Independent team owners and drivers have played a very important role in the growth of NASCAR stock car racing through the years.
They were mostly back- marker drivers who came to NASCAR’s premier series with not much more than secondhand equipment and without financial support from Detroit’s automakers.
Drivers such as Dick Brooks, Elmo Langley, Joe Frasson, J.D. McDuffie, Dick May, Jimmy Means, Henly Gray, Joe Mahelic, country music singer Marty Robbins, Travis Tiller, Frank Warren and Jim Vandiver were the backbone of NASCAR as it sought its place among other big league sports.
Drivers Wendell Scott, Dave Marcis and James Hylton were among the independent crowd, even though they combined to win eight races.
They worked hard, drove their transporters, used friends and family as their crew and slept six and eight crew members to a hotel room to save every dime possible for tires and parts.
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Throughout his career, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been a student of NASCAR history and the unsung heroes who made it great. The Kannapolis, N.C., native saw firsthand the struggles the independent drivers went through.
“I was a big Jimmy Means fan,” Earnhardt said. “Dad (Dale Earnhardt) introduced me to him at North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway around 1984 maybe or ’85. I just always wanted to see Jimmy do well after learning about his struggle and understanding what a challenge it was for a guy like him. Obviously, it made you want to see him get a little bit more than what he expected out of his cars and maybe luck into a top-10 or a top-15 finish, which might pay him a little bit better for that weekend. You kind of felt that way about all those guys because (they) ran in the same circles of helping each other and leaning on each other down at that end of the garage.
“Hanging around Jimmy’s truck with his son Brad Means, I spent a lot of time getting to know how they operated and what they did and how they worked compared to my father’s teams and other teams at the other end of the garage,” Earnhardt continued. “You couldn’t help but just pull for them and see them do well. I became a big fan of the underdog. And then watching history and old races I learned about all kinds of guys that got close a few times to really having some great finishes. They are as important to the sport as the stars of those days. They were out there competing and trying to do the best they could. I find their careers a little more interesting sometimes because of the hoops they had to jump through and the deals they had to make and how they got from one place to the next.”
Eddie Wood, co-owner of Wood Brothers Racing, doesn’t remember a day when he wasn’t within arm’s reach of a race car. He began working for the famed team as a teenager in the early 1970s.
“I knew all of those guys,” Eddie Wood said. “There were a lot of them, especially in the 1970s. They ran really well with what they had. None of them had any factory support and those guys were good with the equipment they had.”