The Fabulous Career of Herb Thomas
by Tom Jensen July 26, 2023
NASCAR’s first two-time Cup Series champion, North Carolina racer Herb Thomas, made the Fabulous Hudson Hornet a household name in NASCAR in the early 1950s.
When it comes to the early days of stock-car racing, NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2013 inductee Herb Thomas was the gold standard by which other drivers were measured.
And if you don’t believe it, just ask Richard Petty (Class of 2010).
In a new documentary produced by the Hagerty Drivers Foundation about what is believed to be the last surviving Hudson Hornet that won a NASCAR championship – Thomas’ 1951 Hudson Hornet – Petty described Thomas thusly: “Herb was of the best if not the very best drivers that’s ever come through NASCAR.”
Herb was of the best if not the very best drivers that’s ever come through NASCAR.
— Richard Petty
A native of Olivia, North Carolina, Thomas worked at various times as a tobacco farmer, trucking company operator and sawmill operator. When came home from World War II and found he had a talent for making cars go fast, Thomas approached NASCAR racing just as he did with his other business interests, working hard and adopting a no-nonsense style.
Thomas didn’t go to the track to have fun, or to be popular with fans or to grab the media spotlight. No, Thomas went to the track for one reason: to win races and in the process earn a living and feed his family. Thomas, along with fellow Hall of Famer Lee Petty (Class of 2011), personified the first generation of hard-nosed and highly successful NASCAR owner/drivers.
The results Thomas produced were truly impressive. He was NASCAR’s first two-time champion, winning titles in 1951 and ’53 and finishing second in ’52 and ’54. From 1951-56, Thomas finished first or second in points five times, with a worst points finish of fifth in 1955, when he only competed in 23 of 45 races. During this same period, he won at least three races every year, winning 12 times in both 1953 and ’54.
All told, Thomas won 48 NASCAR Grand National Division (now Cup Series) races in 228 starts, or 21 percent of all the races he entered. Thomas’ winning percentage has stood as a NASCAR record for more than 60 years.
Thomas was also the first three-time winner of the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, which during the 1950s was the most prestigious and highest-paying race on the NASCAR schedule.
That Thomas was one of the first superstars of NASCAR is indisputable. There’s more to the story, though, than just putting up big numbers in the record book. In addition to his on-track exploits, Thomas helped turn one of his early race cars into a beloved NASCAR icon.
From 1951-54, Thomas campaigned a Hudson Hornet decorated with the name “Fabulous Hudson Hornet” along the side from the front fenders to the rear quarter panels. Hudson Motor Car Co. was the first automaker to realize that success on the racetrack translated into sales in showrooms, which was epitomized in the slogan, “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday.”
Hudson, which employed other star drivers of the day, including Tim Flock (Class of 2014), Marshall Teague and Dick Rathmann, was the dominant NASCAR brand of the early 1950s. Its best year came in 1952, when Hudsons won 27 of 34 races on the schedule.
That Thomas was one of the first superstars of NASCAR is indisputable.
— Tom Jensen
Hudson won three NASCAR Manufacturers’ Championships, which to this day is tied for third all-time with another defunct automaker, Oldsmobile, and Toyota. Thomas obviously played a key part in Hudson’s success scoring 39 of the brand’s 79 race victories.
The story doesn’t end there.
Thomas’ career effectively ended in 1956, when he was involved in a near-fatal crash at Cleveland County Fairgrounds in Shelby, N.C. Thomas led the points coming into the race, but got turned on Lap 109 by Speedy Thompson, a teammate to championship contender Buck Baker (Class of 2013). Thomas’ car was hit by the onrushing field of cars and he was seriously injured, lapsing into a coma. He would make just three more Cup Series starts in his career.
It wasn’t long after that the end came for Hudson, which had merged with Nash-Kelvinator to form American Motors Corp. in 1954. Hudson never was able to create a viable successor for the innovative Hornet, and on June 25, 1957, Hudson production ceased.
After his racing career ended, Thomas returned to running his businesses in his native North Carolina. In 1998, he was named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers of its first 50 years. Two years later, at the age of 77, Thomas passed away following a heart attack.
Thomas’ story and Hudson’s were both intertwined in the early 1950s and both live on today, thanks to Pixar’s “Cars” film franchise. All the characters in the animated film are portrayed by cars. One of the central characters in the original “Cars” film of 2006, was Doc Hudson, a race car forced to retire because of a bad crash.
The character of Doc Hudson was loosely based on Thomas’ career and is, of course, a Hudson Hornet that carries the “Fabulous Hudson Hornet” script on the side. Best of all, Doc Hudson was lovingly voiced in the film by the great Paul Newman in a moving and poignant performance.
So, while the era of Thomas and the Fabulous Hudson Hornet are long gone, their memories remain very much alive.
Plan a visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame and purchase tickets at nascarhall.com/tickets.