One on One: Jim Reed - '59 Southern 500 Winner

Jim Reed

Jim Reed won the 1959 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. (Photo: ISC Archives)

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Motor Racing Network’s Kurt Becker spoke to Jim Reed, the oldest living winner of the Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, in advance of NASCAR's annual return to the track "Too Tough to Tame." 

MRN: You are the oldest living (91) winner of the Southern 500, winning in 1959. What kind of car did you run and where did you build it?

Reed: It was a 1959 Chevy and I built it right here in my shop. I had my car on the circuit every week and I won the short track division five consecutive years and a couple of seconds...When I went to the factory to pick it up I drove it here and took it all apart and put it back together the way I thought I needed it to be, which turns out to be correct.

MRN: When you said you went to the factory did you have to go to Detroit to get the car?

Reed: I got a total of somewhere between seven or eight I got over a period of years. I got one in Ohio and one at the factory in Michigan. And I got another one at a local factory that has been torn down - but that was Tarrytown, New York. I think I got one in California.

MRN: What was it like for you when you arrived at Darlington, your impressions of the racetrack?

Reed: It was the old track of course before they fixed it up. It was pretty difficult and I could do it because I was used to driving on a small short track and that is actually pretty much the same thing only bigger. It actually worked to my advantage. 

MRN: Did you go through a lot of tires in that race?

Reed: No. That's the only way you could win it was to not go through a lot of tires. When we won maybe it was the original set and another half I would say. The time I ran second in 1955 I ran with no tire change.  

MRN: Do you recall how much money you made from winning the Southern 500 in 1959?

Reed: Yeah that’s easy. About $25,000. That included some advertising money from a couple of companies at the time. 

MRN: That had to have been a big chunk of money at the time. 

Reed: Yes it was. 

MRN: What did you do with the money, do you remember?

Reed: I think I finished my house that I was having built. 

MRN: Do you still the trophy?

Reed: I’m sure I do, I have a bunch of them displayed in my cellar. I gave some to the NASCAR Hall of Fame as well and they display them from time-to-time.

MRN: Do the people around your hometown know who you are, and know that you are a guy that has won some pretty big NASCAR races?

Reed: Not really. This is a pretty grown up metropolitan area around here now. It’s a much higher population now and the people who were like myself and watched it back then have other things on their mind now. 

MRN: When we go to Darlington, all of the MRN crew stays at a hotel, we have air conditioning, cable television and a breakfast in the morning. What was it like then, in the 1950’s where did you stay in Darlington?

Reed: There was a big hotel in town, it was old fashioned. Darlington had cattle and a tobacco auction that was sort of a grandstand affair just outside of town. A lot of people came to town to do their business, you know buying and selling of cattle and crops. It was a pretty metropolitan town back then. It had a nice three or four story hotel with a gigantic fan at the end of each hall. Each room had a vent that would flip up and down vertically, and they would open the vents and just turn on those giant fans and the air flowed right through. We never had a complaint about heat or anything, I mean it was just a nice place to go. I understand the building has burned down since. 

MRN: These teams today when they haul cars to the speedways they have these huge tractor trailers. Did you ever use anything like that? 

Reed: No. I actually drove some of my cars to the track, ran the race and then drove it home when we first started. Then we got down to putting a V-shaped crowbar on the front of the race car and pulled it with whatever you wanted. That was good for a couple years. Then everyone transitioned to open flatbed trailers. It took a while for the guys who had money to get a bigger trailer, but when I was racing we never used them.  

MRN: You look at drivers today, they have the cool suits, and the cars handle very well. When you were driving was it difficult to wrestle a big ‘59 Chevrolet around Darlington?

Reed: Well, yes. And that usually was the defining condition at the end of the race back then. Right when I stopped racing around 63 or 64, they decided to allow you to race with power steering. When I raced they didn’t allow it. It became a matter of how you kept your body in shape, how well the car was setup took pressure off the driver and how much track position you had. It was all about the effort of the driver and the setup of the car and how it helped you turn. When I won the race in 1959, there were four drivers that finished behind me that had relief drivers, it was a particularly hot day. 

MRN: Were there things you could do to stay cool inside the car?

Reed: Yeah, get as much ventilation as you could, and try to get your car to turn the best you could. People had different versions. Now it’s pretty much the same, they all have power steering but it still comes into effect. You look at the Wood Brothers driver, Ryan Blaney, he has a good finish every week, he’s super talented but he has the master of handling telling him what to do and he listens well, he comes up very well.

MRN: Do you ever get the urge and say “man I wish I could get back in the race car one more time.”?

Reed: No, not really. It was hard work, and you took a big gamble every time. I was able to work my way through it and I could probably name 50 people or so that didn’t make it. But I got through it. 

MRN: Did you enjoy working on your own car?

Reed: Yes to a point. But it was an awful lot of work. I worked on the car all week to go to the race track on the weekend. I took one day off when I got home then went straight to working on the car for the next weekend.

MRN: Is it true at age 91 you still go to work every day?

Reed: I'm not doing a lot of work, but I'm watching the mechanics work and giving them a little guidance and moving a few vehicles. Just steadily trying to keep things going in the right direction.

MRN: What kind of business do you have?

Reed: We are sales and service for medium duty trucks in Cortlandt in West Chester County, New York. I’ve been here for over 50 years. I grew up in Tarrytown, which is about 15 miles south.

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