By Tim Gardner
A North Carolina High Country legend who lived in two of its counties during his ‘growing up’ years is being honored by the county where he first lived.
In 2020, the Mitchell County Board of Commissioners designated January 31 each year as “Waddell Wilson Day” in that county to honor Wilson, who was enshrined into the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) Hall of Fame on the same day in 2020.
Wilson is a former resident of Crossnore School & Children’s Home in Avery County and a native of Bakersville (Mitchell County).
He was a NASCAR engine builder and crew chief.
As January 31 approaches again this year, Mitchell natives and its other residents will pay special tribute then to one of that county’s most famous natives and his numerous contributions to NASCAR, which have made him a household name in the sport.
There are also grass-roots movements underway by Mitchell Countians to further honor Wilson such as perhaps having a stretch of road in the county named for him or a bust or statue of him built and erected at a prominent site in the county.
Some natives and residents of Avery County have also expressed interest in doing similar lasting tributes to Wilson.
“I’m deeply honored for being chosen for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, for Mitchell County honoring me each January 31 and for Avery County’s interest on doing something to recognize me,” Wilson said. “I thank my family, friends, all those who have worked on crews for me, the drivers and team executives I’ve worked for, and racing fans. And I’m glad to have lived in Mitchell and Avery counties. I’ve enjoyed my career in racing and I appreciate the association with so many good people.”
The 2020 NASCAR Hall of Fame Class is generally considered by the sport’s expert analysts and fans to be one of its strongest, which besides Wilson, consists of drivers Tony Stewart, Buddy Baker and Bobby Labonte and team owner Joe Gibbs.
NASCAR driver and Hall of Fame member Jeff Gordon said of Wilson and the other 2020 inductees: “What a wonderful class NASCAR has for next year… it’s truly an outstanding one. And with Waddell (Wilson), when you start to look at the statistics of what he’s contributed to the sport beyond just being a crew chief, they’re great. Certainly, he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame and I’m most happy for him.”
Wilson started his racing career driving jalopies, street stocks and modifieds at the Hialeah, Palmetto and Hollywood short tracks in Florida. “I won a few races,” Wilson said, “but before long I figured building engines really was my niche.” He began as an engine builder for the Holman Moody Racing Team in the early 1960s.
A dual threat as an engine builder and crew chief, Wilson powered and guided cars to some of the biggest victories in NASCAR history. As an engine builder, he supplied the power that helped drivers David Pearson (1968, ’69) and Benny Parsons (1973) to Cup Series titles. Overall, Wilson’s engines helped some of the greatest drivers to ever wheel a car – including NASCAR Hall of Famers Pearson, Edward Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and Baker – to 109 wins and 123 poles.
Wilson originally gained acclaim for building the engine Roberts used to win the 1963 Southern 500. Wilson guided three cars to Victory Lane in the Daytona 500 as a crew chief, winning The Great American Race with Baker (1980) and Yarborough (1983-84). The famed “Grey Ghost” car Wilson assembled for Baker still holds the Daytona 500 record with an average speed of 177.602 miles per hour (MPH).
Additionally, Wilson prepared an engine for Hendrick Motorsports that Waltrip used in a practice session to set an unofficial track record at Daytona that exceeded Bill Elliott’s 1985 mark. And Parsons set the record for the first 200-mile-per-hour (320 km/h) qualifying lap at the Talladega, AL race track using an engine built by Wilson.
Between 1979 and 1993, Wilson was the crew chief for 22 NASCAR Winston Cup race wins. Additionally, between 1983 and 1986, Yarborough/Wilson won nine races in only 60 starts, including four of sixteen in 1983.
Wilson was the crew chief for IndyCar driver Al Unser Jr.’s only NASCAR start at the 1993 Daytona 500.
Wilson also has been a Team Manager for Hendrick Motorsports and a General Manager for Yarborough Motorsports, and in 1990, authored the top-selling “Race Engine Preparation” book.
Wilson received the “Golden Wrench Award” by the North Carolina Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame in 2006 and was selected to be one of three retired crew chiefs to vote for the inaugural class for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He was featured on the April 9, 2003 episode of the Speed television channel’s show Men Behind the Wrenches.
He retired from racing full-time in 2000, but has still remained active in the business in several capacities. Wilson also has been a consultant for Jerico Performance Products.
Wilson is 85 years old and was born on December 29, 1936.
He is married to the former Barbara Fox of Spruce Pine, NC (Mitchell County). They have four children—Gary, Greg, Lisa and Freddie—all of whom followed in their father’s footsteps by also working for NASCAR.