NASCAR Cup Series (1952-1985)
2000 inductee Smokey Yunick called him “the Henry Ford of race cars.” The cars Edwin Keith Matthews built dominated the sport for more than a decade. From 1974 to 1985, he produced about 400 and rebuilt about 200. Of the 362 races in this period, his cars won 262 of them — over 70% — including all 30 1978 races. For many years, the Akron, OH native was more proud that no driver was ever killed driving a Banjo Matthews-built car. Matthews started his career at 15 at Pompano Speedway. He drove in about 500 modified races from 1948-52, winning 35. From 1952 to 1963, he started 50 NASCAR Cup Series races, earning three poles and a second. As an owner, he entered 160 Cup races, capturing 14 poles and nine victories, including three Firecracker 400s with Fireball Roberts, A. J. Foyt and Donnie Allison. Matthews was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame in 1996 and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1998.
By Jody Matthews
When Edwin Keith “Banjo” Matthews was in grade school, his large gold-rimmed, Coke-bottle-thick glasses led to the nickname “Banjo eyes.” By the time he got to high school, the name was shortened to “Banjo,” and it stuck.
Decades later, that nickname refers to one of NASCAR’s legendary early car builders. Banjo’s adult nickname—“the Henry Ford of race cars”—hints at just how legendary his career was.
But I knew him as “Dad.” The Banjo I grew up with loved his family, the competition of racing, and the satisfaction of doing every job the right way.
Let’s get the numbers out of the way.
Dad was born in Akron, Ohio on Valentine’s Day in 1932. He drove his first race at 15, at Pompano (Florida) Speedway, and began his career building and racing modifieds. He started approximately 500 modified races from 1948-52, winning
35. From 1952 to 1963, he started 51 NASCAR Cup Series races, earning three poles and a career-best second place at the 1962 Atlanta 500.
In 1963, he retired from driving to explore the mechanical side of racing. Dad worked for Ford and founded his own company in 1970—Banjo’s Performancecenter.
That’s when he began building his legacy:
You never forgot Dad knew how to drive. I rode with him a lot when we’d take race cars to customers or go to see other races. I just got used to Dad driving wide open everywhere he went. I was never scared. It was just the way Banjo drove. He always knew the limit of a car and he never pushed past that.
Mom and my sister and me, we’d go to the big races— Darlington, Daytona, Charlotte. Back then, everybody parked together in the infield and ate fried chicken and stuff out of the back—the original tailgating. Me and Davey Allison would be out playing Matchboxes and passing the football.
Our family isn’t involved in racing now. I briefly took over Dad’s business after his death. My sister Sara married Donnie Owens, son of another legendary car builder, Cotton Owens. Sara and Donnie and my wife Tina and I pursued our own careers, but the family history is still being handed down.
Two of Banjo’s grandsons and a great-grandson have enjoyed different types of racing, and his values, work ethic and perfectionism—“If it is worth doing, it is worth doing right”—are points of family pride.
It must be in the blood.
Jody Matthews, who frequently rode shotgun on his father’s chassis deliveries to customers, still lives near where Banjo built many NASCAR race winners in western North Carolina.
MSHFA 2011 Inductee Donnie Allison