Thomas enters Hall of Fame tonight

Feb. 07, 2013 @ 05:51 PM

Olivia’s Herb Thomas will go into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte tonight, commemorating his rightful place as one of the sport’s first superstars.

Thomas raced in the first-ever NASCAR Grand National Series race in Charlotte in 1949, then at the half-road, half-beach Daytona track later that inaugural season.

He won 39 of his 48 NASCAR victories, in 228 races during 10 seasons, and his two Grand National season championships, the early equivalent to today’s Sprint Cup title, in the No. 92 Fabulous Hudson Hornet.

His Hudson Hornet will be on display in the Hall of Fame and it’s what racing historians will always know Herb Thomas for.

Unknown to virtually everyone who saw the movie, let alone little kids two or three generations removed from Thomas’s feats in NASCAR, his Hudson Hornet is animated and given Paul Newman’s voice by Disney in “Cars.”

Before racing the Hudson though, Thomas brought a 1950 Plymouth from Sanford Motor Sales on Wicker St., according to Herb’s son Joel, who will give one of the two speeches on behalf of his father during the induction ceremony at the Charlotte Convention Center. Thomas took the Plymouth to Martinsville and got his first victory on the NASCAR circuit. He had help from family in the victory.

Herb’s brother Cecil was not just part of the Thomas pit crew, as told to Joel since the news of the Hall induction last May.

“I said, the pit crew?” Joel said, “Don’t you mean one of the crew? And (Cecil) said to me, ‘No, I was the only one.’”

Joel asked his uncle how that was possible, then let alone how his dad got the checkered flag that day.

“He said, ‘all I had to do was pour in a little gas when he needed it.’”

Herb Thomas was known as a consistent, even patient, racer. He kept his cars in good condition, within races and for entire seasons. He was known, Joel said, for being in the pack during the early part of races, working methodically toward the front, then being his best at the end.

At the same time, “I know Richard Petty once said daddy was one of the fiercest competitors ever. When the King says something like that, it means everything,” Joel said.

Fellow two-time Grand National champion and Conover native Ned Jarrett, one of the sport’s best-loved radio and TV broadcasters for more than 40 years after his racing career, and a Class of 2011 Hall member, will speak on behalf of Herb Thomas as well tonight. The ceremony begins at 7:30 p.m. and will be televised on SPEED.

Joel only knew his dad after his racing career was over. Suffering a horrible wreck at Shelby in October 1956, a season in which Herb Thomas won five races and still, after the wreck, finished second for the year, Thomas raced only three more NASCAR races; two in ‘57 and one in 1962 at age 39.

After his racing career, he worked as a service station owner, running a sawmill, as a trucker and as a farmer throughout the next four decades in Olivia and Sanford.

“We grew up farming, so for 30 to 40 years, that’s how I knew daddy,” Joel said. “He was a regular, unassuming guy. He was humble. You’d never see he was a fierce competitor.”

Thomas won the 1951 and 1953 Grand National championships, becoming NASCAR’s first two-time champion. He won seven races in 34 starts, for a total season paycheck of $21,025, in ‘51. He won 12 races out of 37 in his ‘53 title, and $28,910.

In 1954, Thomas had 12 victories and was in line for another title before a wreck late in the season. Thomas missed the last three races of the season.

Buck Baker, second in the standings when Thomas crashed and was injured, initially didn’t want to race the last three events, or at least claim the season title as he felt Thomas deserved it, as Joel recounts the story. Sponsors made Baker complete the season and he won the title.

“It tells you something though,” Joel said. “Buck must have been quite a gentleman.”

It’s fitting Thomas, who passed away in 2000, and Baker, who passed away in 2002, will go into the Hall of Fame in the same class.

The Thomas and Baker families met when NASCAR invited special Hall of Fame guests to the Sprint Cup race in Charlotte in October.

“Buck’s son was so nice and he talked so highly of daddy. He said his dad always said (Herb) was the one man you had to beat, work hard to beat, on the track,” said Joel.

There’s never been a Thomas family reunion, Joel said. This weekend in Charlotte will be the first.

“It’s really special,” he said, “and it’s great everyone wants to be there to celebrate together.”