RELATED: Fred Lorenzen's career in photos
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To hear it told by those close to him, there are good days and bad days for NASCAR legend Fred Lorenzen. A trove of racing memories still resonates but advancing dementia has made recall of the most mundane everyday activities difficult.
May 21, 2014 was one of the good days, one of the best in years. Four names -- all drivers -- had already been called for the 2015 induction class into the NASCAR Hall of Fame that Wednesday afternoon, leading to an anxiety-ridden wait for Amanda Lorenzen Gardstrom, several hundred miles away. It wasn't until NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France opened the fifth and final envelope that the suspense finally subsided.
"As the fifth one was announced, we were so nervous," Gardstrom said in the days after the announcement. "We thought it wasn't going to be this year again, and when they said, 'And from the North ...,' I think my heart skipped a beat and it was pure happy tears of joy. ..."
Once her heart rate normalized, it was time to inform her father, who spends his days in an assisted living home in his home state of Illinois. Gardstrom had hesitated to tell her father to tune in to the announcement, knowing the years of disappointment the family had endured on past Voting Days.
Though Lorenzen still has trouble understanding certain concepts, hearing the news of his approaching enshrinement came with crystal clarity.
"It couldn't have been more picture-perfect," Gardstrom said, mentioning that her father initially chuckled when receiving word. "I'd fantasized about what the moment would be like, to talk to my dad. I told him, 'Dad, you are in the elite group of the NASCAR Hall of Fame now.' It knocked his socks off. ... My whole life, he's always been very humble and quiet about his accomplishments and it hasn't been until the last five or six years that I realized what a true legend and hero he is in NASCAR, a pioneer in the sport. To hear this news, it's the icing on the cake. It's the final victory, and just a huge, huge honor."
The memories of Lorenzen's heyday will be more top of mind this weekend as the NASCAR Nationwide Series returns to Chicagoland Speedway, less than an hour from the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst, the racing legend's hometown. Though he hailed from the Land of Lincoln, Lorenzen's appeal broadened the sport's reach beyond its Southern roots and spawned numerous nicknames -- "Fearless Freddie" for his sheer speed, the "Golden Boy" for his matinee-idol looks and "The Elmhurst Express" in a nod to his hometown.
Though the Windy City holds many ties to Lorenzen's legacy, it's the hub of Charlotte, North Carolina where Fearless Freddie hung his shingle in NASCAR.
In the southern outskirts of the Queen City sits a stately but otherwise nondescript brick warehouse in an industrial park. Venture inside the brick walls and there's treasure to be found.
Just outside the office doors, an impeccably restored 1963 Ford Galaxie with Fireball Roberts' name over the door. High-powered engines in various states of build. Low-slung Ford GT40 sports car chassis. A blood-red Ferrari roadster. A Shelby-striped vintage Mustang parked not far from special-edition current models.
The daily car show is all part of the surroundings at Holman-Moody, the company formed by mechanical masterminds John Holman and Ralph Moody that served as the Ford factory team as NASCAR transitioned toward its modern era. At its height, Holman-Moody had an estimated 450 employees, making it the Hendrick Motorsports of its day. Today, Lee Holman says that number is closer to "six or seven," all helping to carry on his father's tradition by building engines, cars, parts and more.
Holman-Moody fielded cars for some of the most famous names in racing -- Pearson, Yarborough, Foyt, Weatherly, Allison, Unser, Jarrett, Andretti. But the name Lorenzen was most famously associated with the team's powerful machines -- ivory with a blue No. 28 -- in the early to mid-1960s.
"All he'd ever done is race," said Lee Holman, a teenager working for his father at the time Lorenzen joined the team. "He was a famous Illinois dirt-tracker before he came to us and had done real well in other series, so it wasn't like we trained him and made him what he was. We just gave him an opportunity to move into NASCAR."
That chance at stock-car racing's big leagues came in the form of an early Christmas present in the winter of 1960.
"Ralph Moody, my dad had seen him race back in the day at a USAC race, I believe," Gardstrom said. "Ralph had gone, pulled up his car with his trailer about half an hour before the race was going to start, pulls up the trailer, takes his car out, runs 10 laps, sits on the pole and wins the race, puts his car back and gets out of there. My dad says, 'Wow, well that guy's pretty sharp. I want to be like him.' They started talking and he says, 'You're a great driver, but I'll tell you what's wrong with your car. You need to get these springs.' So my dad sent him $400, Ralph sent him some springs from Holman-Moody and that was the beginning of my dad really taking off. But Ralph had an eye on my dad for a while and on Christmas Eve, he called and said, 'Hey, you wanna drive for us? We want you.'
Gardstrom said her father balked at first, lacking the money for travel, but Moody was insistent: "We're paying for you. We'll send a plane up there, you just get on it and that's it.' It was the best present my dad could've gotten his whole life was that call from Ralph Moody. Ralph Moody was like a dad to my dad."
Marvin Panch and Lee Holman look at a 1963 Ford Galaxie at the Holman-Moody shop.
The outsider turned fan favorite
What Holman-Moody got in Lorenzen was a far contrast from their past driver rosters. Curtis Turner and Joe Weatherly, two of the earliest and most swashbuckling stars in NASCAR, drove and partied with equally reckless abandon, abusing their equipment to the dismay of their mechanics and their competition.
"This race in Darlington, Dad had me sneak gin into Weatherly's Thermos cooler because he was so hung over Sunday morning when he got to the track that he thought a little hair off the dog might help," Lee Holman said. "Lorenzen came to race and took racing very seriously and thought that he needed to do what it took to be ready for the race and go."
That included knowing his car frontward and backward as an active participant in making sure his car was in tip-top condition before it ever reached the track. Lorenzen's perfectionist personality also meant that he expected a lot from his crew in return.
"(Other drivers) partied, they were out to go fast and live the life, but when my dad came in, he was business," Gardstrom said. "... After every time he won a race, he'd call the stock broker and want to know the best way to invest that. He insisted that his pit crew was ready to go at 7 o'clock in the morning every day -- clean white suits and ready to work. They all worked and they planned and had strategies as a team."
While Lorenzen had the backing of one of Ford's flagship operations, he was a stickler for doing a significant portion of the work himself. It helped forge a new level of respect for a young Waddell Wilson, who joined Holman-Moody as an engine builder and a jack man for Roberts and Lorenzen in the early 1960s. Wilson went on to become a Daytona 500-winning crew chief and team manager for decades to come, but he never forgot the lessons learned from Lorenzen.
"Before I ever went to Holman-Moody, Lorenzen was the one I pulled for," said Wilson, now a NASCAR Hall of Fame voting member. "It was all because of him and his ability to not just know about an engine, but know about a race car. He helped me in my career so much with what I learned being with him. A lot of times, he didn't run wild at night like a lot of them did. We'd go to dinner and he'd be up for breakfast and that's all that was on his mind was that race car. Nothing else. He was so dedicated. He was the first one I ever saw that would measure tires himself."
The analytical pre-race approach carried over to the race track, where his tactical mindset clashed with the prevailing go-for-broke style of the day. The new-fangled strategy helped Lorenzen stockpile wins in the biggest races on the circuit, never running a full season in accordance with his and Holman-Moody's plan.
"He always had 'What the hell's the matter?' or 'What the hell are you thinking?' -- there were two different versions -- painted on his dash," Lee Holman said. "The idea was that you really needed to think a little bit. Lorenzen was a lot like Pearson in that he liked to stay near the front but he didn't have to lead every lap because by following the other drivers, you could see where they would fall down in the corner or have a handling issue. Sometimes you could push a driver a bit, and see where his weak spots were and plan your attack. With Pearson, they used to say with about four laps to go, he'd throw his cigarette out the window and you'd better hold on, because the race was about to happen. Lorenzen was the same way -- he'd think about it and go."
In NASCAR, so much of success is built around chemistry, forging the right combination of driver and team. Through the early to mid-1960s, Lorenzen and Holman-Moody found it. Much of the history is documented in massive scrapbooks of newspaper clippings at Holman's shop, where a curio in a side room contains many important artifacts from NASCAR's earliest years.
Thumbing through the albums shows Lorenzen's name again and again in the yellowing newspaper headlines, documenting how he became the first driver to surpass $100,000 in winnings in a single season in 1963 and recapping his frequent victories at storied speedways -- Atlanta, Martinsville, Charlotte -- including the 1965 Daytona 500.
"He had to race pretty smart to keep that car under him," said Neil "Soapy" Castles, a journeyman driver who predominantly competed as an independent in NASCAR's top series from 1957 to 1976. "It's difficult to run a factory car and be very careful with it to be aggressive. As far as the years I ran with him, we never had a problem. He was real easy-going. I don't know of anybody that had any trouble with him. He came in and represented himself and the sponsor and the vehicle, so he was pretty well an all-around race driver."
Though he was still an outsider in what was still largely a Southern sport, Lorenzen quickly won fans and fellow drivers over not only with his performance but with his beaming smile and charisma. It's part of why the "Golden Boy" nickname resonated most, thanks to the driver's All-American looks.
"He was a crowd pleaser," Wilson said. "You could be at Bristol, at Martinsville, at Wilkesboro -- places where you'd be right up next to the fans -- and when they'd introduce drivers, he'd be the one getting the biggest cheer or at least as big. The fans loved him. After the race was over, they'd flock around him for autographs. He's a good-looking man, you know, and he'd come in from the North and being a Yankee in that era and to have people love him like they did, it was quite amazing to me. He loved the fans and catered to them."
During a Friday morning visit to the current-day Holman-Moody shop, Lee Holman said that a longtime friend would be stopping by to say hello. In walked 1961 Daytona 500 winner Marvin Panch, all 88 years of him, spinning stories about when drivers routinely raced 50-plus times a year for winner's checks of under $1,000.
"Yeah, Fearless Freddy was good," Panch said with a wink and a smile.
A die-cast of Fred Lorenzen's No. 28 car at the Holman-Moody shop.
The Hall's call
Aside from a smattering of races in the early 1970s, Lorenzen's time in NASCAR drew to a close after a brief but overwhelmingly prolific window with 26 wins in 158 starts. His winning percentage of 16.456 slots him fifth on the all-time list, just behind King Richard Petty (16.892 percent) and just ahead of Fireball Roberts (16.019 percent). For comparison's sake, six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson -- the top active driver on the list -- ranks eighth at 15.198 percent (69 wins in 454 starts).
"He felt like he did everything he wanted to do and it was time to start his next thing that he wanted to accomplish in life, and that was settle down and have a family," Gardstrom said. "I think that played a role, too, in not wanting to travel every single weekend."
But the harsh nature of racing and the primitive state of safety in the era had clearly taken a toll on the racer's mind. Lorenzen competed long before baseline concussion testing was any consideration in any professional sport. Living with the aftermath of the injuries that impacted her father's later years played a pivotal role in Gardstrom penning an open letter to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the fall of 2012, applauding his decision to sit out two races with post-concussion symptoms during the intense pressure of a championship fight.
The remembrances of racing provide comfort now for Lorenzen, offering a safe place from the disorder.
"It's sad but it's just age," said Lee Holman, who said he last visited Lorenzen two years ago. "The thing is, he could tell us what tire blew on what lap of what race 40, 50 years ago. He couldn't tell you to save his life whether he'd had eggs or toast for breakfast. But he knew everything there was to know about his racing days, and that's typical of people with dementia. They live in the past and love the memory."
The hope is that more memories could be created next winter if Lorenzen is able to attend the NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony, not long after his 80th birthday on Dec. 30. Gardstrom remains noncommittal but optimistic that her father will be in the front row for the gala in Charlotte, right in Holman-Moody's backyard.
"We're going to see how he's doing and based on that, we'll make our call from there. But if it was tomorrow, I'd say we would definitely be there. I know my brother will be there. I will be there with my husband. We'll definitely be there to represent our dad 100 percent. Hopefully, depending on how he's doing, we'd love to have him share and be there to take it all in."
Perhaps the lack of championships kept Lorenzen from enshrinement in previous NASCAR Hall of Fame classes, or maybe the relatively brief career in the sport's premier series. But last May, Wilson was among the strongest voices of support for Lorenzen on Voting Day, as was Jody Deery, the longtime promoter of Rockford (Ill.) Speedway who emphatically included the track's hometown hero on her ballot. Enough others followed suit.
Though everyday remembrances remain difficult for Lorenzen, everything clicked in one final, crowning victory for the Elmhurst Express on May 21.
"As far as the good days and bad days ... he knew. He knew 100 percent of this honor," Gardstrom said. "That was very important to us, but not only the Lorenzen family, but it was important to the fans and all the people who grew up backing my dad, loving him to know this honor while he's still with us, it's fantastic. It couldn't have gone better."
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