When it comes to NASCAR success, think Ford first
June 13, 2003
BY MIKE BRUDENELL
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- David Pearson won't be in town this weekend, although he wouldn't mind. Pearson has a prior engagement, which will keep him home in Spartanburg, S.C.
But Ned Jarrett will come to Detroit for the 100th anniversary celebration of Ford Motor Co. So will Junior Johnson, who will leave his cattle farm in North Carolina to spend the weekend shaking hands and signing autographs.
Together, Pearson, Jarrett and Johnson won 98 NASCAR Grand National and Winston Cup races for Ford. They helped the company become a major player in stock car racing, vaulting Ford into the lead over Chevrolet, Chrysler/Dodge and Pontiac after some lean years.
In turn, Ford made them feel at home. The trio has long stopped racing, with Pearson the last to retire in 1986, but they remain fiercely competitive and thankful for their time at the wheel with Ford.
So much so, Jarrett and Johnson were happy to spend some time in Detroit with a platoon of other Ford drivers.
"It was a great environment at Ford," Jarrett recalled. "They were a family, and I was proud to be with them."
Jarrett, whose son Dale has carried on his father's winning ways, won NASCAR championships in 1961 and '65. Less known, perhaps, is that he leads all Ford drivers in victories with 43.
"I didn't even realize I was on top until last year," said Jarrett, 70. "I was pleasantly surprised and proud."
In 1965, Jarrett dominated the Grand National circuit, winning 13 races and finishing in the top three in 36. Grand National later became the Winston Cup series, the top NASCAR competition.
"It was a very, very good year for us," said Jarrett, who called it quits in 1966. "Of course, we ran a lot more races back then."
On the way to winning the championship, Jarrett captured what might have been his finest victory, in the Southern 500 at Darlington, S.C. He won by 14 laps, the biggest margin in Grand National/Winston Cup history.
"Everybody -- and I mean everybody -- had trouble with overheating," Jarrett said. "I did, too, but not as bad as the rest. It was a hot Labor Day in South Carolina, and the track was throwing up rubber into the grille."
Though he will help Ford celebrate its anniversary, Jarrett will miss Sunday's Sirius 400 at Michigan International Speedway. He has a commitment to his church and will fly home Saturday night to Hickory, N.C.
In the early '60s, Jarrett faced no tougher driver than Pearson, nicknamed "the Silver Fox." Pearson won 29 races with Ford, tied for fourth with Dale Jarrett all-time. He also drove for other car makers and ranks second in NASCAR career victories with 105.
Pearson, who drove for the Wood Brothers in 1972-79, has preferred to stay out of the limelight since his retirement.
"I didn't drive for the money or the publicity," said Pearson, 68. "I wouldn't know how to spend the money drivers make today. I'd drive a race car for nothing."
Pearson said Ford had offered him a chance to do what he loved. He hasn't forgotten his time with the company.
"I did good with Ford, and I thank them," said Pearson, who won championships in 1966, '68 and '69. "The competition was tough back then -- Bobby (Allison), Donnie (Allison) and Darrell (Waltrip). They were all great."
In his day, Pearson said, drivers forgot about incidents during a race.
"We were always friends," he said. "I got along good with everyone I knew."
But it was different when Pearson got the green.
"If I couldn't win, I didn't care who did," Pearson said. "But seriously, if a guy was better than me on the day, I never tried to stop him from winning."
Pearson's only regret about driving was retiring.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever done," he said. "All I'd ever known was racing, even at high school. But my back was bad, and I just had to stop."
If any driver got the most out of a car, it was Junior Johnson, who won the second Daytona 500 in 1960 and 26 races for Ford.
Johnson, 72, did it his way, which was to drive the tires off the car and take no prisoners. He has no regrets.
"There were a lot of brave drivers out there," said Johnson, who retired in 1966. "We were pioneers when it came to speed. Our cars were big and powerful with none of the modern aerodynamic packages. We'd run over 220 m.p.h. on the backstretch at Daytona."
Johnson, who went on to become a successful car owner, doesn't get to many races these days. He's busy on his farm, breeding and caring for his herd of 700.
"When I do go, I like to watch Winston Cup at Bristol and Charlotte," Johnson said. "We always did good at Bristol."
After retiring as a driver, Johnson settled in easily as a team owner. His drivers won countless races and six Winston Cup championships. His secret?
"I enjoyed giving a guy a car and telling him to bring home the steering wheel," Johnson said. "I liked watching someone drive hard."
Dale Jarrett, 46, will drive the No. 88 UPS Ford in Sunday's Sirius 400. He's proud of what his father achieved as a driver. Ned Jarrett later became a TV analyst.
"He had a lot of patience," Dale Jarrett said. "He was a thinking man's driver. But he was also a tiger on the track."
Going into Sunday's race, Ford has the Winston Cup series leader in Matt Kenseth, and fellow Roush Racing driver Kurt Busch ranks fifth. That pleases Ford Racing boss Dan Davis.
"I think Henry Ford would be proud as heck of the Ford record in NASCAR," Davis said. "It's a story you couldn't have dreamed up."
As it stands, Ford has won 541 Grand National/Winston Cup races since 1949. Chevrolet is second with 514.
Davis thinks racing has become a rallying point for customers.
"Over 50 percent of Ford owners have declared themselves as race fans," Davis said. "Racing is in their blood."
Top 10 winning Ford drivers in NASCAR Grand National/ Winston Cup
RK DRIVER WINS
1. Ned Jarrett 43
2. Bill Elliott 40
3. Mark Martin 33
4. David Pearson 29
(tied) Dale Jarrett 29
6. Fred Lorenzen 26
(tied) Junior Johnson 26
8. Rusty Wallace 23
9. Davey Allison 19
10. Fireball Roberts 18
LEADER OF THE PACK
Leading manufacturers' victories in NASCAR Grand National/Winston Cup
RK MANUFACTURER WINS
1. Ford 541
2. Chevrolet 514
3. Plymouth 190
4. Dodge 173
5. Pontiac 154
6. Oldsmobile 116
7. Mercury 96
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....