If you happened to meet 84-year-old Rex White in town, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t realize you had just encountered a NASCAR champion, and in fact one of the sport’s greatest drivers.
Get the five-foot-four legend talking about NASCAR’s early days, though, and you’ll know you’ve met the real deal. Read what more well-known NASCAR legends and industry insiders say about him, people like Bobby Allison, Ned Jarrett, Ed Clark and Rick Minter, and you learn that White left a big impact on the sport of racing.
White, who has lived in northern Fayette County since 2003, is one of five drivers who will on Friday, Jan. 30, be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina. He will join Bill Elliott, Fred Lorenzen, Wendell Scott and Joe Weatherly in receiving the honor for 2015. White and Elliott are the only inductees on the list still living.
White’s racing career began in 1953 and ended in 1965. His time in NASCAR began in 1956, and it would be the ninth race in 1960 before he chalked up his first victory, but he made that year count. White won five more races in 1960 and won the overall championship, beating Richard Petty by nearly 400 points. Other notable competitors that year included Bobby Johns, Buck Baker, Ned Jarrett, Lee Petty, Junior Johnson, Emanuel Zervakis, Jim Paschal and Banjo Matthews.
In 1961, White won seven races and finished the season second only to Ned Jarrett by only 840 points.
White says he was in the audience in Daytona Beach, Florida last year on May 21 when the announcement was made. He heard the new for the first time at the same time as everyone else.
“They called my name, and I had no idea I was going to be called,” White remembers. “My mouth flew open, and I was speechless.”
This year’s five inductees were among a list of 20 Hall of Fame nominees, which also included Buddy Baker, Red Byron, Richard Childress, Jerry Cook, Ray Fox, Rick Hendrick, Bobby Isaac, Terry Labonte, Raymond Parks, Benny Parsons, Larry Phillips, O. Bruton Smith, Mkie Stefanik, Curtis Turner and Robert Yates.
While White isn’t one of the best known NASCAR drivers now, he was certainly well known back then. He was voted the “most popular” driver in 1960, which was a sign of fan approval, and his fellow drivers remember him as one of the most consistently successful drivers of the day.
“Consistency was the hallmark of Rex White’s NASCAR career,” reads the NASCAR Hall of Fame biography of White. “He finished among the top five in nearly a half of his 233 races and outside the top 10 only 30 percent of the time. White was a short track specialist in an era in which those tracks dominated the schedule.”
Indeed, White was a master of the short track, but he could handle a super speedway, too. He won at Atlanta International Raceway (now Atlanta Motor Speedway) in 1962 during the Dixie 400 just ahead of Fireball Roberts.
“Of his 28 career wins in NASCAR’s premier series, only two came on tracks longer than a mile in length,” the Hall of Fame biography continues. “Driving his own equipment, White won six times during his 1960 championship season, posting 35 top 10s in 40 starts. He finished in the top 10 six of his nine years in the series including a runner-up finish in 1961.”
Due to sponsorship issues, White got out of the racing business and started selling cars at the then-new Chrysler-Plymouth dealership in Forest Park. He says he made more money selling cars than driving them, so he put his driving ambitions away for good.
White noted that a driver in a recent Daytona 500 only completed one lap but was still paid $283,000 for the race. In all of his 12 years of driving, White’s team only won $184,000. Prizes and sponsorships were nothing then like they are now, especially after the advent of televised sports.
Nevermind. White moved from car sales to over-the-road trucking, retiring just over a decade ago. That’s when he moved his modest trailer home from Forest Park to Fayette County and settled in for a enjoyable retirement.
These days, White says he enjoys participating in NASCAR fan appreciation events and replying to fan mail. That mail count has doubled since last spring’s announcement that he would be a 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee.
White says he also enjoys hanging out on Wednesday mornings with his Bible study group down at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and, of course, watching NASCAR races from the pits when they roll into town. He says he also tries not to miss Inman Farm Heritage Days events every September, which are hosted by racing journalist and White’s good friend Rick Minter.
Next week, Minter will join White in Charlotte for the Hall of Fame induction ceremony.