February 17, 2012 marked the 40th
anniversary of a tragedy that saddened many Chattanoogans and stock car racing fans everywhere – the death of driver Raymond “Friday” Hassler.
Likely the most accomplished Chattanoogan to compete on the NASCAR circuit, his death came during a Thursday qualifying race for the 1972 Daytona 500.
As 40,000 fans, including wife Joannie, watched the 125-mile qualifying race, a wreck that apparently started with a blown tire by driver David R. Boggs resulted in some swerving and a massive pileup.
Mr. Hassler was hit head-on by another fast-moving car after his 1970 Chevelle had been turned around during the melee, and he died instantly, news reports at the time said.
Such famous drivers as Richard Petty and Buddy Baker had been competing in that qualifying race, and Daytona speedway president Bill France Jr. was on the track immediately afterward directing the cleanup.
Chattanooga News-Free Press sports writer Rex Sanders and Chattanooga Times photographer Cecil Pearce also witnessed the deadly crash, which was the third one in a Daytona event since 1969.
As was his style, Mr. Hassler had moved his No. 39 car up near the front before the backstretch crash shortly before the midway point of the race.
In his career, he had been working his way up closer to the top as well. In fact,
had the 36-year-old Mr. Hassler not died at what is considered a prime age for NASCAR drivers , he might have later become as familiar a NASCAR name as some of the others mentioned.
And the man known for his quiet, unassuming and friendly manner had managed to achieve what he did as an independent car driver at a time when bigger-money sponsorship was starting to become more common and NASCAR was soon to explode in national popularity.
In 1971, in the first year when NASCAR’s top circuit was called the Winston Cup series after previously being called the Grand National series, he finished 16th in point standings and had 13 top 10 points series finishes, included a second at Islip, N.Y.
He had also enjoyed a ninth-place finish earlier in the 1972 season at Riverside, Calif.
He never had a Winston Cup or Grand National win in his career, although he did fill in briefly for Charlie Glotzbach in a hot July 1971 race won by Glotzbach at Bristol.
According to Friday Hassler’s brother, C.W. “Bill” Hassler Jr., who still lives on some longtime family land off Mountain Creek Road, his younger brother had enjoyed cars and racing since he was a child.
“He started out when he was real young,” Bill Hassler said over the telephone this week. “He had matchbox cars and raced in the soap box derby. His last year he was runner-up in the soap box derby.”
The Red Bank and Mountain Creek resident went on to graduate from Kirkman High School after studying automotive mechanics.
His brother said he received the nickname “Friday” because he worked at an auto body and upholstery shop only on Fridays and Saturdays, and the operator would joke, “Here comes Friday,” when Mr. Hassler walked in on the last workday of the week.
Mr. Hassler would go on to work in auto parts and help his father with a tractor business, but racing was his passion. His brother said he competed for years at smaller tracks at such places as Boyd’s Speedway, the Peach Bowl in Atlanta and at tracks in Montgomery and Birmingham in Alabama.
Along the way, he built quite an impressive record for winning at that level.
He also gained respect for the way he raced, as he would never jeopardize another racer by trying to be greedy. “He would rather finish third and keep from messing somebody up than finish first,” Mr. Hassler said.
But his brother said he certainly liked the competitive nature of the sport of racing. “It was a challenge to beat somebody,” he said.
Friday Hassler went on to compete in 134 Grand National or Winston Cup races starting in 1960, including Daytona a number of times.
According to some information found online, Mr. Hassler is also credited with helping develop the first modern NASCAR race car. As an independent driver, he could not buy factory new equipment for his car, so he simply put improved parts on his older cars.
However, even before his unfortunate death, his brother said not everything fell into place for him in various facets of his experience trying to survive in NASCAR’s competitive top circuit.
“He never did get any breaks,” said the elder Mr. Hassler, becoming emotional as he remembered his brother with fondness.
Racing deaths have also hit other accomplished Chattanooga drivers, including Harold Fryar in Gadsden, Ala., in 1971 and Grant Adcox, son of longtime local Chevrolet dealer Herb Adcox, in 1989. Mr. Adcox, whose career included 61 Winston Cup races, was killed during a race at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Like with Mr. Hassler’s death, family members and supporters of those drivers were also left with feelings of loss and questions of “what if.”
As NASCAR has become even more visible in recent decades, despite a sluggish economy and higher gas prices that have hurt attendance in recent years, Mr. Hassler thinks his brother – who was also survived by four sons – would likely still be involved in racing in some way.
“He’d probably be in there with them,” he said. “He would probably have a car and a driver.”