The celebration of Ned Jarrett’s first NASCAR Cup Series victory was somewhat abbreviated for a very good reason. Jarrett’s right hand had been cut to the bone during the race and was bleeding profusely.
This is not the sort of first-win victory lane most drivers have in their dreams.
It was part of a crazy weekend in 1959 for Jarrett, who had won NASCAR’s Late Model Sportsman national championship in 1957 and 1958 and was looking to stake his claim in stock car racing’s top series with a victory. To make that jump, Jarrett realized he needed a top-flight car. “I knew I could do it if I could get in the right car,” Jarrett said.
The “right car” became available in the summer of 1959. Junior Johnson had scored a series of Cup wins in a 1957 Ford for car owner Paul Spaulding. Spaulding worked out a deal to build a new Dodge for Johnson, making the Ford suddenly available. But there was a problem. The sale price was $2,000.
“Dad didn’t have $20, much less $2,000,” said Glenn Jarrett, Ned’s son.
What Jarrett did have was confidence. With back-to-back races coming up on the first two days of August at Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Speedway and Charlotte Fairgrounds Speedway, he saw his opportunity. Jarrett bought the car on Saturday with a $2,000 check with the knowledge that the check wouldn’t hit his account until Monday.
“I didn’t have any money,” Jarrett said. “I figured I’d go to Myrtle Beach Saturday night and win that race and do the same thing the next afternoon at Charlotte. I knew winning both would earn about $2,000, and I could make up whatever difference there was by borrowing the money and get in to the bank by Monday to cover the check.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Jarrett won Saturday night at Myrtle Beach, finishing a lap ahead of Jim Paschal for his first Cup victory. He and crew chief Bud Allman worked overnight to refine the car for Sunday’s race at Charlotte. Jarrett, with relief driving from Junior Johnson and Joe Weatherly, won that race, with Paschal again finishing second.
Jarrett’s weekend winnings totaled about $1,800, and he was able to quickly borrow the rest to cover the check. It was a gamble that worked marvelously, a kind of business plan that unfolded perfectly. But the story is about much more than Jarrett’s bold venture.
It’s also about blood, and likely sweat and tears. But especially blood.
Because Jarrett bought his new car on race-day Saturday and he and Allman, a widely respected mechanic of the day, had to rush to coastal South Carolina for the night race, there wasn’t time to cover all the bases in preparing the car. Among the areas that wasn’t addressed was the steering wheel, which was stock equipment in those days. To make gripping the hard wheel over bumpy dirt tracks more comfortable, it was typical to put a ring of foam rubber around the wheel and then wrap it with electrical tape.
“Whoever had put the tape on wrapped it the wrong way,” Jarrett said. “When they cut it, it left edges of the tape sticking up, and it cut into my hand (he didn’t wear gloves) every time I turned the car. The track was rough, and I could feel it cutting the meat to the bone, and I could feel the blood coming out. But I had a job to do.”
Jarrett had raced Myrtle Beach in Sportsman cars, so he had a course of attack. “The track always got rough when they put those heavy cars on it,” he said. “I had to dodge the holes that would come in the track. I worked for a while to get a groove built. I ran higher than the other drivers. They were in the regular groove. I worked to build a groove higher on the track. It took about a hundred laps, and I got lapped while I was doing it, but when it got worked out I set sail, unlapped myself and then lapped the field.”
Jarrett concentrated so much on building his own groove – “an inch at a time,” as he put it – that he didn’t realize the extent to which his hands were being damaged. “I could sort of feel it,” he said, “but I didn’t realize they were as bad as they were.”
Jarrett toughed it out through 200 laps and took the first checkered flag of his Cup career. He stopped the car at the start-finish line for the trophy ceremony, which couldn’t proceed until someone wrapped a tourniquet around his hand to slow the blood flow.
“It wasn’t your typical victory lane,” Jarrett understated.
Jarrett and Allman left the track with their winning car and Jarrett’s first Cup trophy. Jarrett’s hand was still throbbing with pain and was bleeding. They stopped at a hospital in nearby Conway.
Common sense called for Jarrett to take time off for his wounds to heal. The emergency room doctor also called for that. But Jarrett had a check to cover.
“At the hospital, they wrapped it up and put antiseptic of some kind on it,” Jarrett said. “The doctor said I needed to let it heal, that I couldn’t drive for at least two weeks. I told him what the situation was and what I had to do and that I had to race—and win—on Sunday in Charlotte. He didn’t think that was too smart.”
They drove on to Jarrett’s Charlotte shop and worked on the car much of the night before heading to the fairgrounds track for the afternoon race.
Jarrett deemed himself ready to race, but just barely. “I was a total physical wreck,” he said. “But I was able to start the race even though I was still hurting.”
“I was a total physical wreck.”
Jarrett lasted about half of the race over the rough half-mile dirt track. He realized he couldn’t finish the race, so he pitted and turned the car over to driver Joe Weatherly, who was at the track but wasn’t competing. Weatherly drove the car for a while before Junior Johnson, whose car blew an engine, climbed in to finish the race in first place. Because he had won in the Ford repeatedly before it was sold to Jarrett, he was very familiar with the car and its particular strengths.
As the driver who started the race in the winning car, Jarrett got credit for the victory – and the first-place check.
“Neither Joe nor Junior would take any money for driving,” Jarrett said. “They knew I needed it. Word had gotten around that I had given a bad check.”
Before the weekend, Jarrett was broke and had no Cup wins. After the weekend, he had two Cup victories and was off to the races.
“I think it opened some doors, and I proved to myself that I could do it,” Jarrett said. “I was cocky enough to believe that I could do it. The car had proven that it could win races. It was a big step for me in getting in the right car at the right time.”
Jarrett went on to win the Cup championship in 1961 and 1965, scoring 50 race victories along the way. He retired in 1966 and later had a successful career in race broadcasting. He was elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame as a member of the 2011 class.
The trophy Jarrett won on that remarkable night in Myrtle Beach remains on display in the recreation room at his North Carolina home, alongside other sports trophies won by his sons Dale and Glenn.
But Wait … There’s More
• Ned Jarrett won his first race car in a poker game.
• Jarrett owns the NASCAR record for largest margin of victory. He won the 1965 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway by 14 laps. Buck Baker was a woeful second.
• Jarrett’s back was broken in a crash at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in South Carolina in 1965, his second championship season. Jarrett didn’t miss a race, but the injury was a health issue for the veteran driver for many years afterward.
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