Ryan McGee, ESPN.com
HERSCHEL TRUMPS WATSON BY 22 YEARS
So Tom Watson nearly won the British Open. Whatever.
If Watson, who is 59, turned back the hands of time, then on that very same day Hershel McGriff broke them off the clock. You see, as Tom was walking off the final green at Turnberry, Hershel was rolling onto the grid for the NASCAR West Series (think Class AA baseball) event at the Portland International Raceway.
McGriff started 26th, dead last, or as we call it in racing “shotgun to the field”. He sliced and diced his Chevy around the two-mile road course, eventually working his way to a 13th place finish. On paper, that may not sound so impressive.
But you might want to cut Hershel some slack. After all, he’s 81. That’s older than Moses. As in Moses Smith, the guy who finished 12th. “I really didn’t have much to lose,” McGriff said after his first start in seven years, “I didn’t want to go out there and flop around.”
“He didn’t,” race winner Jim Inglebright insists. “There’s a difference between slow cars and cars that are in the way. I was behind Hershel in practice and couldn’t get around him. He’s still fast.”
The original intent was to invite McGriff up to be grand marshal of the Bi-Mart Salute to the Troops 125. He had other plans. “When I retired I said that I might come back after I turned 80 and see how these kids are. So I went to (wife) Sherrie and said, what do you think?”
They consulted with his five children, six grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren and, though he jokes that he spent their inheritance getting a car ready for the race, they were on board.
Besides, there was something that seemed right about returning to Portland. He grew up there, lived there most of his life, and at the age of 17 drove his first race laps at the gritty old Portland Speedway, just a piece down the road from PIR. It’s a half-mile fairgrounds bullring that’s famous these days for a manhole cover that sits in the middle of the groove coming off turn four. However, when McGriff made his Portland debut there was no manhole because there was no pavement. It was still dirt.
“Yeah,” he recently said with a laugh from his home in Arizona. “I think there’s probably an ‘older than dirt’ joke in there for you somewhere.”
That was in 1945, the final year of World War II. A continent away, down in Daytona Beach, a mechanic named Bill France was shopping around the idea of creating a sanctioning body that would bring some sort of law and order to the confusing and corrupt world of stock car racing. Three years later, NASCAR was born.
Between 1950 and 1993 McGriff made 85 starts in what is now the Sprint Cup Series. In 1954, the only year he came close to making a full-time job, he won four races, five poles, and earned 17 top tens in 24 tries. At the end of that season he was offered a full-time job by outboard motor magnate Carl Kiekhaefer, who had decided to get into racing as a team owner. But McGriff had a family to raise and a saw mill to run back in Bridal Veil Falls, OR and turned the gig down. Over the next two seasons Kiekhaefer won 52 races and back-to-back NASCAR championships.
“Yeah, that could have been me I guess,” he says with a chuckle. “But I’d say everything worked out pretty good out west.”
No joke. He’s won so many races he’s lost count, including a record 14 at the Riverside International Raceway (“No one will ever break that record. They tore down the track.”) and a West Series victory in 1989 that came a NASCAR-record age of 61. And in 1998 he was named as one of NASCAR’s top 50 all-time drivers.
And he owes it all to a chance meeting on the side of a really bad road.
“In 1950 I won the Pan-American Road Race down in Mexico. It was a wild race. We ran from the southern border of Texas down south the entire length of Mexico until we reached Guatemala. Anyway, I won the thing and this Bill France, always the promoter, comes up and says, ‘Hey, we’ve started this league down south and we’ve got a big race coming up at a new track in Darlington, South Carolina. You should come down.’”
He did, driving his City of Roses-sponsored ’50 Oldsmobile the 2,800-mile distance from Bridal Veil Falls to Darlington for the inaugural Southern 500, NASCAR’s first race on an asphalt speedway and the league’s 21st race ever. The car he drove down was also his racecar.
“No one had ever seen anything like Darlington. We had no idea what we were doing. There were 75 cars in the race and we started three-wide like they do in the Indy 500. I started 44th, so I was right in the middle of it. Everyone went hauling into turn one and there was smoke and the tires were squealing so loud you could hear them over the engines. Teams popped so many tires in that race that they started stealing them off of cars in the parking lot.”
For nearly seven hours the race roared on and cars fell out. McGriff ran alongside the now-legendary likes of Lee Petty, Fireball Roberts, Tim Flock, and Red Byron. Slowly he worked his way through the deteriorating field and when the checkered flag fell he finished ninth, 26 laps behind winner and fellow west coaster Johnny “Mad Man” Mantz.
“There are only a few of us left that ran in that race,” he says. “We’re all old men now, but I guarantee you whoever is still around is just like me. They’ll never completely lose the itch to race.”
That inaugural Southern 500 at Darlington was held on Monday, September 4, 1950.
Meanwhile, a thousand miles to the west in Kansas City a little baby boy was celebrating his very first birthday. His name? Tom Watson.
NASCAR'S RETURN TO MOONSHINE ROOTS
As I turn off the paved road, following directions e-mailed to me under the subject line SHHHH!, two men in overalls step in front of my truck. "Hey, bud," one says, "you can't go any further until you give the pass code." In 15 years of chasing racers to questionable locales, this is the first time I've needed a secret phrase.
I stammer through "I see the moon, the moon sees me" and am waved into a small valley tucked into the Blue Ridge foothills near North Wilkesboro, N.C. A half mile into the woods, a secret meeting is underway. Four dozen folks sit on hay bales near a bubbling creek as they listen to lie-laced stories of illegal acts and hot pursuits. There's also talk of NASCAR. And why not? These guys did birth it, after all.
This, on the night before the unveiling of the NASCAR Hall of Fame's first class, is likely the final roundup for those whose midnight chases led to the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The event is the Moonshiners and Revenuers Reunion, organized by a couple of locals: Terri Parsons, widow of 1973 Cup champ Benny Parsons, and Junior Johnson, the by-god Last American Hero.
Throughout the middle stanza of the 20th century, moonshiners brewed liquor on the down-low, then delivered it after dark in a Road Runner vs. Wile E. Coyote showdown with federal agents. The hooch was unregulated and potentially dangerous, but what most concerned the government was that the "white lightning" was not taxed. It was with all that unwashed profit that the whiskey runners built the fastest cars this side of Indy.
"Bill France had the idea for NASCAR down there in Florida," Johnson says in his slow drawl. "But up here we had the money and the fastest cars. He came north and wouldn't leave until he had both. Go to a race now, and what is it still all about? Money and the fastest cars."
To the left of the aisle, seven bootleggers teeter in white rocking chairs and denim overalls. To the right sit five retired revenuers. Sprinkled among the crowd, lit by the glowing coals of a still, are such team owners as Robert Yates and Jack Roush and a legion of legendary crew chiefs. It's hard to imagine meth dealers and vice cops rehashing old times 40 years from now. Then again, they won't be watching their legacy each week on ESPN, either. The former rivals rode together to this gathering in a long procession of 1940s sedans, most painted black as night, all featuring the roar of Ford Flatheads or Offenhausers, the same engines that once powered roadsters through the Indy 500. Johnson led the parade, steering a car nearly identical to the one he used to haul his first load of 'shine, when he was 14, hammering his way through the bends of old Highway 421, just down the road from our secret locale. He ran his first NASCAR event at 17, driving barefoot on a track that still sits along that road. The now-abandoned North Wilkesboro Speedway was a half-mile dirt oval built exclusively for moonshiners – and the occasional revenuer – who wanted to put their rides to the test.
On this night, Johnson has made peace with his onetime pursuers, even those who've spent their whole lives crowing, "I'm the man who caught Junior Johnson." Junior is quick to say, though, that no man ever caught him on the road, only on foot after staking out his daddy's stills. "If we'd tried to have this meeting 40 years ago, we'd've had a pretty nice fight," Johnson says with a smile, pointing to his fellow senior citizens who are proudly wearing ATF hats and jackets. "It wouldn't be much of a fight tonight. We'd stand up, and our backs would give out."
The next morning, Johnson and Parsons are among the 25 nominees named for the Hall of Fame's inaugural class, nearly half of which has had direct ties to liquor running, though a few denied it to the grave. Curtis Turner burned up the southern Virginia hills, while Tim Flock's family ran 'shine up legendary Thunder Road from Georgia into Tennessee and Kentucky. They shared the stretch with cars built by Raymond Parks, who went on to build the cars Red Byron drove to take NASCAR's first Strictly Stock title, in 1949. The winner of that season's first race, Glenn Dunnaway from Gastonia, N.C., had his victory revoked for using "moonshine springs."
The gleaming, $190 million Hall, which opens in Charlotte in May 2010, will educate NASCAR Nation about the sport's founding fathers, no matter what their background. But not so long ago, league management took great pains to rewrite history, erasing the word "moonshine" from sanctioned television scripts and books and asking broadcast partners and tracks to avoid using bluegrass or country music to promote events. Now, to its credit, NASCAR is finally embracing what it was and, deep down, still is.
"I started going to tracks with my daddy," says Richard Petty, who will join Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, France and son/heir Bill France Jr. in the Hall's first class come May. "Just about everybody would run the race, then go home and race the feds as their day job – though I guess you'd call that a night job, wouldn't you?"
As for the corn mashing, they still make it. Three days before the reunion, agents confiscated 929 gallons from a home in North Wilkesboro. And the youngest reunion participant, 57-year-old Dean Combs, a former Cup racer who once served as a crew chief under Johnson, was caught in February with a still and 200 gallons of the good stuff. State agents blew it up with so much dynamite that windows cracked at the nearby North Wilkesboro Speedway. "I told them I made apple brandy to fight my allergies," Combs says to raucous hoots. "Last year I didn't have a bit of trouble. This year I've been sneezing my butt off."
The Sprint Cup garage still has moonshine in its blood. Pit Road is packed with mechanics who learned their trade from Johnson. Richard Childress, who as a teenager delivered illegal liquor to saloons on the black side of segregated Winston-Salem, took up the No. 3 because it once belonged to Johnson, his childhood hero. "Watch NASCAR's tech inspection line at the racetrack," says retired revenuer Bob Powell. "It always reminds me of tearing down a suspected moonshiner's car."
A week after the reunion, I'll see Johnson strolling the Sprint Cup garage at Lowe's Motor Speedway. So many crew members stop him that he barely gets to the stage to perform his grand marshal duties. They don't want his autograph. They want tips – engineers and aerodynamicists asking a fifth-grade dropout and ex-con (Ronald Reagan pardoned him in 1986) to help them find horsepower.
"NASCAR is more complicated now," Johnson says as he waves to the Charlotte fans. "Too damn complicated. But no matter how much technology and money they throw at cars, I have yet to find an engine I couldn't make go a little faster. It ain't any different than getting my daddy's car ready to make a liquor run."
CASTRONEVES TRIAL SCARED FELLOW DRIVERS
"God bless him, but he's clueless."
Those words echoed through my head as I sat in Miami's U.S. Federal Courtroom 13-4 on March 18. Not 10 yards away was the man who'd recently uttered that opinion, criminal tax defense attorney David M. Garvin. To his left sat his client, Helio Castroneves, fidgeting in a navy suit while on trial for failing to pay nearly $2.5 million in taxes.
On one side, the U.S. government was alleging that Castroneves and his sister, Katiucia, had set up a shadow company in Panama 10 years ago to avoid taxes. On the other, the family was claiming that the company, Seven Promotions, was simply intended to support Helio's emerging fame back home in Brazil. Meanwhile, the two-time Indy 500 winner and one-time Dancing With the Stars champ scribbled on a yellow notepad, trying to look like he understood all the accountants taking the stand. Seven weeks later, Helio, Katiucia and Alan Miller, Helio's financial adviser, would be cleared of all tax evasion charges, but the damage had already been done: to Helio's legacy, his image and, thanks to legal fees and races missed, his wallet.
For you and me, having every detail of our lives laid bare in court would be difficult. For the alpha male professional athlete, it is nothing short of devastating. And for many drivers in IndyCar and NASCAR, the trial was terrifying. Racers are nonunionized, independent contractors. Unlike athletes in major team sports, they have no structure in place to educate them on how to handle their finances. The fear of not knowing exactly where their money goes is why drivers from Danica Patrick to Kurt Busch have recently unearthed their own contracts to sift through the details.
"The big money only really got to racing in the past 15 years or so," says Tony Stewart, who owns at least a partial stake in 16 different businesses. "Baseball, football and basketball have had decades to get a handle on this. But it's still new to us, and that's scary."
Another Castroneves lawyer, Roy Black, also argued that his client never made financial decisions, that all he did was drive. During a break in the proceedings, Helio said as much. "All any racer wants is to drive for Roger Penske," he told me, pointing to a giant stack of file boxes being wheeled into the courtroom. "But a handshake doesn't make that happen. Papers do. Boxes and boxes of confusing papers."
The U.S. tax code is 3.7 million words spread across 17,000 pages. On April 15, President Obama called it "monstrous" and "too complicated for most Americans to understand." The more you make, the more those pages stick to you like flypaper. Which is how newly minted teenage athletes, fluent in BFF and OMG, suddenly find themselves drowning in a sea of LLC and PBGC.
Mets slugger Carlos Delgado has never been in financial peril, but he empathizes. "Imagine how it is when you don't even speak English," said the Puerto Rico native, in Miami for the World Baseball Classic. "It all happens so fast and is so confusing that you end up just handing it to people who seem like they know what they are talking about. And there are so many of them coming at you, it's hard to determine who you can trust. If they mess it up, it's on you. It's your life."
Picking the wrong person to handle your cash seems to be easier than picking the right one. Ask Darryl Strawberry or Wesley Snipes, who've been dragged through tax trials. When faced with all those confusing contracts, Castroneves took the same step so many others have and turned to those he trusted most: his sister and his father (not charged in the case). They were the smartest people he knew, but they were not accountants, and they were certainly not lawyers. So when Penske came calling in 1999, Castroneves enlisted Miller, the most trusted money-handler in motorsports, whose clients include Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer and Casey Mears. Miller did his best to undo the damage done by Helio's family, but he was mending cannon holes with masking tape. A few boxes of paperwork later, he found himself in courtroom 13-4 with Castroneves, accused of cooking up a three-continent tax-shelter scheme involving shell corporations and Monte Carlo escape plans.
Team owners will still search deeper and younger for the next Joey Logano or Graham Rahal. Let's just hope tomorrow's stars will heed today's lessons. After all, the "clueless" defense gets one shot. And Castroneves used it up.