TOOELE — Hershel McGriff has reached an age where he has more mileage on his body than most of the cars he drives. But thoughts of retirement do not occupy the mind of the 81-year-old racer.
Far from it, McGriff is taking a new plunge into a sport that made him a legend.
McGriff became the oldest driver to take part in a NASCAR race when he competed in a NASCAR Camping World Series West race at Portland International Raceway two weeks ago. His participation in Portland turned out to be more than just a mere novelty act.
He finished 13th overall in a 26 car race and could have a realistic shot at moving up into a top 10 finish this Saturday at Miller Motorsports Park. The course at Tooele is the second of three road courses he will run in a limited schedule this year.
McGriff, who lives in a community of mostly retirees in Green Valley, Ariz., acknowledged he bucks the usual notion of what a person his age does with his spare time.
"I often wonder what they're going to say when I get in a home," McGriff said.
Making such an unheard-of comeback adds another page to a storied career for a driver who competed in the earliest days of the NASCAR series.
McGriff was one of the participants in the inaugural Southern 500 at Darlington Speedway in 1950. He drove a car he had used to win the Pan American Road Race in Mexico all the way from Portland, Ore., to South Carolina to compete in the race. He placed ninth overall in the race.
His racing career has spanned nearly six decades since that initial NASCAR race. During his time, he made 85 starts in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series and earned four victories, five pole positions, 17 top five finishes and 31 top 10 finishes. He also won the 1986 NASCAR Winston West Series Championship — the predecessor to the current NASCAR Camping World Series West Series.
McGriff was eventually inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2006 in recognition of his storied career. But his proudest moment in racing came when he received the NASCAR award of excellence — an honor bestowed on just a select few drivers.
"That was really something because they appreciated all I had done over the years," McGriff said. "I've run Le Mans. I've been to Australia. Japan. Just supporting NASCAR."
Getting back behind the wheel of a stock car at Portland felt as good as slipping into a familiar article of clothing.
"Right after that race got going, I felt comfortable," McGriff said.
While McGriff is looking to continue to prove that age has not dimmed his abilities on the track, series points leader Jason Bowles is coming into Tooele looking for another victory that can increase his edge over second-place driver Eric Holmes.
Both drivers have dominated the NASCAR Camping World Series West circuit in 2009. They have piled up three victories apiece in nine races. Bowles has the edge in finishes, though. He has seven top-five finishes and nine top-10 finishes — one more than Holmes in both categories — to carve out a 33-point lead.
Holding off challengers is a new experience for Bowles, who won the first race in this series to be held at Miller Motorsports Park back in 2007.
"You have to be a little bit more cautious when you're the leader and not the chaser," Bowles said. "You can't take as many risks.
"Everything you do has to be a little bit more calculated because now you have everything to lose where before you only had everything to gain."
Joining Bowles at Tooele is a racer already familiar to many local racing fans. Patrick Long, a GT2 class driver in the American Le Mans Series, has taken a limited NASCAR racing schedule as well and will return to Miller Motorsports for the second time in less than three months.
Long won the GT2 title in the Utah Grand Prix back in May. He sees competing in a stock car race as a good way to showcase his versatility as a driver.
"I'm a racer and I want to drive everything I can," Long said. "One of my goals was to find enough success in sports car racing that my name might pave the way to have some opportunity to try off-road or stock cars or open wheel. This is one of the things I've always wondered about."
A pair of local drivers are expected to run in Saturday's race as well.
Park City resident Mike Self, a former kart racer, will be competing in his first full race after driving limited laps at Portland two weeks ago. Spanish Fork resident Shane Hubbard will be racing at Miller Motorsports Park for the second consecutive summer after making his NASCAR debut there in 2008.
NASCAR Camping World Series West 125
Where: Miller Motorsports Park
Qualifying: 10-11 a.m.
Main Race: 1:30-3 p.m.
Tickets: $25, call 435-277-RACE (7223)
EMAIL: [email protected]