Long ago, and not so far away, NASCAR drivers were tougher than nails.
Racers like Lee Petty, Curtis Turner, Buck Baker, and Jack Smith ruled the track. There weren't any image consultants or scraps with stepmothers over car numbers. Schedules of 50 to 60 events per year separated the men from the boys rather quickly, and fights didn't mean someone hitting someone else with bottled water.
Hell, they didn't even have bottled water back then.
G.C. Spencer was cut from that mold.
Spencer won so many races that many bullring race tracks in the Midwest went out of business because competitors stopped showing up to race against him. Spencer earned hundreds of victories—unfortunately none of them were NASCAR Grand National (now Nextel Cup) events.
Spencer was born in Owensboro, KY. If that town rings a bell, it could be because the racing Waltrips, Darrell and Michael, also came from Owensboro.
In fact, Darrell always considered Spencer his hero.
"G.C was a great driver on the local short tracks when I was coming up," Darrell recently said. "He always had that unique car and that unique sound. Back then I always thought he was the coolest guy ever to sit behind the wheel of a race car."
Spencer died recently at the age of 82 at NHC Health Care in Johnson City, TN, following a long battle with emphysema.
Spencer moved from Owensboro to southern Indiana after being discharged from the Navy following World War II. He entered his first stock car race in 1948 on a dare from his friends, who admired his ability to hot rod around town.
Spencer finished second in his first race.
"I thought to myself, 'Man, this is easy,'" Spencer recently told a Nashville newspaper. "But, later on when I tried to go up against the best of NASCAR I quickly saw how hard it was to run with the big boys."
In 1958, Spencer hooked up with some racing friends in Inman, SC, and started his NASCAR career.
"At first we went to a few of the races and watched them around South Carolina and North Carolina and as I watched I thought it would be really easy for me to win and be competitive with those NASCAR guys," Spencer once said. "So I bought a 1957 Chevy race car and found out when you race against the likes of Buck Baker, Jack Smith, and Lee Petty, you've got your hands filled and it wasn't as easy as it looked."
Spencer's NASCAR career stretched from 1958 through 1977. He ran mainly as a non-factory-backed driver. He was offered a Ford ride before the 1965 season...but when Ford's top rival, Chrysler, dropped out of NASCAR prior to the first race, Ford backed out of its deal with Spencer, telling him they really didn't need him anymore.
That same year he placed fourth in the NASCAR championship standings, and finished second in three races to eventual champion Ned Jarrett.
"I think if Ford had stuck with me in 1965, I would have won that championship," Spencer later said.
Though Spencer's NASCAR career included seven second-place finishes, he never won a race. He retired as a driver in 1977 at the age of 51 but continued fielding cars until 1983.
In 1983, Larry McClure purchased Spencer's equipment and Morgan-McClure Motorsports was formed. Spencer was the team manager for three seasons.
After he left racing, Spencer and his wife started an antique business in Tennessee. He later said he'd stayed too long and spent too much money as a car owner. At the end of his life, he lived on Social Security and Veterans Health benefits.
Unlike every other major sport in America, NASCAR has no pension plan for retired drivers. In his 20-year NASCAR career, Spencer earned only $250,000—less than the lowest paid driver in this year's Daytona 500.
"Racing is a hard life," Spencer once said, "but I loved it and that is what I wanted to do. You really have to love it because racing becomes your entire life. I didn't make much money at it, but I did okay. I'd do it all over again if I had the chance."