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Ned Jarrett was iconic driver, is better man

Many people remember Ned Jarrett for morphing from a neutral television analyst into an unabashedly biased father during the final, frenetic laps of the 1993 Daytona 500. He couldn’t help it. Neutrality goes out the broadcast booth window when your son is battling hammer and tong with that other guy named Dale.

"Come on, Dale! Go, baby, go! He’s gonna make it. … Dale Jarrett’s gonna win the Daytona 500!"

Dale vs. Dale. Jarrett vs. Earnhardt. Sixteen-hundredths of a second between them at the checkered flag. Who among the grease-under-the-fingernails set will forget it?

But what a lot of NASCAR fans don’t remember is what a good driver Dale Jarrett’s old man was.

Maybe guys named Buck and Red and Fireball remember. But how many of these Jimmie-come-lately types, who only started following NASCAR with the advent of the Gillette Young Guns, recall Ned Jarrett won the 1961 and 1965 Grand National championships? How many remember he won the 1965 Southern 500 at Darlington — by 14 laps! How many know he has been inducted into 12 auto racing and sports halls of fame?

More important, how many remember how he raced? With class. With dignity. With respect for his fellow drivers.

Ned Jarrett was born in Newton, N.C. It might as well have been Taos, N.M., where hippies used to wear flowers in their hair. Or Margaritaville. His demeanor was that calm. His attitude was that laid back.

He was that much of a gentleman.

In fact, that’s what they called him. "Gentleman" Ned Jarrett. No. 11 in your program. No. 1 if you need to borrow a spark plug wrench or 20 bucks.

Of all the kind things that have been spoken or written about Ned Jarrett, I think these speak more than all others about the sort of man he was and is.

"When Ned Jarrett and all of those old drivers came to Wendell’s funeral, they told us he had the respect of all the drivers."

That’s what Mary Scott, Wendell Scott’s widow, said after her husband’s death in 1990. Wendell Scott is the only African-American to win a race in NASCAR’s premier series. He broke in five years before Charlie Scott became the University of North Carolina’s first African-American scholarship athlete, if that tells you anything.

Ned Jarrett is the only one of those old drivers Mary Scott mentioned by name.

It’s entirely possible that Wendell Scott would have earned the respect of all the old drivers without Ned Jarrett’s help, or his friendship. But Jarrett was the one who sold him a car so fast it would have impressed the singer Tracy Chapman.

"You got a fast car. I want a ticket to anywhere. Maybe we make a deal. Maybe together we can get somewhere."

That’s the first verse of Chapman’s 1988 hit "Fast Car." It could have been Wendell Scott talking to Ned Jarrett at North Wilkesboro or Bowman Gray Stadium in 1962.

When Jarrett switched from Chevys to Fords, he sold the Bel Air he drove to the 1961 championship to Scott, the pioneer he characterized as a "friendly rival."

"He was a race-car driver, and I was a race-car driver," the 77-year-old Jarrett said Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. "But he was having a tough time because of his race at that particular period in (history). He wasn’t going to get a lot of help. I thought he was a good race-car driver and he could be good for the sport."

They were loading the cars on flatbed trailers for the cross-country haul to Riverside, Calif., when Scott’s bank and Jarrett’s bank agreed Wendell was good for the money.

There was only one problem: Scott didn’t have enough cash in pocket to make the long trip. So he asked Jarrett if he could borrow $500.

Having grown up on a farm and worked in a sawmill, Jarrett remembered traveling from bullring to bullring on the lint in his pockets, too. He lent Scott the money. Once a gentleman, always a gentleman.

"You’ll have to ask Junior about that," Jarrett said, nodding to the fellow NASCAR legend sitting alongside.

"No, he wasn’t a gentleman on the race track," said Junior Johnson, who, with all respect due Jimmie, still is the most famous of the NASCAR Johnsons, and who, with all respect due Earnhardt’s kid, still is the most famous of the NASCAR Juniors.

He paused briefly, as if to elaborate. Finally, he did:

"Hell, no."

Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352.

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