Pioneer racer Wilbur Rakestraw dies

In the early years of stock car racing, Wilbur Rakestraw of Paulding County was one of the stars of Atlanta-area tracks such as Lakewood Speedway and the Dallas Speed Bowl. He also was well-known on the NASCAR circuit now known as Sprint Cup and on NASCAR’s old Convertible Series.

Rakestraw, who died Wednesday at age 85 of congestive heart failure, was among the drivers who made the transition from the old beach course at Daytona to the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway. He ran the first three Daytona 500s as well as the first race at the track now known at Atlanta Motor Speedway, finishing 11th.

Rakestraw ran 30 points-paying races in the Cup Series and 11 in Convertibles. But his best performance came in a non-points event at Daytona International Speedway in 1961 in which he finished second to Junior Johnson and just ahead of Fred Lorenzen.

Unlike drivers of today, who travel to races by jet, Rakestraw drove himself back and forth to the tracks. Johnny Clark, the dean of Atlanta-area racing announcers, likes to tell the story of riding a school bus driven by Rakestraw on the morning after a Daytona 500.

“I’ll never forget his hands,” Clark said. “They were blistered and bloodied from wrestling that big old car for 500 miles.”

NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Glen Wood counted Rakestraw among his closest friends, both in their racing days and in the years since.

“Wilbur was one of my favorite drivers on the Convertible circuit,” Wood said. “He relief drove for me once at a race in Nashville when it got hot or the exhaust broke or something. I still have a picture of him sitting on the hood of my car.

“He was a great guy and a good driver. He just didn’t run that much.”

Rakestraw’s driving career was cut short by a lack of sufficient funding after the 1961 season, as he explained in a 2008 interview.

“I was considered a very good race driver,” he said. “A lot of my friends hated to see me get out of it. If not for financial problems, I’d have been there until I got too old. I enjoyed it as much as anybody could.”

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