It’s a winnable debate that Rex White is NASCAR’s second-most underappreciated Cup Series champion, trailing only 1950 champion the late Bill Rexford.
But be warned. A closer look at White’s racing career reveals a highly successful and fiercely competitive driver who doesn’t fit into any “superstar” category except one: he hated losing more than almost anything in life.
White, at 91, is NASCAR’s oldest living champion, having lapped Richard Petty by seven years. Born in the hardscrabble year of 1929, he still lives on the same plot of rural land where he was reared in Taylorsville, North Carolina. (Not in the same structure, but in a home built atop his birthplace; he and former NASCAR star Harry Gant are neighbors). He was in his early 20s, living near Washington, D.C. and working at a service station, when he quite impulsively decided to become a race-car driver.
“A man kept coming in the station with posters advertising stock car racing nights at Lanham Speedway,” White recently told Autoweek from the side porch of his home in Taylorsville. “I saved up some money to go with my wife and her brother and his wife. I had no earthly idea what I was going to see. I had grown up near North Wilkesboro Speedway, but had never been there. Lanham was the first time I’d ever seen a race track and a race car. It was in the early 1950s and I was pretty young.”
In every sense of the word, it was a life-changing experience It’s a virtual certainty that Rex White is NASCAR’s second-most underappreciated Cup Series champion, trailing only 1950 champion the late Bill Rexford. But be warned: a closer look at White’s career reveals a fiercely competitive, highly successful, doggedly determined man who doesn’t fit into any “superstar” category except one: he hated losing more than almost anything in life.
At 91, White is NASCAR’s oldest living champion, seven years beyond Richard Petty. He still lives on the same plot of rural land where he was born in 1929 in Taylorsville, North Carolina. (Not in the same structure, but in a home built atop his birthplace; he and former star Harry Gant are neighbors). He was in his early 20s, living near Washington, D.C. and working at a service station, when he quite impulsively decided to become a race-car driver.
“A man kept coming in the station with posters advertising stock car racing nights at Lanham Speedway,” White recently told Autoweek from the side porch of his home in Taylorsville. “I saved up some money to go with my wife and her brother and his wife. I had no earthly idea what I was going to see. I had grown up near North Wilkesboro Speedway, but had never been there. Lanham was the first time I’d ever seen a race track and a race car.”
It was a life-changing experience in every sense of the word, one that led from pumping gas and checking oil to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015.
“The pits were outside, so you couldn’t see the cars until they came out on the track,” White recalled. “The first one out (for practice) was numbered 4-F. I don’t know, maybe the driver hadn’t passed his Army physical. He hadn’t been out there long before I leaned over and told my brother-in-law, ‘Right there; that’s what I’m going to do.’ I decided right then and there to become a racer.”
Later that evening White slipped through the fencing and roamed the pits to get closer to the cars. He became a fan of Frankie Schneider, a local favorite and consistent winner. When Schneider’s regular crewman was drafted into the Korean war White offered himself—and was hired—as a volunteer gofer. Once inside racing, it was his passion for the next 15 years.
All this was shortly after fellow Washington-area native and Daytona Beach resident Bill France began promoting stock car racing along the beach south of in his adopted hometown. Within a few years White would become one of his biggest winners and earliest champions. And other than those inside NASCAR, hardly anyone noticed.
“It wasn’t my nature to be the center of attention,” White explained. “If a newspaper reporter came my way, I’d dodge him like a bulldog. I didn’t realize how important publicity could be. But Fireball Roberts … if there was a sportswriter anywhere, he wouldn’t have to look for Fireball. No, because Fireball would go find the reporter. That just wasn’t my lifestyle. I just did my thing and didn’t worry about being a star.”
Frankly, White didn’t exactly look the part. He’s always been smallish in stature, maybe 5-foot-5 and 135 pounds on his best days. To many, he’s almost a dead-ringer for TV personality and standup comedian the late George Goble. He was mild-mannered and agreeable when things were going well; aggressive and determined when they weren’t. After surviving childhood polio, he walked and raced with a weakened right leg – not that it seemed to slow him down on the track.
Despite everything, he fulfilled his vow to became a championship-level racer. After success in non-NASCAR Sportsman races in the Northeast and Florida, he went Cup racing for owner Max Welborn in 1954. The first of his 28 Cup victories came at Champion Speedway in Fayetteville, North Carolina in November of 1957. It was a 150-lap, 50-miler that officially opened the 1958 season.
“I remember a lot about that track, but not much about that first win,” White said. “Fayetteville was a third-mile, high-banked, paved track that seemed to fit my style. I think somebody else (pole-starter Jack Smith) led most of the laps but fell out late (crashed). I think (correctly) I led just the last five laps. I’d run some Sportsman races at Fayetteville, so I knew a few things about the track. That first win was a long, long time ago.”
All but one of his 28 victories came on short tracks and only three of his “winning tracks” remain on the Cup schedule: Martinsville, Atlanta, and Richmond. “I’d like to have won more big-track races,” he said, “because that’s where the money was. A lot of guys today would like to win 28 races. My banking account would be a whole lot better if I’d done that today. But it took horsepower to win on big tracks. It took the right shocks and springs and handling to win on short tracks. I think that’s where I had it on some other drivers.”
White won the 1960 Cup Series title in a most unusual manner. He and crew chief Louis Clements entered 37 races with their own Chevrolet, and got one-offs from owners Beau Morgan, Scotty Cain, and L.D. Austin. Their 40 combined entries scored 4,000-plus more points than Petty. White had more victories, top-5s, top-10s, and won more money than anyone. He led the tour in laps completed, miles completed, lead-lap finishes, average start, and average finish. He had an astonishing 35 top-10 finishes in 40 starts, including 16 consecutive top-10s to close the season.
His 28 victories came during five seasons, between 1958 and 1962. No other better-known driver—neither of the Pettys, nor Roberts, Ned Jarrett, Curtis Tuner, Buck Baker, nor Joe Weatherly—won as often during those years. In addition to his 1960 title, White was top-10 in points six consecutive times during the height of his nine-year career. He won at least one pole in eight of those nine years.
“At the end, finances got to me,” he said wistfully. “I had to quit racing and go back home and go to work to make some money. I had always done things pretty much my own way. Yeah, I made some mistakes, but I’ve had a pretty good life overall.”
But wait … there’s more
• White’s only superspeedway victory was a 400-miler at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1962. His other 27 victories came on short tracks (19), dirt tracks (7), and a 2-mile road course at Montgomery Air Base in upstate New York.
• Driving for Julien Petty during a 1958 swing into the Northeast and Canada, White won consecutive poles at Toronto, Buffalo, Rochester, and Wall Stadium in New Jersey. The next time he raced, a week or so later at Nashville, he won the pole again. He often drove for Petty, Lee’s brother and Richard and Maurice’s uncle.
• The first of White’s 233 Cup starts was on the 4.1-mile highway/beach course south of Daytona Beach in February of 1956. At age 27 and driving a 1956 Chevrolet for Max Welborn, he started 30th and finished 22nd among the 77 entries. Scheduled for 39 laps, the race was cut to 37 when the incoming tide encroached on the northbound racing lane. His last Cup start was in Atlanta in June of 1964 (start-11th finish-5th) in a Mercury for NASCAR Hall of Fame owner and D-Day hero Bud Moore.
• Two years after his final Cup start, White did a little short-track Sportsman racing “just for the fun of it.” Over a four-day weekend he won consecutive starts at Columbia, South Carolina on Thursday night, Asheville, North Carolina on Friday night, North Wilkesboro, North Carolina on Saturday afternoon, Shelby, North Carolina on Saturday night, and near Spartanburg, South Carolina on Sunday afternoon.