How Old Is Too Old In Racing? Apparently Not 81
By Mark Armijo | Senior Correspondent — RacinToday.com — Thursday July 23, 2009
A NASCAR Camping World West Series race at Portland International Raceway ended Sunday and Hershel McGriff still hasn’t pressed the brake pedal.
“It’s been crazy,” McGriff said Wednesday. “One interview after another. I was on NASCAR Now on Tuesday and then I did an interview with Fox. I was on ESPN First Take earlier (Wednesday) and I’ll be doing something with a Florida radio station later on. A BBC reporter even called me from London on Monday.
“My days have been filled up doing interviews from morning to night. I really don’t understand it. I didn’t think what I did was that big of a deal.”
Oh, yes it is.
At age 81 – no, not a misprint – McGriff became the oldest driver to compete in a NASCAR car, resetting a record he already held when he last competed in what was then called a Winston West Series race seven years ago at California Speedway.
And this was no typical senior citizen on a Sunday drive. McGriff, who still holds several records in the West Series circuit, started last and one lap down in a field of 26 due to an equipment change. He finished 13th but was on the lead lap of a 66-lap road course race.
McGriff not only opened his own eyes with the performance, he caught the attention of many others.
“I hope I can wheel a car around like that when I’m 81,” said 33-year-old Moses Smith, who finished one lap down in 14th. “He gave us a run for our money. He held his own. He gave the faster cars room, but he still wasn’t backing down to anyone.”
McGriff, who has 20-20 vision and exercises regularly, always has been one to march to his own drum beat, admitting he turned down a 1955 invitation by NASCAR founder Bill France to drive a Chrysler at Daytona Beach, Fla.
“I turned it down because I wanted to spend more time with my family,” said McGriff, who won the 1950 Pan American Road Race in Mexico. “Tim Flock got the ride instead of me, and he won the national championship that year.”
McGriff chose to spend most of his career in the West Series (No. 3 all-time with 35 career wins), but still made 85 career Cup Series starts and won four races, all in the 1954 season when he finished sixth in the national championship standings.
McGriff made his final Cup start in a race at Sonoma, Calif., in 1993, when he was 65. His last victory made him NASCAR’s oldest winner when he won in 1989 (61 years, 4 months) in a West Series race in Bakersfield, Calif.
So what enticed stock car racing’s Old Man River to dust off the racing suit and helmet for another poke at racing glory?
“Everyone pretty much has been asking the same thing,” said McGriff, who moved from Oregon to Green Valley, Ariz., near Tucson about 25 years ago. “My answer is, ‘Why not?’ I’ve never got racing out of my blood. But I knew when I stopped racing seven years ago that I’d come back one day, I told some people that when I’m 80, I think I’ll run a race or two.
“Nothing happened when I turned 80, but a few months ago we had a big get-together in Portland with family and friends and I learned there was going to be a road course at Portland for the first time since I had won there in 1986. Someone asked me about being the grand marshal for the race and I wasn’t so sure about that.”
McGriff instead chose to scrub the mothballs from the stock car he last drove seven years ago and embark on a three-race schedule (all road courses) beginning with a race last month at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma.
Sherrie McGriff, who married Hershel 12 years ago, knew better than to raise an objecting hand.
“I couldn’t talk him out of it,” she said. “I didn’t even try. I knew when he made the decision it was going to happen. I either had to be mad or go along with it and be happy.”
She chose the latter and her husband chose to move onto the next step, which meant reaching into the checkbook to help underwrite the endeavor.
McGriff, however, also received sponsorship help from Park Corporation, a mining company he has worked for the past 54 years. Throw in pit crew help from son Hershel McGriff Jr.; son-in-law Chuck Bown, a former West Series champion; another relative who works for Red Bull Racing on the Cup circuit; and other family and friends, and the elder McGriff was off to the races.
McGriff, however, had a momentary hiccup by failing to qualify at Infineon, making the Portland stop his comeback race. McGriff’s final race is scheduled Aug. 1 in Tooele, Utah.
“The car wasn’t right and we just didn’t have any time to test before California,” McGriff said. “But I was happy with how I did at Portland. We still didn’t have the chassis right and I had the problem with the carburetor that made us have to start a lap down.
“We’ll figure it out and hopefully I’ll be able to run with the pack in Utah.”
What McGriff hasn’t figured out is why all the national attention after receiving virtually none when he left the sport in 2002?
“I don’t mind it,” McGriff said. “When I retired a few years ago, nobody knew who I was. I guess maybe it’s the magic number of 80.”
What is for certain is McGriff’s intention to give the circuit’s other drivers a run for their money.
“I think I can do a lot better in Utah,” said McGriff, whose blog (hershelmcgriff.wordpress.com) received about 4,000 hits Tuesday. “I have a race under my belt now. I mean, I’d love to win. That would really blow everyone’s mind, wouldn’t it?”
Sure, it would.
But even if McGriff doesn’t fare as well as hoped, what’s next? Is there a 2010 season in McGriff’s calendar?
“I absolutely have no plans for next year,” McGriff said. “But I ride a bike (five miles) most every day, I do Pilates, my wife makes sure I eat right and I have a Total Gym in the house.
“And it kind of would be a shame to leave that car sit there after all the work we’ve done to it, wouldn’t it?”