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The long road to Hershel McGriff’s induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Friday (8 p.m. ET on Peacock) has begun another long road.
In May 1950, McGriff and his co-driver Ray Elliott won the Carrera Panamericana, also known as the Pan American race, a five-day cross-country competition held in Mexico. The race was a wild affair through portions of a new highway and parts of the Mexican desert. McGriff, who did most of the driving for the two-man team, and Elliott won the event by 76 seconds.
It was a big deal – the team took home $17,000, but the race offered a bigger prize for McGriff. He met NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., who raced with teammate Curtis Turner. This meeting was a life-changing event for McGriff.
France introduced McGriff to NASCAR, which had formed in 1947 and held its first Strictly Stock (now Cup) season in 1949. McGriff, who lived in Oregon, jumped into NASCAR at the invitation of France , won four races in 1954 and competed in various forms of motorsport competition in the decades that followed.
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McGriff has been a part of West Coast racing for decades. After forcing himself into victory lane in Cup racing, he was offered a first-class race with the new Carl Kiekhaefer team for the 1955 season, but McGriff opted to stay in Oregon, where he had successful businesses and was raising a family. Tim Flock circled Kiekhaefer and won the Cup Championship.
On Friday, McGriff will join France, Flock and many others in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Cup champion Matt Kenseth and four-time champion crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine with driver Dale Earnhardt will also be inducted into the Charlotte Convention Center.
McGriff also had a long way to go to enter the hall, having been nominated several times before being elected last year.
“None of us knew at the time, standing and talking around a cactus (during Mexican race week), that we were going to end up in the Hall of Fame,” McGriff said.
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Stories from 1950 stretch belief. McGriff and Elliott rode about 2,000 miles in their Oldsmobile 88 to win the Pan Am race. Then Elliott drove the car home to Oregon. Four months later, at the invitation of France, McGriff drove the same car from Portland to Darlington, SC, to compete in the inaugural Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. McGriff finished ninth in that race, then quickly drove the car home to Oregon.
The Olds 88 was obviously a solid mount.
“The car ran perfectly the whole race in Mexico,” said McGriff. “There was never a mark on it. It might have been a bit dirty. The car was absolutely stock. We removed the rear seat and put four spare tires and two bumper jacks in there. We threw a few keys in the glove box and were good to go.
McGriff said he occasionally saw the France-Turner car on the race course.
“We ran every day a few seconds apart,” he said. “Bill told me later that he wondered how this young boy (McGriff was 22) was following his driver (Turner).”
McGriff and France, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in the first class in 2010, quickly became friends and worked together in the 1950s.
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“I traveled a lot with Bill on his plane and did public relations for him,” McGriff said. “He would drop me off whenever they had a race coming up, and I would go through a few TV and radio stations and advertise the race. After the race, we left.
“On his way home to Daytona from a trip, he flew over this swamp and pointed at me and said, ‘This is where I’m going to build Daytona International Speedway. He showed me the runway plans and asked me to direct the plane.
The highway opened in 1959.
McGriff, now retired to Green Valley, Arizona, continued to race in various series through 2018. His track time included two appearances at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Now he’s stepping into NASCAR Hall, at 95, the oldest inductee.