2009-01-01 / Sports

Southern Drivers Are Disappearing

By Gerald Hodges THE RACING REPORTER

"Tiger" Tom Pistone after a 1950s win at Soldier Field "Tiger" Tom Pistone after a 1950s win at Soldier Field NASCAR was born and raised in the South. The foundation of it included drivers from below the Mason-Dixon Line. Sixty years later that has all changed.

By my count there are only 11 full-time drivers that could be considered "Southern" in the ranks of NASCAR Cup teams.

Virginia leads the list with three, Elliott Sadler, Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton.

Georgia has two, Reed Sorenson and David Ragan.

David Reutimann and Aric Almirola are the only Florida drivers.

It's hard to fathom that Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brian Vickers are the only two from North Carolina.

There are no Cup drivers from Alabama, Tennessee or South Carolina.

Arkansas's Mark Martin and Kentucky's Michael Waltrip are the only other Southerners.

"Tiger" Tom, The Converted Yankee

"Tiger" Tom Pistone was a Chicago-area stock car racing legend in the late 1950s and early 1960s before heading to Charlotte to join the NASCAR tour and race against the likes of Ned Jarrett, Junior Johnson and Buck Baker.

"Most of the drivers were from the South and they called me "Yankee,"" he said. "I had never finished school, because I wanted to race, and I didn't know what a "Yankee" was. Finally, someone told me if I would paint a rebel flag on the hood of my car that would take care of things.

"From then on, I was known as the "Converted Yankee."

Glenn "Fireball" Roberts once described Pistone as "the toughest guy there is to beat on quarters and half-milers."

While he is not listed as One of NASCAR'S 50 Greatest Drivers, "Tiger" was probably the greatest short track driver of all time. He was about 5 foot, three inches and 130 pounds, but drivers knew not to mess with him, because he was one tough customer.

With a shoestring budget and a heart full of desire, "Tiger Tom" scored two Grand National (now Sprint Cup) victories in what can be best described as a colorful racing career.

He was born March 17, 1929. His family never dreamed he would grow up to be one of the best race car drivers to ever hit the sport.

"In 1950 I met Andy Granatelli through some of my buddies," he said. "He was the promoter at Chicago's Soldier Field. There was a lot of racing that went on at the time, not just NASCAR, but USAC was very big."

"A normal Soldier Field crowd would be 38,000, and whenever there would be a Police Benefit race, the crowd would go to nearly 100,000."

Tiger's first race was in a 1941 Ford, but he later moved to a Chevrolet. He was so competitive and had such a desire to win that he flipped his racer 22 times in one season.

Winning a Soldier Field track championship was quite an accomplishment, but "Tiger" did it five times, between 1951-'55.

His first start in NASCAR competition was June 30, 1956, before a crowd of nearly 40,000 wild fans. It was a convertible race and fans watched as he held his own against NASCAR's best.

As the laps wound down, it appeared the little man from Chicago might have a chance at winning. During lap 94 of the 100- lap race, "Tiger" stood on the gas pedal of his No. 54 Chevrolet and passed legendary Curtis Turner for the lead.

Turner tried every racing trick in the book to regain the lead, but when the checkered flag was given, it was "Tiger" that roared into victory lane.

His style of driving and success brought him many fans. One of his biggest admirers was a youngster from the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst named Fred Lorenzen. As a young man, Lorenzen's goal was to one day be as great as his hero, "Tiger Tom."

"We went into NASCAR ice cold," continued Pistone. "Myself and one mechanic went down to run at Martinsville. We got into Winston Salem, N.C., and stopped at a Golden Shell service station."

"There was a very tall man there, that turned out to be Bill France Sr. He asked us what we were doing, and we told him we had come down to race.

"He said, 'Well, boys, I hate to tell you this, but that race was run last week.' Boy were we shocked to hear that."

"France took us under his wing and allowed us to use his garage to work on our car.

"Racing wasn't nearly as expensive back then as it is today. In 1959 you could buy a raceready Ford from Holman-Moody for $5,500, and that included the engine.

His two Grand National wins came May 17, 1959 at Trenton, N.J., and June 21, 1959 at Richmond, Va.

"Tiger" hung up his racing helmet in 1968, and began building cars and chassis full-time for other drivers. Some of the names that drove his equipment included Jim Hurtibise, Tiny Lund, Richard Brickhouse and Harry Gant.

He continues to furnish all type of racing parts and equipment from his shop in Charlotte, as well as help younger relatives gain prominence in NASCAR. When asked when he planned to retire, he said, "I've still got racing fuel in my veins, but I'm trying to sell my business so I can spend more time with my wife."

For additional information on "Tiger Tom," log on to his Web site: www.pistonetigertom.com.

Next Week: The Driver Called, "Pops."

Racing Trivia Question: How many wins did Kyle Busch get in 2008?

Last Week's Question: Which state is Kasey Kahne from? Answer. Washington.

You may contact the Racing Reporter at: hodgesnews@ earthlink.net.

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