(NOTE: I wrote this for the Hickory (N.C.) Daily Record; year unknown.)
EVEN RACE-CAR DRIVERS HAVE HEROES
By Tom Gillispie
You know about hero worship when you see a kid wearing a jersey for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon or Danica Patrick.
But when Jack Ingram was young, he couldn’t wear a jersey of his favorite driver. So he did the next best thing; when he started racing, he took the No. 11.
“I had several of them (favorite drivers), but the one that stands out most in my mind was Ned Jarrett,” said Ingram, a two-time champion at Hickory Motor Speedway. “I liked the way he did things at the racetrack and how he handled himself. I chose that number (11) because of Ned Jarrett.
“I always admired Junior Johnson from what he did as a driver and car owner, and Banjo Matthews as a driver and car builder.”
Apparently Jarrett had a lot of fans.
“Ned Jarrett because he was such a great racer and such a gentleman. “He has never changed” said Morgan Shepherd, another HMS great, the 1980 Late Model Sportsman champion and a four-time winner in the Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) series.
Of course, drivers’ heroes are sometimes family.
“My brothers, Hal and Ken,” said Tommy Houston, still another all-time great at Hickory and a member of the National Motorsports Press Association’s Hall of Fame.
But Houston, a Hickory native whose name is on Hickory Motor Speedway’s Wall of Fame, adds that Hal and Ken didn’t know they were his heroes.
When asked about his favorite Cup drivers way back, Houston said, “Probably Richard Petty and Ned Jarrett. They were on the top of the heap then.”
Richard Brown, a 72-year-old Claremont native who is credited with 50 Cup starts, goes back to his first race, in 1953, for his favorite driver.
“The first race I ever saw was an old Sportsman race; they were running '37 Ford coupes,” Brown said. “Ralph Earnhardt won, and he became my favorite driver. You don't pick the guy who finished last.”
But he also rooted for Cup big-timers like Buck Baker and Speedy Thompson.
“I rooted for most of the Chevrolet teams; I was addicted to Chevrolet,” he said with a laugh.
Brown was yet another a Ned Jarrett fan, and then he got to know him.
“I knew him and worked for him, and he was the best boss I ever had,” Brown said.
Dennis Setzer, the 1983 and ’93 HMS track champion, says his boyhood hero was Ned Setzer, Hickory’s track champion in 1970.
“He was an early great, although he was not kin to me,” Setzer said. “I admired the way he raced when I was a kid playing in the sand.”
What about Cup heroes?
“I guess Ned Jarrett, the hometown guy, and Bobby Isaac,” he said. “I heard Ned Jarrett (announce races) when I was a kid. Races were not televised, so my heroes were at Hickory Speedway. I thought that was as big as there was back then.”
Ingram, a 2007 inductee into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, says he has a favorite current driver.
“Tony Stewart, in my opinion, is one of the best drivers that's come along,” said Ingram, Hickory’s track champion in 1968 and ’71. “I don't know him, never met him. But I see the races he’s won with different organizations, and it’s hard to believe.”
Ingram says he admires the empathy that Stewart showed after the wreck in the season-opening NASCAR Nationwide race at Daytona. Stewart won the race, then didn’t want to celebrate because of 28 injured fans.
“He went to that hospital and stayed with those people who were hurt in the stands,” Ingram said. “He stayed with them two and a half hours and met personally with about five or six of them.”
In fact, Stewart visited Halifax Health Medical Center after getting knocked out of the Daytona 500 the day after the Nationwide race.
“He was visibly shaken because the fans were hurt,” Ingram said. “He showed a lot of compassion, and almost none of the rest of them did.”
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