The rain let up just long enough last Sunday afternoon in Atlanta for a young stock car driver named Bobby Johns to work up a wide smile and accept some gold trophies and nearly $15,000 in prize money. Driving a 1960 Pontiac, Johns had just won the first running of the Atlanta 500-mile race for late-model stock cars, to close out the 1960 NASCAR Grand National season.
It was a soggy ending to the season, with the last 150 miles of the race running under the yellow caution flag as the rain slicked the Atlanta oval. But the weather failed to depress a short, slight driver who looks like George Gobel, the comedian. Standing alongside his gold-and-white 1960 Chevrolet, a damp, half-smoked cigar in his hand, Rex White was a happy man as he talked to Louis Clements, his chief mechanic and partner. Although White had finished only fifth, his $1,775 in prize money brought his season's earnings to an alltime NASCAR record of $45,055. Even before the race began, this sad-eyed 30-year-old with the rich Carolinian accent had accumulated enough points to win the NASCAR Grand National Driving Championship.
White's victory was a major triumph for the law of averages, his favorite piece of legislation. During the four years he has been racing late-model stock cars, he has been consistent more often than brilliant. "On most tracks I can't run as fast as those Pontiacs and Fords," he explains, "but I can stay up close during the first half of the race. As long as I don't abuse the equipment I can keep running, and then if the other cars have some trouble I've got a chance."
Out of 39 Grand National races he entered this past season White failed to finish only twice. He was among the first 10 cars 34 times, among the first five cars 25 times and has won a record six races.
Much of White's sudden success in racing is due to his partnership with Clements, a Kentuckian who shares the ownership in their two racing cars and the garage they operate in Spartanburg, S.C. Each year they build one or two new cars during the slack winter months, and they often put in a 12-or 14-hour day at the garage keeping their machinery in condition. They live and work together at the race tracks, and during a race Clements runs the pit while White runs the car. They split White's winnings 50-50.
Rex White moved to Spartanburg from Washington in 1958 just so he could join forces with Clements, and they prepared their first late-model Chevy there early that year. They had met a year or so earlier when both were working on Chevrolet's factory racing team, an enterprise that was abandoned in June 1957, when Detroit decided to quit racing. A few days after that decision White had the only serious accident of his life. He was driving between Baltimore and Washington when a drunk swerved into his path and hit him head on.
They are each other's foremost admirers. Clements says, "The thing about Rex is that he thinks. When he's out on the track he's plannin' and figgerin' which cars he gotta race, so he don't just go out there and race any car to stay ahead. And he watches all the little things on a car and just sort of senses when somethin's goin' wrong and saves it so's it'll last the race. That's been more of a help to me than anything."
Smokey ("best damn garage in town") Yunick of Daytona Beach endorses this opinion. "Rex is not a cautious driver like some people say," Yunick said the other day while watching White take some practice laps around the Atlanta track. "He's not a stroker [a fellow who just goes round and round and never expects to win], but he knows when to use caution. He and Clements won this year because they put more concentration and more work into it than anyone else."
An early ambition
Rex White has been dreaming of becoming a driving champion since he was a little boy on the family farm in Taylorsville, N.C. Smaller than the other kids—even now he is only 5 feet 4 and weighs 137—he was left with a slightly gimpy leg by an attack of polio when he was 9. He had learned to drive a neighbor's truck in the fields when he was 6 years old, and many times while he was growing up he would just sit in the family Model T and pretend he was on a race track.
White sold some of his mother's chickens and spent $2 of the proceeds hitchhiking to Washington when he was 14. He bummed around at odd jobs until he finally landed as a mechanic at a small track in West Lanham, Md., just outside Washington. But it was not until 1954 that he got his first car. A distant relative of his wife, Edith, helped him scrape together the $600 he needed for an old 1937 Ford. By the next year he was making enough on the tracks to survive, and he has been growing in skill—and popularity—ever since. Yunick, a restrained man, put it this way: "Rex is a real nice little guy and a good little driver."