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At Age 57, Hershel McGriff Still Has That Drive : Going Into Sunday’s Race, He’s Tied for the Lead in Winston West Series

Times Staff Writer

Hershel McGriff is a difficult man to put in perspective.

He drove in his first race Sept. 16, 1945, at Portland Speedway.

“It was 250 laps on dirt and there were holes two feet deep before we finished. I drove the family car. My dad was there. He was a preacher. He watched the cars thunder toward the first turn and went under the grandstands and covered his eyes. He’s never been to a race since.”

McGriff finished 12th. That was eight years before A.J. Foyt drove in his first race.

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McGriff drove in the first NASCAR superspeedway race, the 1950 Southern 500 at Darlington, S.C. He drove the same Oldsmobile that he had driven to win the Mexican Road Race earlier that month. After the race finished at Juarez, across the border from El Paso, McGriff flew to Mexico City for the victory party and back to El Paso to pick up his car.

“I’d met Bill France in the Mexico race and he talked me into coming back to South Carolina for the Southern 500. I drove the Olds from El Paso to Darlington, took the headlights off and raced. Some of the guys there that day were Lee Petty, Fireball Roberts, Curtis Turner and Johnny Mantz, who won.”

McGriff finished ninth. That was the year that Indianapolis 500 winner Danny Sullivan was born.

For 15 years, from 1954 to 1969, McGriff quit racing to build a flourishing lumber mill business in Bridal Veil, Ore. He resurfaced in 1969 to win the Permatex 200 at Riverside International Raceway.

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“I’d driven a few short-track races around Portland when I decided to run the late-model sportsman race at Riverside. It was sort of a lark.”

McGriff started last in a field of 41 and passed 17 cars on the first lap and 11 more on the second lap. By the sixth lap he was second and raced with leader Ron Grable the rest of the way. Grable spun on the last lap and McGriff was the surprise winner.

Since then he has won 11 more times at Riverside in late-model sportsman, Grand American and Winston Western 500 races.

Sunday, at age 57, McGriff won’t be content to drive in just one race. At 11 a.m. he will drive Jim and Jack Lee’s trusty Camaro in the All American 200 for medium-size sedans and then come back in his own No. 04 Pontiac in the 1 p.m. Budweiser 400 Grand National race.

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“That first race is my warmup,” McGriff said. “It’s only 200 kilometers (125 miles). When I get in my other car, I’ll be really primed to go.”

McGriff has never won a Winston West series championship but after two races is tied for the lead with two-time defending champion Jim Robinson of North Hollywood. McGriff won the opener at Sears Point Raceway and two weeks later finished second to Robinson at Shasta Speedway in Anderson, Calif., by an official margin of three inches.

Robinson, in an Olds, was suffering from the flu and heat exhaustion, and late in the 150-lap race began to slow as McGriff’s Pontiac caught him. The pair went down the backstretch on the final lap door to door, Robinson low and McGriff high on the one-third mile, paved oval.

“I think Jim actually passed out from the fumes in his car,” said McGriff. “He was really slowing down the last couple of laps and on the third turn of the last lap he drove straight into the side panel of my car. I think it woke him up. If I hadn’t been there, he might have ran straight into the wall, but when he woke up he kept it going. I was pushing the gas so hard, I wasn’t sure where the starting line was or whether I’d won or lost.”

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Race officials studied videotapes of the finish before declaring Robinson the winner--by five-thousandths of a second.

“They tell me I won but I didn’t know for sure,” the 39-year-old Robinson said later. “I didn’t really see the end of the race. The last 25 laps I was incoherent. I was just looking at the white line around the inside of the race track. It was all I could do to keep going.”

The Winston West drivers will be competing Sunday in the same 400-kilometer (248.9 miles) race with Southern-based Grand National drivers such as Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte, Daytona 500 winner Bill Elliott, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip, winner of last weekend’s doubleheader at Charlotte, The Winston and the World 600.

In 39 races here since NASCAR drivers came West for the first time in 1963, only one Winston West driver, Ray Elder of Caruthers, Calif., has beaten the Good Ol’ Boys from the Carolinas. He won Motor Trend 500 in January 1971 and the Golden State 400 in June 1972.

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Dan Gurney won six races and Parnelli Jones one, but they were Indy-car drivers and did not drive on the West Coast stock-car circuit.

McGriff has been in 26 Grand National races here and his best finish was a fifth.

“In my mind, my best finish here actually was last November when I was ninth, but I was only 12 seconds behind the winner,” he said. “When Geoff Bodine crossed the finish line I was in Turn 9. That’s how close it was.

“I’ll be in the same car Sunday and I know this will be the best prepared effort, car-wise, I’ve ever had at Riverside. Basically, it’s because Ivan Baldwin and my son, Hershel Jr., are on the crew fulltime, and I’ve taken complete control of the car. I bought the team from Gary Smith of Agoura and this way I have better control of what’s going on.”

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Baldwin is a former Orange Show Speedway champion who is now building cars in Modesto. Hershel Jr., 28, drove at Portland Speedway last year but has postponed his own career to help his father win the championship.

McGriff was the fastest West Coast qualifier in Friday’s Grand National time trials with a lap at 113.591 m.p.h. This placed him in the seventh row for Sunday’s race. Trials for the All American 200 are today.


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