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Racing was monkey business

Flock was NASCAR pioneer
By Lisette Hilton
Special to

"To me, he was a cool customer. You would see a bunch of them drivers running sideways and doing all. Tim would just be running around. When the race was over, Tim won. Them guys were still running sideways," says Richard Petty about Tim Flock on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Raised in a family of bootleggers who never met a vehicle they wouldn't race, Tim Flock made his mark as one of stock-car racing's pioneers. Exploding on the scene in the 1950s, he won two Grand National championships and finished with 40 victories (in 189 starts). His winning percentage of 21.2 remains the best in NASCAR history.

With his career winding down in 1961, Flock gained more headlines when he was banned for life from NASCAR for his involvement in attempting to start a drivers union.

Flock's personality and antics were as memorable as his victories. Most notable was "Jocko Flocko," the pet monkey who accompanied Flock in his car for eight races.

Julius Timothy, who would be known as Tim, was born on May 11, 1924, in Fort Payne, Ala. He was only one when his father Lee, a mechanic and taxi driver, died at 52. Flock's mother Maudie, who worked in a hosiery mill, looked to her older children to help pay the bills.

The eldest, Carl, had already become involved in Uncle Peachtree Williams' bootlegging business. During prohibition (1919-33), Tim said his uncle was "the biggest bootlegger who ever lived in Atlanta."

Upon Williams' death, Carl became the bootlegging kingpin and moved the family to Atlanta. Bob and Fonty, Flock's other brothers, also became involved in the family business. The older brothers started competing in unorganized racing events against other bootleggers. Though they tried unsuccessfully to keep Tim away from car racing and in school, he watched the races, which were held in cow pastures and drew crowds of 200 to 300.

Dropping out of school at 16, Flock went to work. In 1942, he was drafted into the Army, but was discharged because of an ulcerated stomach.

Flock married Frances Marie Roberts in 1944, three years after meeting her when she was 13. The teenager disregarded an uncle's warning not to date Flock because his brothers were bootleggers.

Flock held various jobs but couldn't get racing out of his blood. In fact, the family seemed drawn to the sport. Perhaps it began with Tim's father, who was a bicycle racer and owned the first car in Fort Payne. Bob and Fonty had their racing careers, which began in the late 1930s. Sister Ethel was a stock-car driver in her own right, competing in more than 100 races and finishing 11th in her only Grand National.

Flock's first professional ride came in 1947 in North Wilkesboro, N.C., in a modified race. While his brothers wouldn't let him drive their cars, another owner offered Flock his vehicle. Flock embarrassed himself by spinning the car after turn one. But in the next race, he outran his siblings.

The competing Flock brothers, who became known as the "Flying Flocks," were curious about a new type of race started by Bill France, who formed NASCAR in December 1947 and ran a modified series in 1948. In 1949, France launched a strictly stock-car series.

On June 19, in the inaugural race of the Strictly Stock Division, at the Charlotte Speedway three-quarter-mile dirt track, Flock finished fifth. On October 23 at Lakewood Park in Atlanta, he gained his first stock-car victory.

Flock's relationship with France began to sour in 1950. Bruton Smith, who owned a track outside Charlotte, wanted Flock to run for him and the driver agreed, as long as France said it was okay. But France didn't want his drivers competing on an "outlaw" track. Smith sweetened the deal, offering Flock $500, a considerable sum in those days.

When Flock raced, an angry France took away 837.5 points the driver had earned in the Modified Division. Flock maintained this cost him the championship. To win NASCAR's Grand National title in 1952, all Flock had to do was start the final race, in West Palm Beach, Fla. But just starting wasn't Flock's style. On lap 64, his Hudson hit the retaining wall and flipped, skidding down the front stretch on its roof.

"I bet I'm the only guy who ever won a championship while on his head," said Flock, who won eight of 34 races.

He won just once in 1953, when he was sometimes accompanied by Jocko Flocko. The monkey's racing career ended when he got loose in the car and Flock was forced to stop and hand him to the pit crew. Flock figured the maneuver cost him $750, the difference between finishing second and third.

While the monkey cost Flock money, an accident almost cost him his life. On July 4, a car ran over him as he was sleeping in the infield before a race at Spartanburg, S.C. Suffering from a concussion, dizzy spells and blurred vision, he feared his career might be over.

It wasn't, though. He returned in fine form in 1954, but he suffered a bitter disappointment at Daytona's Beach and Road Course. Although he finished first, he was disqualified two days later because his car had soldering on one of the screws in the carburetor. "They changed the rules whenever they wanted," said Flock, who blamed France for the disqualification.

An angry Flock quit racing fulltime and returned to Atlanta, where he bought a Pure Oil station.

Friends convinced Flock to go, as a spectator, to Daytona in 1955. He had no intentions of driving and didn't even bring his helmet. But after seeing the new Chrysler 300 of Carl Kiekhaefer, who made millions selling outboard motors, he had a change of heart. He convinced Kiekhaefer, who was just entering NASCAR racing, to let him drive his car.

Flock won the 160-mile race, though it took a disqualification. Unlike a year ago, Flock got the best of the decision at Daytona when Fireball Roberts was disqualified, enabling Flock to move from second to first.

Back driving fulltime, Flock had his best year in 1955 as he captured his second championship. He won 18 of 39 races, a record that stood until 1967, when Richard Petty registered 19 victories. The 18 pole positions Flock earned still stand as a record. Flock's fellow drivers also voted him Most Popular Driver.

But Kiekhaefer's demanding and gruff ways wore on Flock, who didn't like the constant power struggles and that the owner was hiring other drivers despite Flock's success.

After finishing first three times in eight races in the 1956 season, the two had a nasty breakup. Flock didn't see the owner for 24 years - and when they met, Kiekhaefer still held a grudge.

Flock competed in 13 more races in 1956, but won only one: His 40th and last Grand National victory came on Aug. 12, 1956 at Elkhart Lake, Wis., in a Bill Stroppe Mercury. He entered just 15 races from 1957-61, but never achieved even a top five finish.

Flock had another brush with France in 1961 when he went along with racing legend Curtis Turner's attempt to start a drivers union. Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa backed the union that Flock believed would force France to treat drivers more fairly.

France's threat to close his tracks if a union was formed frightened other drivers from joining. With the union no longer a possibility, France banned Turner and Flock. However, when interest in NASCAR declined because of numerous factory boycotts and pullouts, France reinstated them in 1965.

By then, it was too late for Flock as a driver. At 40, he was enjoying life at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he had been employed since 1959 selling tickets, meeting celebrities and dabbling in public relations.

Flock, who earned $103,515 in prize money from his stock-car career, was selected as one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998.

Diagnosed with a tumor that January, Flock died on March 31, of lung and liver cancer. He was 73.

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