North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.
Imagine attending a sports event for the first time and enjoying it so much that you decide to take up the sport as a participant. And then becoming a champion almost immediately.
It might sound implausible today. But back in 1947, that’s exactly what Herb Thomas did.
Born into a farming family, Thomas operated a sawmill in Sanford that supplied lumber to the military when he attended his first auto race in Greensboro in 1947. He was so impressed with what he saw that day that he went out and bought a race car.
Unlike most of the drivers of that era, who perfected their craft avoiding the police while running moonshine, Thomas acquired his skills while driving a dump truck hauling dirt over the back roads of Fort Bragg during World War II.
And he proved to be a natural behind the wheel.
He started as a true weekend warrior who worked a full-time job and drove as a hobby in his spare time. But he began concentrating solely on racing shortly after winning his first NASCAR Grand National race in Martinsville, Virginia, in 1950.
The following year, driving what became his trademark No. 92 “Fabulous Hudson Hornet,” he won his first series championship. In 1953, he became the first driver to win what is now known as the NASCAR Cup title more than once. He was also the first driver to win multiple Southern 500s, taking the checkered flag at Darlington three times.
Thomas won 48 races in all before a serious injury suffered in a racing crash in Shelby ended his career in October 1956.
He was named as one of NASCAR’s top 50 drivers of all time in celebration of the organization’s 50th anniversary in 1998. In 2013, he was inducted posthumously into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Although his accomplishments on the track have long since been overshadowed by more famous racing names such as Petty, Pearson, Baker and Allison, he is still remembered by his hometown with a mural on the side of a building on North Steele Street in Sanford.