339. Fred Lorenzen
One of six children, Fred Lorenzen shared his father’s interest in carpentry, but he was entranced by speed. At age thirteen, he built a go-kart from a washing machine engine and junk parts. After he terrorized Elmhurst IL for a few days, and outran a local police cruiser, the fuzz appeared on the family’s doorstep to confiscate his first hotrod. He earned enough money building homes and furniture with his dad to buy a Plymouth after he got his license. Racing his friends outside town, he managed to roll the Plymouth.
Amateur racing cost money, so Lorenzen pursued a career as a union carpenter. Still dreaming of a NASCAR career, he bought a supercharged Chevy from Tiger Tom Pistone, and headed south, where he entered seven races in the ’56 season. Determination didn’t bring success against the mighty factory teams. When he blew his only engine at Hillsboro NC, he returned to Elmhurst for regrooving.
In the Chevy, he ran local modified contests, including the Soldier Field races promoted by Andy Granatelli. He placed 10th in all four of his 1957 races. The next year, he drove a Ford and won five of seven races. That included Milwaukee, where he beat another northerner, Ralph Moody. His Ford was sponsored by a pizza shop, where Fred baked pizzas until closing time. Then, he’d work all night on the car. In ’59, Fearless Freddie took six of thirteen races, and decided to return to the NASCAR Grand National series.
Lorenzen’s ’58 and ’59 campaigns were successful enough to win USAC crowns, but didn’t put money in the bank. Lorenzen found a job at Holman-Moody for the 1960 season, but it wasn’t driving racecars. Fred ran ten races in his new Ford, earning three top fives and five top tens, but had to sell his car to finance his next trip home. There, he resumed his carpentry career.
'58 USAC Champ
On Christmas Eve 1960, Ralph Moody called Fred Lorenzen to ask if he would be interested in driving for a new Ford factory team. Ford was returning to racing following the 1957 AMA ban. It wasn’t to be a full-time ride, because Ford was only interested in the “big races” of 250 miles or more. With the opening of Daytona in ’59, Grand National was changing from a dirt track series to the modern superspeedways. If Fireball Roberts was the first speedway specialist, the “Golden Boy” was the second. While Fireball had only one speed, Freddie wanted to win, even if that meant taking care of his equipment, and out-thinking his opponents late in the race. While Fireball partied, Lorenzen studied the cars with his mentor, Moody, and learned to work as part of the team.
at IRP with Holman & Moody
At a time when NASCAR needed stars to continue rapid growth, Lorenzen was a sponsor’s dream. Much is made of the rugged good looks and wavy blonde mane of the eligible bachelor. More importantly, the golden boy was articulate and witty, at a time when Richard Petty was shy and insecure. In his first victory, beating his hero Curtis Turner at Darlington, the rookie demonstrated the courage, determination, and skills that brought him twenty-six victories in one hundred and twelve races as Holman-Moody’s ace.
Off the track, Fastback Freddie showed his real personality. The Elmhurst Express didn’t just sign autographs. He took the time to meet people, ask their names, and find out something about them. He particularly enjoyed talking with kids and finding out what they liked about racing. Instead of a scrawled signature, he personalized his autographs, e.g., “Best of Luck, John, Fred Lorenzen 28.” Not only was John a person: Fred was just the driver of the #28 team his fans cheered on the track.
In his first season with Holman-Moody, Lorenzen burst on the scene with three wins and six top fives in fifteen starts. His rivals of the era, Petty and David Pearson, took longer to develop. In head-to-head-to-head competition, over the seven seasons Lorenzen drove, part-time, the Elmhurst Express won twenty-six times to Petty’s twenty-one, and Pearson’s eight.
Lorenzen with Trophy at Rockingham '66
Lorenzen left racing due to ulcers, and his stockbroker’s recommendation that he take it easy and enjoy himself. In later days, Lorenzen realized that racing was what he enjoyed, and he regretted retiring. Some said Fireball Roberts’ death sapped Fred’s spirit, but he earned eight wins after that. Fearless Freddie lived to have regrets.