The long road that will lead to Hershel McGriff’s induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Friday (8 p.m. ET on Peacock) began on another long road.
In May 1950, McGriff and co-driver Ray Elliott won the Carrera Panamericana, also known as the Pan-American race, a five-day, cross-country competition held in Mexico. The race was a wild affair run across portions of a new highway and parts of the Mexican desert. McGriff, who handled most of the driving for the two-man team, and Elliott won the event by 76 seconds.
It was a big deal – the team won $17,000, but the race held a bigger prize for McGriff. He met NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., who competed in the race with teammate Curtis Turner. That meeting was a life-changing event for McGriff.
France introduced McGriff to NASCAR, which had formed in 1947 and ran its first Strictly Stock (now Cup) season in 1949. McGriff, who lived in Oregon, jumped into NASCAR at France’s invitation, won four races in 1954 and competed in various forms of motorsports competition across the decades that followed.
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McGriff was a fixture in West Coast racing for decades. After breaking into victory lane in Cup racing, he was offered a first-class ride with the new Carl Kiekhaefer team for the 1955 season, but McGriff chose to stay in Oregon, where he had successful businesses and was raising a family. Tim Flock took the Kiekhaefer ride and won the Cup championship.
On Friday, McGriff will join France, Flock and many others in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Also to be inducted at the Charlotte Convention Center are Cup champion Matt Kenseth and Kirk Shelmerdine, four-time champion crew chief with driver Dale Earnhardt.
McGriff also had a long road to get into the hall, having been nominated several times before being elected last year.
“None of us knew back then, standing and talking around a cactus (during the Mexican race week), that we’d wind up in the Hall of Fame,” McGriff said.
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The stories from 1950 stretch belief. McGriff and Elliott drove their Oldsmobile 88 about 2,000 miles in winning the Pan-American race. Then Elliott drove the car home to Oregon. Four months later, at France’s invitation, McGriff drove the same car from Portland to Darlington, S.C., to compete in the inaugural Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. McGriff finished ninth in that race, then promptly drove the car home to Oregon.
The Olds 88 obviously was a strong mount.
“The car ran flawlessly the whole race in Mexico,” McGriff said. “It never had a mark on it. It might have been a little dirty. The car was absolutely stock. We took the back seat out and put four spare tires and two bumper jacks in there. We threw a few wrenches in the glove box, and we were ready to go.”
McGriff said he occasionally saw the France-Turner car on the race course.
“We ran daily within a few seconds of each other,” he said. “Bill told me later he was wondering how this young kid (McGriff was 22) was keeping up with his driver (Turner).”
McGriff and France, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in the first class in 2010, became fast friends and worked together in the 1950s.
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“I flew with Bill a lot in his plane and did public relations for him,” McGriff said. “He’d drop me off whenever they had a race coming up, and I’d go by a few television and radio stations and do advertising for the race. After the race, we’d fly back.
“Coming home to Daytona from one trip, he circled over this swamp and pointed down and told me, ‘This is where I’m going to build Daytona International Speedway.’ He showed me blueprints of the track and asked me to steer the plane.”
The speedway opened in 1959.
McGriff, now retired in Green Valley, Arizona, continued to race in various series through 2018. His track time included two appearances in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Now he rides into the NASCAR Hall, at 95 the oldest inductee.