Because of his prominence on social media, his frequent attendance at racing reunions, nostalgic gatherings and various exhibitions, Ronnie Thomas is well-known and recognized by NASCAR fans.
Thomas was one of those independent competitors who raced without factory support and very little sponsorship. Drivers like him made up most of every starting field on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit.
Thomas will tell you he raced primarily because he loved it and considered it all worthwhile if he could break even.
Thomas, who last raced on the Cup level in 1989, has an effusive personality and an expansive sense of humor that enhances his storytelling skills.
And he can tell stories. When he weaves tales of his experiences and life in racing, his eyes twinkle and his smile is constant.
He’ll tell you that he is what he is because everything is inherited. It comes from his father, the late Cerry Ezra “Jabe” Thomas.
Jabe – I have never heard anyone call him Cerry, Ezra or Mr. Thomas – was Ronnie’s bespectacled elder. When I first met him, he looked like that guy on TV who always played the owner of the general store in Dodge or Hooterville.
During my motorsports career at The Roanoke Times, Jabe was not only a reliable source with whom I spoke frequently, but he and Ronnie were neighbors. Their home in Christiansburg was less than an hour away and a stone’s throw from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
I made sure Jabe was mentioned in just about every race lead I wrote because, after all, he was one of the local boys.
Jabe was nicknamed “The Clown Prince of Racing,” a title given to him after the passing of the original, Joe Weatherly at Riverside, Calif., in 1964.
Yes, Jabe was a funny guy, quick to tell a joke or toss a rubber snake here and there, but he never matched the status of Weatherly, a two-time Cup champion.
Jabe was given the nickname out of respect.
He began racing out of his Gulf gas station in Christiansburg in the early 1950s and gained a reputation as a winner. During one stretch, he won eight times in 13 races.
It wasn’t until 1965, when Jabe was 35 years old, that he entered his first major Cup event – the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
If Jabe should have found a 400-lap race on a 1.5-mile racetrack to be daunting, suffice it to say he didn’t.
“I remember they told me how fast telephone poles would go by at 150 miles per hour,” Jabe once said. “I felt I could really show ‘em all how to drive.
“I was gonna show ‘em something. I was gonna show Junior Johnson how to drive.”
Jabe finished 34th in the race following a crash after 73 laps. Not very impressive, to be sure, but he didn’t seem to mind.
“Overall, I had me a good race,” he said. “To tell you the truth, it didn’t take long to get a little boring. You know that song, ‘I Can See the Clouds A-Gathering’? I’d ride along and sing that song.
“I wasn’t running as fast as the other cars, anyway.”
North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham was opened the year Jabe made his Cup debut. Cars raced at 100 mph on the one-mile track, which meant it would take five hours to finish a 500-mile race.
“We would be on that track so long that one time, I brought my dinner with me,” Jabe recalled. “I told other drivers what I was going to do.
“I said I was going to put some sandwiches in the car. I taped ‘em to the floorboard of the car.”
It was suggested that might not be a good idea for Jabe to eat during a race, especially in the event of a crash.
“David Pearson saw what I had done,” Jabe said. “And he said I might as well choke to death as starve to death.”
He had his debates and differences with NASCAR officials, but they nearly always ended in laughter.
Again, at Rockingham, Jabe was once penalized a lap for passing the pace car.
“The flagman stopped me on the racetrack and told me I’d passed the pace car. I said I hadn’t done such a thing,” Jabe said. “So, I stopped there on the track until the pace car passed me again. I was told to go.
“I was already down about 18 laps so I told ‘em “I’m gonna go down one more lap for good measure.’ So, I just stayed there.
“NASCAR had to throw the caution flag one more time.”
No one was spared a Jabe prank, including Bill France Jr., president of NASCAR.
“Once in Daytona I went into his office and told him that I needed a little help. He said, ‘I’ll give you a little help to get you out of town.’
“I said to him, ‘Out of town? I don’t know anyone from here to Christiansburg. I reckon I’m gonna have to stay a day or two with you!’
“Bill said, ‘Here!’ and wrote me a check for $500.”
Asking for travel money was something Jabe had to do to race. Sometimes he had to be extra resourceful to make ends meet. It wasn’t always easy.
During his rookie season, for example, Jabe qualified for a race at North Wilkesboro on a Friday and drove four hours to a race at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in South Carolina. He finished 25th after completing just two laps. He got $100.
“Needed the money, you know,” Jabe said.
At North Wilkesboro on Sunday, he finished 15th and won $200. His 10-race season netted $4,280.
“Just enough to keep going,” Jabe said.
But in time, he couldn’t earn enough to keep going.
“I never liked the way things went,” Jabe said. “I mean, if you wanted a good team, you went to the best crew chief and you asked him, ‘How much are you making?’
“He’d say ‘$65,000.’ And you’d say, ‘Here’s $85,000, see you next year.’
“You know, money buys speed. That’s the way it’s done, but it got all out of hand. Cash talks and doo-doo walks.”
For Jabe, it all came to an end in 1978 after 14 years and 322 starts. His best season came in 1971 after he made 43 starts and earned two top-five finishes and 15 among the top 10. He earned $11,360.
Long after his retirement, Jabe talked fondly about how he was remembered among fans.
“I got calls from people all over. I had friends from all over,” he said. “I mean, California, Alabama, up North.
“I would be happy to sit and tell ‘em things that happened. There would be oodles of ‘em, but there is no way I could tell ‘em all.”
Jabe passed away in 2015 at the age of 85.
But he hasn’t been forgotten – nor should he be.
I think Ronnie will take care of that. If you want to hear tall tales of him and his father, he’s not hard to find.
Oh, and there is this – when Jabe retired, the title “The Clown Prince of Racing” retired with him.
Information for this column was gathered from American Racing Classics, a publication Steve Waid oversaw from 1981-84.
About the author
Steve Waid has been in journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing. For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”
In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.
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