Born in 1943, Jerry Cook proved that he knew how to drive when he started at 13 years old at the Utica-Rome Speedway in 1969 in New York. Eventually, he made his way to the burgeoning NASCAR Modified Tour, becoming one of the best to ever drive in it.
He earned himself the champion’s cup six times: 1971 and 1972, as well as a four-year stretch from 1974 to 1977. Even though he retired in 1982 with 342 wins, he stayed on at NASCAR to help run the series that he had found so much success in. He was the Whelen Modified Series’s director when that series began in 1985, and he currently serves as NASCAR’s Competition Administrator.
Neil Bonnett – Cut Down During a Comeback
At almost 50 years, Neil Bonnett was making a comeback. In 1990 he suffered a severe brain injury during a crash, and while practicing in 1994, another crash cost him his life. Before this tragic event, Bonnett was the winner of the 1981 Southern 500, the 1983 World 600, and the 1979 Firecracker 400.
He also won the Goodyear NASCAR 500 in Australia, which was the first-ever NASCAR race to take place outside North America. He had 362 races over 18 years in the NASCAR Cup Series before he died. As a member of the famed Alabama Gang, which included famous racers Red Farmer and the Allison family, he was always surrounded by other racers.
Red Byron – The Original Winner
There’s a big reason why Red Byron is on this list: he won NASCAR’s very first race in 1948. As in, like the very first one. Not only that, but he ended up winning NASCAR’s first season championship in the NASCAR Modified Division. One year later, he won the very first of what was then called the NASCAR Strictly Stock Division, which you might now know as the NASCAR Cup Series.
That’s right, this guy won the first one of them all. Those are some big accomplishments, but there’s more – since Byron was wounded in World War II, he drove with a special brace attached to the clutch pedal to make it so he could drive using his injured leg. He did all that with a handicap.
Ralph Earnhardt – A NASCAR Patriarch
Ralph Earnhardt has the kind of name that you no doubt recognize if you’re a fan of NASCAR. You probably know him as the father of seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champ Dale Earnhardt, as well as the grandfather of Kerry, Kelly, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. After many years working in a cotton mill, the original Earnhardt used racing on dirt tracks as a way to get out of the poorhouse.
He was known for keeping his cars in tip-top shape. In 1972, he raced his son Dale at Metrolina Speedway. His total number of wins are counted at more than 350 races among the different series. Despite all this success, Ralph Earnhardt passed away at the age of 45 while working on a carburetor at his kitchen table.
Richie Evans – The King of the Modified Series
After leaving his family at the age of 16 to work at a local garage, Richie Evans became a street racer and drag racer (the car kind). After that, a friend suggested that he try racing at the Utica-Rome Speedway, which he did in 1962 at the age of 21. At that time the Modifieds was the premiere NASCAR division, and Evans started making waves when he joined in 1965.
He earned the nickname “The Rapid Roman,” while winning the NASCAR National Modified Championship in 1973, and then in 1978 he went on a seven-year tear. Holding a crown for so long in NASCAR is pretty much unheard of, but Evans never let up. He died in 1985 at the age of 44 while practicing for the Winn-Dixie 500.