In our lives, unique people come along who enhance our experiences and over time, become special to us in one way or another. For some of us, it may be a teacher or a mentor. For others, it's the influence of celebrities, sports figures or even individuals who shaped history.
As the President and General Manager of Atlanta Motor Speedway, it is only natural that one who had such an influence on my life would be a NASCAR driver. That in itself is no surprise. But here is what the famous radio broadcaster Paul Harvey would have called "The Rest Of The Story."
One of the very first NASCAR races that I attended was in 1964 at the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville Speedway, in my home state of Virginia. The winner that day, who claimed the first-ever grandfather clock winners trophy, was Fred Lorenzen.
That very moment began my fascination with NASCAR racing and my new hero, and it is one that still continues even today, some 49 years later. Back then, when I was 10-years old, I began communicating with Lorenzen through fan letters sent to his Holman & Moody team headquarters in Charlotte, NC. With each one, I received in return a response that included an autographed picture postcard of "Fearless Freddie," as he was known, with Lorenzen posing alongside his car along with a personal message such as, "To Eddie, best wishes always, Fred Lorenzen." I even received Christmas cards for several years that were not only personally signed, but hand-addressed by Lorenzen himself.
Without a doubt, I would most likely not be involved in the NASCAR industry today were it not for the kindness of Lorenzen. And while the driver of the pearl white No. 28 factory Ford was my personal favorite, I was but one of a legion of followers who claimed Lorenzen as their driver of choice, and for good reason.
Lorenzen moved south in 1961 from Elmhurst, Ill. to join the powerful Holman & Moody stable on the invitation of team co-owner Ralph Moody, whom he had impressed with his driving performances in less than stellar equipment. He quickly established himself as a favorite in each event he ran, winning three events that year including the Rebel 300 at Darlington where he defeated NASCAR legend Curtis Turner.
Ford selected Lorenzen to only compete in the circuit's biggest races. As a result, his limited schedule prevented him from ever running for a season championship within NASCAR. But as far as what Lorenzen was able to do on the track from 1961 to 1967, that is something that may never be equaled. During that span, he competed in 112 events and scored 26 wins, a 23.21 winning percentage. In addition, he captured 30 pole positions and became the first driver to win on every NASCAR superspeedway in existence at the time.
Along the way, Lorenzen won on short tracks and road courses as well as superspeedways. He was the leader of the Ford driving contingent and it was common knowledge that if you wanted to win in NASCAR, you'd have to beat Lorenzen.
I recently had the opportunity to visit Lorenzen in the assisted living home in Elmhurst where he resides as he deals with dementia. The occasion was in conjunction with the opening night of a wonderful exhibit at the Elmhurst Historical Museum which chronicled his career. I was there to visit my hero and present him with a specially designed racing helmet which commemorated his three consecutive victories fifty years ago in the 1962, 1963 and 1964 Atlanta 500s at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
While the disease obviously impacted his short-term memory, his eyes lit up when we began talking about his career, racing in Atlanta and all that he has meant to me through the years. I was amazed at the details he still remembered and impressed with his explanation of how hard work and preparation were key to his success.
His philosophy was simple. He worked on the cars alongside team members in the Holman & Moody shop because he felt it gave him a stronger understanding of what he could expect from the car. He was very focused and determined, too. Lorenzen had a very business-like approach to racing. He didn't drink and party, arrived at the track early and was all business about the task at hand. He even chose and hand- selected his own sets of tires, being among the first to understand the benefits of "stagger" in his tires.
Lorenzen's driving style was to save his equipment until the end of the race. His philosophy on his reason for doing so was rather simple.
"Why would I run hard early and race the whole field when the money is paid at the end of the race when you only have a handful of guys to beat," he explained.
So how did he view other competitors that he either raced against or later saw come along into NASCAR?
"The guy you knew you had to beat to win."
Dale Earnhardt Sr.
"The best I ever saw compete."
Lorenzen retired in 1967 at the age of 32, saying he had accomplished all his goals.
"I began regretting that decision in about 30 days," he told me.
After a stint as team manager for Bobby Allison's Ford factory effort in late 1967 and early 1968 Lorenzen mostly stayed away from the track until he emerged from retirement in 1970. He competed in less than top-notch equipment for two more seasons before competing in the final event of his career in September of 1972 at Martinsville, and I was there to see him compete for the last time.
Upon leaving the sport Lorenzen made only a handful of appearances at NASCAR events. He had a successful real estate career back home in Elmhurst and had a typical family life. In fact, until recently, son Chris and daughter Amanda Gardstrum had no idea of the magnitude of his career.
"We had a normal family life with the exception of a number of occasions when people we didn't know would show up at the front door and ask for an autograph. Dad would usually give them a tour of the trophy room. We really didn't understand what the fuss was all about," said Amanda.
"He was a great dad who took us and our friends to the go kart track and taught us the value of hard work. Throughout this time he serviced and changed the oil in all of our cars. Everything had to be prepared and taken care of just like his race cars were."
To this day, I'm grateful for the inspiration I received from my hero. For the dedication to hard work and preparation and, most of all, for the efforts he put forth to make special memories for that young fan back in Virginia.