JOHNSON CITY — NASCAR pioneer G.C. Spencer won so many short track races in the 1940s and ’50s he literally caused some Midwest racetracks to close down because fellow competitors would stop showing up.
But the Jonesborough resident fell short of reaching victory lane in his 20-year NASCAR career, which included 415 starts in what is now known as the Nextel Cup.
Spencer, 82, died Thursday morning at the NHC Healthcare Center in Johnson City following a long battle with emphysema. He’d lived in Jonesborough since 1962 when he married his wife, Faye, a Johnson City native.
Spencer was born in Owensboro, Ky., and moved to southern Indiana upon being discharged from the Navy following World War II. He told the Times-News during an interview this past March that he ran his first race in 1946 on a dare after friends commented on his penchant for hot-rodding around town. After finishing second — he recounted — he thought to himself, “Boy, this is easy.”
Thus began Spencer’s dominating short track career that spanned more than a decade throughout the Midwest. He had no idea how many races he won but estimated it in the hundreds.
In 1958 he joined some racing friends in Inman, S.C., and initiated his NASCAR career. Admittedly, the move into NASCAR’s premier division was not as easy as he’d expected.
“I went to (NASCAR) races with them and watched them, and I thought to myself, ‘Boy if I could just get me one of these cars I could dust these people,’” Spencer said. “I found out later you couldn’t hardly even run last with them when I finally did get a ’57 Chevy. It looked easy, but it wasn’t. When you’ve got Lee Petty, Buck Baker, Jack Smith and all that bunch, you’ve got your hands full.”
Spencer competed in NASCAR’s top division from 1958-77. Throughout that time he never acquired the coveted “factory deal” with a manufacturer, which was a necessity for any consistent winner in NASCAR. He was offered a deal with Ford prior to the 1965 season, his only full-time run for a championship.
When Ford’s chief rival Chrysler dropped out of NASCAR prior to the first race, however, Ford backed out on the deal with Spencer, telling him they didn’t need him anymore.
That year he placed fourth in the championship point standings and finished second in three races — each time behind eventual champion Ned Jarrett.
“I believe if Ford had stuck with me in ’65 I could have won the championship,” Spencer said.
Spencer had seven second-place Cup finishes in his career but never won a race. He also helped several area drivers get their first starts in NASCAR including Bluff City racer John A. Utsman. Spencer was the car owner for the majority of Utsman’s Cup series starts.
“I won the track championship at Kingsport in 1972, and G.C. came out to the garage and said, ‘If I bought a car would you drive it for me at Daytona?’” Utsman said Thursday. “Well I never dreamed of running at Daytona, but he gave me a chance, and I’ll never forget it. He was a heck of a friend and a good guy, and to give me a chance like he gave me — I would have never got to run any Winston Cup if it weren’t for him.
“He was a real friend, and he meant a lot to me.”
Spencer hung up his helmet in 1977 at the age of 51 and continued fielding cars as an owner until 1983.
In 1983 Larry McClure purchased Spencer’s equipment and formed the Abingdon, Va.-based Morgan-McClure Motorsports. Spencer hired on as Morgan-McClure’s team manager for three seasons before retiring from racing.
After racing he and Faye operated an antique business.
“I saw G.C. a couple of weeks ago, and he certainly still had his wit and was as active as he could be,” McClure said Thursday. “He was a tough customer — a tough guy that the racing community is going to miss. I know I’m going to miss him sorely. He’s the reason I’m in racing and have been in racing the last 25 years. He was a good guy and a good friend.”
Spencer told the Times-News he probably stayed in NASCAR too long and spent money as a car owner that he should have saved. At the end of his life he and Faye were living mainly on Social Security and his Veterans Administration health benefits in a small house in Jonesborough.
Unlike every other major sport in America, there is no pension for retired NASCAR drivers. In his 20-year NASCAR career Spencer earned only $250,000, less than the lowest paid driver in this year’s Daytona 500.
“I probably stayed in it too long, and I definitely spent a lot of money at the end that I should have held onto,” Spencer told the Times-News in March. “We came back from Daytona in ’83 with a $4,500 hotel bill and didn’t even make the race, and I said that’s enough for me.”
He added: “Racing is a hard life, but I loved it, and that’s what I wanted to do. You really have to love it because racing becomes your whole life. I didn’t make a lot of money at it, but I did OK. I’d do it all over again if I had the chance.”
Appalachian Funeral Home in Johnson City is handling Spencer’s funeral arrangements.