Fast Freddie’s in the Hall – From the Mar/Apr 2015 issue of Vintage Motorsport
When you talk about NASCAR’s Grand National series in the 1960s, one driver’s name jumps to the forefront—Fred Lorenzen. Since named as one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers, he was the antithesis of stock car racing’s “good ol’ boy”—young, handsome and articulate, even the southern drawl was absent. It was obvious that he wasn’t from around here, as a regular at one of NASCAR’s southern-based tracks might mutter.
No sir, Lorenzen hailed from Elmhurst, Illinois, not a place that would come to mind when the subject of stock car racing came up in conversation back when Eisenhower was in the White House.
At the age of 10 Lorenzen discovered that he liked engines, and in the summer would sometimes pitch a tent in the backyard and listen to the southern stock car races on the radio. One time as the announcer talked during the Southern 500 broadcast, he heard the name Fireball Roberts and decided that someday he’d go down there and meet that guy and go to the racetrack.
As a teenager he attended the stock car races at Soldier Field in Chicago where Andy Granatelli (yes, that Andy) was the promoter and announced that the first six people over to the wall wearing white gym shoes could drive the Powder Puff cars and Lorenzen was one of them. It was the first time he drove on a racetrack and in winning the race in a ’36 Plymouth, he got the bug.
By 1956 he’d bought a ’55 Chevy and hung ’56 sheetmetal on it and made a short track/quarter mile race car with racer Tom Pistone helping. At the very same Soldier Field where he started, he won the track championship with the Chevy and the following year in ’57 did the same at a track called O’Hare Field, near the airport of the same name.
Feeling cocky, Fred took the Chevy (now sporting ’57 body panels) to the mile track at Langhorne, Pennsylvania where he got his doors blown off by the Kiekhaefer Chryslers—“no man’s land” at Langhorne a real ego crusher, the track he called “the meanest mile in the world.”
From there he headed south to NASCAR country where again, things did not come easy, so he headed home nearly broke and returned to USAC racing. “I thought, boy, I better go back home and learn before I get mixed up with those big [NASCAR] guys.”
At a 1957 race in Milwaukee he watched a driver named Ralph Moody in a red Ford show up and destroy the competition. So the following year when a friend who owned a Ford dealership sold him a heavily discounted one, he called Moody and paid $1,000 for one of his engines.
Lorenzen went on to win the USAC stock car crowns in 1958 and ’59, which caught Moody’s eye, and by the end of 1960 Moody gave Fred his big break by hiring him to be a Holman & Moody team driver, beginning in 1961.
Where the likable Lorenzen differed from the typical NASCAR driver was the fact that he demanded that his crew be sharp and clean with white uniforms and he never partied, went to bed early before a race and arrived at the track when the gates opened. As the 1950s morphed into the Swinging ’60s and with Ford’s backing, and Herb Nab and Wayne Mills as chief mechanics, Lorenzen’s white No. 28 Holman-Moody Ford was always a threat to win and did so 26 times in the Grand National Series.
The pride of Elmhurst, Illinois really helped bring professionalism into the game, creating the mold for the modern NASCAR driver, one of the sport’s first true superstars even though he was a “part-time” driver, never running more than 29 of the season’s 50-plus races.
This year he joined Bill Elliott, Wendell Scott, Rex White and Joe Weatherly in the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2015, and it was about damn time.