Worth McMillion’s Passing Stirs Memories of a Simpler Era of
It’s always sad when somebody who has meant something to you dies, and so it was recently with the passing of longtime NASCAR independent drivers Jabe Thomas and Worth McMillion.
Back in the ‘60s when pal Dave Fulton and I caught a Grand National race whenever we could, we’d generally head over to the independents’ cars afterward, because there were fewer fans around Roy Tyner, J.T. Putney, J.D. McDuffie, Wendell Scott, Jabe and Worth, so you might actually get to talk with them and have them at least appear to appreciate the attention.
(A side note: It’s ridiculous to call that racing Sprint Cup, since back then Sprint was still Brown Telephone Company or GTE or some other intermediate name, and it dealt with wires and telephone poles, not cell towers and text messages.)
The independent drivers and nearly all their car owners, if they didn’t own their own teams, shared the circumstance that they didn’t have a lot of money (they didn’t make a lot, either). Their equipment sometimes made that evident, and as a result, they seldom challenged for the lead, even though most had been regular winners in local racing. The idea was to soldier on, maybe finish in the top 10, pick up $200 or $300, and hit the road to wherever you raced next.
Worth McMillion was a part-time independent, which removed him even farther from the rarefied air of factory teams, or virtually anything about Sprint Cup racing today. He worked for Virginia’s alcoholic beverage regulation agency, a particular irony when some drivers he raced against still had bootlegging on their resumes.
Jabe Thomas finished in the top 10 in Grand National points four straight years (1968-71) and had 65 top 10 finishes during that period. Worth McMillion’s best points year was 1964, when he was 30th, and he made only 62 career starts (but with 18 top 10s among them, albeit never close to the lead lap).
You can’t turn the clock back, but I miss that an everyday Joe like Worth McMillion can’t build a race car and live his dream occasionally in the big time. I know today’s rules need to be so exacting that a team can be fined a king’s ransom for an offense you and I couldn’t even see, but I kind of yearn for the time when that was different.
When Worth McMillion’s 65 Pontiac was no longer eligible for GN competition in 1968, he did a little backyard bodywork on it, adding some sheet metal here and there to make it sort-of look like a ‘66, but NASCAR didn’t buy it when Worth brought it to the Richmond Fairgrounds (now Richmond International Raceway), and the car failed inspection.
We asked Worth what the problem had been, and he shrugged: “Too old.”
Eventually, however, he refined his efforts, and the car made another race or two before another year passed and alas there was no way to make #83 look like a 1967 model.
The point, though, is that this happened without multiple team engineers and New York Stock Exchange-listed sponsors, and while Worth did occasionally field two cars during the year or two when he had two that weren’t too old, I don’t think backup driver G.T. Nolen would have been considered part of a “driver development program” and I’m pretty sure he didn’t sign a contract for his work.
The cars cost more than a hobby bomber at East Upstate County Raceway, but you didn’t have to keep them stowed in a million-dollar hauler.
The night before Richmond’s GN races, Dave, Chris Young and I would cruise through the motels on U.S. Route 1 to see who’d shown up for Sunday’s race(high-budget teams stayed at the Holiday Inn; lower budget guys - those who could afford a motel at all - seemed to prefer the Richmond Auto Court with its little cabins in the woods). The cars sat on the backs of open trailers or haulers.
Once, an extra-distance late model sportsman race at Langley Speedway drew Bill Champion’s no-longer-eligible-for-GN-racing ‘64 Ford and Larry Manning’s still-eligible ‘66 Chevy (a car we understood to have formerly belonged to the recently departed Wayne Smith). Manning also drove his Chevy at least once in a Friday night feature at Southside Speedway in Richmond.
On the morning of one Richmond GN race, Stick Elliott had his car worked on at a gas station/garage across the street from the race track. He then drove it back over, waiting patiently in line with fans seeking parking spaces.
A couple of years ago, they found one of Worth McMillion’s cars back in the woods up near Amelia, Va. I have a feeling Hendrick Motorsports disposes of its used racing inventory differently these days.
I still enjoy Sprint Cup racing, and I like having dozens of cars on the lead lap at the end In the first race I ever saw, Worth McMillion finished 10th, 23 laps behind. But, I like to cheer for the underdog, the guy who by some miracle might have been me.
Half a century ago, that guy was Worth McMillion. There’s no real counterpart today, and that’s a shame.