FLORENCE, S.C. – Even for a race-car driver like Hershel McGriff, his journey to the first Southern 500 was a long and winding road.
It was really long – and even more winding.
No hauler for the car. No plane for the racer.
At least there was the car radio – but only on AM, because FM car radios didn’t arrive until 1952.
However, this was 1950 – a good 70 Southern 500s ago.
So McGriff simply grabbed a map, left his Oregon home and drove with his race-car owner more than 2,909 miles to Darlington Raceway.
Once he got there, he finished ninth while fellow West Coast racer Johnny Mantz took the checkered flag.
“I was only 22 and had a lot of ambition,” McGriff said earlier this year on the phone from his Arizona home. “I think most of the other guys were older than me at the time. And I’m 91 now, so if there were any others alive, they’d be pretty old.”
It just so happens, McGriff is indeed the highest finisher from that first Southern 500 who is still alive.
Before we learn more about the first Southern 500, let’s learn some more about McGriff, who is in several auto sport halls of fame. He also won four Grand National races in 1954 (San Mateo, California; Macon, Georgia; Charlotte, North Carolina; and North Wilkesboro, North Carolina). That campaign included 13 top-five finishes and 17 placements in the top 10. He finished sixth in the points standings. Lee Petty won the season championship.
McGriff’s final Cup race was in 1993 at Sonoma (he finished last), and his final attempt to qualify for one was unsuccessfully making the cut in ’94 at the Brickyard 400.
In 1998, McGriff was named one of NASCAR's 50 greatest drivers, and since 2016 has been on the ballot for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
From 2009-12, he made history as the oldest driver to compete in a NASCAR-sanctioned event, running in eight K&N West Series races. Yet nothing slowed McGriff as in May 2018 he continued his role as the oldest to compete in a NASCAR-sanctioned event at age 90 by driving in a K&N Pro Series West event at Tucson Speedway. He placed 18th and last in the Port of Tucson Twin 100.
Before the green flag waved, McGriff even played the national anthem on his trombone.
Now, back to Darlington and that first Southern 500. What was it like?
“That’s a broad question,” he said.
First of all, there was Darlington’s size at the time.
“It was humongous to us,” McGriff said. “I had been racing for five years, so I was no novice by any means, because I started in Portland (Oregon) when I was 17, racing the half-mile asphalt there, and the rest of them were all dirt tracks. But nothing that big.”
And then there were the sounds of the cars zooming around the corners.
“Probably, one of the biggest memories I have about it, in them days, the tires squealed,” McGriff said. “I don’t know how old you are, but when you go back to the tires we had in our day, when you went around the corner, I never heard so many tires squeal in all my life.”
Once McGriff arrived in the Pee Dee, he said he utilized some guys from a Florence service station to work on his pit crew for this Southern 500.
Earlier than that, the genesis formed of McGriff racing in the first race at Darlington, co-sanctioned by NASCAR and the Central States Racing Association.
“Earlier that year with the same car I ran in the Pan-American Road Race, in Mexico,” McGriff said. “And that’s when I met Bill France Sr. along with Curtis Turner, Johnny Mantz and some of the Flock brothers. There were eight or nine of the NASCAR drivers over there at that race. That’s what got me to Darlington. (France) invited me back to run that first race. Otherwise, I would have known nothing about it, because I lived in Portland. There, we didn’t hear no news of Darlington or Florence.”
Once McGriff arrived in the Pee Dee, searching for a place to stay became a challenge.
“There weren’t any facilities around there to stay,” he said. “I remember I slept on the courthouse yard a couple of nights because we were there for 10 days. They qualified on and on and on. They qualified for a week, with cars and stuff like that.
“Other than that, I don’t know what else to tell you. It was a long race, for sure.”
The first Southern 500 started with 75 cars and lasted 6 hours, 38 minutes and 40 seconds – with four lead changes during that time.
And twenty-nine cars were left running.
As a tribute to McGriff’s first race, a friend of his owns a car modeled after the one McGriff drove in that 1950 Southern 500.
“It’s got all the lettering, the seats, the belt,” McGriff said. “Everything is perfect. The original car is wrecked and gone. Right now, that other car sits in Portland. Sometime, I think that can make for a great display down there honoring the original cars that ran.”
In 1951, McGriff did even better by finishing fourth after starting fifth. But right after the race, they told McGriff he placed third.
“I finished third, and they paid me $1,500, and then I went home,” McGriff said. “They called me after I got home and said, ‘No, you didn’t finish third. You finished fourth.' And I said, ‘Well, what can I say?’ They must have done a recount, done something. Anyway, the fourth place paid $1,210.
“But I kept the difference, I didn’t send it back, and nobody said anything,” he said with a laugh.
And for that race, McGriff drove his car from Detroit to Darlington and back. And then, after the race, he drove to Portland – by himself.
McGriff’s final Southern 500 was in 1954 when he qualified third. A blown engine, however, dropped him to a 45th-place finish out of 50 cars.
McGriff did try to race one more Southern 500 in 1988. But he did not arrive in time.
“My crew chief missed the airplane, and we never had any practice time and I missed the show,” McGriff said. “And I haven’t been back there since. We had run up at Watkins Glen that August. But my crew chief and two or three guys never made it to the start in Darlington, and the race had already started when I got there. So I had very little practice on my own, and so I didn’t make the show.
“They told me later if I had told them I was coming, they would have reserved me a spot, because I was a West Coast guy. Once I had gotten used to the track and got my car set up, I think I would have been OK.”
Two years before that, McGriff was more than OK on the 1986 NASCAR West Series. He won its points championship.
Although McGriff did not win a points championship at NASCAR’s top level, other things meant more to him, such as family.
He has five children, six grandchildren, eight great grandchildren and six great-great grandchildren.
“In ’73, I’d race at Daytona and Talladega – I placed fifth at Daytona – and then I’d go home. I wouldn’t race anymore until the next year. Then I’d come back and race one or two races. I mainly stayed on the West Coast. I was raising a family. My family was more important to me than racing.”
McGriff also hops on his motorcycle to participate in Kyle Petty’s Charity Ride Across America when he can. He started in 2016 and has participated in it each year since.
“You see, I knew Kyle’s dad, (seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty), and I used to race against Richard’s dad (Lee). In ’54, I was back there for six months and ran the regular circuit all the time, and that’s when I did run Darlington that year. Richard and his brother Maurice were learning the pit crew for Lee then. Richard was like 10 years younger than me.”
"The last six races of the '54 season, Lee and I finished first and second, splitting the wins, he added.
Little did McGriff know the star Richard Petty would be one day.
“I think (Lee Petty) thought I’d be better than Richard ever would be,” McGriff said. “I told Richard that one day. His dad really liked me. Although me and Lee raced against each other, we were good friends. Of course, Lee was quite a bit older than me at the time. I was 26 and he was probably 46 or something like that. Lee was fun to race against on dirt. He was a good dirt-tracker.
“But so was I.”
McGriff also has a Bill France Sr. story to tell from 1954.
“I flew with him in a single-engine airplane, and he would drop me off at these race tracks,” McGriff said. “I’d do public-relations work for him, and he’d give me a salary every month. I remember flying over where Daytona International Speedway would be, and he made a circle and said, ‘This is where the raceway is going to be.’ It was just he and I in that airplane. He’s got the blueprints all spread open in there and everything that he’s studying, having me fly the plane, and I was just trying to keep the airplane going straight.”
Five years later, Daytona International Speedway would open and host its first Daytona 500.
“I have a lot of NASCAR history nobody else really knows about,” McGriff added.
And that brings us to today, where McGriff still hopes to make it into the NASCAR Hall after not being included in the inductees for the 2020 class.
“I feel I deserve it, because I know I was one of the originators with NASCAR. I helped get it going,” McGriff said. “I was there, but I wasn’t a Southern boy. I was a Portlander. I’ve met a lot of nice people. I’m in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, the Arizona Hall of Fame, Oregon Hall of Fame and in the NASCAR West Coast Hall of Fame and a few more."
Count current NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace as one who supports McGriff getting in.
"Absolutely he does," Wallace said. "It’s just a matter of time before he gets in. There’s so many great stories and stars out there that everybody can’t get in. But when you look at everybody and what they’ve done for the sport and how many wins they’ve had, and stuff like that, Hershel will definitely one day get into the Hall of Fame, in my opinion."
McGriff hopes sooner than later.
“Hopefully, I’ll make the NASCAR Hall of Fame before I croak," he said with a laugh.