Herb Thomas, Historic, Class of 2017
By George Damon Levy
If you’re like most racing fans, Herb Thomas is the greatest NASCAR star you’ve never heard of.
It’s foolhardy to try and sum up a Hall of Fame nominee’s qualifications in a single statistic, but with Thomas you can come close. The Olivia, NC tobacco farmer and sawmill operator, who passed away in 2000, set perhaps the most coveted record in NASCAR, and the one, with the possible exception of 1989 inductee Richard Petty’s 200 victories, least likely to be surpassed:
The highest all-time winning percentage in the nearly seven decades of Monster Energy Cup Series competition.
Thomas won 48 of 228 starts, for a career percentage of 21.05, better than one out of every five races he started. A percentage that shades those of 7-time champions Petty (16.89%) and Jimmie Johnson (hovering around 15%) and nearly doubles that of Dale Earnhardt (11.24%).
“He was as good as they come,” Petty told NASCAR.com. “There have been very few guys who had more confidence in what he could do than Herb. He was so strong-minded that he willed his wins and what he was doing on the track.”
Arguably NASCAR’s first superstar, Thomas was the sport’s first two-time champ (1951, ’53). And he was still in his prime when injuries effectively ended his career in 1956. He combined outstanding speed and car control with racecraft and mechanical sympathy that put him in position to win when others broke or used up their equipment. Thomas’ grandson Chris recalls his legendary victory in the 1955 Southern 500, when he made a single set of Firestones last all day long for Hudson crew chief and 2000 inductee Smokey Yunick.
“Smokey told my granddaddy, ‘Just listen. We're going to pace ourselves. I think we can go the whole distance on this one set.’ It paid off, because back then it took so much time to change tires.”
Thomas was so dominant in his heyday that in the six-season stretch from 1951 through 1956, he finished first or second in the championship five times. In addition to his two titles, Thomas led the series in wins three times, was the first three-time winner of the Southern 500 and remains today, more than a half century later, the fastest to 40 wins in Cup series history. (Thomas did it in 151 starts. It took Jeff Gordon 186. No other competitor, including Petty (291), Johnson (254) and Earnhardt (336), has done it in fewer than 254.)
Ironically, Thomas may be best known to modern fans as the inspiration for the “Doc Hudson” character in the movie Cars, voiced by Paul Newman. Although most often associated with Yunick’s “Fabulous Hudson Hornets,” Thomas won in many brands of cars and on every type of track.
Said Yunick, “Herb could really drive. He was smart in a race. He knew how to pace himself. He was as good as they came and they have never given him enough credit for his ability.”
With his 2013 induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame and induction this year into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, perhaps Thomas finally is getting the recognition he has so long deserved.
Motorsports historian George Damon Levy is on the board of directors of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. His most recent book, Can-Am 50th Anniversary, with Pete Biro, was the #1 racing book on Amazon.com. His next book is the long-awaited biography of 1994 inductee Jim Hall.