The long road that will lead to Hershel McGriff’s induction to the NASCAR Hall of Fame began Friday (8 p.m. ET on Peacock) 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 that stretched across parts of the New Highway and parts of the Mexican desert. McGriff, who handled most of the two-man team’s leadership, and Elliott won the event by 76 seconds.
It was a big deal—the team won $17,000, but the race had an even bigger prize for McGriff. He met NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., who competed in racing with teammate Curtis Turner. This meeting was a life-changing event for McGriff.
France introduced McGriff to NASCAR, which was 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, winning four races in 1954 and competing in various forms of racing. Motorsport competition through the ensuing decades.
McGriff has been a fixture in West Coast racing for decades. After storming victory lane in a Cup race, he was offered a top-class ride with Carl Kiekhaefer’s new team for the 1955 season, but McGriff chose to stay in Oregon, where he had a successful business and was raising a family. Tim Flock took the Kiekhaefer Tour and won the Cup Championship.
On Friday, McGriff will join France, Flock, and many others in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Also scheduled to join the Charlotte Convention Center are Cup champs Matt Kenseth and Kirk Shelmerdine, four-time crew chief with driver Dale Earnhardt.
McGriff has also had a long way to get into the Hall, having been nominated several times before his election last year.
“None of us knew at the time, when he was standing up and talking about cacti (during Mexican race week), that we were going to end up in the Hall of Fame,” said McGriff.
The stories span from the 1950’s to belief. McGriff and Elliott drove their Oldsmobile 88 for 2,000 miles in winning the Pan American Race. Elliott then drove home to Oregon. Four months later, at France’s invitation, McGriff drove the same car from Portland to Darlington, South Carolina, to compete in the inaugural Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. McGriff finished ninth in that race, then promptly drove home to Oregon.
The Olds 88 was clearly a strong mountain.
“The car ran flawlessly the whole race in Mexico,” said McGriff. “It never had a mark on it. It might have been a little dirty. The car was just as stock. We took the back seat out and put four spare tires and two bumper jacks in. We threw some wrenches in the glove box, and we were ready to go.”
McGriff said he sometimes saw France-Turner’s car on the race course.
“We were running every day within seconds of each other,” he said. “Bill later told me he was wondering how this little kid[McGriff at 22]was keeping up with his chauffeur (Turner).”
McGriff and France, who were both inducted into the Class A Hall of Fame in 2010, became fast friends and worked together in the 1950s.
“I flew with Bill a lot on his plane and did PR for him,” said McGriff. “He’d drop me off whenever there was a race coming up, and I’d go by a few TV and radio stations and do an announcement about the race. After the race, we’d come back.
“On returning home to Daytona from one trip, he flew over this swamp and pointed down and said to me, ‘This is where I’m going to build the Daytona International Speedway. He showed me the trajectory charts and asked me to steer the plane.
The highway opened in 1959.
Now retired in Green Valley, Arizona, McGriff continued to race in various series through 2018. His time at the track included two appearances at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Now riding to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, at 95 he is the oldest inductee.