CHARLOTTE, NC, September 26, 2014 – Watching Michael Waltrip on “Dancing with the Stars” is a reminder of the early days of NASCAR when drivers were known as much for their “monkeyshines” as they were as competitors.
Stock car racing’s roots are both colorful and typically southern tracing its heritage to the days of running moonshine during prohibition with souped up cars designed to outrun the law.
One of the favorites during the 1950s was NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Tim Flock who won the championship in 1952 taking eight checkered flags in 33 races.
In those days, the Daytona track was actually part highway, the A1A, and part beach itself. In his description of what racing was like at Daytona Beach Flock said, “It was really tough. Sometimes we would come into a turn and hit a flock of sea gulls. A few laps into the race we had sand, sea mist and feathers all over our windshields. We couldn’t see a thing.”
After his championship season, Flock’s career was only running on six cylinders in 1953 with no wins and his popularity beginning to fade.
In the spring of the year, while shopping at a pet store in Atlanta, Flock’s sponsor Ted Chester spotted a Rhesus monkey named “Jocko” according to the sign on his cage.
In the earliest days of the sport, promotional gimmicks were a huge factor in creating fan interest, and Chester figured Jocko would be the ideal way to keep his driver’s name in the headlines.
Chester’s brainstorm was to have Jocko ride shotgun with Flock in his ’53 Hudson Hornet. As Tim, who died in 1998, used to tell the story, “The team just thought Ted had gone bananas.”
Flock, never one to shy away from a good publicity stunt, said in a biography about his life in 1991 “the more I got to thinking about it, the more I liked it. Jocko Flocko could race with me anytime – if he proved he could handle the Grand National Circuit.”
NASCAR, the governing body of stock car racking has always been a stickler for the rules, and Flock knew they would never allow him to drive with a monkey as a co-pilot.
For Chester the answer was simple. “NASCAR is not gonna know about,” he said.
Under great secrecy, something that could never happen today, the team designed a special seat for Jocko on the passenger’s side of Flock’s car. The seat was high enough for Jocko to look out the window and wave to other drivers when Tim was passing them.
Just to make it official, Flock’s new teammate was outfitted with his own helmet, goggles and a racing suit with the car number “91” sewn on the back.
According to Frances Flock, Tim’s widow, who heard her husband tell the story more than she cares to remember, Jocko became the first, and last, monkey to ever compete in a stock car race on April 5, 1953 on the old dirt track in Charlotte.
Jocko was buckled into his seat just before the pace lap for the 150-lap race, and, as Tim used to tell it, when “they went through the first turn, one of the drivers looked over, saw the monkey and almost wrecked.”
What began as crazy stunt soon became wildly popular with the fans. As expected, Jocko was especially popular with children who clamored to see him after every race.
Before long, Jocko Flocko had earned the reputation as the “fastest monkey in the world.”
Despite his furry companion, Tim Flock was winless until his 10th race of the season at Hickory Speedway, a half-mile dirt track about 45-miles northwest of Charlotte.
May 16, 1953 was the historic date when Tim and Jocko in their Hornet grabbed the lead about 15-miles into the event and never looked back. By heading to Victory Lane, Jocko Flocko became the first and only monkey in history ever to win a NASCAR race.
As Tim later put it in a “Sports Illustrated” article, Jocko made it “easy. If I got tired after 100 laps I’d let Jocko drive, and all I had to pay him was a banana and five percent.”
One of Tim’s biggest problems with Jocko was traveling because most of the hotels wouldn’t let him check in with a monkey.
Eventually Flock had to sneak Jocko into his room, but there was another problem because Jocko “hated maids.” There were several instances when maids went screaming from the room while Jocko jumped on their backs as they ran down the hall.
The partnership ended in a 300-lap paved track race at the one-mile speedway in Raleigh. In the final 100 miles of the race, Tim and brother Fonty were racing for the lead when Jocko slipped out of his harness.
The rest of the story is related in Tim’s own words in the book “Dirt Tracks to Glory: The Early Days of Stock Car Racing as told by the Participants.”
“We had this chain hooked onto the floorboard that we would pull up to check on the wear on the right front tire. Well, old Jocko had been watching me do that, and soon as he came unstrapped he went right for the hole and stuck his head through. The tire zipped him on the head, and he liked to have went crazy.”
Fellow driver Dick Passwater continued, “Jocko screamed and started jumping, and it was all Tim could do to keep his car on the track. Yeah, I saw that monkey jumping around in there, but I didn’t know what was happening. He was like a bird in there. He’d be on one side of the car, and the next thing you know he’d be on the other side. That monkey probably thought somebody was trying to kill him.”
Added Tim, “It was hard enough to drive those heavy old cars back then under normal circumstances, but with a crazed monkey clawing you at the same time, it becomes nearly impossible.”
Flock had no choice. He made an unscheduled pit stop to “retire” Jocko from competition. The stop cost him two positions on the track, finishing third and losing $600 in winnings.
The Raleigh incident was traumatic for Jocko. As for Tim, when youngsters asked him about Jocko, the driver replied, “I couldn’t teach him to sign autographs, so I had to fire him.”
Jocko Flocko rode with Tim for eight races during the 1953 season, but Tim always said after the Raleigh race, “I was really glad to get that monkey off my back.”
Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
Read more of What in the World and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News
Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod