The sudden retirement of Carl Edwards prior to the start of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season is reminiscent of the day when another of stock car racing’s greatest stars stepped away during the prime of his career.
On April 24, 1967, NASCAR fans around the nation, especially those around Chicago, couldn’t believe the newspaper headlines. At a press announcement in Charlotte, N.C., earlier in the day, stock car racing’s handsome “Golden Boy” Fred Lorenzen abruptly announced his retirement after a distinguished career as one of the sport’s most revered and respected drivers of that era.
As he stepped to the microphone to address reporters, there was suddenly a large void at Holman Moody, Ford’s powerful race car factory for building winners and champions in NASCAR.
Standing behind the podium, Lorenzen simply stated: “I want to go out while I’m on top. I’ve won everything that you can win and there’s nowhere to go but down,” as told in Greg Fielden’s “40 Years of Stock Car Racing” book series.
Thirty-two years old at the time, Lorenzen was indeed on top of the world. He was one of the first northern-born superstars to gain a following among NASCAR’s southern fan base. He was truly a hero that was larger than life.
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Behind the scenes, there was a problem. Recurring stomach ulcers caused Holman Moody to withdraw Lorenzen from NASCAR events at Martinsville (Va.) and North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedways in early spring. After only five Grand National starts in 1967, the end came with little fanfare and no set plan for his future.
At the height of his career, Lorenzen won all the big superspeedway events, including those at Daytona Int’l Speedway, Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, Atlanta Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway and North Carolina Motor Speedway. He was just as good on the short tracks, including Martinsville, North Wilkesboro, Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway and North Carolina’s Asheville-Weaverville Speedway.
Lorenzen won 26 races in 158 starts, but never contested the full premier series schedule. The most popular driver of 1963 and ’65 was named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998 and was eventually enshrined in the National Motorsports Press Ass’n Hall of Fame, the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. He was also inducted into the USAC Hall of Fame and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
“It was a little bit of a surprise when Fred retired,” said seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and fellow NHOF inductee Richard Petty. “He had been having some health problems and I think he just kind of got fed up with everything. It was a surprise because he was right in his prime as far as being a race car driver when he stepped away. He just kind of walked away from it.
“He was real competitive,” Petty noted. “He figured all of the angles and he was one of the first drivers to really sit down and think about how to overcome problems with the car. He drove the fire out of a race car. But he was thinking all the time and was one of the first drivers to really try to figure out exactly when to do things during a race. He got the job done.”
Born Dec. 30, 1934, Lorenzen began listening to NASCAR races on the radio of the family car and occasionally while camping with friends as a teenager.
Short-track success around Chicago led him to NASCAR competition in 1956 and the United States Auto Club stock car championship in 1958 and ‘59. He returned to NASCAR’s premier series in 1960, but had a disappointing season.
Sitting alone on Christmas Eve that year, Lorenzen got an unexpected phone call from Ralph Moody who offered a top ride with the Holman Moody operation. Lorenzen won three of the 15 races he entered in the pearl white No. 28 Ford.
In 1962, there were two more wins with 11 top-five finishes, 12 top-10 results and three poles in 19 starts. The next year, he logged six wins, 21 top fives and 23 top-10 finishes in 29 starts. His earnings of $122,587 made him the first NASCAR driver to win more than $100,000 in a season.
Lorenzen started only 16 races in 1964 but won eight times, including five in a row. He also led 1,679 of the possible 1,953 laps to produce one of the most dominant stretches in NASCAR history. Then in 1965, he won four races in 17 starts, including the Daytona 500 and World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.