By RANDALL CHASE
Associated Press Writer
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - NASCAR pioneer Herb Thomas, a two-time series champion, died of a heart attack Wednesday morning at his home in Sanford. He was 77.
Thomas, who worked as a sawmill operator before beginning his racing career in 1948, won the Grand National Racing (now Winston Cup) championship in 1951 and 1953. He ranks 12th on the career victory list with 48 wins in 230 starts.
"He was one of the superstars when I was just getting started," said Junior Johnson, another early NASCAR driver.
"Herb was one of the great competitors of our sport," Johnson said. "He was very, very capable of winning any race he went to. A good person, too."
Thomas earned his first win at Martinsville Speedway in 1950. His last victory was in 1956 at Merced Fairgrounds in California.
Thomas won the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in 1951, 1954 and 1955. His 1955 victory came less than four months after he broke his leg in a dirt track crash at Charlotte.
"I remember he was real proud that he won with a Chevrolet, because it wasn't one of the fastest cars back then," his son Victor recalled.
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Thomas' career went downhill after he crashed during another dirt track race at the Shelby Fairgrounds in 1956. He suffered a severe concussion that knocked him out of contention for a third championship and left him partially paralyzed for several years.
Despite the injury, Thomas continued racing the next year. He retired after making a brief comeback attempt in 1962. Afterward, he raised tobacco on his family's farm and operated a small trucking business.
"He still enjoyed the races; he watched them every week," his son said. "He was still into it."
Among contemporary drivers, Dale Earnhardt was Thomas' favorite.
"He said Dale always drove like he did," Victor Thomas said.
Thomas was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association's Hall of Fame at Darlington Raceway in 1965, and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega Superspeedway in 1994.
"As one of NASCAR's all-time, top 50 drivers, Herb Thomas enjoyed one of the finest careers a driver has had in the 52-year history of our sport," NASCAR president Bill France said. "The two championships he earned in the 1950s were important contributions in helping establish NASCAR's place in motorsports."
Thomas was born on April 6, 1923, in rural Harnett County. He married his high school sweetheart, Helen, in 1941 and moved to Sanford in 1954.
Thomas is survived by his widow, sons Joel of Sanford and Victor of Eden, and two nephews. Another son, Jerry, was killed in an airplane crash in 1983.
A funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday, followed by burial at Buffalo Cemetery in Sanford. Miller Funeral Home in Sanford is in charge of arrangements.