A two-time (1961 & 1965) NASCAR Cup Series Champion who was involved in virtually every aspect of professional auto racing, Ned Jarrett (October 12, 1932) of Newton, North Carolina, was a leader both on and off the track. “Gentleman Ned’s” efforts in all areas made a positive impact on Stock Car Racing’s overall growth and development.
Through his luck in a friendly poker game, Jarrett became the half-owner and driver of a Limited Sportsman 1939 Ford coupe and in April 1952 he finished 10th in his first race at Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway. His parents, however, figured racers were either bootleggers or fools and knowing he wasn’t the first expressed their displeasure at his being the second.
But when Jarrett finished second in another race using someone else’s name and won the next week, his father changed his mind about his son’s racing – as long as he used his own name.
A consistent Sportsman winner at Hickory (1953-1954), Jarrett became NASCAR’s 1957-1958 National Sportsman Champion. He also raced in three Modified-Sportsman races on the old 4.1-mile Beach-Road Course in Daytona Beach, Florida, with his best finish 10th on February 21, 1958, in his No. 238 1938 Ford Sportsman and as a driver with considerable talent, he had occasional NASCAR Grand National (Cup Series) rides.
In 1959, Jarrett – who was known to take a gamble – decided to race in NASCAR’s top series full-time and bought a 1957 Ford from fellow EMPA Hall of Famer Junior Johnson. However, for the $2,000 check that he wrote after banking hours to be good, Jarrett had to win the 100-lappers on the half-mile dirt tracks that weekend at Rambi Raceway in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and at the Southern States Fairgrounds in Charlotte, North Carolina.
As things turned out, Jarrett and his No. 11 did just that – with relief-driving help from Johnson due to blisters on his hands – as he claimed the first of his 50 Cup victories in 352 starts.
From that point on Jarrett drove his own equipment until he became the driver of B.G. Holloway’s 1961 Chevrolet and with this blue No. 11 he won his first Cup title. Then, in 1963, he became a Ford factory driver and stayed with that brand until the end of his career.
On May 30, 1964, Jarrett showed another side of himself at the Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway during the World 600 when he, Johnson and “Fireball” Roberts – a trio of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers – were involved in a first-turn seventh-lap accident. Jarrett was able to get out of his disabled car and pulled Roberts to safety from his flaming car. However, the popular star eventually died of complications from his considerable burns on July 2.
On September 6, 1965, Jarrett drove to his most impressive victory when he and his blue No. 11 Bondy Long-owned Ford won the prestigious Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway by an amazing 14 laps (or 19.25 miles) over second-placed Buck Baker.
The 1965 Cup Series Champion figured that he had done just about all that he set out to do as a driver so on October 30, 1966, Jarrett retired from the cockpit after finishing third in the American 500 at North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham. And the devoted family man is the only NASCAR driver to ever retire as a champion.
A talented speaker at civic meetings and the host of a popular weekly racing program on radio since the early 1960s, Jarrett easily began working on national radio and television broadcasts of top NASCAR events. Among his most famous assignments were interviewing President Ronald Reagan – a former auto racing broadcaster, himself – at the 1984 Firecracker 400 during fellow EMPA Hall of Famer Richard Petty’s 200th victory, and calling his son Dale’s victory in the 1993 Daytona 500, a race that he never won.
Ned Jarrett – who was also the promoter at Hickory (1968-1977) – retired from his broadcasting duties in May 2009. But his presence in racing is still felt today in many ways.