Friday, April 6, 2018

"NASCAR Pioneer" Herb Thomas Born - April 6, 1923

April 6, 1923 – August 9, 2000
Herb Thomas
Born in Olivia, North Carolina, USA.
A NASCAR pioneer who was one of the series' most successful drivers in the 1950s. Thomas originally worked as a farmer and also worked in a sawmill in the 1940s before his interest turned to auto racing.

In 1949, Thomas took part in NASCAR's first Strictly Stock race, and made four starts in the series' first year. The following year, he made thirteen appearances in the series, now renamed the Grand National division. He scored his first career win at Martinsville Speedway in a privateer Plymouth.

He started the 1951 season with moderate success in his Plymouth before switching to a Hudson Hornet, at the suggestion of fellow driver Marshall Teague. Thomas won the Southern 500 rather handily in what was famously dubbed "The Fabulous Hudson Hornet", which would be the first of six wins in a two month span. His late charge helped him narrowly defeat Fonty Flock to win the Grand National championship. With help from crew chief Smokey Yunick, Thomas subsequently became the first owner/driver to take the championship in the process.

In 1952, Thomas and his Hornet were involved in a close championship race with another Flock, Fonty's younger brother Tim. The two drivers won 8 races in their respective Hudsons, but Flock came out on top at the end, in spite of another late season charge from Thomas.

He returned with a vengeance in 1953 and dominated the entire season, winning a series best twelve races en route to becoming the first two-time series champion. Thomas won twelve races again in 1954, including a second Southern 500 win, making him the first driver to win twice at Darlington, but he was beaten by a more consistent Lee Petty in the championship standings.

After four successful years in a Hudson, Thomas began driving Chevrolets and Buicks in races in 1955. He crashed heavily behind the wheel of a Buick at a race in Charlotte, forcing him to miss three months of the season. He returned to score his third Southern 500 win in his Motoramic Chevy, one of three wins during the season. He finished 5th in the championship on the strength of his win at Darlington.

In 1956, Thomas briefly abandoned being an owner/driver and, after winning a race for himself early in the season, he drove for two other owners. He won once for Yunick, after which the two broke ties, and three consecutive races while driving Chryslers for Carl Kiekhaefer, then dominating NASCAR with the first professional team. Thomas eventually returned to being an owner/driver at season's end, and had clinched second behind Petty in the championship when he was severely injured at a race in Shelby, North Carolina. The wreck effectively ended his NASCAR career, though he had two starts in 1957 and one in 1962 without success. The three consecutive wins would end up being his final three wins.

Thomas ended his career with 48 victories, which currently ranks 12th all-time. He won 21.05% of his starts during his career, which ranks as the highest win percentage all-time among drivers with 100 career starts.

Herb's younger brother Donald made 79 starts in the Grand National division between 1950 and 1956, winning at Atlanta's Lakewood Speedway in 1952. Donald at 20-years-old was the youngest driver to ever win a race in series history, until Kyle Busch broke the record in 2005 at the age of 19.

Herb Thomas was the inspiration for the character "Doc Hudson" in the movie Cars.

On August 9, 2000, Herb Thomas suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 77 in Sanford, North Carolina.

Thomas was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1994, named one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998 and was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on February 8, 2013.

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