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Thompson won 20 Grand National races, seven from the pole position. He ranks 28th on the all time win list.
The late Alfred (Speedy) Thompson won 20 NASCAR Grand National races from 1953 through 1960, including two in 1956 driving a Dodge. There have been many changes in stock car racing since that era. Among the most dramatic are the number of fans and the amount of money involved.
When Thompson won his NASCAR Grand National race driving a Dodge, attendance totaled 5,000. The largest crowd ever to see him win a race was 75,000 at Darlington for the Southern 500 in 1957. He won the inaugural National 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in front of 29,166. The Charlotte win paid $12,710.
"It was a poor man's operation then," said Warren Connell, a friend who grew up only a few blocks from Thompson in Monroe, N.C., and followed with his family when Thompson later moved to Charlotte. Connell said Thompson depended on the volunteer help of friends to prepare his cars. His first sponsorship, provided by a grocery store, paid only enough to cover painting the car.
One person who understands the financial sacrifice required by stock car racing in its early days is Thompson's widow Jewel. "You talk about tough? I mean it was tough," Mrs. Thompson declared recently. "He ran Modifieds on old dirt tracks for years before he moved up to Late Models," she continued. "When he built our home in Charlotte, he put a two-car garage in the back yard. That's where he and his friends worked on the race cars."
After moving up to stock cars and winning three NASCAR Grand National races with low-budget operations, Thompson got a financial and career-making break near the end of 1956 when he was recruited by pioneering team owner Carl Kiekhaefer.
Arriving on the scene in 1955 and building a team with the top mechanics and drivers, Kiekhaefer won 22 of the 40 races he entered the first year, and 21 of the first 25 races the following year. The team won two consecutive titles. Kiekhaefer drivers won the manufacturers' trophy racing a stable of Chrysler 300s, but he also prepared and raced Dodge stock cars. Thompson won seven races for Kiekhaefer driving Chryslers, and two races driving Dodges.
Kiekhaefer saw NASCAR as an opportunity to reach potential customers for his Mercury outboard boat engines. Kiekhaefer introduced several new concepts to Winston Cup racing, hiring the best people and fielding the most powerful cars of the era for his multi-car team. At a time when most cars were towed or driven to the track, he bought enclosed transporters and used the sides to promote his boat engines.
While he did make a name for Mercury Outboard engines, Kiekhaefer also learned what can happen when a team is too successful. At one point, Kiekhaefer's team won 16 straight races and the fans began to boo. Worried that the backlash might hurt his brand instead of help it, he decided to seek marketing exposure elsewhere.
For Thompson, being hired by Kiekhaefer made a big difference in what he had to do and what he was paid. "Kiekhaefer paid him (Thompson) well," said Connell. "He made more money with Kiekhaefer than he ever made before."
Jewell Thompson points out that not only was her husband paid to drive for Kiekhaefer, the couple was suddenly relieved of the need to spend money on his race car. "Speedy had no expense with the car," said Mrs. Thompson. "All he had to do was drive."
Kiekhaefer's practice was to keep the trophies and give the race purses to the drivers, an arrangement that was just fine with the Thompsons, who were raising two children. "I would rather have the money than the trophies," she said.
In another example of Kiekhaefer largess, Jewel Thompson recalls a time when the team went to Pennsylvania and won a race there. Kiekhaefer was so pleased he took all the drivers to a Chrysler dealership and had them pick out new cars, which he paid for.
Despite his good fortune, the money Thompson earned in stock car racing was modest by today's standards. "A driver could probably run 10 laps and sit in the pits for the rest of the race and make as much money as Speedy made when he won the Southern 500 at Darlington," said Mrs. Thompson.
The biggest check Thompson ever cashed came after he won the 1957 Southern 500 at Darlington, for $13,590. The 1960 race at Charlotte was a close second in cash, and also included the pace car as a prize.
Most of Thompson's wins paid about $1,000. If he finished out of the top five, he usually lost money. "If Speedy did well that week, we ate well," said Jewel Thompson. "If he didn't, we cut back."
After Kiekhaefer withdrew from stock car racing, Thompson won six races in race cars he owned himself, then two races driving for the Wood Brothers, including the inaugural fall race at Charlotte, now Lowe's Motor Speedway. His 20 Grand National wins rank him among NASCAR's top-30 all-time winners.
Thompson dropped out of racing for a while, then went back to running the dirt tracks where he had grown up. He entered his final race at Charlotte's Metrolina Fairgrounds on April 2, 1972, the day before his 46th birthday. Thompson said he wasn't feeling well and was having difficulty breathing. He tried finding a sub but started the race himself when he couldn't get another driver. Midway through the race, Thompson was leading but something was wrong. His son Chuck - known as Speedy Thompson, Jr. - reported seeing his father slumped over the wheel. Thompson brushed the wall on one pass, then on his next lap, never turned the car at all and hit the wall head on, breaking his neck. He died on the way to the hospital.
Jewell Thompson still lives in the same Charlotte house she and her husband moved into shortly after their wedding in 1954. Never remarried, she works part time for First Union Corporation.
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