Ned Jarrett gained respect as a driver and broadcaster

Catawba County native

Friday, May. 20, 2011

Ned Jarrett had just won NASCAR's Grand National championship in 1961. His on-track performances were impressive that season. A tough, intense driver who backed down from not even the sport's biggest names, Jarrett had 23 top-five finishes to go along with a victory at Fairgrounds Raceway in Birmingham, Ala.

But when Jarrett, who had just turned 29, stepped away from the track, his true personality came through. And that didn't necessarily serve him well.

"I was a bashful individual," said Jarrett, who will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Monday. Jarrett will be honored as much for his driving career - he won 50 races and one more championship in 1965 - as for his 22 years as a television commentator on ESPN and CBS.

As NASCAR's champion 50 years ago, Jarrett had media obligations - as well as fans to meet and sponsors to schmooze (although not as many then as now). But having grown up on a farm in rural Catawba County, the attention made him uncomfortable.

"I didn't have opportunities to talk in public, to stand up on my feet in front of people - even in Sunday school," he said. "So after we won the championship, I vowed I'd be better prepared the next time."

Over the winter, Jarrett saw an advertisement for a Dale Carnegie Training self-improvement course in Charlotte. Curious, he signed up.

"It was the best thing I ever did," said Jarrett. "It made a complete difference on my outlook on life and in business. I had so far to go, so much to learn, so it was very positive for me."

It was also unheard of for a driver to be thinking in those terms at that time.

"Most drivers were from small towns in the South and they were cloistered people," said Humpy Wheeler, former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway. "They were standoff-ish and not particularly friendly if you didn't know them."

NASCAR was also a regional sport that didn't have the national reach of other pro leagues.

"Those kinds of personalities were hurting us because other sports were producing some pretty classy guys," said Wheeler. "Basketball had Bob Cousy and golf had Arnold Palmer. They were bright guys who knew how to mix with the press and the people."

NASCAR would soon have Ned Jarrett.

Self-assured and well-spoken

Jarrett came out of the Carnegie course in the winter of '61 newly self-assured and well-spoken. He soon became a magnet for reporters. He slipped easily into conversations with fans. Wearing a suit and tie, he pitched sponsors with confidence.

"He learned how to talk to people," said Junior Johnson, one of Jarrett's rivals. "A lot of race drivers talk a lot but don't get out what they really mean. Ned did it the right way.

"You heard a lot of people criticize it. Basically because they'd never heard of anybody doing something like that before."

Jarrett's awareness of how to present himself to the public came naturally.

His father owned a saw mill in Catawba County and the Jarrett family's good name was of paramount importance. When Ned began racing at Hickory Speedway in 1952, it didn't sit well with his parents.

"My father couldn't see me participating with that group of people," said Jarrett. "Most of the racers were bootleggers and my dad didn't see how that could help do too much with the positive image he's worked so hard to build up in the community. They were good people, but they were outlaws. They had a different way of making a living, which was fine, but it was unlawful.

"So he presented me with one of the biggest challenges I've ever had: I couldn't be involved with racing if it didn't build respect for the family. So he made me work harder than I'd ever dreamed of. I had to prove to him it doesn't matter who you associate with. You can still build respect. I've always appreciated that."

Getting tough on the track

Jarrett's kind way with people earned him the nickname "Gentleman Ned" over the years. But he wasn't necessarily that way on the track.

"I guess when I put the helmet on, it was a different situation," he said.

Jarrett remembers having run-ins with drivers like Richard Petty and David Pearson, retaliating after he felt like they had done something to him that, in his words, "could have been helped."

Jarrett retired from racing in 1966. He soon went into broadcasting and became a fixture on television, for which his Dale Carnegie training had also prepared him.

Jarrett's sense of respect and fairness spilled out after his son Dale won the 1993 Daytona 500, a race in which Dale Jarrett had passed Dale Earnhardt on the last lap to win. Ned, an analyst on CBS's telecast, was allowed to make the call on that dramatic last lap.

It was an emotional few minutes, but Ned Jarrett later felt he had slighted Earnhardt by openly rooting for his son to win.

The next week at Rockingham, Ned Jarrett walked with Earnhardt to the pre-race drivers meeting.

"Dale, I need to talk to you," Jarrett recalled saying.

"Yeah, congratulations on Dale (Jarrett) winning Daytona," Earnhardt replied.

"No, that wasn't what I wanted to talk to you about," Jarrett said. "I did you wrong. I shouldn't have been cheering for my son on national television."

Earnhardt stopped and poked Jarrett in the chest.

"Don't you ever forget that I'm a daddy, too," Earnhardt said.

Jarrett's eyes filled with tears as he told the story.

"That put me at ease," he said.

Jarrett is 78 now and lives near his boyhood home in the Catawba County town of Newton. He has struggled with health problems recently. He's had a heart ailment and also had three surgeries to help with the effects of a broken back he suffered in a crash in 1965.

But this is a significant time for the Jarrett family. In addition to Ned's induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Dale Jarrett recently went into the Catawba County Sports and N.C. Sports halls of fame. The towns of Hickory and Conover have also honored Ned and Dale this spring.

"To have the support and respect of all of them is very meaningful to us," said Ned.

A respect that was earned - and returned.

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