It is widely known that once racing enters the blood, it can become a consuming desire that lasts for a lifetime.
Nearly three-quarters of a century ago, a teenage Hershel McGriff drove his father’s 1940 Hudson to a 12th place finish at Portland Speedway. On May 5, 2018, a few months after turning the 90th page of a storied book of accomplishments, the NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee will remarkably put the helmet on and fasten the belts to take another record-setting green flag.
“It’s going to be an exciting evening for me,” McGriff told Speed51.com. “I have relatives, in-laws, and friends from all over the country coming to watch. There aren’t too many 90-year-olds that I’ve run into lately that have been able to do this.”
The event in which he will participate is with a familiar series at a familiar track, the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West Port of Tucson Twin 100s. McGriff is third on the series all-time win list with 34, won the Most Popular Driver award for 12 consecutive years and was the 1986 champion. In all, he has started 266 K&N West races, three of them at the 3/8-mile Tucson Speedway.
How did this opportunity come about? McGriff’s son Hershel Jr., a veteran competitor in his own right over multiple years, explained.
“A year ago when K&N was at Tucson, (multi-time championship winning car owner) Bill McAnally and I were sitting in a golf cart and got to talking. He wants to be the one to give dad his 90th birthday present. That’s how it all began and we kept in touch.”
Since then, plans and preparations have been in the works. An offer to furnish a competitive car and crew was something that Hershel Sr., maintaining excellent health and physical stamina, couldn’t turn down. Additional support for his iconic No. 04 will be provided by South Point Casino owned by Michael Gaughan, father of NASCAR veteran and two-time K&N West champion Brendan Gaughan. During the 2001 season, McGriff drove as a teammate to Gaughan under the Bill McAnally Racing banner.
While it will be his first time in the newer composite-bodied style of stock cars, McGriff has already returned to the racing surface on a couple occasions in an older steel-bodied car to get some practice. That included a 50-lap run with impressive and consistent lap times under the tutelage of his son.
“It gives me a good feel of the track,” McGriff noted. “I should be comfortable. I don’t want to get embarrassed by those 16-year-olds and have them all ahead of me. When I get in that car and I have my helmet on, you can’t tell how old I am anyway. If I happen to go by them they won’t know.”
McGriff’s experience reads like an encyclopedia and is the dream of any motorsports enthusiast or historian. In addition to his K&N West prominence, McGriff won the inaugural Pan American Road Race in 1950, which included NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. in the field.
Shortly after, McGriff drove his racecar, literally across the country’s highways and backroads, from Portland to Darlington, South Carolina to partake in the first Southern 500 and finished ninth. He made 86 more Cup (then known as Grand National) starts and achieved four victories. He also participated twice in the prestigious and enduring 24 Hours of Le Mans in France.
While a majority of young racers that will be competing on this particular Saturday night were not even considering racing stock cars at the time of McGriff’s last start in 2012, the driver that finished runner-up in that race recalls him being in the field.
“The last time I remember Hershel racing was at Sonoma and that’s not an easy race,” 2013 K&N West champion Derek Thorn commented. “There’s a lot of shifting, it’s the middle of the summer, hot as heck and I don’t care what kind of Koolbox helmet you’ve got, it’s just hard to do. I think he completed the whole race so to be able to go and do that for himself -- he's one of the old school racers, one of the tough guys that paved the way.”
Driving for the rivaling Bob Bruncati-owned team, Thorn has returned to the K&N West circuit full time in 2018. The Bakersfield, California resident shared his thoughts about looking forward to running alongside the legend once again at Tucson.
“My hat’s off to him,” Thorn, who was born the year McGriff won the series championship, continued. “You’ve got to appreciate the level of dedication it takes to run races and the older you get the harder it gets. For him to be doing what he’s doing at that age I’m proud of him. Many levels of respect and consideration for what he’s done to bring awareness to the sport and to our series. It’s something that this sport needs. I’m happy that he’s doing what he’s doing.”
Perhaps the most special part about this upcoming race day is the fact that McGriff will be one of three generations from his family competing in the same night, a feat that more than likely has never been matched in NASCAR’s history.
Hershel Jr. stepped out of the driver’s seat for approximately 20 years and shifted to assisting other competitors when the family relocated from Oregon to Arizona. Track president John Lashley offered him a ride in an Outlaw Late Model class that was launched for the 2018 season. He went out and won the inaugural feature. His wife Shelly has also been actively involved in many aspects of Tucson Speedway’s operation and promotions.
Hershel Sr.’s granddaughter Mariah McGriff has been gaining experience in recent years and will pull double duty between the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series headlining Super Late Model division and Pro Stocks.
One of the all-time best from the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Ron Hornaday Jr., will also be on hand as the Grand Marshal for the event. Hornaday and McGriff competed for wins against each other on the West Series circuit during the early to mid-1990s.
Hershel Sr.’s involvement will not only consist of being behind the wheel and watching his family race. The National Anthem will be performed by none other than himself on his trombone.
“It was on my bucket list,” McGriff, who indicated he has been practicing at least 15 to 20 minutes per day, said. “I heard a soldier play the National Anthem at Phoenix on his trumpet and thought someday I’m going to do that. What a better time than the night I’m racing.”
Once each 100-lap race’s checkered flags fall, McGriff will not be taking it easy by any means. Early Sunday morning he will be hopping on a plane to Pennsylvania with Kenny Clapp, a former NASCAR director and creator of the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame, and will be joining in for a week’s worth of festivities toward Greensboro, North Carolina as part of the annual Kyle Petty Ride Across America motorcycle charity event.
“I’m doing something all the time, otherwise I wouldn’t be in the shape I’m in,” McGriff, who works out 30 to 45 minutes a few times a week, mentioned.
It’s McGriff’s ability to remain sharp and active over the years that makes his age just a number. It has also instilled continued confidence that he will be ready come race day.
When asked what would be a successful outcome, McGriff answered with one word in which almost any other race car driver would do the same.
“I’m very excited. I think I’ll hold my own.”
-By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com National Correspondent – Twitter: @aaron_creed
-Photo credit: The Vail Voice