Nicknames Are Usually Earned
I bid you welcome gentle readers, and of course that includes our assigned reader of all things NASCAR on this sunny and hot day in the hills of North Georgia. A few days ago my friend and fellow contributor to the pages of Race Fans Forever, Frank Buhrman wrote a column declaring among other things that drivers of today needed nicknames, something that was plentiful in the past but hard come by these days. I agree, but I’ve always maintained that the best nicknames are not ones pushed by the media, but ones that come from one’s peers, for better or worse.
Over the years, a lot of nicknames have been bestowed on NASCAR drivers, some out of love and affection, and some, well… for other reasons. Either way, I'm sure that most were earned. At one time, my alter ego, the Lady in Black dealt almost exclusively in nicknames, but hers were offered in a rather farcical way to bring some levity to her race reports. I'll try to confine this to ones that have been commonly heard in the garage over the years.
Originally, I'd thought of presenting these in the form of a quiz, but in deference to our younger fans, they are offered in what hopefully will be a more informative and fun manner. Here then, in no particular order whatsoever, is a smattering of some of the more memorable nicknames of drivers, crewmembers and tracks in NASCAR.
Because it's my column and I get to choose, we'll start with seven-time Cup Champion, Dale Earnhardt, who over the years collected several nicknames, most of which were complimentary. Besides "Ironhead" (A hangover from his Dad Ralph's nickname, "Ironheart"), Dale was also known as "One Tough Customer", derived from his Wrangler Jeans sponsorship, "The Man in Black", stemming from the black #3 GM Goodwrench car and of course, "The Intimidator", which needs no explanation.
"The King" or "King Richard" is probably the most widely known nickname in all of NASCAR, and refers of course to seven-time Cup Champion, Richard Petty. Ah, but did you know that because of winning two Daytona poles in his rookie year that Mike Skinner was affectionately dubbed, "The Emperor?" When you hear someone speak of, "The Captain", he is referring to car owner Roger Penske.
The perhaps not so complimentary nickname of "Jaws" belongs to Darrell Waltrip and was bestowed upon him over thirty years ago by fellow driver Cale Yarborough. Darrell in turn referred to Cale as "The Chicken Driver", an allusion to car owner Junior Johnson's involvement with Holly Farms chickens. H.A. (Howard Augustine) "Humpy" Wheeler, long-time head honcho at Charlotte Motor Speedway and always the consummate showman, once went so far as to bring a mounted shark to the track with a chicken placed strategically in its mouth, just to fuel the flames between the two. It was a very interesting time to be racing.
The name "Iron man" has been bestowed at various times upon Richard Petty, Terry Labonte and Ricky Rudd, for long uninterrupted streaks of racing. Labonte has long been known as well as "The Iceman", describing his imperturbable demeanor on the track.
Did you know that Buck and Buddy Baker shared identical first and middle names? They were Elzie Wylie Baker Sr. and Jr., which might be an indication of why both went by nicknames. Buddy was known as well as "The Gentle Giant", which described the big man with the big heart very well. Two others who have earned gentle nicknames are "Gentleman Ned" Jarrett (Father of Dale, grandfather of Jason, two-time Cup Champion in his own right, and a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame) and "Gentleman Jimmy" Hensley, the pride of Ridgeway, VA. Jimmy never accumulated big numbers in the Cup series, with his biggest claim to fame being that of qualifying the #3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet on the pole at Martinsville when driver Dale Earnhardt was delayed in arriving at the track due to damage from Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
Long before four-time Champion Jeff Gordon became known as "Wonder Boy" or "The Kid" as he was dubbed by Dale Earnhardt, a young northern-born (Elmhurst, Illinois) driver named Fred Lorenzen came south and took the Grand National (Cup series) by storm. Fred soon became known as, "The Golden Boy", a name that alludes to him to this day. Another son of Illinois (Chicago) was driver "Tiger" Tom Pistone, some of whose endeavors are proudly displayed right here on Race Fans Forever.
One of the most popular drivers of the millennium, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has long been referred to as "Little E" or simply as "Junior", but the nickname given to him by his Daddy is "Junebug." Joe Weatherly was known throughout his career by two nicknames, "Little Joe", for reasons of stature, and "The Clown Prince of Racing", referring to his numerous antics, both on and off the track. Now, before I am corrected on that, Peter Golenbock, author of "American Zoom" tells us that same title had been bestowed earlier on Jabe Thomas. Jabe, whose level of fame did not rise to that of Weatherly's, is said to have once pitted for a candy bar. A lap or two later, he drove back to the pits and handed the wrapper to his crew, explaining that he didn't want to be a litterbug. In today's NASCAR ranks, I've also heard it used to describe Kenny Wallace, who certainly fits the bill, but usually goes by the name of "Herman the German", derived from an old comic book character. One doesn't even have to wonder why.
E. Glenn Roberts was known simply as "Fireball" throughout the racing world. He said the nickname came from his days as a baseball pitcher, but it was well suited to his driving style on the big tracks of NASCAR. Curtis "Pops" Turner earned the nickname, not because of any fatherly image on his part, but because it described the noise that his right front fender made when it met with a competitor's left rear fender. Mr. Helton would have had a field day with "Pops!"
"Awesome Bill from Dawsonville" of course, is Bill Elliott from Dawsonville GA, who is also known as "Million Dollar Bill", reflecting his winning of the "Winston Million" in 1985. "The "Winston Million" was offered by series sponsor, RJ Reynolds to any driver who won at least three of the big four races in one year, the Daytona 500, the World 600 at Charlotte, the Winston 500 at Talladega and the Southern 500 at Darlington) Elliott won all but Charlotte that year.
Just as racing had a pair of gentlemen, it also boasts a pair of Misters; Mr. Excitement ~ Jimmy Spencer, whose driving style contributed much to the nickname and Mr. September ~ Harry Gant, who at age 51 won four straight races in September of 1991. (He would have made the string five, but suffered brake failure late in the race at North Wilkesboro and finished second to Dale Earnhardt)
"The Big Left Turn" was the name not too affectionately allotted to Langhorne Speedway in Pennsylvania. That mean old track was also known as, "The Track That Ate the Heroes" and that does not refer to sandwiches. Imagine if you will, a one-mile dirt track laid out in a perfect circle; no corners and no straightaways, just a constant left turn; and then imagine that you have to drive around it up to 250 times in a race. Add to that the fact that they built that little monster on swampland and underground creeks kept the surface constantly wet, except of course in the summer when the sun baked the mud dry and it developed huge cracks and crevices in the racing groove. If that weren't bad enough, just past the start-finish line, the track took a steep downhill route, known among drivers as "Puke Alley". NASCAR only raced there from 1949 to 1957 but that was about nine years too long for most of the drivers.
Henry Yunick, as any of my regular readers know, was called "Smokey" for most of his racing life, stemming from one of the first races he ever drove, when the old motorcycle he brought to race began smoking on the track and the announcer, unable to remember the youngster's name, called him "Smokey" and the name stuck.
Junior Johnson was tagged "The Ronda Road Runner" in early days, alluding to the area of North Carolina that he called home and his avocation of running moonshine through "Them thar hills." Conversely, DeWayne Lund, a man that stood 6'4" tall and weighed some 270 pounds, was dubbed "Tiny" by someone with a sense of humor, no doubt, but he was "Tiny" for his entire racing career.
Everett Owens was known to the racing world as "Cotton" and in truth, I had to research him to learn his real name, as I've never heard him called anything else. "Lone Star JR" was and is Texas-born Johnny Rutherford, who more prominently figured in open-wheel racing but made several forays into the stock car ranks as well.
Crew chief "Suitcase Jake" Elder earned the name by never staying with one team long enough to settle down, but by the same token, his brief stays were welcomed by every team that was lucky enough to benefit from his knowledge. R.I.P Jake. "Duffle bag Doug" Richert arrived at his name in much the same way. Doug was also the crew chief for Rod Osterlund’s Championship winning team in 1980, featuring a young driver named Dale Earnhardt.
David Pearson, who probably should have been near the top of the list, has been lovingly known for years as, "The Silver Fox", a reference to his early greying hair, but hey, he still won 105 races and never ran a full schedule! The title, "Master of the Restart" goes to Ron Hornaday Jr. and needs no explanation. He was simply the best. (And then came… "Rowdy" Busch)
Speaking of the best brings me to Danny "Chocolate" Myers, long-time gasman for the #3 GM Goodwrench team known as "The Flying Aces." I have no real idea where "Chocolate" came from, but it's probably safe to assume that it had something to do with eating habits. Danny, now retired, is one of the sweetest and dearest men in all of racing, totally belying his large stature and gruff exterior. (Until he flashes that winning grin)
Our last character of the day was known as "The Hat Man of NASCAR." His name is Bill Brodrick; if you don't remember him then watch for him in Victory Lane the next time you tune into a race on ESPN Classic. He is the tall blond man that for years on end served as Winner’s Circle coordinator and assisted the drivers with donning the proper hats at the proper time for the proper photographs. (Even in the old days, sponsors could not be neglected) Bill was actually employed by Unocal 76, which used to be the "Official fuel of NASCAR", but when that company underwent reorganization in 1998, the new regime found his position of twenty-nine years to be unnecessary and he was summarily dismissed.
That only leaves us with a few track nicknames, and though none of these is as snotty as the Langhorne track, it is safe to assume that a track does not earn a nickname unless it presents the drivers with a distinct challenge, so this is actually a list of the best.
"The Rock" aka North Carolina Speedway at Rockingham, NC is/was the one-mile high-banked track that NASCAR saw fit to close a few years back.
"The Lady in Black" or "The Track Too Tough to Tame" (Sometimes abbreviated as TTTTTT): This track of course, is that grand old Lady, Darlington Raceway in Darlington South Carolina. She was the first paved Superspeedway in NASCAR, opening her doors to racing back in 1950. Her most prestigious race, the Labor Day Southern 500, finally returned to its proper place on the NASCAR schedule in 2015, after a 9-year journey around the country.
"The Bermuda Triangle", or more recently "The Tricky Triangle" according to the talking heads on TV, applies to Pocono International Raceway in Pennsylvania, the only three-cornered track on the circuit.
Pretty little Martinsville Speedway, located in southern Virginia, because of its long narrow shape has long been called, "The Paperclip." This fan-friendly little half-miler was acquired a few years ago by International Speedway Corporation, which is, simply put, the "other pocket" of the Family France, owners and dictators of NASCAR. It's no secret that she is my favorite track on the circuit, offering a delightful combination of flat track and short track racing on both asphalt and concrete.
Finally, we come to Dover International Speedway, affectionately (Or not) known as, "The Monster Mile." By its very name, you can tell that Dover is a one-mile oval, sporting for the last several years an all-concrete surface. That repaving earned the track another name, coming I believe from the open-wheel ranks that also race there, "White Lightning." This track is perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the SAFER barriers, since the speeds are high and the walls used to be extremely hard and unforgiving.
Though a couple of current drivers snuck in there, most did not, simply because they either don't have nicknames or they are names dreamed up and "pushed" by media, not bestowed by peers in the garage or loving fans. Other than "Smoke" and "Rowdy", the latter of which began as a media suggestion pushed by Larry Mac but actually caught on, very few leap to mind… "Happy" Harvick, "Cousin" Carl and "Bad" Brad, with most all else going far afield. Maybe in the next generation to come along… Elliott, Blaney, Jones, a couple of Dillons and the rest of the Pampers Posse, there'll be more color in the drivers' characters, bringing new nicknames. Actually, one of those IS a nickname. “Chase” Elliott is actually Bill Jr. and I’m not sure just where “Chase’ comes from. Anyone know?
The current crew was hushed and stifled for so many years, fans never had much of a chance to know them well enough to call them anything other than their given names. That's too bad!
Frank also mentions folks that raced under assumed names and gave several examples, but he missed a big one. I knew I’d heard this story related by the man himself, and was able to quickly verify it. Ned Jarrett, in the early 50s, raced several races under the name “John Lentz”, who I believe was his brother-in-law. Ned’s dad, Homer, was of the mind that Ned could work on cars, but he didn’t want him racing them. He got away with the name change until he won a race. Then he had to go to Victory Lane and was immediately recognized. Homer relented and told Ned, "Son, if you're going to drive, you might as well get the credit for it," and that was the end of the alias.
That concludes our session for today my friends. I’m aware that many of those mentioned here have other nicknames. Feel free to post and add any you can think of. If I managed to share a name or two that you didn't know or bring back a pleasant memory, then I am happy to have been your guide.
The guitar means that it’s time now for our Classic Country Closeout, and this one should have something for everyone. It’s either the first or second edition of Country’s Family Reunion, and possibly both, filmed I believe in 1997. The write-up is confusing, and given that it’s almost a 3-hour show, I haven’t had the opportunity to listen to it all the way through. I’ve never seen one of these that wasn’t great, and most bring some tears along with the smiles, as we listen once again to so many that have gone on before us now. Please enjoy!
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling.
It looks so good on you!