Jack Ingram has never shied away from the moniker that followed him throughout his racing career – “the best short-track racer ever.”
And why would he?
His success on short tracks defined his NASCAR career and is the biggest reason he will be inducted Wednesday night into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Why, then, would a short-track ace proclaim his most memorable moment in racing a victory on a 2.5-mile superspeedway?
Because in NASCAR, Daytona is still Daytona.
“I built a car and took it to Daytona in 1975, sat on the pole and won the race – it was basically just me and a helper,” Ingram said of his victory in the 1975 Late Model Sportsman 300-mile race at Daytona International Speedway. “Junior Johnson acted as my crew chief and helped me win that race by the fact I got a hole in the top of my windshield and NASCAR wanted to black-flag me. He talked them out of it and said he would fix it.
“Junior did, I won the race and had one of the greatest people in the world stand there in the pits. That made me feel awful good.”
Ingram still has a box of letters from race fans who wrote him after that victory, which was shown in part that year on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”
It was on the short tracks, however, where Ingram’s talents shined brightest.
He won three championships in the Late Model Sportsman division (1972-74), the precursor to today’s Nationwide Series. He won 31 races, five poles and two more championships (1982 and 1985) after the Sportsman series became the Busch (now Nationwide) Series.
Unlike many of that series’ full-time drivers today, generally up-and-comers, Ingram had both of his series championships and all 31 wins between the ages of 45 and 50.
“I didn’t even start racing until I was 26,” said Ingram, now 77. “Heck, you couldn’t even start back then until you were at least 21.”
Ingram says many of today’s younger drivers could benefit from more experience on short tracks and a mentor to show them right from wrong.
“Even professional quarterbacks in the NFL have their own coaches,” Ingram said. “Nobody in racing has that – they listen to what the crew chief says and in most cases he don’t know because he hasn’t driven himself.”
Ingram retired in 1991 as the Nationwide series’ all-time winningest driver. He still ranks fifth in wins and remains the only driver in the top five who did not also compete as a full-time Cup series driver at the time.
Fittingly, all but two of Ingram’s 31 victories came on tracks 1-mile in length or less.
Former NBA player turned NASCAR team owner and ESPN TV analyst Brad Daugherty, who like Ingram grew up in the Asheville area, called the driver nicknamed the “Iron Man” one of his childhood heroes.
Ingram earned the “Iron Man” nickname over Labor Day weekend in 1973, when he raced 1,750 miles in six races in five states over five days.
“I watched Jack race many a night at the Asheville Speedway, and he won a lot of races,” Daugherty said. “It was cool because he went on to be a superstar.”
After Ingram was announced last fall as one of the five members of the 2014 NASCAR Hall class, one of his biggest rivals during the prime of his career, Harry Gant, agreed to induct Ingram into the Hall.
The wins and championships mean a lot, but Gant’s gesture means more.
“It really is an honor,” Ingram said. “Harry was the best driver that I ever raced against, and we became good friends.”
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.