Jerry Summers: Charlie Griffith - First Or Third?

Thursday, May 6, 2021 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

One of the talented local stock car drivers in the Southeast Tennessee-Northwest Georgia area during the 1940s-1950s was a young man born on September 4, 1929 who claimed Red Bank, Tennessee as his home base for his number 18 1957 Pontiac automobile that won many local dirt races.

The old Moccasin Bend race track, Boyd’s Speedway and the Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville were three of the venues that Charlie, Harold and Freddy Fryar, Joe Lee Johnson, Friday Hassler, Bob Burcham and many others competed for prize money at the small ovals before adoring fans.

Some of the drivers had legitimate jobs during the week while others earned their income as “wheelmen” primarily driving souped up Fords with a back seat or trunk loaded down with cardboard boxes filled with fruit jars containing “moonshine”.

The young man was Charlie Griffith and he was described by NASCAR Hall of Fame member Donnie Allison as being someone “who” taught us what it meant to be a race car driver…You always knew when he was in the race…He was a hell of a race car driver.  Charlie could have been one of the greats, if he could only get away from the demons.”

During his non-recreational job during the week he was described by one of his competitors in the transporting business as the “best street driver around!”

He was famous for out-maneuvering and out racing local law officers when he was delivering a load of the illegal product down Whitwell Mountain onto Suck Creek Road into the corporate limits of the City of Chattanooga to satisfy the liquid appetites of a thirsty public.

The complete history of Charles’ complex life has been compiled by his granddaughter, Michelle Griffith-Talbert in a documentary under the direction of award-winning Writer-Director Michael Starr of Los Angeles, California.

Titled “It’s In The Blood” it deals with the origin of stock car racing in the Chattanooga area and features Charlie Griffith and the other legends mentioned therein.

The movie has recently been shown at a film festival in Glendale, California and is under consideration for an award in its category.

The details of Charlie’s colorful career have been preserved by the interviews of over 60 individuals who had personal contact with him during his legal and illegal racing career.

He was one of the drivers in the early days of NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) founded by Bill France, Sr. on February 25, 1948 in Daytona Beach, Florida. Charlie, in addition to his outstanding record on local tracks, competed in 17 Grand National Series events and finished in the money in six races from 1958-1963.

Said record was deceptive on the national level because he was always competing against better equipped cars and racing crews.

NASCAR in 1959 was trying to clean up its imagine and be a professional and legitimate sport rather than just a weekend gathering of several whiskey transporters such as convicted bootlegger, Robert Glen "Junior" Johnson of Ronda and Charlotte, North Carolina.

In one of the most controversial and mostly unspoken finishes in NASCAR history, many contend that Charlie won the Inaugural Daytona 500 in a photo finish with Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp.  Griffith drove the entire 500 miles on the same set of tires and stopped only to fill up with gasoline.  According to Freddy Fryar, Rex White, NASCAR Hall of Fame member who drove in the ’59 Daytona 500 race, and Don Slack, who witnessed the race, Charlie Griffith was the winner.

However, it took three days to declare the victor and Bill France's dictatorial decision was to declare Lee Petty, who did not have a whiskey transporter record or image like Charlie, the winner.  It was ruled that Charlie was a lap behind Petty and Beauchamp and he was awarded third place and $4,600.

After retiring from racing he was employed as a driver for Chattanooga Brick and Tile on Dayton Boulevard in Red Bank and used his skills to transport large loads of brick to and from the site of the old Werner Coal Company prior to passing on November 22, 1999.

The intrigue of whether he was cheated out of a victory in the Daytona 500 because of his moonshine transporter status remains!

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)

Charlie Griffith
Charlie Griffith

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