By Jonathan Ingram
Older golfers are content to score better than their age as time marches on, but what’s the standard for older pros in motor racing? Look no further than stock car driver Hershel McGriff, who started his last event at age 90 on a major league short track where the pole speed was 84 mph.
Letting folks know he was still in good shape, before he climbed on board in Tucson, Arizona for one final date with speed in 2018, McGriff played the National Anthem on his trombone. Although some may not have been familiar with his musical talents, he was fast behind the wheel of a stock car for as long as anybody in motor racing could remember.
Gifted with a strong physique, uncanny balance behind the wheel, a winning smile and a way with words, McGriff always inspired, especially after winning the internationally acclaimed Mexican Road Race at age 22. He inspired car owners to hire him, sponsors to back him, and fans to buy tickets. He took part in eight different decades of racing, pursuing the speed sport his way—in good equipment with winning results and no serious injuries.
Like the passing Chinaman in John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row,” race fans could judge the passage of time whenever McGriff took the command to start engines before the green flag waved. At an age when his longtime friend and NASCAR “King” Richard Petty was retiring, McGriff was just getting warmed up when he hit the double-nickel of 55.
In his late-fifties, he raced 200 mph on the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans, won a NASCAR championship in the Winston West Series, and then competed in the first race on the high banks of the Calder Park Thunderdome in Australia.
McGriff continued in prime time at age 65, starting the 1993 season against NASCAR’s best at the two-mile Texas World Speedway, finishing fourth. That was the first of 54 more NASCAR races plus an exhibition race on the ultra-fast Suzuka circuit in Japan before his final start on the three/eighths-mile short track in Tucson. It would be McGriff’s last race in NASCAR’s West Coast series where he had won the championship 40 years earlier.
After signing autographs during pre-race ceremonies and playing the anthem, McGriff climbed into his NASCAR-style Toyota amid the desert heat and belted in, ready to hustle his car while driving among the young bucks. He finished a race where no caution flags flew for the first 93 of 100 laps, competing despite objections from race officials.
“NASCAR didn’t like it, the local officials, that I was in that race,” recalled the 94-year-old McGriff by phone from his home in Tucson. “I talked to them just before and they said, ‘Hey, you can’t get down there and mix it up, because they’re running for points.’ It was a hundred degrees at the track. I played the National Anthem with my trombone and went right down to the car. I just ran around the top. I wanted to get down there (in the lower groove), but I didn’t try to race with them.”
McGriff’s first race came at age 17 in a 1940 Hudson borrowed from his father that he drove on a pot-holed dirt track in Portland near his home in the logging town of Bridal Veil, Oregon. He kept at it for five years all over the Pacific Northwest.
“We were racing cars basically off the street. That’s the only way I could afford to run,” said McGriff. “I worked for my father-in-law’s towing company. Sometimes he had a car that had maybe been tipped, or rolled over without too much damage. I’d borrow it to go racing on weekends.”
In 1950, the Mexican government decided to promote new business with a race across its portion of the recently finished and still rudimentary Pan American Highway. McGriff won the inaugural Carrera Panamericana, or Mexican Road Race, which stretched over nine stages from Juarez to El Ocotal, a little town in Chiapas on the border of Guatemala. He catapulted into racing fame after a wrecking yard owner back home paid his $600 entry fee. He drove a no-frills Oldsmobile Rocket 88 purchased for him at a dealership by a neighbor for $1,800.
“I had to work, we were going to be gone two or three weeks, so I had to buy groceries,” he said. “By time I left, I was broke after paying everything so my family would be OK.”
Across treacherous escarpments and desert terrain in a race that resulted in two driver deaths and two fan deaths despite the constant presence of Federales, the man who had driven logging trucks loaded with 80,000 pounds of lumber on Mt. Hood as a teenager beat a bevy of high-profile racers. The list included a Ford factory team driving Lincolns, the winning team owner from NASCAR’s first Strictly Stock season, and an entry wheeled by legendary bootlegger/racer Curtis Turner.
Impressed by McGriff’s skill behind the wheel of the relatively underpowered Olds, NASCAR founder “Big Bill” France, who owned Turner’s entry, invited him to the first NASCAR superspeedway race run on the high banks of Darlington, S.C., which was run on Labor Day in 1950.
Starting 44th among 82 entries, McGriff finished NASCAR’s first 500-mile race ninth and came back the next year to finish fourth. By 1954, he was beating NASCAR champions like Lee Petty, Tim Flock, Buck Baker, and Herb Thomas while driving a Chevrolet for bootlegger/car owner Frank Christian of Dahlonega, Ga. His fourth victory that season came on the half-mile in North Wilkesboro, scene of Tom Wolfe’s story on Junior Johnson titled, “The Last American Hero.”
McGriff’s greatest season came 18 years later. In 1972, he won 12 Winston West races and 12 poles. That was part of a three-year span in which he won 20 races in NASCAR’s West Coast series—just a warm-up to his later championship at the age of 58. In all, he won 51 NASCAR-sanctioned races in 407 starts. Eleven of those wins and 148 starts came after age 55.
His most notable record came on the daunting weave of asphalt and high-speed corners in the California high desert at the Riverside International Raceway. He started 64 NASCAR races on the famed road circuit in Cup Series events and in support races, winning14 times on a track known for deadly crashes, including the one that claimed Ken Miles, the lead character in the recent docudrama Ford vs. Ferrari.
McGriff might have fared even better had he continued during the superspeedway era of NASCAR that began with the opening of the Daytona International Speedway in 1959. But we’ll never know. His wife found the racing of the early 1950s, mostly on dirt, to be too nerve-wracking.
To get the kind of work needed to raise his family, McGriff gave up on racing in the Southeast despite his four victories in 1954 and moved back to Oregon from Florida. He went into the lumber and mill businesses until re-emerging as a winning driver in the NASCAR Winston West series in the late 1960s following a divorce. “I had a few bucks, which is what it takes, and went from there,” he said.
As it turned out, McGriff briefly returned to race in Florida and twice drove for Petty Enterprises in the crown jewel Daytona 500. He finished second in a100-mile qualifying race in 1973 and finished his subsequent first start in the Daytona 500 in fifth.
There can be no doubt that McGriff is an American racing hero, as well as the oldest driver to compete in a feature stock car race. He is a member of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, which is housed in Daytona and whose inductees comprise the most comprehensive list of American greats from all disciplines of racing.
In the voting for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, he’s still on the ballot in the category known as the Pioneer Era. But, perhaps, there should be a ballot for those who raced and won as an old timer during the modern era, a far better fit for McGriff’s remarkable and long career.
(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram has two current book releases with five-star ratings on Amazon. He and Bill Lester are co-authors of the 2021 release from Pegasus Books titled “Winning In Reverse.” His book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing” is a comprehensive look at American racing safety.)