Banjo Matthews Carries Unique NASCAR Legacy

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IN THE MIDDLE: Banjo Matthews (center) chats with Lee Petty (left) and Junior Johnson at Riverside, Calif., in 1968. (Chris Economaki Photo)
IN THE MIDDLE: Banjo Matthews (center) chats with Lee Petty (left) and Junior Johnson at Riverside, Calif., in 1968. (Chris Economaki Photo)

“When Banjo first came around, he wore a pair of glasses that were so thick, it made everyone, on first impression, think of a ‘banjo,’” said legendary car owner-car builder Bud Moore of Spartanburg, S.C.

“I don’t know who thought of it first, but that’s what we started calling him, ‘Banjo Eyes’ and it stuck.”

From then on, every time Matthews came around, he was known as “Banjo,” not Edwin Matthews of Asheville, N.C.

Matthews tried to operate as a car owner-driver in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

Some of Matthews’s most memorable moments in NASCAR came in the late ’60s and 1970 when he teamed up with aspiring driver Donnie Allison, the younger brother of Bobby.

Probably their best year was 1970 when they won the Coca-Cola 600 in May at Charlotte Motor Speedway and less than two months later teamed up again to win the Firecracker 400 (now Coke Zero 400) at Daytona Int’l Speedway.

“Banjo built some good cars,” said Donnie Allison. “I wish it had been where we could have put a full-time effort into it, but Banjo didn’t have a lot of money and he was struggling to stay afloat.

“I was just getting started in Cup and Banjo was a good outlet at the time for me to showcase what I had to offer. Everybody knew about my brother, but at the time, they didn’t know anything about me.”

With Matthews’s help, Allison got himself established in 1970.

The Allison-Matthews combination started ’70 off winning at Bristol, Tenn., before claiming the victories at Charlotte and Daytona.

“When we won those three races in ’70, everybody sure knew who Donnie Allison was,” said Allison, “but I wanted to run full time and that’s not what Banjo wanted or could do.”

Matthews had tried earlier to make his niche in NASCAR, first trying to drive himself and then as a car owner, always running a limited number of events in each situation.

“Banjo was a good man and he was a credit to NASCAR and Ford,” said Moore. “He was just short on funds and he more or less had to pick and choose what he could do. That’s why he turned to the parts business and solely building cars in this later years.”

Matthews established a good racing parts supply business out of Asheville, which he willed to his son, Jody, when Edwin “Banjo” Matthews died in the ’90s.

But Jody Matthews had his troubles with the parts business and had to give it up not long after his father died.

But Bud Moore and his NASCAR garage cohorts made sure Edwin Matthews would be remembered when they stuck the nickname “Banjo” on him.