Reigning NASCAR Winston Cup Champion Jeff Gordon is 27 years old. When Louise Smith was 27, the Allied forces invaded France to begin the end of WWII. Jeff Gordon has won two Daytona 500’s and three Winston Cup titles. Louise Smith never won a Grand National/Winston Cup race. What could these two individuals possibly have in common?
Both will be honored on Thursday evening, April 22nd, in ceremonies at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega. Gordon will be recognized as the 1998 DRIVER OF THE YEAR, while Smith will be inducted into the Hall of Fame itself.
But that’s not all they have in common. Both love racing, and both have had a huge impact on the sport. Smith, and a trio of other females, gained the fledgling sport much-needed publicity in the late 1940’s and early ‘5Os, and gave the veteran male drivers a run for their money on many occasions. Gordon, amid all of the acclaim that has followed his career, has also drawn more attention and popularity to big league stock car racing.
Also, both are Leo’s, whose main character traits are aggressiveness and self-confidence, two much-needed assets in successfully wheeling a race car.
Louise Smith was one of the true pioneers of early stock car racing, running Modifieds from 1946 thru 1956, and actually competing in the first stock car race she ever saw.
The Greenville, South Carolina resident helped Bill France, Sr. promote early NASCAR races from Daytona to Canada. She was a novelty as a female driver, but her hard-charging, fearless style of driving made her a crowd favorite wherever she went.
When France brought his show to Greenville in 1946, he was looking for a woman to race with the men, and he found just what he was looking for in Louise Smith, who allegedly had outrun every lawman in the Greenville area. Although she had never even seen a race, much less been in a race car, Smith agreed to do it. She finished third in a 1939 Modified Ford coupe, and was hooked forever.
And she certainly wasn’t there just for show. Smith won 38 Modified races during those 11 years, at tracks from New York to South Carolina to Alabama. During those years, she held her own against the top drivers in the sport, legends such as Buck Baker, Curtis Turner, Fonty Flock, Red Byron and Roy Hall.
In 1947, she took off for Daytona in her husband’s brand new Ford coupe to watch the races on the beach, but when she got there, she couldn’t stand it. She entered the shiny new family car in the beach race and, of course, wrecked it. The Greenville paper carried a picture of her wreck, and the news was all over Greenville before she ever got home.
Smith is perhaps remembered as much for some of her spectacular crashes as she was for her aggressive driving, breaking almost every bone in her body at some point during her career. One race at Hillsborough almost took her life, leaving her with 48 stitches and four pins in her leg.
She quit racing in 1956, but returned in 1971 to sponsor cars for numerous drivers on the way up. Among others, she backed Ronnie Thomas’ Rookie of the Year effort in 1978.
Gordon, who came to Winston Cup full-time in 1992, has dominated the sport in the past four years, winning Winston Cup championships in 1995, 1997 and 1998. In 1998 alone, he won an incredible 13 races to tie the modern record set by Richard Petty, and he pocketed more than $9 million, including a pair of Winston No Bull 5 million-dollar bonuses, at Indianapolis and Darlington.
His seven poles were the most in that category, and his consistency (26 Top Five finishes in 33 races) just wore the competition down. Gordon clinched the 1998 title by winning at Rockingham, with the Atlanta race still remaining on the schedule. Just to prove he was still motivated, Gordon won at Atlanta, too.
Gordon was also named the DRIVER OF THE YEAR for the third time in his career, equaling the number of such awards won by Mario Andretti and Darrell Waltrip.
He and his team, the Rainbow Warriors, now have their sights set on winning the title again in 1999, making them only the second in history to win three in a row. Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough, driving for another Hall of Famer, Junior Johnson, did it in 1976-77-78.
Tickets remain on sale for the April 22nd induction ceremony. Individual tickets are $100 each, and a table seating eight is $760. To purchase tickets, please call 256-362-5002.