Thomas enshrined into NASCAR Hall

Feb. 09, 2013 @ 09:09 PM

As present-day stars and iconic hall of famers were on hand, Olivia native Herb Thomas was enshrined into the NASCAR Hall of Fame with Class of 2013 mates Rusty Wallace, Leonard Wood, Cotton Owens and Buck Baker Friday night.

Wood, Owens, Baker and Thomas, who was NASCAR’s first two-time top-series champion, having won the 1951 and ‘53 Grand National championships in the founding years of NASCAR, began their NASCAR careers in either 1949, NASCAR’s first season, or 1950.

Thomas finished first or second in the season standings five times in six years between 1951-56. He won 48 times out of 228 career races for what still stands as the best winning percentage, 21.05 percent, in NASCAR history.

“As the driver with the highest winning percentage in our sport’s history, he receives my utmost admiration for what he accomplished in such a short time,” said current superstar Carl Edwards while introducing a video presentation leading off the formal induction of Thomas.

Jeff Gordon similarly introduced Baker and reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, today’s driver of the blue No. 2 Ford, introduced Wallace.

As Owens passed away this past June, Baker passed away in 2002 and Thomas passed away in Sanford at age 77 in 2000, much of the ceremony in front of family, friends and NASCAR dignitaries inside the Charlotte Convention Center’s ballroom was about family sharing memories, speaking proudly, and often emotionally, about their father, grandfather or husband.

Fellow North Carolinian, fellow two-time Grand National champion and after Friday night, fellow NASCAR hall of famer Ned Jarrett presented the Hall of Fame ring to Joel Thomas, one of Herb’s three sons.

“I truly believe this is the greatest honor a driver could receive,” Joel said in the acceptance speech. “Dad would have been honored and humbled to have received this honor.”

Humble, yet a driver known and respected for his competitiveness, was how many described Herb Thomas.

“It’s win or bust,” Thomas said once, “second place is never good enough.”

In the video, played in the ballroom and on the live broadcast, Class of 2011 inductee Bud Moore said, “all (Thomas) wanted was the money, and the trophy,” and the story of Thomas’ third Southern 500 victory was recounted.

In 1955 at Darlington driving a Chevy in NASCAR’s most prestigious race of its early era, Thomas and owner/builder/crew chief Smokey Yunick knew they didn’t have the fastest technology of the day. They devised a radical strategy which worked to perfection. Without a tire change for the 500 miles, Thomas stayed ahead of the pack and won.

‘There have been very few guys who had more confidence in what he could do than Herb,” said Richard Petty. “He was so strong-minded that he willed his wins and what he was doing on the track.”

Thomas became one of NASCAR’s first superstars and won both of his championships in the No. 92 Fabulous Hudson Hornet, in which he earned 39 of his 48 victories. He was owner and driver for his 1951 title, one of six owner/driver season champs in Grand National/Winston Cup/Sprint Cup history.

Thomas won 12 races in 1953 and 12 again in ‘54 while finishing second to Lee Petty.

Baker, who won 46 top-series races in 28 seasons and won the 1956 and ‘57 titles becoming NASCAR’s first back-to-back champion, competed side-by-side against Thomas.

“The one guy you have to beat is Herb Thomas,” Baker often said.

A horrible wreck and terrible injuries suffered at Shelby in October 1956 halted a fine chance at a third season title and cut short his career. Thomas raced two NASCAR events in 1957 and one in 1962 before fully retiring.

“I used to pass everyone in the turns,” Thomas said. “Now they pass me in the turns. It’s time to hang it up.”

“There’s no use running if you can’t be first,” he said.

Herb Thomas returned to working in the family sawmill, owning a service station in Sanford and tobacco farming; as well as being a father.

“Daddy came from farming,” said his son Victor. “He never was associated with the moonshine bunch.”

“He was always kind and fair to everyone, and wasn’t afraid of hard work,” Joel said during the acceptance speech. “He operated his own sawmill and almost 50 years later was excited to teach me how to run it. When dad finally retired from racing in 1962, he worked on the farm with his family for many years. Those were wonderful years.”

“He always respected others and wasn’t a talker but if he said something, it would be the truth,” Victor said. “He never thought of himself as being a NASCAR champion. He was just a regular guy; a humble man.”

“Thank you to all his fans for cheering him on and for keeping his memory alive,” said Joel.

The Hall of Fame exhibits for each of the five men opened to the public Saturday and granite markers for the new class will be unveiled this morning.