Freshly enshrined NASCAR Hall of Famer Hershel McGriff maintains his strong connection with Tucson Speedway
A talented field of competitors will be in the presence of NASCAR royalty for this weekend‘s Chilly Willy at Tucson Speedway.
Fresh off being enshrined into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Hershel McGriff, the 1986 champion of what’s now the ARCA Menards Series West, will serve as the grand marshal for the 10th annual Chilly Willy. Tucson’s flagship event was moved back two weeks so it wouldn’t conflict with McGriff’s induction ceremony on Jan. 20.
With deep family ties at Tucson, including his daughter-in-law Shelly McGriff working as a track administrator, Hershel McGriff enjoys every opportunity to visit the facility. He expects a fun, eventful day of competition in the 2023 running of the prestigious event.
“My kids and granddaughter have all raced at Tucson,” McGriff said. “I haven‘t raced there much myself, but I‘ve been out there a lot and know many people. With a lot of these guys that are coming out of town [for the Chilly Willy], I raced against many of their dads, so I always have a good time [with this race].”
A sincere message of gratitude from Hershel McGriff. #NASCARHOF pic.twitter.com/FFdyxwy5zH
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) January 21, 2023
McGriff’s impact and influence on West Coast stock-car racing remains prevalent. With a storied resume that includes four Cup Series wins to go along with his 37 victories in the West Series, McGriff was instrumental in fortifying the region‘s proud history of success that dates to the 1940s when his career began.
Despite all the changes the West Series endured following its first official race on March 28, 1954, McGriff never lost his passion for the division — or for racing in general. He competed in at least one race each decade until his final tentative event at Tucson in 2018 when he was 90.
When McGriff was initially deliberating with his son and fellow racer Hershel McGriff Jr. about where the former would make his final start, they agreed Tucson was the perfect facility for the occasion. The reason was their established connections and the overall quality of the on-track product.
“[Tucson] is such a good, competitive track, because it‘s not one groove,” the elder McGriff said. “You can run two grooves and sometimes three a part of the way into the corner. You can have a car with less horsepower and keep it wound up, which always makes for a good show.”
Tucson track operator John Lashley said he is unsure of where the facility would be today without the McGriff family’s involvement.
Shelly‘s input has been invaluable for Lashley when it comes to understanding what drivers need. She provides that while assisting her husband Hershel Jr. with passing down the family‘s substantial racing knowledge to their daughter Mariah, who won a Pro Stock title at Tucson in 2019.
Lashley said the professionalism displayed by the McGriffs on many fronts is why Tucson‘s culture has thrived over the past decade. He knows the track will only keep growing as long as they’re around.
“No matter where you turn in the McGriff family, they are racers,” Lashley said. “They have racing DNA built into them, but they are all excellent people. Shelly‘s influence on the track has expanded as we‘ve grown, but her family has gotten more involved with the track, as well. They truly want to help the other racers.”
The development of the Chilly Willy into a marquee short-track event is something Lashley attributes to the hard work of the McGriffs. More than 30 cars are expected for the Super Late Model feature alone, a major improvement over the 16-car field that took the green flag for the inaugural race in 2014.
Being pregnant with her second child is going to keep Mariah out of this year‘s edition of the Chilly Willy as a driver, but she does not plan to be too far from Tucson once the weekend‘s festivities get going.
For Mariah, the influx of talent for the Chilly Willy, like two-time winner Preston Peltier, has only added to the prestige of the race. It also has created an opportunity for local drivers to showcase their skills on a larger stage.
“The Chilly Willy is one of the biggest races of the year,” Mariah McGriff said. “It‘s always a good race to run because you‘re going up against the top competitors across the nation. My dad is a crew chief on a few cars, and my husband [Nick O‘Neil] is racing in the Modifieds, so I‘m just looking forward to supporting both this year.”
Once Mariah has her second child, she is determined to get back behind the wheel and continue her family‘s racing heritage that began with Hershel eight decades ago.
Alongside her father and grandfather, Mariah‘s mother Shelly also found success as a driver by being the first woman to win an open comp championship on the West Coast during the 1980s. With so much talent in the family, Mariah considers herself fortunate to grow up in an environment that encouraged her to excel both on and off the track.
Watching Hershel McGriff deliver his Hall of Fame speech in person was a special moment for Mariah, who was able to hear stories she had never heard about her grandfather and fully appreciate everything he accomplished.
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“[Hershel‘s] impact was huge, especially on the West Coast,” Mariah said. “He started back when NASCAR first came about, and the fact that he‘s still standing today is impressive, as well. He still has a lot to do with racing today, so it was big to celebrate [his induction] into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, because I know that meant a lot to him.”
Like Mariah, Lashley was in attendance for Hershel‘s induction into the Hall of Fame and was overwhelmed by the anecdotes and experiences shared with the audience that night.
Now that Hershel McGriff’s legacy is immortalized by NASCAR, Lashley takes pride in knowing motorsports fans will always be able to cherish McGriff‘s influence on racing and enjoy the stories that defined his career.
“Hershel has great recall,” Lashley said. “At 95 years old, he was interviewed for about eight hours a day for three days. That‘s a daunting task, but I was listening to his interviews, and I learned so much. What impressed me the most was how honest he was about everything important to him, but that‘s the kind of guy he is.”
Although he has been unofficially retired for five years, McGriff still believes he has one more chapter left as a driver. He would love to get back behind the wheel at Tucson when he turns 100.
Until that day arrives, McGriff intends to spend as much time with his family as possible. He’s looking forward to observing the current generation of drivers battle for a Chilly Willy victory at Tucson.
McGriff anticipates more changes befalling short-track racing on the West Coast as motorsports continues to evolve. Despite this, he is confident Tucson will continue to flourish with Lashley and Shelly overseeing the day-to-day operations of the track.
“Everything changes,” McGriff said. “John Lashley is pretty organized with everything, so whatever he comes up with will make everything better. He might even be ahead on a few things, and he already pays pretty good money, so that draws some good fields. That also brings the families out, and they always have a great time.”
As everyone makes final preparations for the Chilly Willy, McGriff intends to cherish his first race weekend as a Hall of Famer the only way he knows.
“I‘m looking forward to that nice, warm weather,” he said. “I don‘t like the wind, and it blows out [at Tucson] pretty good, but I‘m looking forward to having a hot dog or two and seeing all my friends.”