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Tom Higgins: Racers remember Lorenzen streak

Tom Higgins' Scuffs

- Contributor
Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011

It was a warm, Happy Holiday of a reunion last week for three old-time NASCAR racers.

And then, in a bittersweet way, a Blue Christmas.

On Dec. 7 hall-of-fame engine-builder and crew chief Waddell Wilson flew from Charlotte to Chicago along with former teammate Slick Owens.

It was a sentimental journey for the two long-ago members of the storied Holman & Moody operation, which fielded Fords out of a large Charlotte shop for legendary drivers such as Fireball Roberts, David Pearson, Dick Hutcherson, Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly, Marvin Panch, Mario Andretti, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and the fellow that Wilson and Owens were traveling to visit:

Their driver in what is now the Cup Series, Fred Lorenzen.

Fearless Freddie…The Golden Boy…Fast Freddie…The Elmhurst Express…Flyin’ Freddy.

Lorenzen, blessed with movie star good looks and terrific driving talent, had all those nicknames during a meteoric span from 1961-66 in which he won 26 races, mostly on superspeedways.

Lorenzen, now 74, is afflicted with dementia. He resides comfortably in an upscale assisted-living facility near Chicago, lovingly watched over by his adult children, Amanda and Chris.

Earlier this month Lorenzen, named by NASCAR as one of the sanctioning body’s 50 greatest drivers, was honored by proclamation of the Illinois General Assembly.

This prompted the trip of Wilson and Owens to see him.

“Freddie was in a wheelchair when I walked into his room,” Wilson said this week. “He was looking out a window at the beautiful grounds.

“He turned around and his face just glowed. ‘Waddell!’ he said. It was all I could do to keep from crying that he recognized me so instantly.

“It made me feel so good about him. Why, we hadn’t seen each other since 1971 – Forty years! And he knew right away who I was!

“Within a minute or so he remembered Slick, too.

“It was a warm, warm reunion.”

The three, naturally, quickly began talking of their team’s sensational success in the '60s.

“We won the 1965 Daytona 500 together, and it was fun recalling that,” continued Wilson. “But the memory that seemed to stand out best for Freddie was the '64 season.

“We had trouble in the 500 that year, but then went on a super streak. Freddie won the next seven races that covered 250 miles or more. Overall he won eight of 16 starts.

“I also reminded Freddie that in ’65 we swept the two big races at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and that brought a big smile to his face.

“He loved doing well at Charlotte, ‘cause he’d moved here from Illinois and it was home to Holman & Moody.”

Wilson sighed.

“A lot of things endeared Freddie to me” continued Waddell. “He wasn’t one of those ‘hired drivers’ who just showed up at the track on race days carrying his helmet.

“He worked with us on the cars at the shop. He put on a white uniform just like the rest of us and dived in to help. He had a great knowledge of what needed to be done to make a race car go fast.

“Freddie was obsessed with speed, with being the absolute fastest. He wanted to win the pole, lead every lap and win the race.

“And when he did win, he never patted himself on the back. If he did, I never heard of it.”

Surprisingly, Lorenzen retired in ’67, then attempted a comeback in 1970. He ran 29 races with other teams through ’72.

A horrifying 1971 crash at Darlington Raceway in a Wood Brothers Ford left him badly injured and he decided to depart racing for good the following year.

Lorenzen then embarked on a career in real estate that proved immensely successful.

“We spent about three hours with Freddie, talking and laughing about the great old times we had,” said Wilson. “I could see he was getting tired, and it was time for us to go.

"We said goodbye and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bluer, sadder look on anyone’s face.

“He seemed to be saying, ‘Don’t leave me! Take me with you…’

“Lord, I wish somehow that had been possible.”

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