Driver Jack Smith (left) and...
Driver Jack Smith (left) and mechanic Bud Moore pose with the No. 47 Pontiac Catalina NASCAR race car, constructed at Nichels Engineering in Highland, Indiana, in the winter of 1959. photo courtesy of conversations with a winner-the ray nichels story.
On February 13, 1998, NASCAR announced its 50 greatest drivers of all time. Jack Thomas Smith, a racer well known for his No. 47 and No. 46 Pontiacs in the first years of the superspeedways, wasn't on the list. Family, friends, and fans of the legend were outraged. They knew Jack ranked among NASCAR's best, and many felt he was left off the list on purpose.
In "The Real Top 50 NASCAR Drivers," author Steve Samples corrected NASCAR's omission, and placed Smith at No. 22 on his Top 50 list. He said, "Jack was a rough-and-tumble country boy who was highly superstitious. No green cars or women in the pits around Jack. That may have made it hard for him to compete today, but Jack Smith was a hell-bent-for-leather chauffeur who didn't like to relinquish the lead."
Jack was born to Carl and Montare Smith on May 24, 1923, in the small town of Metropolis, Illinois. At the age of two, his family moved to Roswell, Georgia, a town that bootleggers traveled through to get their moonshine hauls from the North Georgia mountains to Atlanta.
His first Pontiac race car...
His first Pontiac race car was a '58 Chieftain that he campaigned in four races in 1958. It was demolished at Darlington Raceway, according to Jack's son, Lance.
His father owned an autobody shop, and Jack worked there after school, pounding the fenders of flat-head Fords and listening to his stories of automobile racing. It was there that he developed a love for fast cars. At night and on the weekends, he raced against the bootleggers on fields and homemade tracks when his parents weren't looking.
In 1949, the 25-year-old amateur racer learned about a new organization named NASCAR and showed up to race at its very first "Strictly Stock" event, a 150-mile showdown at the old dirt-track Charlotte Speedway on June 19. He finished thirteenth and earned $50, but more importantly, put his name among the 33 racers who inaugurated NASCAR into American culture.
Thirty-nine races and 7 years later, on October 28, 1956, Jack earned his first NASCAR victory at Martinsville, Virginia, driving a Dodge and taking home $2,264. In 1957, driving a '57 Chevrolet, he expanded his victories to four races: Concord, North Carolina; Columbia, South Carolina; Hickory, North Carolina; and North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, and earned $14,561 for the season.
In 1958, Jack, living in Sandy Springs, Georgia, and with the sponsorship of Atlanta Tune-Up Service, prepared to race his very first Pontiac, a '58 Chieftain. He entered the vehicle into the second Grand National race of the season, held at the Daytona Beach and Road Course on February 23, 1958, completed all 39 laps on the 4.1-mile road course (159.9 miles), and finished in Third Place.
This certificate was issued...
This certificate was issued to Jack from NASCAR in 1958, after he averaged 133.829 mph in the '58 Pontiac Chieftain through the famous "measured mile" at Daytona Beach.
Although he continued to campaign his '57 Chevrolet as his primary race car, he returned with the Chieftain for the Virginia 500, and completed 446 laps before his Pontiac succumbed to an oil-pressure problem that put him out of the race. On June 1, 1958, for the Crown America 500 in Riverside, California, he enlisted the Pontiac again, completing 186 of 190 laps, and earning a Third Place finish. For September 1, 1958, at Darlington's Southern 500, Jack crashed the '58 Chieftain on Lap No. 210 of the 364-lap race and was forced to finish out the season with his Chevrolet. His earnings for the year were $12,633.
On February 18, 1959, Jack was voted NASCAR's Most Popular Driver for 1958. Fierce balloting tied Jack and Junior Johnson for First Place and a run-off ballot was issued, pitting the two drivers against each other. NASCAR members from 15 states responded, and Jack won a majority of the ballots.
The Most Popular Driver Award gave him the recognition he needed to further his opportunities in NASCAR, and he was chosen by the Atlanta International Raceway to be the first driver to test its 1.5-mile track before it opened to the public. Jack's 1959 scorecard counted four First Place finishes, and $13,289 in earnings, but a '59 Chevrolet was still all he had to race with.