In NASCAR‘s formative days, the stars who won all the races and championships were the likes of Lee Petty, Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly, Herb Thomas and Red Byron.
Not many people outside of Ohio knew who Jimmy Florian was when NASCAR‘s stock car circuit came to the Dayton Speedway on June 25, 1950, but that all changed when the 27-year-old Cleveland native shocked his fellow competitors and fans alike by winning the 100-lap feature in a 1950 flathead Ford.
Florian passed Turner with 35 laps to go and never looked back in giving Ford its first official NASCAR Grand National win.
“It was a car originally that belonged to the chief of police in Detroit and Euclid Ford got a hold of it,” recalled Florian‘s best friend, Bill Whitley, who spoke about that day with Ford Racing in 1999. “The night that he won the race against (Curtis) Turner, (Joe) Weatherly -- all the big boys were there -- he just outdrove them that‘s all. We talked about that for years and years and years.
“I kept telling him there was no way he could outrun those Oldsmobiles with a flathead Ford, but we had been running on that track seven nights a week in midgets and sprint cars and it was just a fact that we were very familiar with it and they weren‘t,” continued Whitley. “He just outdrove them.”
Some of his fellow drivers couldn‘t believe it either and protested, but Florian‘s No. 27 Euclid Motors Ford passed NASCAR‘s post-race inspection. Florian claimed the $1000 prize money for winning that day and firmly embedded himself in Ford Racing history.
“He was about a half lap ahead when the race was over,” recalled Whitley. “I remember a whole lot about it because it was four o‘clock in the morning before we got paid. Turner, Weatherly, Petty -- the whole bunch -- they protested saying there was no way they could have been outrun with a flathead Ford.”
And while his accomplishment on the race track was big enough news, he generated even more when he got out of car in victory lane bare chested. NASCAR eventually established a rule that a driver had to at least wear a shirt while driving. Hence, the nickname “Shirtless” Jimmy Florian.
“It was hotter than hell, that‘s all there was to that,” said Whitley about why Florian wasn‘t wearing a shirt that day. “The rulebook back thenyou didn‘t have any rollbarsyou didn‘t have to have a seatbelt if you didn‘t want it, and the seat had to be just like it came out of the factory -- a plain old seat -- and they were uncomfortable.
“You couldn‘t do anything to the car back then. For ventilation, you had to run with the windows down and that was the main reason he was shirtless. He thought that was the greatest because he had all the protection in the world around him. We ran a midget and sprint car back then and you had to have something on because you were getting hit by rocks. That was the main reason for that.”
Florian didn‘t win anymore NASCAR events, but continued to have a successful short track career locally. He raced until he was 70 years old and often took his four children -- three daughters and a son -- to the race track with him. He sold his final vintage sprint car when he was 72 and lived for three more years until he passed away from cancer in February 1999 at the age of 75.