Al Unser won his fourth Indy 500 at 47. Formula 1 and Indy car champion Mario Andretti was setting IndyCar speed records and winning races at 53. Juan Manuel Fangio won his fifth Formula 1 championship at age 46. Sixteen-time champion John Force was an NHRA event winner at age 70.
Juan Fangio’s final championship came at age 46, making him the oldest F1 champion. Bobby Allison started racing in NASCAR’s top series at age 23, but his first and only Cup Series championship didn’t happen until he was 45 in 1983. Morgan Shepherd raced 12 times in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2019 at age 77. Mario Andretti won the second race of the season at Phoenix one year at age 53 to become the oldest winner in the series. Bjorn Waldegard won the World Rally Championship’s Safari Rally in Kenya in 1990 to become the oldest winner of a WRC event at 46 years old.
Sounds impressive doesn’t it? But along came the great Hershel McGriff. If Father Time has a right-hand man, without a doubt it’s NASCAR’s legendary Hershel McGriff. In 2002, he announced his retirement. But in 2009 — 59 years after Hershel won La Carrera Panamericana and 2 years after I raced in La Carrera Panamericana — as I was sitting in a restaurant in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, having dinner with Hershel and his wife Sherrie, Hershel took a sip of his margarita and looked across the table and said, “You know, Gary, I’m going to be 80 pretty soon, and I feel like I could still go out and show them young drivers a thing or two.” And sure, as hell, he did just that! In fact, I was with Hershel when he raced at a NASCAR race at California’s Sears Point International Raceway, again when he was testing before the NASCAR race in Portland, and again when he raced in 2018, at age 90, at Tucson Speedway, in Arizona when he became the oldest person to contest in a race sanctioned by NASCAR. On top of that, Hershel played the National Anthem on his trombone just before that race.
A favorite story of mine about Hershel took place at our home, when Hershel stood up as my best man. Sitting in our living room, Hershel shared a story about how he mentioned to a group, how he had a dream of racing at 100. Upon hearing that, Richard Childress, owner of NASCAR’s Richard Childress Racing, stood up and said, ‘Hershel, as God as my witness, if you race at 100, I’m going to build the car for you to do it in.’ It was then that Hershel’s eyes lit up with the excitement of a little boy, as only he can do and said, “You know, Gary … That’s only six years away!”
The most important thing you must remember about Hershel is, when he says he’s going to do something, he does it. I’m sure I’m the first to say, when they dig up the time capsule Hershel leaves behind, Hershel will probably be the one digging it up.
I recently retired as executive director of the Unser Museum so that I could spend more time with my wife Karol, but like Hershel McGriff, that doesn’t mean I’ve lost my urge to strap into a race car and give ’em hell. My biggest regret is that I didn’t consider asking Hershel to team up together and go race the world famous La Carrera Panamericana one more time. At the end of the day, when all is said and done, we’re never too old to race, even if it’s just in our hearts and minds.