Monthly Archives: February 2013

Janet Guthrie praises record-setting Danica Patrick

Danica Patrick

Danica Patrick. Photo courtesy of

Janet Guthrie

Janet Guthrie.

I was nervous for Danica Patrick in the Daytona 500, at least at the beginning of the race. I wanted her to succeed.

Sure, the former IndyCar star and current NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie candidate had become the first woman to qualify for a Sprint Cup pole position earlier in the week.

But qualifying is one thing, and racing is quite another. Like the other drivers, all of them men, in NASCAR’S biggest race of the year, Patrick had the stress of guiding a speeding bullet of a stock car at 200 mph for 500 miles just inches from 42 other competitors, all while being uncomfortably belted in a steel cage.

But Patrick had the added pressure of being a woman competing in a sport traditionally dominated by men. Millions of eyes were on her, watching to see how she’d do, and she knew it.

It turns out I needn’t have been nervous for the petite female chauffeur. Patrick performed flawlessly. She was a contender all race long and was in third place going into the final lap. She didn’t wreck herself, and she didn’t wreck anyone else. And that’s a boast not all of the male drivers could make.

Patrick also made some more history.

She led twice for a total of five laps. Janet Guthrie was the first woman to lead laps in Cup racing; she led five laps under caution at Ontario in 1977. Patrick became the highest female finisher in the history of the Daytona 500 when she brought her Go Daddy-sponsored car home in eighth place. Janet Guthrie had the previous best finish for a woman in the race. That was 11th in 1980.

“… At the end of the day, it was a solid day,” Patrick said in a post-race interview with Fox Sports, the network that broadcast the race. “We stayed basically in the top 10 all day long. You can’t really complain about that. It was nice.”

Nice, indeed.

Women’s racing pioneer Janet Guthrie had praise for Patrick.

I have the privilege of knowing Janet, a native Iowan. I’ve written about her significant accomplishments in some national racing publications and was honored to be asked to write her profile for the program when she was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2006.

So I contacted Janet after the Daytona 500 checkered flag fell.

“Danica did an excellent job today, making good use of her excellent equipment,” Janet said.

Janet notes that in 1977 she came close to finishing eighth in the 500. “I was running eighth 10 laps from the end when I lost two cylinders and finished 12th.”

Janet says there’s still another record of hers for Danica Patrick to break. “She has one to go: best Cup finish.” Janet’s top NASCAR finish was sixth place at Bristol in 1977.

Will Danica better that?

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished second behind Jimmie Johnson in the 500, said of Danica Patrick to the New York Times, “She’s going to make a lot of history all year long.”

Copyright 2013 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This piece submitted as a column to North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.

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Posted by on February 25, 2013 in Uncategorized


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Ernie Speth: A Q-C stock car racing pioneer

Phil and Ernie Speth 1979 copyIMG_5770IMG_5771IMG_5772IMG_5786Tonight I’ll be emceeing the Speedway Fire-Rescue awards banquet in Davenport, Iowa. My wife Sherry and I have supported the Speedway volunteers for decades and are proud to be associate members. Every year the Speedway volunteers ask me to be their banquet emcee, and I am honored to do so. It’s the least I can do for these people who sacrifice their time and resources and risk their own well being to keep race drivers and others safe all year long. I understand that Quad-Cities racing legend Ernie Speth will be in attendance tonight. I want to share one of my favorite pictures (above) that shows Ernie and myself at Hawkeye Speedway near Blue Grass, Iowa, in 1979. I took the additional photos (also above) on May 8, 2010, at a surprise 80th birthday party that Ernie’s family and friends threw for him. Following is a portion of an “On Track” column, one of two I wrote about Ernie and his pioneering racing days. It appeared in a July 2004 issue of Quad-Cities Racing Connection. ~ Phil Roberts, Feb. 16, 2013.

A later note from Phil: Sadly, because of health issues, Ernie was unable to attend the banquet mentioned above. But some of his family were present to accept a plaque on his behalf for being a Quad-Cities stock car racing pioneer.

A later note yet from Phil: Ernie died on March 5, 2013. I was honored to know him.

Ernie Speth says it was 1949 when his older brother Ray raced a pleasure car, owned by their second cousin, Ronnie Weedon, in the first-ever race at the old Mahoney’s race track west of Davenport. The promoter, as Ernie recalls, was a Dubuque undertaker.

But Ernie, who was 19, didn’t race that first season himself. He had other interests on his mind – namely girls.

Ernie’s brother got him into racing the next season, 1950.

But the stock car also remained his pleasure car. He drove it around town and back and forth to race tracks with its number on the sides. He’d take the headlights out to race and put them back in to drive home.

Ernie’s first race was at Davenport Speedway on a Thursday or Friday night, but he didn’t actually race because he didn’t make the show. “I time-trialed, then went back to the pits and sat on my car all night; I didn’t go fast enough to even get in the race.”

His cousin was at track for the time trials, too, that night and faired better, Ernie says. “Weedon got into the consy.”

Ernie’s next event was in Sterling, Ill., and he made the show this time. But he also flipped his car.

“The bumper in the front was too low to the ground,” Ernie recalls. “It dug into the track all the time.” And it caused him to flip. Ernie refers to it as “the race I went every direction except straight.”

Despite the rough rollover, Ernie drove the car home that night. He notes the only glass in the car was the windshield, “but it had about 4,000 cracks in it.”

When you roll hard in your first race, it makes an impression on you, says Ernie. “I was gun shy for about a year or so.”

Racing was a natural hobby for both Ernie Speth and Ronnie Weedon to take up because they always hung around with one another, and “all we ever thought of was cars, cars and more cars. Ronnie’s dad used to work on cars quite a little bit, and it rubbed off on Ronnie pretty big.”

Ernie’s dad and brother Ray also worked on cars but to a lesser extent.

“Midgets were big then (at race tracks), but we didn’t have enough money for a Midget. (But) it was cheap to get a stock car,” says Ernie.

Ernie raced until 1982. He says he only ran a couple of races that final season before hanging it up. He had been racing a Mustang but had taken that body off and put a Granada body on the chassis.

Ernie also had moved from a 427-cubic inch engine to a 351, “and the cars were too heavy for that little engine unless you had a hard, slick track. Then you could go. Otherwise, it wouldn’t work.”

Though Ernie raced a Ford in his final years in racing, from 1957 into the ’60s he was known for racing Studebakers. In fact, Studebakers were one of his trademarks for years. The other trademark were the red and white checkerboard roofs on his stock cars.

Copyright 2013 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.

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Posted by on February 16, 2013 in Uncategorized


Memories of Herb Thomas

Dane and Herb Thomas 1998 copy

Dane Roberts and Herb Thomas. Phil Roberts photo.

Phil and Herb Thomas 1998 copy

Phil Roberts and Herb Thomas. Dane Roberts photo.

Herb Thomas

Herb Thomas. Photo courtesy of National Speed Sport News.


Herb’s Hornet. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Following is a NASCAR news release pertaining to the late driving legend Herb Thomas. Thomas, who had an unbelievable winning percentage of 21.05 during his career, was born April 6, 1923, in Olivia, N.C. and died Aug. 9, 2000 at the age of 77.

The release is part of a series of releases put out in advance of the 2013 NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony that took place on Feb. 8, 2013, in Charlotte, N.C.

Buck Baker, Cotton Owens, Thomas, Rusty Wallace and Leonard Wood were the five 2013 inductees.

The first local race I really remember well was an August 2, 1953, NASCAR Grand National Series (today’s Sprint Cup Series) event held on the dirt, half-mile Davenport (Iowa) Speedway oval. Yes, they raced in Davenport!

My dad took me, and I was 4 years old. Dad had taken me to some prior races, but this one was the most memorable.

Back then, NASCAR’s top series contested races all across the country on various racing surfaces. In 1953, for example, NASCAR sanctioned 37 Grand National races on 33 dirt tracks, three paved tracks and one road course.

The Davenport race, number 25 on the schedule, was short on cars – only 14 drivers signed in. But for me it was nonetheless exciting. I had never before seen brand new cars – as opposed to jalopies – race around the track.

Thomas, who was on his way to his second series title in 1953 – he’d taken the 1951 championship — won the 200-lap, 100-mile event in a 1953 Hudson at an average speed of 62.5 mph. Thomas’ prize for winning the Davenport race was $3,300.

One of the thrills in my life as a racing fan, announcer, publicist and journalist was meeting Thomas and his wife at (the now closed) Mark Martin’s Klassix Auto Museum in Daytona in February of 1998.

Accompanied by my son Dane, I was in town for meetings in connection with NASCAR’s Midwest-based Late Model tour, the All-Star Series, for which I provided publicity and media relations from 1990 through 2001.

Thomas, like many legendary drivers, had been invited to Speedweeks in Daytona that year to help NASCAR celebrate its 50th anniversary. I found it interesting that in 1998 Thomas told me he still remembered winning that 1953 race in Davenport.

Copyright 2013 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 28, 2013) – Take it from the King. Herb Thomas stood tall in an era when the stock in stock car truly defined what NASCAR’s pioneers raced.

“He was as good as they come,” said Richard Petty. “There have been very few guys who had more confidence in what he could do than Herb. He was so strong-minded that he ‘willed’ his wins and what he was doing on the track.

“He was going to beat the guys on the track no matter what was going on. That was his mind set.”

High praise indeed from a driver whose father, Lee, battled door to door with Thomas and traded NASCAR championships with him. Both Pettys, father and son, are members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Thomas is due to be inducted into the hall on Friday, Feb. 8, along with fellow NASCAR premier series champions Buck Baker and Rusty Wallace; championship owner Cotton Owens and innovative crew chief, mechanic and engine builder Leonard Wood.

Thomas, born into a farming family in Olivia, N.C. not far from where North Carolina Motor Speedway would be built, was NASCAR’s first two-time champion. He captured premier series titles in 1951 and 1953 and finished second in two other seasons including 1954, Lee Petty’s first of three championship years.

Thomas, who died in 2000 at the age of 77, won 48 races between 1951 and 1956 – establishing a record winning percentage of 21.05 percent over a 228-race career. He ranks 13th among all-time NASCAR premier series winners. Thomas won three of the first six Southern 500s at Darlington Raceway.

“It’s win or bust,” Thomas once said. “Second place is never good enough.”

Thomas caught the racing bug in 1947 when he attended a modified race in Greensboro, N.C., with a group of friends. He bought one shortly thereafter but never had much success with the car. Thomas’ son, Victor Herbert Thomas, guessed that his father honed his driving skills behind the wheel of a dump truck hauling dirt over winding back roads to Ft. Bragg, N.C., during World War II.

“Daddy came from farming; he never was associated with the moonshine bunch,” he said of his father, who cut timber and operated a saw mill.

Although he won in a variety of cars, Thomas forever will be remembered as the driver of the No. 92 Fabulous Hudson Hornet powered by engines built by Smokey Yunick, owner of the self-proclaimed “Best Damn Garage” in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Thomas, who had won races earlier in the season driving a Plymouth and an Oldsmobile, switched to a factory-supported Hudson Motor Car Co. effort in mid-1951. The Hornet featured a high-torque inline six cylinder engine and – according to Thomas – a low center of gravity which gave the car a performance edge.

The biggest edge, however, appeared to be the driver himself.

“The tracks were rough, dusty and weren’t hard-packed (clay). You had to learn to drive around the holes,” said Hershel McGriff, who competed against Thomas in 1954 and won five races driving an Oldsmobile for Frank Christian. “He was real competitive.”

Baker frequently was quoted as saying: “The one guy you have to beat is Herb Thomas.”

Thomas won seven times in 1951 – five of the victories in his Hudson – and won the championship by a comfortable margin over Fonty Flock and became NASCAR’s first driver/owner titleholder. He posted eight wins a year later but finished second to Tim Flock, who also drove a Hudson.

Thomas won 12 times in both 1953 and 1954 as he and Lee Petty swapped championships. By 1955 Hudson’s factory presence was gone and Thomas switched to Chevrolets and Buicks. He crashed in May’s race at Charlotte Speedway, a 0.750-mile dirt track, suffering injuries that sidelined Thomas through most of the summer. Yet Thomas returned to win the Southern 500 for the third time and finished fifth in points despite missing 19 races.

The 1956 season was Thomas’ last as a full-time competitor. He won five times including three consecutive victories in Portland, Ore.; Eureka, Calif.; and Merced, Calif. at the wheel of Carl Kiekhafer’s No. 300B Chrysler 300. His crew chief was current NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Ray Fox.

Thomas raced three more times in 1957 and 1962 before retiring for good. “I used to pass everyone in the turns. Now they pass me in the turns. It’s time to hang it up,” he said. “There’s no use running if you can’t be first.”

Thomas’ son, Victor, recalls his father as being quiet and never one to brag about his accomplishments.

“He always respected others and wasn’t a talker but if he said something, it would be the truth,” he said. “He never thought of himself as being a NASCAR champion. He was just a regular guy; a humble man.”


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Posted by on February 10, 2013 in Uncategorized


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