A Tip Of The Hat To Some Real Auto Racing Pioneers


Stories Of People Who Make A Living In Motorsports

Guest Columnist

The retired Chief Operating Officer of Ford Motor Co., Edsel Ford II remains a member of the company’s board of directors.

All in the Family: Ford’s great-grandfather, Henry, founded Ford Motor Co.

I’ve been blessed.

As someone who has loved motor racing since my childhood, and first went to races with my father, I’ve been blessed to have met and known some of the real pioneers of the sport.

And because I’ve grown up following the sport, I’ve had a chance to understand this sport is not just about fast cars, powerful engines and good setups. It’s really about the people involved.

That said, I’d like to talk about some of those pioneers.

 Henry Ford: First, I can’t talk about pioneers in racing without mentioning my great-grandfather, Henry Ford, who gambled his automotive career racing a car he built named “Sweepstakes” in 1901.

His unlikely victory that day against Alexander Winton — the best racer of his era —attracted the investors that helped him start the Ford Motor Co. And I guess it’s pretty safe to say that without that victory, I may not have had the chance to be as blessed as I have been.

• The Wood Brothers: The Woods have run Fords as long as I’ve been alive. Think about that. There’s something special about people like them, who have devoted their entire life to racing. They have been loyal to us through thick and thin. They were the pioneers of the modern pit stop, and most of NASCAR’s greatest drivers have driven one of their Fords.

• Jackie Stewart: To me, still the greatest F-1 driver of all time and a close friend. Jackie was an early pioneer in track safety, and he took those racing skills after his career to help teach engineers at Ford how to test drive to develop better cars and trucks. He was also an early pioneer in bringing racing to the American television audience. To this day, drivers can learn a lot from his professionalism when dealing with sponsors and media.

 Linda Vaughn:
A surprise? Maybe. But Linda has been a pioneer by being a true ambassador for the sport — whether it is drag racing, stock cars or the like. I’ve known her most of my life, and she has always — in her own unique way — tried to be a great spokesperson for different products. She was a pioneer in giving women a larger voice in the sport.

 Wally Parks: Where would drag racing be without Wally Parks? He grabbed the sport and literally dragged it into professionalism, creating what still today is a great spectacle of speed and power. I was pleased to have spent time with Wally earlier this year. He has earned every accolade he has received.

 The France family: What Wally is to drag racing, the Frances are to stock-car racing, creating a three-generation dynasty and the most powerful product in U.S. racing today. NASCAR wouldn’t have seen the growth it has in the last decade without the leadership and the vision the Frances have provided.

 Dan Gurney: Class. The man exudes it. The ’67 Le Mans sports-car winner, who many people wanted as president, is one of the great American heroes of racing. He represents the best of what racers were in the golden era of the 1960s, winning in multiple disciplines of racing. He was a pioneer on the track and off it, building winning chassis that took on the best in the world and won.

 Mickey Thompson: A true pioneer who was a visionary about what off-road racing could be. Would series like SCORE or CORR exist today without Mickey and the early off-roaders? Probably not. The off-roaders are the last of the American cowboys in racing today.

 Carroll Shelby: My friend Carroll — a pioneer who not only raced successfully but led successful race efforts, including Ford’s Le Mans programs in the 1960s. Carroll took that knowledge, created some of the great high-performance racing Mustangs of that era and now has come back to help Ford create some of the best Mustangs of this era. He lives and breathes performance.

 Chris Economaki: If we’re going to talk pioneers in racing, you can’t leave out Chris. Not only is he the dean of the American motorsport journalists, he’s the familiar voice to millions of fans on TV and radio, explaining the sport in his unique, opinionated way. He’s a true friend, not only to me, but to racers from the smallest short track to the largest speedway. To me, no other media person will ever have the impact on the sport that Chris has had.

I’ve been blessed.

(Original Print Date: June 6, 2007)