In 1965, Fred Lorenzen won the Daytona 500.
“I was leading it. And I saw the clouds coming so I stepped it up to make sure nobody could pass me,” the 78-year-old Lorenzen recently recalled. “It was like the track was molded, like it was built for me. It was easy to drive. I was always the fastest thing there.”
Lorenzen was a star racer whose fame at the height of his career allowed him to jump from the race track to the silver screen, appearing in the 1968 film “Speed Lovers.”
“Oh, oh, he was my hero as a kid,” said NASCAR historian Buz McKim. “He was awesome. He looked like a movie star.”
Despite Lorenzen’s short racing career, McKim said Lorezen made his mark.
“He was unconventional in that he was from up North,” McKim said. “Most everyone was Southern. Fred really, really opened the door for NASCAR to become a national sport, to gain interest all along the North and Midwest.”
Lorenzen grew in Elmhurst, Ill., not exactly a NASCAR hotbed in the 1950s. His career took off in the early 1960s when joined NASCAR’s Holman-Moody team.
“He wasn’t going to be one of those drivers who mashed the pedal to the floor, raced to the front, and try to hold on and win,” said Lance Tawzer, curator of exhibits at the Elmhurst Historical Museum. “He was a very thinking man’s driver, and that endeared him in some ways because he won with such frequency.”
Between 1961 and 1967, Lorenzen won 26 races. In 1963 he became the first driver to make more than $100,000 in one season. That year Lorenzen’s mentor, Fireball Roberts, became his racing teammate. In 1964 Roberts died after a crash at the World 600 in Charlotte. Lorenzen was there.
“When he died, I saw it happen,” Lorenzen said. “It wasn’t his fault. He spun and a guy spun into him. Hit him. His car burst into flames.”
That same year Lorenzen’s career peaked with five straight wins. In 1965 he won the Daytona 500. By 1967 he decided to leave while he was still on top.
“To be honest, I got tired of traveling,” Lorenzen said. “My pockets were full of money. I made plenty of money in that short span. And I had endorsements. So I decided to just get away.”
Though his memory is often clear, today he suffers from dementia. His daughter Amanda Lorenzen Gardstrom says there’s a link between his illness and his racing — specifically from concussion-causing crashes. She says he has all the symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE.
“And that’s the trauma you get from a concussion,” Lorenzen Gardstrom said. “Not taking time out for that to heal. And then getting back to my dad’s case, into the race car. And he had had several accidents.”
Amanda is part of the Sports Legacy Institute, a national organization dedicated to finding solutions to sport-related brain trauma. She wants to honor her father by helping today’s drivers avoid his fate.
“What I would like to see is a seminar, a yearly seminar where the drivers can be educated,” Lorenzen Gardstrom said. “They can be aware. But it doesn’t have to happen to anyone else if you take care of yourself right now.”
While she works to help the sport’s future winners, NASCAR historian Buz McKim said today’s fans who didn’t watch Lorenzen race can see glimpses of Fast Freddie on the track today.
“He’s kind of a prototype for what we have today,” McKim said. “The really sharp, clean cut, well-spoken kind of guy that all the NASCAR drivers are a part of now. I know it’s just a matter of time before he gets into the Hall. He’s that strong a name.
The ballots for the 2014 NASCAR Hall of Fame go out next month. Fans of Fred Lorenzen hope he’ll be inducted next spring.