Oldest living NASCAR champ reflects on illustrious career

By Anthony Rhoads

Tony Stewart. Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt. Richard Petty. Cale Yarborough.

When you think of past NASCAR Winston Cup champions, Rex White might not be the first driver to come to mind but in the relatively short amount of time he raced in NASCAR's top division, he definitely made an impact.

From 1959-63, Rex White was the most successful driver on the NASCAR Grand National series.

No other driver won as many races and 1960 was the pinnacle of his success. That season, White won the series championship after winning six races and placing in the top-10 35 times. White dominated that year and beat runner-up Richard Petty by nearly 4,000 for the season championship.

Even when White didn't win, he was still a force to be reckoned with as he was one of the most consistent drivers of all time.

In nearly half of his 233 Grand National races, he was finished in the top five.

"I had to be consistent," White said. "I had to do all the work on the car. If I tore up the car, I had to work on it and get it ready for the next race. The drivers today don't have to worry about that. If they tear up a car, it goes back in the shop and the driver gets another car."

White's resourcefulness and determination could be traced back to his childhood growing up during the depression in the small town of Taylorsville, N.C.

It was a hardscrabble life that was made harder when he was 10-years-old. He had polio but he set out to overcome his physical problems. As a result of polio, his right leg was damaged and he walked with a limp but he didn't let that stop him.

White grew up on a farm but there were other means of making a living.

In those days, the southern Appalachians were filled with bootleggers who sold illegal moonshine liquor. The moonshine was transported through the winding, twisting mountain roads by drivers who suped-up their cars to outrun the police. Those drivers eventually started racing each other and stock-car racing was born.

"I knew drivers who adapted their skills for quick mountain turns could modify their cars to run at high speed," he said in a Motorsport America article. "It was a source of pride to be the boys, racin' through the valley impressin' the girls."

White said that he never hauled moonshine like other NASCAR drivers such as Junior Johnson, who continued to moonshine even after becoming a successful race-car driver.

White eventually left home at 15 and several years later in Silver Springs, Md., he got his chance to race.

"I was working at a gas station and there were signs up that advertised racing every Saturday," he said. "I saved up enough money to get to a race."

After seeing a race as a fan, he then decided that he wanted to race as a career.

White eventually made it up to the NASCAR Grand National Series and in the late 1950s-early 60s, he was a dominant force in stock-car racing's premier division.

White competed against some of the true legends of stock-car racing during a Grand National career that spanned from 1956-64. He raced against guys like Lee and Richard Petty, Junior Johnson, Fireball Roberts, Fred Lorenzen, Bobby Johns, Ned Jarrett and Joe Weatherly.

Even though he raced against some of the greatest drivers of all-time, the Pettys were the guys everybody wanted to beat. The Pettys had the complete package: they had the money, cars and sponsorships.

"Any time you went to the track you knew you had the Pettys to beat," White said.

White more than held his own against the legendary racing family.

"It felt good (to beat Richard Petty for the championship)," White said. "I beat the Pettys a lot, daily."

One of White's career highlights was winning the 1962 Dixie 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. It was his only superspeedway victory.

"It was one of the biggest races in mileage and it was one of the biggest accomplishments of my career except for winning the championship," he said.

During his NASCAR career, White was known as a short-track specialist and the vast majority of his 28 wins were at the smaller venues.

"That's the kind of track I started on and I was familiar with it so that gave me an edge," he said.

Some of his favorite tracks were Manassas, Va., Martinsville, Winston-Salem and Darlington.

"I enjoyed everything about racing," he said. "It's like when someone asks me what my favorite track is. Even if you don't like a certain track, if you win there, you like being there. If you win, you enjoy it."

Even though White was successful on the tracks, money was always a concern. Even though today's racecar drivers win millions of dollars each year and have endorsements and sponsorship deals, it was a different story when White was racing.

White's career winnings were about $200,000 and in his championship season, he won about $45,000. Compared with the 2002 Winston Cup champion, White's winnings were paltry. Stewart brought home more than $9 million last year, including $200,000 for his last-place finish in the Daytona 500.

"You know, I'm very resentful and I wish I could have made that kind of money," White said jokingly.

White is glad to see stock-car racing become one of the most popular and fastest-growing sports in the country.

"It's got to be good," he said. "Automobile racing is so big now. It's really getting big and more popular now."

White still follows the sport and admires several current drivers.

"I like the conservative drivers, Terry and Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin," he said. "I think (current Winston Cup points leader Matt) Kenseth will make a real good champion; he's a good driver. I haven't met him but he seems like the quiet-type and he's not outspoken."

Today's champions are pretty secure in their sponsorships but that was not the case with White. In the early part of his career, he raced without a sponsor and made do with what he had.

White eventually became a member of Chevrolet's original racing team with crew chief Louie Clements. White's driving ability and Chevrolet's resources proved to be a winning combination.

White's most successful seasons were spent driving Chevrolets but Chevrolet eventually got out of racing. After Chevrolet left racing, White went to driving Mercurys for one year but it produced sub-par results.

After that, White pretty much got out of racing full-time and went to work selling cars rather than driving them.

"I got a job working for the Chrysler-Plymouth dealer in Forest Park and never got back in it," he said in an article on www.mobilespeedway.com. "I made more money selling cars than I ever made racing them."

White raced some Sportsman races part-time but eventually gave up the sport.

He moved to Forest Park in 1965 and lived a life of relative obscurity. He drove for a trucking company for several years until retiring in 2001.

A few years ago, motorsports writer Rick Minter looked up White for a story and encouraged him to come to Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Since then, White has been a fixture at the speedway during NASCAR races and special events.

"I grew up watching him," Atlanta Motor Speedway president and general manager Ed Clark said. "Guys like Rex got me into racing. Four years When Rick Minter got Rex to come out here, Rex had thought people had kind of forgotten about him. I have seen a change in him and it's heartwarming to see the reception he gets here now."

Today's drivers owe a certain amount of gratitude to White, Clark said.

"These guys now have the money and they can thank Rex for that," Clark said. "Guys like Rex made this sport what it is so that guys today can have it. He did it out of a love for the sport and I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Rex."

White is also the subject of a forthcoming book by Anne B. Jones. The book will be titled ?Gold Thunder.'