Among Humpy Wheeler’s many amusing memories as promoter during the 1950s at Robinwood Speedway in Gastonia is one concerning stock car racing’s Vandiver brothers, driver Jim and crew chief Tommy.
“They either finished first or upside down,” Wheeler often has recalled of the popular Vandivers.
Jim Vandiver, 75, of Huntersville died Thursday at a hospital in his native Charlotte. He had been admitted Monday complaining of chest pains.
The Vandivers made it to the big-time NASCAR tour for one race in 1968 and then appeared sporadically on it through 1983.
Jim Vandiver compiled 85 starts on what now is the Sprint Cup circuit, posting five top-five finishes and 14 more in the top 10.
His best finish, second, came in the inaugural Talladega 500 on Sept. 14, 1969, a date notorious in NASCAR history. The sanctioning body’s top stars boycotted the event at the superfast 2.66-mile track, then known as Alabama International Motor Speedway, mainly out of concern that tires were unsafe for a scorching pace of almost 200 mph.
Big Bill France, founder of both NASCAR and the facility now called Talladega Superspeedway, cobbled together a field of drivers and cars from other divisions and the show went on.
Vandiver was among the drivers agreeing to race, taking over a Dodge fielded by Ray Fox.
Although his car wasn’t one of the Chrysler Corporation’s sleek, new, needle-nosed products with high wing on the trunks, Vandiver dominated through much of the race, leading 13 times for 102 laps. Then, with 10 laps to go, Richard Brickhouse revved one of the more aerodynamic cars to the front and was seven seconds ahead of Vandiver at the checkered flag.
Vandiver never accepted that he was the runner-up.
“I won that race,” he would state firmly. “I had Brickhouse down almost a lap.”
Indeed, there was confusion aplenty that day. NASCAR displayed the caution flag about every 20 laps, ostensibly for debris on the track. But in reality it was so teams could change tires.
“If Jim was alive right now, he’d insist he won that Talladega race,” Tommy Vandiver said Thursday. “Jim and Ray Fox protested the finish, but it wasn’t upheld.
“It was tough to take, but on the other hand, through the years we had a lot of good times in racing and made some great life-long friends.”
It always seemed more entertaining when Jim and Tommy Vandiver were at the tracks.
For example, during a Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway during the 1970s, Tommy began showing Jim a pit board with the word LAW chalked on it. Three deputy sheriffs stood waiting nearby for the race to finish.
As the race ended, Jim spun his car in Turn 3, hustled from the cockpit, scampered up the banking and disappeared over the rail.
He thus evaded the officers awaiting him with a summons in a civil matter.
“By the time the deputies realized what was going on, Jim was headed back home to Charlotte,” a laughing Tommy Vandiver remembered.
Jim Vandiver also is survived by four children: son Emory (wife C.J.) of Belmont, son Rhett of Davidson, daughter Nicole Bryan (husband Callan) of Davidson and daughter Shannon of Cornelius; and a sister, Lillian Hoopaugh of Charlotte.
A funeral is scheduled at 4 p.m. Monday at Huntersville United Methodist Church with a viewing at 3:30. A reception is to follow at the Pearl Wedding and Events Center in Cornelius at 5:30. A private burial will be held at Northlake Memorial Gardens.