Jack Pennington, Cherokee Hall Of Fame
Dale Wilkerson September 2010
Jack Pennington started racing dirt, because of a lack of Asphalt. When the paved tracks in South Georgia closed, Pennington strapped in his father’s dirt car in 1974 at Brunswick, and it wasn’t long before he was hooked on dirt racing.
Jack’s first win came at Oglethorpe Speedway in Savannah GA and it wasn’t long before tracks in Georgia and the Carolinas began to take notice of the driver that earned the nick-name lighting. When asked how he received the nickname, Jack said “I’m not real sure when it started but it just stuck. They said they never knew when I would strike.” And when Jack Pennington would strike, often times it resulted in victory.
Pennington drove his father’s car a couple of years before moving to another team, where even more success was in store. “It seemed like we would just get better and better, each team I drove for would raise the bar from the hard work by the crew to the performance of the cars.”
Some of those teams include Charlie Blanton, Lin Jenkins, C J Rayburn, Walter Newman, Tony Hawley, Morris Partain, Derrick Close, Scott Ward, current team owner Ronnie Melford and fellow Cherokee Speedway Hall of Fame inductee today, Barry Wright.
Jack was able to compete in several NASCAR events in the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series. Jack drove for Derrick Close during his days in NASCAR. In just six starts in what was then known as the Busch Series, Jack scored two top-tens. During the 1990 season, Pennington was runner-up for the Rookie of the Year Award and he began the year by leading laps during the season opening race, which is the biggest NASCAR race of the year, the Daytona 500. “It is hard to make a living racing dirt, and the lure of the NASCAR money caught my attention. They knew we were there. Derrick Close owned the dirt car I was driving and he took me to NASCAR and though we were only there a short time, they knew we were there.”
Jack’s time in NASCAR was a lot of fun, but one year that ranks above that season would be 1980. Pennington scored 39 wins in 1980 driving for Roger Baird and the B&D Boiler race team. “Roger built some very strong motors and the car was great, we were almost unbeatable in 1980.”
Jack Pennington knew to be the best in dirt racing; he needed to race at the best track. “Gaffney is somewhat like Darlington. It is a driver’s track. You could lay back if you wanted but you had better be up on the wheel. The half mile here was fast and could be tough, but when you left here with a win, you knew you had to beat the best of the best. I have always heard, if you can win at Gaffney, you can go about anywhere and win and I believe that is the truth!” Pennington’s wins here at Cherokee Speedway include races sanction by the Southern All Stars and two wins in the Stick Elliott Memorial race.
For a while, Jack would race at Myrtle Beach on Thursday, Oglethorpe on Friday and then Gordon Park in Augusta on Friday. Jack enjoyed racing at these tracks and his favorite race was the next one on the schedule. No matter where he was racing, he looked forward to getting back to Cherokee. Pennington still holds the track record here at Cherokee on the half-mile. That car had a 468 cubic inch engine known as Superman, but without Jack Pennington behind the wheel, that motor was just mild mannered Clark Kent, as Jack’s right foot and skill at the wheel made that motor and many more like it ‘Super’ each race day.
On this day, as Jack Pennington joins the Hall of Fame here at the Cherokee Speedway, Jack wishes to say thanks all the team owners, crew members, the folks that volunteered to work as crew members, his family and the Good Lord for blessing him with great friends, driving skills, and a wonderful life. This member of the Class of 2006 National Dirt Racing Hall of Fame, who still races today for Ronnie Mellford, will long be remembered for his bravery behind the wheel and for making race fans at track across the southeast, and especially here at Cherokee Speedway, stand to their feet to wave him on to the checkered flag. Please welcome to the Class of 2010 Cherokee Speedway Hall of Fame, Mr. Jack Pennington….