Wednesday, April 09, 2008

a real ROCKIN' ROCKET 88 driver, Hershel McGriff

(above and two below) an exact replica of the Olds Rocket 88 driven by Hershel McGriff
to victory at the inaugural 1950 Mexican Road Race


(above) Hershel McGriff in the early 1950s
(above) McGriff (front, in an Olds) racing Johnny Soares at the Oakland Speedway in 1952

(above) McGriff with Sara Christian, an early NASCAR driver
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The Oldsmobile Rocket 88, as readers of this blog know well, not only inspired the #1 R&B hit "Rocket 88" in 1951 (on the Chess label, by Ike Turner but credited to Jackie Brenston) but was as well a renowned racing car and one of the first sedans which could be termed an American 'muscle car.' In the last blog I told you about NASCAR's first champion driver, Red Byron, of Rocket 88 fame; here, let's celebrate some of driver Hershel McGriff's Rocket 88 background, relative to the very first Mexican Road Race, and 1950s NASCAR as well. McGriff is shown to left.
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McGriff, of Portland, OR, then 22 years of age, won the 1950 Mexican Road Race in a basically stock Rocket 88. The race was a driving marathon through Mexico, North to South [that year; as the course was reversed in 1951 - 1954], from the Texas border to Guatemala. The event was sponsored by the Mexican government in celebration of the completion of the Pan-American Highway.
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All major-class entries in the 2,178-mile race were required to be unmodified 5-passenger sedans. Of 132 entries (some reports say 126), only 52 (or, possibly, 47) cars completed the race. McGriff's speed over the often treacherous terrain averaged 78.421 mph, although another source says it was an average of 79.2 mph, not to split hairs. McGriff and assistant driver Ray Elliott took home a purse of $17,000 after successfully negotiating the route in 27 hours, 34 minutes, 25 seconds.
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La Carrera PanAmericana, as noted in http://www.jalopyjournal.com/?p=531, "was the toughest race in the world." The article continued, "LeMans doesn't hold a candle. The Mille Miglia doesn't come close. Terrible maps, horrible roads, drivers with evil intentions, and government employees with empty pockets and children to feed. After the race, there were no real winners or losers--just dusty survivors. They were real road warriors.
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"Mexico wanted to celebrate the completion of their Panamerican Highway. They were either already drunk or out of Tequila, because this race was never a good idea. Proof is in the history lesson, as this deal only ran from 1950 till 1954. Too many accidents, too many deaths, too many laws ignored. Still, heroes garnered their status in those four short years. Carroll Shelby, Phil Hill, Juan Manuel Fangio, and Mickey Thompson all made it through with some success. Ak Miller showed his freakishly subborn ways in driving the Hot Rod Magazine-sponsored "El Caballo" roadster through the Mexican landscape and into the realm of legends.
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"Most surving veterans point to the first race in 1950 as the one to remember. Many drivers exited mid-race after some sort of violence . . . three died. Hershel McGriff won the race with the [so-called] "Mexican Blackbird," piloting his Olds Rocket 88 past Ferraris and Porsches to take the win.
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"McGriff later said, 'We were living on nerves. I lost 20 pounds in five days. We had no support truck, just a couple of wrenches and bumper jacks. I won because I knew how to drive on poor roads. I was simply used to driving big [Northwest lumber] trucks on gravel, and we had 6-ply tires on the race car.'
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"And then there were the Mexican nationals," the Jalopy Journal continued. "Some saw the event as a chance to get free performance parts after hours. Others saw it as a sporting event for themselves. As the hot rods roared through their tiny little barrios at over 100 mph, some would make an effort to actually reach out and touch the cars. No records were kept on how many civilians were killed in this manner."
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McGriff was born December 14, 1927 in Bridal Veil, OR. He launched his stock car racing career in September, 1945 at the dirt Portland Speedway, finishing 13th in his family's sedan. The same year he won the the Mexican Road Race (1950), he also made his NASCAR debut, campaigning his #52 "City of Roses" Oldsmobile in the inaugural Southern 500 at Darlington, SC where he finished 9th. In 1951 McGriff made three starts in NASCAR's new Grand National division, driving his own Olds Rocket 88. He placed 11th at Detroit and 4th in the Southern 500 that year. In 1952, he drove Beryl Jackson's #3 Olds in two Grand Nationals, and in 1953 entered his own #5 Olds in two events. Overall, only announcing his retirement from racing in 2002, he competed in 85 NASCAR Winston Cup starts, earning five poles, four wins, seventeen top-5s and thirty-one top-10s. He was one of the most honored drivers ever to come out of the Pacific Northwest.
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In the photos shown here, there's one with McGriff seated atop a racing car with Sara Christian. She competed in the first NASCAR Strictly Stock race at the three-quarter-mile Charlotte, NC Speedway on June 19, 1949. The '49 Oldsmobile she drove was prepared by her husband Frank; she drove in six of the eight Strictly Stock races that year, finishing 13th in the point standings. Her best finish was fifth in the October Heidelberg, PA race, and it remains the only top-five finish in history for a woman in stock car racing's premier circuit. With an additional pair of top-10 finishes, she was named Woman Driver of the Year by the United States Drivers' Association, and that same year she and husband Frank became the only husband and wife to compete separately but as a team in a NASCAR event (at Daytona's beach-road course, Frank finished sixth while Sara came in 18th).
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One further note on Red Byron. Another account I read subsequently to my first blog indicates he was a tail gunner on 57 missions in a B-24 during WWII, and was shot down over Kitka Island in the Aleutian Islands during his 58th mission. Ironically, he flew that mission for a friend whose wife was expecting their first child momentarily.
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Fans of ZZ Top certainly will recall the "Mexican Blackbird" song, relative to McGriff's car of the same name (shown above, recreated by Roy Asbahr of Gresham, OR, years after it was scrapped in 1958). Only thing is, the Billy F Gibbons-penned tune refers to a . . . Chrysler:
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"If you're down in Acuna and you ain't up to being alone
Don't spend all your money on just any honey that's grown.
Go find the Mexican blackbird
And send all your troubles back home.
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"Oh, let's drive that old Chrysler down to Mexico, boy.
Said, keep your hands on the wheel there,
Oh, it sure is fine, aint' it?
Now, ya got it!
Hand me another one of them brews from back there.
Oh, this is gonna be so good."
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You can read more about the Mexican Road Race at http://www.classics.com/panam50.html
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6 comments:

Gary Faules said...

Great post. I have also ran La Carrera Panamericana. Recently I had the pleasure of a phone call from Hershel.

http://lacarrera2007.blogspot.com/2008/04/phone-call-from-hershel-mcgriff.html

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