Remembering Jim Vandiver, a colorful piece of NASCAR history
I hate to bring up a sad subject, but after attending Jim Vandiver’s funeral on Monday it was another stark reminder to me that the fabric of the original NASCAR is slowly slipping away from us. I had the privilege of knowing him and his brother Tommy. They had a shop in Huntersville, North Carolina not far from where I was attending North Mecklenburg High School.
I always had a desire to work on race cars and Jim was the one of the first guys who was nice enough to let me come hang out at his shop. He put me to work cleaning race cars and even took me to a race. The thing I remember the most about Jim was his personality, which played a pivotal role in one historic moment in our sport.
It was Sept. 14, 1969 for the inaugural running of the Talladega 500. NASCAR’s biggest stars boycotted the race because they felt the tires were unsafe with speeds nearing 200 miles per hour. Well, as you can imagine, that didn’t sit well at all with NASCAR founder, and the builder of the track, "Big" Bill France. So, he put the call out to any drivers from other series who were willing to "cross the line," if you will, because Big Bill was going to run that race. Jim was one of those drivers that stepped up. He drove a Dodge fielded by Ray Fox and finished second, which ironically would be his best finish in his NASCAR Cup career.
If there wasn’t enough controversy because of the driver boycott, Jim vowed to his dying day that he won that race even though NASCAR awarded the win to Richard Brickhouse. Many say he was a lap down to Jim. I can’t argue that point. Trust me, I’ve learned painfully through my years in NASCAR firsthand that their scoring is impeccable and most times it’s not questionable either.
But it’s a tribute I think to men like Jim who were willing to run that race despite the boycott from the stars of our sport. There are so many drivers like Jim, like "Tiger" Tom Pistone or a Walter Ballard. Trust me, the list is very long and varied. These are guys like Elmo Langley that spent their own money to build cars and go race in NASCAR. It was guys like this that were the foundation of building our sport up each and every year just like the France family.
Guys like that made racing fun. They were always pulling pranks on each other off the track while racing very hard on the track. When something went wrong or someone needed something, they never hesitated to help one another. That’s what made the sport great and a great family that I have been blessed to enter into.
So each time we lose someone like a Jim Vandiver, it reminds me that we are losing another piece of our colorful NASCAR history. I always like to challenge the fans to dig deep into our sport and learn about its roots. Learn about the personalities because there were some real characters in NASCAR as the sport came along.