Herb Thomas: Humble man, hard racer

- Contributor
Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013

With the approach of the 2013 NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, we're taking a closer look at the five men to be honored on Feb. 8. The third inductee we're featuring is Herb Thomas.


Born: April 6, 1923, Olivia, N.C.

Died: Aug. 9, 2000, Sanford, N.C. of a heart attack at age 77.

Family: Wife Helen (deceased), sons Jerry (deceased), Victor and Joel.


Started NASCAR’s very first race in what was to eventually become the Cup Series on June 19, 1949, at Charlotte Speedway, a three-quarter-mile dirt track. The sawmill worker and trucker finished 29th in a 33-car field after the springs on his Ford failed.

Scored the first of his 48 career triumphs in what then was known as NASCAR’s Grand National Division on Oct. 15, 1950, at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, finishing a lap ahead of runner-up Lee Petty on what at that time was a half-mile dirt track.

Won the second running of the Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, NASCAR’s first big paved track, on Sept. 3, 1951, finishing a lap ahead of runner-up Jesse James Taylor. Thomas drove a car nicknamed the “Fabulous Hudson Hornet,” the No. 92 that he was to help make famous.

Captured the '51 series championship as an owner-driver, winning seven of 33 starts and posting 19 top-10 finishes to narrowly edge Fonty Flock for the title.

Won eight of 32 starts in 1952, tying Tim Flock, Fonty’s brother, for the most victories that year. Tim Flock edged Thomas for the title.

Again claimed the title in a sensational '53 season, becoming the first two-time champion by winning 12 of 37 races and placing in the top 10 a whopping 31 times.

Drove the Hudson to victory again in the Southern 500 of 1954. Thomas ran down a suddenly struggling superstar, Curtis Turner, with 20 of 364-laps remaining and pulled away to take the checkered flag 26 seconds ahead of the second-place Turner in a 50-car field.

The '54 season produced 12 more victories for Thomas, who in 34 races finished in the top 10 a remarkable 27 times. However, Lee Petty edged him for the series title.

Experienced a horrid crash on May 1, 1955, at Charlotte Speedway, a three-fourths mile dirt track. He flipped several times and was thrown from the car. Thomas suffered a broken leg, severe bruises, a concussion, cuts on an arm and shoulder injuries. Doctors predicted Thomas would be sidelined for six months. However, he vowed to return sooner.

Kept his promise of a quick comeback in fantastic fashion, winning the Southern 500 in '55 for a third time just four months after his wreck in Charlotte. In doing so, he became the first back-to-back winner of what then was NASCAR's biggest event, this time driving a new Chevrolet to victory. He finished a lap ahead of second-place Jim Reed in a 69-car field.

Briefly joined the powerful new Chrysler team fielded in 1956 by Carl Kiekhaefer, the founder of Mercury Outboard Motors. Thomas won three straight starts for Kiekhaefer before quitting to again drive his own cars. Thomas was gravely injured in a wildly controversial eight-car crash on Oct. 23 during a 100-mile race at the Cleveland County Fairgrounds track, a half-mile dirt layout in Shelby, N.C. He suffered a fractured skull and other critical injuries. The accident essentially ended his racing career.

Attempting a comeback, Thomas made only two starts in 1957 and another in '62.

Record lists the 48 victories in 230 starts, a winning rate of 20.8 percent, second best all time to his peer Tim Flock, whose 39 of 187 is 20.9 percent. Thomas’ triumphs place him 12th on the all-time Cup list.


Inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame at Darlington in 1965.

Inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega, Ala., in 1994.

Named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998.

Elected posthumously to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte in June 2012.


Retired Observer motorsports writer Tom Higgins and contributor Tom Higgins on Herb Thomas:

I first saw him: At Darlington Country Club during his induction into the NMPA Hall of Fame on Sept. 4, 1965. "I'm very surprised," said a smiling Thomas. "I thought people had forgotten me."

First impression: A quiet and quite humble man, considering all he achieved.

What people might not know about him: After leaving NASCAR, Thomas formed and operated a small trucking company in the Sanford area.

My favorite memory of him: His absolute delight in being welcomed back by peers that Labor Day weekend of '65 at Darlington. He was an extremely happy man.

Most memorable quote: "Winning the '51 championship was the best part of my driving career. The first of anything is always the best. I ran with some of the best drivers ever – Lee Petty, Buck Baker and the Flock brothers. I liked racing with all these guys and never had trouble with any of them. We raced hard and had a good time doing it."

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