Hershel McGriff will cross two items off his bucket list Saturday night, when he plays the national anthem on his trombone at Tucson Speedway and then becomes the oldest man to ever compete in a NASCAR-sanctioned race.
The 90-year-old Green Valley resident is only stressing about one of them.
“Instead of racing young kids at 120 miles per hour, he’s more nervous about playing his trombone,” Tucson Speedway president John Lashley said. “He’s just wound different than you and me.”
McGriff, the man Lashley calls “the quintessential racer on the West Coast,” will compete in two K&N Pro Series West 100-lap events before a crowd that’s expected to top 6,000 fans.
McGriff has been cleared to compete by both NASCAR and his cardiologist. He took a stress test before meeting with the doctor.
“He came in the room smiling, and showed me on the screen that I have a very strong heart,” McGriff said.
The spots in Saturday’s races were a 90th birthday present to McGriff, a longtime racer, from K&N Pro Series West team owner Bill McAnally.
McAnally was talking to McGriff’s son, Hershel Jr., at Tucson Speedway, and Hershel Jr. mentioned that his father wanted to race again. The elder McGriff saw two roadblocks in his way, and neither had to do with age.
“It was expensive,” he said, “and I have no race car.”
A phone call solved both of those issues.
“Bill called me up on the phone and said, ‘For your 90th birthday, I will furnish the car, the truck, whatever it takes. All you have to do is drive it. You pick the racetrack any time next year,’” McGriff said. “When he made the offer, I was ready to do it.”
McGriff considered a race at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Washington — he grew up in Oregon and still has family and close friends in the Pacific Northwest. Ultimately, he chose Tucson Speedway, citing a number of reasons. Tucson’s track is three-eighths of a mile, smaller than the one at Evergreen. A smaller track cuts down on the number of racers and limits the number of racers who can drive side by side.
“It wasn’t worth getting him hurt,” Hershel Jr. said.
Saturday’s race is the latest stop in what has been a historic racing career. McGriff began racing as a 17-year-old, lured to the track by an ad in an Oregon newspaper.
“So I borrowed my dad’s 1940 Hudson — ugly car, but he loaned me the car and I found a couple of guys that helped me,” McGriff said. “I didn’t do too well. I finished I think 12th or 13th out of a bunch of cars and it was a terrible track. That got me started.”
By age 22, McGriff was a rising star. He won the 1950 Carrera Panamericana race in Mexico, the first victory of his career. The same year, McGriff drove his Oldsmobile from Portland to South Carolina to race in the first super speedway race in NASCAR history. McGriff slept on the lawn outside of a building the night before the race. Driving the same car he drove across the country, McGriff finish ninth out of 135 drivers. He then drove back home.
Back then, race cars were “pretty much off the street,” he said. “No fancy stuff, no roll bars, no uniforms — but we did wear a helmet and a seat belt.”
Between 1954 and 2002, he won 37 races in 233 tries. He was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2006 and has been named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers. He has raced off and on since retiring from regular racing at age 74. In 2009 — at age 81 — he became the oldest man to compete in a NASCAR-sanctioned race. The BBC picked up the story; Conan O’Brien joked on television that McGriff didn’t win the race, but set the record for most pit stops.
Hershel McGriff Jr. says his dad is considered “the Richard Petty of the West Coast.” If he lacks the name recognition of the NASCAR legend, blame McGriff’s priorities.
McGriff and his family moved to Green Valley in 1986 so he could take over the former Anamax Mine property. He worked there for more than 20 years and still is involved tangentially with mining — though, he admits, “I don’t have to work too hard.”
McGriff’s dedication to work and family kept him from staying too long in areas like the south, where the sport thrives.
“I’ve always worked (outside of racing) and been very family-oriented, so when I would go back east and run a race like in Darlington or Daytona or Talladega, I’ve always came back home. I never stayed back there,” he said. “That’s why I never won any championships, because I kind of raced where I wanted to.”
On Saturday, that place is Tucson Speedway. McGriff, ever the competitor, said he hopes to do well. Regardless of where he finishes, he will relish the time spent with his family. Hershel Jr. will serve as his father’s crew chief and also compete in a separate race. McGriff’s granddaughter, Mariah, will compete in a third race. Mariah McGriff will make the trip to Tucson from Flagstaff, where she attends Northern Arizona University.
The elder McGriff will be the main attraction, however, starting with the national anthem.
“I’ve had a great life. I wouldn’t backtrack for anything,” he said. “I have family that’s with me and behind me, so it’s great.”