by Steve Samples
sixty-six was a transitional year in American culture. The Beatles
had begun to experiment with drugs, and the rock and roll anthems
they wrote the previous four years, mostly influenced by Chuck
Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis, were now being replaced by LSD
inspired tunes that some proclaimed were a transition from mere rock
and roll to true musical genius. The United States was now fully
emerged in the quagmire of Vietnam, and high school students
enrolled in college in record numbers to avoid the draft.
inspired the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, and the
end result was somewhat safer American cars. Ford would design an
electric car powered by a sodium-sulfer battery, which was scheduled
for production in two years, and GM developed a Corvair which
operated on the juice of a silver-zinc battery. Both had short
ranges from 40-150 miles, and both designs died as quickly as they
In the world
of sports the New York Yankees dynasty was crumbling. The once proud
Bronx Bombers finished dead last in the ten team American league.
And in football the Green Bay Packers recorded another NFL title,
defeating the Dallas Cowboys 34-27. Basketball had its own dominant
team, the Boston Celtics, and they continued their winning ways
knocking off the LA Lakers in seven games.
records fell as Richard Petty won the NASCAR Grand National title,
in part because of a boycott by Ford Motor Company, and fan favorite
Graham Hill, one of the world's great sports car drivers, won the
Indy 500. The key story in auto racing though may have been the
drivers leaving the sport, and not the one's winning championships.
Since the deaths of Fireball Roberts, Jimmy Pardue, and Joe
Weatherly in 1964, many of NASCAR's superstars were openly
challenging the sanctioning body, and speaking about the need for
reduced speeds. Although NASCAR listened, the general consensus of
the day was that records were meant to be broken, and speeds would
always rise with new developments.
philosophy led to the retirement of superstars Junior Johnson and
and the prior season's series champion, Ned Jarrett. Another
interesting sideline to NASCAR 1966 was a major rules change, which
reduced the wheelbase of competing cars. For the first time in
history mid size vehicles were allowed, and stars
and Richard Petty proudly displayed the initials Jr. beside their
famed number's 28 and 43. Still the circuit's top two drivers, the
dynamics of the Freddie/Petty rivalry had changed. Lorenzen only
competed in eleven events because of the Ford boycott in '66, and
managed only two victories. The paltry two-for-eleven win total was
a far cry from his heyday in '64 when he won half the races he
entered. Some claimed the on-again-off-again racing season had
slowed the "Golden Boy",
while others contended that Fred had been planning retirement from
the day his teammate and good friend Fireball Roberts died.
The truth was
somewhere in between, as Lorenzen wanted to race for years but had
no desire to die in the process.
had proved his mettle time and again with previously unseen bravado
on the race track, but when things slowed down Freddie began to
ponder life without racing. In 1967 he would hang up his helmet. As
1966 came to a close though there was still racing to be done. Once
asked in an interview if he was thinking about getting out of the
game, Fred responded sharply, "I'm still a race driver." It was a
less than theatrical statement, but spoke volumes about the
competitive nature of the sport's greatest driver.
of that year riding a frustrating series of defeats Lorenzen
prepared for the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
had dominated at Martinsville, winning five events in 12 starts
between 1961 and 1966. But 28 Jr. was fighting a bevy of rules
changes that many felt benefited the Petty Plymouth's, and King
Richard was plenty tough at Martinsville himself.
fifteen-year-old youngster I traveled to Martinsville that day with
my friend Rick Dowell. Arriving hours before the race started we
discussed the lack of success of the Ford teams and in particular
the Elmhurst Express's recent failures. The conversation was
melancholy. We analyzed the situation with our teenage wisdom and
reached a conclusion. As much as every kid in the South had idolized
the "Golden Boy" it was time to face reality.
was now 31 years old, and the slump he endured had to be the result
of nature. Football players, basketball players, and baseball
players, peak in their late twenties. Race drivers probably do the
same. Sad as it was to admit we had to face a fact:
may have lost a step. With all our juvenile wisdom we concluded that
this race was a test. If Freddie won it, that may indicate he could
hang on another year or so before checking in an old folk's home. If
he lost the race, then the
we knew was gone. Over the hill. Out to pasture.
As the race
began Rick and I felt pressure. It was as if our idol might be
disappearing in front of our eyes. We were hopeful of a victory, but
resigned to how the history books would remember Lorenzen in his
prime. We reminisced about the fun we had had as "youngsters" back
in '61, 62','63, '64, and '65, watching the most dominant driver in
were introduced reality set in. Today was like seeing an aging Sandy
Koufax deliver his fastball, and wonder if it still would leave
batters mystified, or if the ball would be pounded into the center
field seats. I though about leaving, but didn't. Somehow someway
Fred Lorenzen would win this race. He had to. I couldn't watch my
hero die before my eyes.
green flag fell. There was a mad scramble for the lead and
was nowhere in sight. I looked at Rick at the 100-lap mark and
smiled. "Freddie's playing it smart. Setting 'um up, laying back.
We've seen it a thousand times." Rick smiled but shook his head,
"He's really falling back." "Hey buddy," I replied. "This is
He knows what he's doing." Soon another hundred laps passed.
Lorenzen had now fallen farther behind, barely clinging to the lead
lap. Within a few minutes the lead car would fly by and put him a
lap down. When the pass took place I looked at Rick, but didn't
speak. He looked back and spoke without hesitation. "It's over. He's
over the hill. Just can't do it anymore." The comment made me angry.
I felt as if the Lone Ranger was losing a gunfight. The writing was
on the wall.
point we sat silently, and watched another fifty laps go by.
was now two laps behind. My hero was dying a painful career death in
front of my eyes. But somehow, some way, I had this gut feeling he
would come back. Perhaps the feeling was denial, or perhaps just an
optimistic moment that only kids feel. It was like being at Custer's
last stand, but hoping the good guys could come back.
the tables turned. The 28 Ford seemed to pick up horsepower, as if
there was divine intervention. A well-timed caution flag helped Fred
pick up a lap, then a series of pit stop blunders by his competitors
suddenly gave him an opportunity to pick up a second lap. Now easily
the fastest car on the track, having been no better than fifteenth
when the race began, Freddie had a chance to win. I looked at Rick
and he looked at me. We both smiled. The Lone Ranger had now gone to
re runs, but Fearless
Freddie was still in
prime time, alive and well, and driving the racetrack like he did as
a young man just a few years earlier.
In the final
hundred laps, number 28 rocketed by the leader and went on to win
the Old Dominion 500. To this day I wonder if some greater power
decided he just didn't want to watch two kids see their idol
disappear. In any case
Fred Lorenzen was
still pretty Fearless. On our way home I looked at Rick and said, "Fearless
Freddie-- still the
best and 31 years old. You know some guys just don't deteriorate
with age." He just smiled.