himself. It helped
forge a new level of respect for a young Waddell Wilson,
who joined Holman-Moody as an engine builder and a jack
man for Roberts and Lorenzen in the early 1960s. Wilson
went on to become a Daytona 500-winning crew chief and
team manager for decades to come, but he never forgot
the lessons learned from Lorenzen.
"Before I ever went to Holman-Moody,
Lorenzen was the one I pulled for," said Wilson, now a
NASCAR Hall of Fame voting member. "It was all because
of him and his ability to not just know about an engine,
but know about a race car. He helped me in my career so
much with what I learned being with him. A lot of times,
he didn't run wild at night like a lot of them did. We'd
go to dinner and he'd be up for breakfast and that's all
that was on his mind was that race car. Nothing else. He
was so dedicated. He was the first one I ever saw that
would measure tires himself."
The analytical pre-race approach carried
over to the race track, where his tactical mindset
clashed with the prevailing go-for-broke style of the
day. The new-fangled strategy helped Lorenzen stockpile
wins in the biggest races on the circuit, never running
a full season in accordance with his and Holman-Moody's
"He always had 'What the hell's the
matter?' or 'What the hell are you thinking?' -- there
were two different versions -- painted on his dash," Lee
Holman said. "The idea was that you really needed to
think a little bit. Lorenzen was a lot like Pearson in
that he liked to stay near the front but he didn't have
to lead every lap because by following the other
drivers, you could see where they would fall down in the
corner or have a handling issue. Sometimes you could
push a driver a bit, and see where his weak spots were
and plan your attack. With Pearson, they used to say
with about four laps to go, he'd throw his cigarette out
the window and you'd better hold on, because the race
was about to happen. Lorenzen was the same way -- he'd
think about it and go."
In NASCAR, so much of success is built
around chemistry, forging the right combination of
driver and team. Through the early to mid-1960s,
Lorenzen and Holman-Moody found it. Much of the history
is documented in massive scrapbooks of newspaper
clippings at Holman's shop, where a curio in a side room
contains many important artifacts from NASCAR's earliest
Thumbing through the albums shows
Lorenzen's name again and again in the yellowing
newspaper headlines, documenting how he became the first
driver to surpass $100,000 in winnings in a single
season in 1963 and recapping his frequent victories at
storied speedways -- Atlanta, Martinsville, Charlotte --
including the 1965 Daytona 500.
"He had to race pretty smart to keep that
car under him," said Neil "Soapy" Castles, a journeyman
driver who predominantly competed as an independent in
NASCAR's top series from 1957 to 1976. "It's difficult
to run a factory car and be very careful with it to be
aggressive. As far as the years I ran with him, we never
had a problem. He was real easy-going. I don't know of
anybody that had any trouble with him. He came in and
represented himself and the sponsor and the vehicle, so
he was pretty well an all-around race driver."
Though he was still an outsider in what
was still largely a Southern sport, Lorenzen quickly won
fans and fellow drivers over not only with his
performance but with his beaming smile and charisma.
It's part of why the "Golden Boy" nickname resonated
most, thanks to the driver's All-American looks.
"He was a crowd pleaser," Wilson said.
"You could be at Bristol, at Martinsville, at Wilkesboro
-- places where you'd be right up next to the fans --
and when they'd introduce drivers, he'd be the one
getting the biggest cheer or at least as big. The fans
loved him. After the race was over, they'd flock around
him for autographs. He's a good-looking man, you know,
and he'd come in from the North and being a Yankee in
that era and to have people love him like they did, it
was quite amazing to me. He loved the fans and catered
During a Friday morning visit to the
current-day Holman-Moody shop, Lee Holman said that a
longtime friend would be stopping by to say hello. In
walked 1961 Daytona 500 winner Marvin Panch, all 88
years of him, spinning stories about when drivers
routinely raced 50-plus times a year for winner's checks
of under $1,000.
"Yeah, Fearless Freddy was good," Panch
said with a wink and a smile.
The Hall's call
Aside from a smattering of races in the
early 1970s, Lorenzen's time in NASCAR drew to a close
after a brief but overwhelmingly prolific window with 26
wins in 158 starts. His winning percentage of 16.456
slots him fifth on the all-time list, just behind King
Richard Petty (16.892 percent) and just ahead of
Fireball Roberts (16.019 percent). For comparison's
sake, six-time NASCAR Sprint
Cup Series champion Jimmie
the top active driver on the list -- ranks eighth at
15.198 percent (69 wins in 454 starts).
"He felt like he did everything he wanted
to do and it was time to start his next thing that he
wanted to accomplish in life, and that was settle down
and have a family," Gardstrom said. "I think that played
a role, too, in not wanting to travel every single
But the harsh nature of racing and the
primitive state of safety in the era had clearly taken a
toll on the racer's mind. Lorenzen competed long before
baseline concussion testing was any consideration in any
professional sport. Living with the aftermath of the
injuries that impacted her father's later years played a
pivotal role in Gardstrom penning an open letter to Dale
in the fall of 2012, applauding his decision to sit out
two races with post-concussion symptoms during the
intense pressure of a championship fight.
The remembrances of racing provide
comfort now for Lorenzen, offering a safe place from the
"It's sad but it's just age," said Lee
Holman, who said he last visited Lorenzen two years ago.
"The thing is, he could tell us what tire blew on what
lap of what race 40, 50 years ago. He couldn't tell you
to save his life whether he'd had eggs or toast for
breakfast. But he knew everything there was to know
about his racing days, and that's typical of people with
dementia. They live in the past and love the memory."
The hope is that more memories could be
created next winter if Lorenzen is able to attend the
NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony, not long after
his 80th birthday on Dec. 30. Gardstrom remains
noncommittal but optimistic that her father will be in
the front row for the gala in Charlotte, right in
"We're going to see how he's doing and
based on that, we'll make our call from there. But if it
was tomorrow, I'd say we would definitely be there. I
know my brother will be there. I will be there with my
husband. We'll definitely be there to represent our dad
100 percent. Hopefully, depending on how he's doing,
we'd love to have him share and be there to take it all
Perhaps the lack of championships kept
Lorenzen from enshrinement in previous NASCAR Hall of
Fame classes, or maybe the relatively brief career in
the sport's premier series. But last May, Wilson was
among the strongest voices of support for Lorenzen on
Voting Day, as was Jody Deery, the longtime promoter of
Rockford (Ill.) Speedway who emphatically included the
track's hometown hero on her ballot. Enough others
Though everyday remembrances remain
difficult for Lorenzen, everything clicked in one final,
crowning victory for the Elmhurst Express on May 21.
"As far as the good days and bad days ...
he knew. He knew 100 percent of this honor," Gardstrom
said. "That was very important to us, but not only the
Lorenzen family, but it was important to the fans and
all the people who grew up backing my dad, loving him to
know this honor while he's still with us, it's
fantastic. It couldn't have gone better."