We are closing in on the final handful of weeks of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, the stock car series' 75th-anniversary campaign. To celebrate, each week through the end of the season, Ryan McGee is presenting his top five favorite things about the sport.
Top five best-looking cars? Check. Top five toughest drivers? We've got it. Top five mustaches? There can be only one, so maybe not.
Without further ado, our 75 favorite things about NASCAR, celebrating 75 years of stock car racing.
Top five toughest drivers
We drop the green flag over our world 600-ish NASCAR 75 greatest lists not with the greatest drivers (we will get to that later this fall) or greatest champions (yes, we'll be doing that one, too). Instead, we present our first fast five, and it is a list of the dudes who would most likely break me in half if we did not include them on some sort of NASCAR 75 list very early on.
I'm referring to the Paul Bunyans of stock car racing. The most Herculean of hot shoes. Those who could have just as easily fit walking the hallways of Avengers Tower as they did striding through the garage area at Darlington Raceway. Their bones and muscle fibers seemingly made from the same steel used to construct their racing machines.
So, without further ado, adieu, ahem, here are our picks for NASCAR's five toughest drivers.
Honorable Mention: Bud Moore
The kingpin of NASCAR's highly underrated Spartanburg, South Carolina, posse, Moore never drove in a Cup Series event but became a legendary owner and mechanic, winning 63 races and a pair of championships over nearly four decades and earning election to the NASCAR Hall of Fame's second-ever class in 2011.
On June 6, 1944, 19-year-old Moore hit Utah Beach as part of the Allies' D-Day invasion of Normandy, France. As his friends and fellow Army draftees died around him, Moore nearly drowned when he stepped into an underwater crater. Over the next 17 months, he fought under General George Patton throughout the Big Push into Europe, including Cherbourg, the Battle of the Bulge, the liberation of Paris, and his way across Germany and into Czechoslovakia, where he caught three enemy bullets in the left leg. One day, while on patrol in a Jeep with only one other soldier, Moore flushed out and captured an entire unit of Nazis, four officers and 15 enlisted men, for which he earned the first of his two Bronze Stars. He was also awarded five Purple Hearts.
Until his death in 2017, he bristled whenever NASCAR media members used any sort of war or battle metaphors when referring to the action on the racetrack. "Racing ain't war," he'd growl. "War is hell."
5. Kenny Schrader
If this were a list of the beloved racers among their peers, Schrader -- that's what everyone calls him, just Schrader -- would be on this list, too. Why? Because he has long been the epitome of the greatest compliment that any driver can bestow upon a colleague: He's a racer's racer. The man turned 68 on May 29, and how did he celebrate? By finishing fourth in the DIRTcar UMP Modifieds A-Main at Indiana's Lawrenceburg Speedway. As of now, he's scheduled to run 57 events over 17 different series, including SRX Thursday Night Thunder on ESPN ... and that's just the events we know about. He ran 763 Cup Series events from 1983 to 2013, winning four times and also suffering a YouTube's worth of CGI-looking crashes, from a Talladega barrel roll in 1995 to a Daytona Duels crash in '98 that is still perhaps the hardest hit I've ever witnessed live.
But Schrader is on this list because of something else I've seen in person: the large section of thumb missing from his left hand. At Evergreen Speedway for the sixth-ever NASCAR Trucks race (he won the third one), the man with the day job racing for Hendrick Motorsports was fiddling with an alternator belt when a crew member fired up the engine. That belt took off the top half of his thumb. He joked with the team that he now had "one less nail to bite" and said he was going to put it under his pillow that night to see if he could maybe "get some money from the Finger Fairy." It wasn't sewn back on because, he explained, "It was too small a chunk to try and save." In his first race back, the grueling Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, he led 169 laps and was in the lead late before a blown engine ended his night early.
4. Ricky Rudd
The man they call "the Rooster" raced alongside Schrader throughout the 1980s and '90s and has always indeed been, as they say back in Chesapeake, Virginia, tougher than woodpecker lips. Rudd, who is a nominee for this year's soon-to-be-elected NASCAR Hall of Fame class, won 23 Cup Series races and in 1998 was voted onto the coveted 50 greatest drivers list compiled for NASCAR's 50th anniversary.
I personally have seen Rudd bend roll bar steel with his bare hands while trying to repair his Ford after a wreck. I was also standing in his pits in '98 when he won at Martinsville Speedway amid a surface-of-Mercury heatwave kind of day, even after his in-car cooling systems had failed and his skin was covered in heat blisters. When the team stuffed a water hose into his firesuit during a pit stop, they'd unknowingly left the black hose in the sun, so the water that poured down his back was practically boiling. He said at the time, "I didn't yell at them because I knew it was an accident."
But the most legendary Rooster Rudd moment happened in 1984. During what was then known as the Busch Clash, Rudd's Bud Moore-owned Ford became airborne as it rolled out of Turn 4, and once it came back to earth rolled over seven times. In the crash, which long predated the HANS device that stabilizes drivers' heads and keeps them from smashing around the cockpit in an accident, Rudd's head and face became so swollen that his eyelids were mashed shut. So, for the Daytona 500 one week later, the crew used duct tape to pull his cheeks down and create an opening that his zombie-like blackened eyeballs could see out. He finished seventh in the Great American Race. The following weekend, his eye sockets once again pried open, he held off Darrell Waltrip to win at Richmond.
Reminder: 2023 @NASCARHall vote is next week and Ricky Rudd is a nominee. Here's the Rooster with his eyelids taped open at '84 Daytona 500, face swollen from a wreck in the Clash a week earlier. He finished 7th. The next week at Richmond he - still taped up - won. #NASCAR75 pic.twitter.com/xdxS1HrIAT— Ryan McGee (@ESPNMcGee) July 25, 2023
3. Richard Petty
Because "the King" is so smooth and so cool, it is easy to forget that hidden inside that legendarily lanky frame lies an indestructible skeleton that would wow Wolverine. His Royal Fastness walked away from two of the most spectacular accidents in NASCAR's 75 years, both televised nationally, in the days when not all races were.
The first was in 1970 at Darlington, when his Plymouth Road Runner hit the knee-high pit road wall with such head-on force that it sent chunks of concrete flying into the infield, one bouncing off NASCAR Hall of Fame writer Tom Higgins. As ABC Sports legend Jim McKay watched the car tumbling and Petty's unconscious body being flung farther out of the window with each rollover, he was convinced Petty was dead. He wasn't. In fact, as the ambulance hauled him away, "I had to sit up in my stretcher and tell the driver how to get to the hospital because he didn't know how to get out of the dang racetrack," Petty joked. That crash led to NASCAR finally mandating window nets.
In 1988, his Pontiac was shredded into scrap as it rolled down the Daytona frontstretch and up against the catchfence. As wife Lynda ran to the infield care center, crew members and a clergyman all stopped her to say that he was OK. "I thought, 'They are lying to me. He's dead. He's got to be dead,'" she said. He was not. And it was also not the family's first infield care center surprise. That came after a race at Pocono Raceway in 1980. Convinced he had broken his neck via another big fence-wrecking tumble, when the doctor hung Petty's X-rays on the wall, he pointed to some older bone scars and asked the seven-time Cup Series champ, "When did you break your neck before?" Replied The King, "I didn't know I had broke it before. I probably broke it sometime when I broke something else, and [that] hurt worse. Your body can only hurt one place at a time."
2. Dale Earnhardt
If you are surprised to read this man's name on this list, then I'm not sure why you're even reading this at all. First of all, before he was "The Intimidator" or "the Man in Black," his nickname, as bestowed upon him by Wrangler Jeans, was "One Tough Customer." Earnhardt was so tough that few can recall seeing him actually fight anyone, and yet everyone always did whatever they had to in order to avoid an altercation with him because they were so convinced he could kick their ass.
"It's the damndest thing I ever saw," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said, shaking his head. "Dad would do something on the racetrack that would make even the toughest guys super pissed. And then those same guys ... would go to confront Dad, and he would just look at them or squeeze the back of their neck like he would do, and they would end up just saying, 'Oh, it's cool, Dale. We're good,' And then they'd walk away! How big of a badass do you have to be to have that kind of effect on people?"
Well, Junior, I'd say the kind of guy who spent his time away from the track voluntarily knocking down trees with bulldozers and picking up baby cows and carrying them around like bags of groceries. Or the kind of guy who broke his collarbone at Talladega in 1996 and then came back to win the pole and nearly win the race on a road course at Watkins Glen. Or the guy who in '82 broke his leg at Pocono but kept it a secret because he didn't want his team owner (Bud Moore!) to replace him. He had screws placed in that leg and later that year one of them came loose, so he put a rag between his teeth for something to bite down on and tapped the screw back in himself. He also survived a horse crash on the side of a mountain in New Mexico and climbed out of the window of his Chevy in the middle of a race at Richmond to scrape mud off the windshield, driving with his knee under caution.
1. Cale Yarborough
So, who in the wide wide world of NASCAR could possibly be tougher than a man named "One Tough Customer"?
How about a guy who survived a skydive after his parachute failed to open properly? True story, 1958 in Jacksonville, Florida, Yarborough was member of a stunt team when he jumped from 5,000 feet and bounced off the ground, suffering a chipped shoulder.
How about a guy who survived a lightning strike? True story, he was a kid standing in the family farmhouse when a bolt struck the ground outside, bounced into the house and blew him across the room, unconscious.
Rattlesnake bite? Yep. Right behind his toe. If his uncle hadn't tied a tourniquet around Cale's foot and rushed him to the doctor, he likely would have died.
Fending off a bear while piloting an airplane, a la Mission Impossible? Oh, hell yes. Cale had always wanted a pet bear (because of course he did) and was flying the sedated ursine in the box in the back of his self-piloted prop plane. The bear woke up early and was making quick work of the box before Yarborough got landed and could get it back to napping.
Yarborough was also launched out of Darlington Raceway and down a hill mid-race, dramatically turned his car upside down solo at Daytona shortly after breaking the 200 mph barrier in qualifying ... and then won the race in a backup car. Oh, yeah, he was also involved in NASCAR's most iconic fistfight, slugging it out with Bobby and Donnie Allison on live television at the end of the 1979 Daytona 500.
As the great Barney Hall used to say on MRN Radio, "Cale Yarborough is tougher than a locust post." I don't even know what that is, but it sounds pretty dang tough to me.