Cat on the runway

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Not a driver this month, but a famous marque involved in a long-forgotten excursion into a completely foreign field of endeavour – Jaguar in NASCAR

If Toyota, as expected, wins a top-level NASCAR race in 2007, it will be almost the first time a foreign car has won. Not quite, though: the first – and so far only – foreign car to win a NASCAR race was actually a Jaguar coupé XK120 driven by homegrown talent Al Keller.

Keller was a 34-year-old who had only just started proving himself as a racing driver. His first NASCAR starts had been inconclusive, but in 1953 and ’54 he began to drive for George Miller in Hudsons and Oldsmobiles, leading the opening round of 1954 for 46 laps until blowing a head gasket. Four races later, Keller ran away with the Savannah  race, and top six finishes continued throughout the season. He even scored his first pole at Charlotte. However, when Miller returned to being an occasional entrant, Keller started dreaming of his real ambition – becoming a Champ Car driver.

But not before agreeing with New York-based bandleader Paul Whiteman to race his Jaguar at Linden Airport, New Jersey. Whiteman had worked with Bing Crosby, Tommy Dorsey, and George Gershwin himself, but his career had all but ended in the 1940s. Why his first dabble in motorsport came at the age of 64 is obscure, but an agreement was made and Keller could not have picked a better car for the task.

NASCAR’s 18th round of the season, held at Linden Airport, was the series’ first ever road-course event. The airport had been used in a 2.2-mile configuration for a previous race back in 1949, but in 1954 this had been shortened to two miles. An extraordinary 21 ‘foreign’ cars would start the race, including 13 Jaguars and five MGs, thus it was rather impressive that eventual legend Buck Baker qualified his Oldsmobile on pole. Yes, he had already proved himself on a paved oval (still the exception rather than the rule), but here he had to turn right as well!

Come the race Baker led 11 laps, while Herb Thomas – one of NASCAR’s biggest stars at the time – led another 11 driving a Hudson. However, Keller’s Jaguar moved into the lead for the final 28 laps, and he would eventually lap everyone up to and including Baker, who wound up third. The only man on the same lap as Keller was Joe Eubanks in a Hudson. Three other Jags filled out places four to six.

Keller entered a few more NASCAR races, but was focusing on Champ Cars. He proved able, scoring a couple of seconds, and by 1961 had nailed a full-time ride in a Phillips Offy. In this he made his best Indy 500 performance, qualifying sixth and finishing fifth, and in November at the Arizona State Fairgrounds track, he scored his second pole of the season. However, 40 laps into the race he crashed to his death. 

Toyota may be likely to remove Keller’s distinction of driving the only foreign NASCAR winner, but they can’t alter the fact that he held that spot for more than 50 years. And, unless Ford has some radical secret plans for its prestige marque, Keller’s win will go down as the only time a leaping cat crossed the NASCAR line first. 

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