Even today—coming up on 70 years later—Hershel McGriff occasionally wonders how his life might have turned out differently. But there are also times when, quite frankly, he doesn’t even want to second-guess himself.
What if he’d accepted NASCAR founder Bill France’s invitation in the early 1950s to relocate from Oregon to race in the Southeast? What if he’d taken greater advantage of that hot streak of four Cup Series victories in nine starts in 1954 that brought some fame? What if he’d agreed to that full-season offer from wealthy owner Carl Kiekhaefer—the Chrysler 300 ride that went to Tim Flock?
How would his life have been different if any of those things had happened?
“I don’t know, but after winning four races within a few months late in that season I decided to go home and get a job,” the 93-year-old racing legend recently told Autoweek from his home in Tucson, Arizona. “I was thinking that with so much success, why should I go back? But I did, and that’s a question I’ve always wondered about: what would have happened if I’d taken Bill’s invitation to stay (in the Southeast) and race. He said he had a good ride for me, but I told him no, that I wasn’t coming back.”
McGriff stayed true to his word.
McGriff remained mostly in the Northwest, racing in several NASCAR series from 1950 through his last career start in 2018. (That’s not a typo: his first NASCAR race was at age 22; his last, in something of a ceremonial moment, was at 90). He won four times in 85 Cup tries over parts of 28 seasons; he added five poles, 17 top-5s, and 31 top-10s to his resume’. The victories came jammed together late in 1954, one in California and three in the Southeast.
In addition to the four Cup victories, he won another 35 races over 37 intermittent seasons in the K&N Pro West Series. His 1986 championship came during a 12-year stretch of finishing top-10 in that series’ final standings. He won it based on three victories, four top-5s, and five top-10s in the eight-race season. He was a relatively young (for him) 58 at the time.
McGriff sharply remembers the details about his four Cup victories. The first came in a 250-lapper on the 1-mile dirt Bay Meadows Speedway at San Mateo, California. Just 26 at the time, he started on pole and led every lap in a 1954 Oldsmobile fielded by Frank Christian. The McGriff/Christian team then headed eastward for the last eight races of the 1954 season.
They won from the pole at Macon, Georgia in mid-September; won again 12 days later at Charlotte, North Carolina; then won the late-October season-finale at North Wilkesboro, North Carolina. The team did pretty well even when it didn’t win: runner-up finishes at Corbin, Kentucky, and Martinsville, Virginia; a third at Langhorne, Pennsylvania; and a ninth at LeHi, Arkansas. The only downer was an engine-related DNF in the Southern 500 at Darlington, South Carolina. The late-season push brought the team to sixth in final points.
Buoyed by that success, McGriff faced a career crossroad. Suddenly acknowledged as a legitimate championship contender, he was invited to be lead driver for Kiekhaefer’s new well-financed new team. He chose to go back home to Oregon to spend more time with his family and be closer to his lumber and sawmill business. Flock won 18 races and that year’s Cup title in the ride McGriff could have had.
After spending most of his early years on West Coast tracks, he used his four-for-nine surge to show how good he was. Others already knew, including France. They had met at the 1950 Pan-American Road Race, where McGriff’s daily times were just as good as NASCAR star Curtis Turner’s. “France didn’t know how someone he’d never heard of could be staying with or sometimes beating Curtis,” McGriff recalled. “Curtis was his big NASCAR star; at the time, I was just this young kid from Oregon. I don’t think Bill could understand that.”
Surprised and impressed, France invited McGriff to the inaugural Southern 500 later that year at Harold Brasington’s new track in South Carolina. The Labor Day event was stock car racing’s first 500-miler, clearly a shot across the bow of the better-known IndyCar series and its Indy 500. McGriff drove a street-legal Oldsmobile from Oregon to South Carolina, ran the 500-miler in the car, then drove it back to Oregon.
In the first Cup appearance of his career and on the longest track he’d ever seen, McGriff started 44th and finished ninth among 70 starters. He was 26 laps behind winner Johnny Mantz, third among Oldsmobile drivers, and one of only 29 drivers running at the finish. He finished fourth in the next year’s 500, skipped the 1953 race, then had the engine-related DNF his last time there, in 1954. He took a long Cup hiatus—no starts between 1957 and 1971—while concentrating on being a force in the K&N West Pro Series.
He briefly considered returning to the Southeast in 1958. “I called Bill France sometime during that season, but he was pretty cold,” McGriff said. “I think he was still upset because I never went back down there for the (original) opportunity I had. I think he always thought of me as maybe the best driver he’d ever had.”
But wait … there’s more
• In 1976, McGriff and his son, Doug, were chosen by NASCAR to take a Dodge Charger to represent the United States at the 24 Hours of LeMans. (The car lasted less than a lap because of a fuel-related engine failure). Twenty years later he went to Japan to run in a NASCAR exhibition race at Suzuka.
• For the past few years, McGriff has been a full-distance rider on the annual Kyle Petty Charity Motorcycle Ride Across America. At 90-something, his only concession to the physical grind has been to move from a two-wheeler to a Honda Gold Wing trike.
• In 1989, at Tucson Raceway, the 61-year-old McGriff became the oldest man to win a NASCAR-sanctioned event in the K&N Pro West Series. In 2018, back at Tucson, the 90-year-old driver started a K&N Pro West race to set another age-related NASCAR record.
• McGriff was inducted in the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame in its first class in 2002 and was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2006. He desperately wants to join the NASCAR Hall of Fame while he’s still around to enjoy the moment.
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