A Sit Down With Jim Vandiver; A True Pioneer Of NASCAR

David ScercyCorrespondent IMay 30, 2009

The roots of NASCAR date back to the late 1940’s when the France Family took a simple racing division and turned it into what is now one of the most viewed sports in the world today. NASCAR is broadcast on television in over 150 countries and holds 17 of the top 20 attended single day sporting events in the U.S. and claims 75 million fans that purchase over $3.00 billion in annual licensed product and sales. About 5 miles from my house here in Mooresville N.C. sits the NASCAR Technical Institute, the country’s first technical training school designed to combine a complete automotive technology program for students who dream of becoming part of the sport as mechanics, crew members, and engineers.

   But underneath the billions of dollars of revenue, major corporate sponsors, and star studded drivers lies a history that some NASCAR fans today are unfamiliar with. This series will be designed to bring out the history of a great American sport and to familiarize fans with the real legends that brought this sport to where it is today. And what better way to introduce the NASCAR Pioneer series than to catch up with one of the old school racers who rubbed fenders with the greats of David Pearson, Donnie Allison, Richard Petty, and Dale Earnhardt.

   Jim Vandiver began racing in the Grand National Division (now known as the Sprint Cup Division) in 1968. Vandiver grew up around the Huntersville area racing dirt tracks making a name as one of the hardest chargers in the area. Vandiver entered 2 ARCA events at Talladega in the 70’s and won both races. In 14 seasons in the sport, Vandiver piled up 85 races, 5 top-five finishes, and 24 top 10 finishes.

THE INNAUGURAL TALLADEGA RACE IN 1969:Jim Vandiver led 102 laps in the inaugural NASCAR race at Talladega Super Speedway in 1969, but finished second to Richard Brickhouse in a controversial finish, a race that even today Vandiver says he won. When I asked him to explain that day he never even hesitated to tell the whole story. “We won that race, there’s no doubt about it” Vandiver says with a definite gleam in his eye. “It was the first time they run those winged cars, and we led over 100 laps, we only pitted under caution. Well Brickhouse made 2 stops under green during the race. Then with 10 laps left Coo-Coo Marlin felt his motor giving way, he pulled to the inside of the track down the back stretch and his motor blew. NASCAR threw the caution and to our knowledge Brickhouse was lapped because of the green flag stops. So when the green flew he passed me, it should have put him on the same lap as us. But NASCAR gave Brickhouse the victory even after a scorer argued with them for 3 hours” he says.

THE SOUTHERN 500 IN DARLINGTON IN 1973: Vandiver is famous for an incident that took place in the 1973 Southern 500 in Darlington S.C. Once again Jim goes into every detail of the story as if it happened just last week. “I was divorced with my first wife and was coming over to pick my 10 year old son up and when I pulled up he jumped into the car with me and we took off, not really knowing that his mom didn’t know I was coming to get him. Anyhow she took out papers on me for child custody. Well I was told to appear in Greenville S.C. court on Friday, and the Southern 500 was in Darlington on a Monday back then so my lawyer told me to not worry about appearing and that he would handle it because he knew I had to be at the track. Well the judge didn’t like it I wasn’t in court, so they held me in contempt of court. But when I was on the phone with my lawyer, he didn’t tell me I was in contempt of court. So the judge sent two deputies to come get me. They showed up on raceday and came to Barney Wallace’s office to let him know that they were there to take me in custody, Wallace talked them into letting me race then take me in, well one of our guys Neil Castle was in the office and over heard the conversation and come told me that they were here to arrest me after the race. So I rode around that track thinking of ways to get out of there. The car was running terrible we believed it was the distributor so finally I knew what I was going to do. I came around there flying by the pits racing by on the front stretch and waved bye to my brother who was my crew chief at the time then came down the back stretch and spun the car around causing a caution. When the field got slowed down I jumped out my car, ran across the track and jumped the wall. When I got to a chain linked fence it was like someone knew I was coming because right there the fence had been cut like somebody done snuck into the race so I went right through it to the road outside the track” Jim explains with a huge grin on his face. Jim says he hitch-hiked all the way back to Monroe N.C. where he got a ride from his car owner back to his house. He says that he picked up the phone to call a pay phone that was in the garage at Darlington, he got one of his crew members on the phone and he asked Jim “where the world are you?” Jim told him with a smile on his face “at home drinking an iced cold beer.”

   While talking to Jim I realize that even though he never got to enjoy the luxuries today’s NASCAR drivers get to enjoy, he has NASCAR enriched in his heart, and in his blood. And its stories like these that make him a legend in the sport.

   Today’s fans of the sport should consider getting involved more to understand the history of NASCAR and how the earlier pioneers of racing are a major part of where NASCAR is today, and where it will be in the future. It’s people like Jim Vandiver who make me appreciate how lucky we are to be blessed with such tradition and history from one of the greatest sports in the world today.