Smokey Yunick (left) and Banjo Matthews were friends for nearly 50 years. Smokey aptly rem
Banjo was a meticulous chassis craftsman and expected the same from his crew of fabricator
For a half century, Stock car racing was Banjo Matthews' life, and probably his death. Banjo's Performance Center at Arden, a suburb of Asheville, North Carolina, is as well-known to racers as the Biltmore House is to tourists. Some drivers and car owners have better records, but Matthews had no peer as a race-car builder. And it didn't matter that most of the glory and the cheers of the crowd went to others.
Cars built by Matthews won 262 of 362 (72 percent) Winston Cup races from '74 through '85--all 30 races in '78 --and four consecutive championships from '75-'78. For many races his cars composed half the field, or more. Edwin Keith Matthews died on October 2, 1996 of heart and respiratory disease at age 64. He had been in declining health for a decade and was seriously ill for two years.
"Banjo was a friend for almost 50 years," says hall of fame engineer Smokey Yunick. "He was the Henry Ford of race cars. When we go back and look at what he did for racers, fans, and the industry, he was probably one of the 25 main building blocks of Stock car racing.
"I think we can say in all honesty that he gave his life to the sport. I firmly believe what eventually killed him was the affects of exhaust gases he breathed in the early days when he drove cars with flat-head engines without headers because he got 10 more horsepower out of them."
Matthews, who was born in Akron, Ohio, on Valentine's Day in 1932, drove his first race at Pompano Beach (FL) Speedway at age 15, going on to win hundreds of Modified events. As a Grand National/Winston Cup driver, he had a best of second at Atlanta and grossed $29,455 in 50 career starts.
As an owner, Matthews' cars scored nine victories and sat on 14 poles in 160 starts, grossing $371,000. His cars won the Firecracker 400 at Daytona three times with drivers Fireball Roberts, A.J. Foyt and Donnie Allison. Allison also won a World 600 at Charlotte and two other races, one at Rockingham in 1968.
"My biggest memory was in Victory Lane that day (at Rockingham)," says Allison. "Banjo, standing there with tears running down his cheeks, says to me, 'I knew that I could win another race.' As a car owner, he just never had the opportunity to have a regular driver who could concentrate on winning races. As a person, Banjo was as good as I ever knew. As a racer, he was the most knowledgeable I've ever known."
Junior Johnson also won two races in Matthews-owned cars. "I was a friend and associate of Banjo's my entire racing career," says Johnson. "We worked together a lot on chassis development and most of the stuff used today resulted from that relationship. We used to talk on the phone five or six times a day. He was devoted to helping others a lot more than himself."
Establishing his business in 1970, Matthews built Ford race cars for Holman and Moody Co. [Indeed, his chassis surface plates came from that fabled shop --Ed.] and later Chevrolets for General Motors. Since 1974, Matthews' shops have built about 750 new race cars and repaired another 375, including Limited Sportsman, Modifieds, and IROC Series Stockers.
Matthews, hung with the nickname "Banjo Eyes" in grade school because of his thick-lensed spectacles, was a stocky, down-to-earth, unpretentious man who didn't solicit the attention nor seek the recognition he perhaps deserved.
"The basic construction of a car is not what wins races," Matthews said in a 1980 interview. "It's the team effort after the car leaves our facility that separates the winners and losers. We strive to build our cars as good for one customer as we do for another. The credit for their performance goes to the people who operate them.
"I get my kicks, and so do my employees, from how well cars that we have built perform and the satisfaction they bring to the customers. That's all the recognition I care about."
Craftsmanship was Matthews' hallmark. He treated each car like a bottle of fine wine. "When I was driving I couldn't stand to get outrun by somebody with better equipment," he said in 1980. "That's the way I feel about my business. I believe in and admire craftsmanship. I'm a man of simple tastes, but one reason I collect antiques is because of the way they were made. I like things that it has taken somebody a long time to make."
Some of the recognition due Matthews came in the months before his death. He received the Buddy Shuman Award for contributions to the sport, the Smokey Yunick Award presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway for lifetime mechanical achievement and, last September, was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) Hall of Fame by Yunick.
Matthews' son, Jody, 31, (who accepted the hall of fame award in his father's absence) continues to operate the business, building cars and suspension parts. "My dad was real emotional about the hall of fame and I'm just so happy that he got to enjoy the honor before he passed away," says Jody. "He never was a trophy-chaser, but he appreciated recognition by his peers.
"He was hard on me the last few years. He had decades of racing experience, he knew what was going on with his body and he tried to force-feed me all the information that he could. I understand that now and wish I had paid more attention. We had a special relationship, though. I was around him long enough to know what he expected and I always tried to do more. I will continue to do that."