There is one story just begging to become a movie. A struggling part-time stock car racer, looking for a ride, a hulking giant of a man, pulls a fellow driver from a burning car. That recovering driver successfully lobbies his boss to let the hero drive his car. The hero wins the Great American Race.
That story really happened in the year of 1963. The hero’s name? The ironically named Dewayne “Tiny” Lund. The story is still remembered well in racing circles, though it happened 50 years ago. On this day- in 1975- Lund died in an accident at Talladega Superspeedway.
The term “hero” is often thrown around all too easily when it comes to sports figures. Most so-called “heroes” are often just very well-accomplished at their sport, and possess the charisma to gain a following. It’s rare you find a REAL hero, someone who has risked life and limb to save another, or someone who has gone the extra mile to give of themselves to defend or ease the suffering of others. In the case of Lund, Marvin Panch would not still be here today without Tiny Lund.
Panch was testing an experimental Ford-powered Maserati at Daytona International Speedway for a race that was the precursor to the Rolex 24. Panch- who was a driver for Wood Brothers in the legendary ‘21’ car- get caught in a rollover wreck, and the car eventually exploded. The group of men, including Lund, had to retreat from the car when the gas tank blew. Someone noticed Panch was still alive. Lund grabbed Panch by the leg and pulled him out.
For his actions, Lund received a Carnegie Hero’s Medal, along with four other men at the scene. While recovering in the hospital, Panch convinced owner Glen Wood to let the 6-foot-5 270 pound Lund to drive his car. Lund qualified fourth for the Daytona 500.
The field was filled with luminaries. Glen “Fireball” Roberts was on the pole. “Fast” Freddy Lorenzen was on the outside of Row One. “Gentleman” Ned Jarrett would challenge for the win. A.J. Foyt also ran the race, as well as Joe Weatherly, and Indy car star Johnny Rutherford.
Ahead of their time when it came to pit stop management, the Wood Brothers determined they would try to win the race on one less pit stop than his competitors. Lund would have to spend a lot of time babying the accelerator, and accepting challenges from drivers he wanted to leave behind. According to writer Tom Gillispie, Lund ran the entire race….on ONE SET OF TIRES. Lorenzen and Jarrett would pass Lund during the race, but both ran out of gas in the final laps, opening the door for Lund. Lund’s car would run out of gas on the final lap, but he managed to coast home ahead of what was left of the field.
Though there are only five Grand National victories credited to Lund, he was an immensely popular driver, earning Most Popular Driver awards on at least three occasions. He spent more time in the late 60s competing in the Grand American Series- a pony car series, where he won three championships and 41 races, including 10 straight in 1970. The series later became the Grand National East Series, and Lund won his last championship in 1973.
An avid fisherman, Lund often raced in the number ‘55’, in honor of a 55-pound bass he once caught, a record for landlocked striped bass. Though he was born in Iowa, Lund called Cross, South Carolina home, which was close to Santee Cooper Lakes.
Lund was known as a big teddy bear of a man, often giving away his trophies to children. In a story written by Tom Higgins, three-time Winston Cup champion Cale Yarborough said Lund “must have earned over a million dollars considering all the short track races he won. And he gave it away to somebody he thought needed it worse than he did.” Promoter Humpy Wheeler said if Tiny had five cents, he’d give four away.
That’s not to say he didn’t have a temper. Yarborough once dumped a bucket of cold water on Lund, and he reportedly grabbed a mattress Yarborough was on and tossed into a swimming pool. On one occasion, Lund’s good friend Buddy Baker moved Lund out of the way to win a race, and Lund came after him. Baker- no small fry himself at 6-foot-6- used his charm to get Lund to back off.
Ironically, Baker won the Talladega 500 in 1975 in the race that Lund died. When Baker learned of his death, he collapsed to his knees, and sais his friend’s death took all the joy out of winning. Lund was caught in heavy traffic early in the race, when contact initiated an eight car collision in Turn Two. Lund spun around and found his driver’s side facing oncoming cars. Rookie Terry Link had nowhere to go, and hit Lund. Lund died of massive chest injuries at age 45. Tough facial cuts were all Link received in the wreck, he never raced in the series again.
A hero is defined as “a person of distinguished courage, or ability, admired for their brave deeds or noble qualities.” How about this for an alternate: On the track and off of it, Dewayne “Tiny” Lund was a hero.