Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday June 16, 2011
This week the NASCAR Hall of fame announced its third class of inductees. These include two three-time champions, a legendary owner, and for the first time, a crew chief and a Modified Division driver. To date, the Hall’s selections have been about honoring the sport’s history through the years, and that’s a good thing. While it’s important to honor the sport’s early pioneers, and there’s been a push to do so while many of them are still living, it’s also important to have a variety of inductees for the fans. After all, the fans pay to see the Hall (and it is a very impressive place well worth the cost of admission), in part for nostalgia. They want to see their childhood heroes, and really, those heroes span several generations. For that reason inducting a mixed group of drivers is exactly the right thing to do. Many fans don’t remember the very early days of NASCAR, but they do remember the innovators of the 1960’s, 70’s or 80’s (and that’s not saying they aren’t lifelong fans; some of them just aren’t that old!). There’s someone there for all of them as it stands.
There are certain criteria necessary for nomination to the Hall. These vary by the person’s role in the sport (an active car owner may be eligible, for example, while drivers have to be retired for a certain amount of time). However, once a person is nominated, it’s up to the voters how to rank different criteria as they cast their votes. There is room for debate, and many voters do take the chance to pitch the folks they deem most worthy to others who may be undecided. But there is no set rule or point system to assign a particular value to wins, championships, percentages, and other numbers. Each voter has to decide what is the most important. That’s necessary, because it’s so difficult to compare statistics across decades in a sport which changes rapidly from year to year.
But what does make a Hall of famer, anyway?
I think the answer here is it depends. Now let me qualify that. There are some things that should make a person a virtual lock: 50 or more wins or multiple championships as a driver, owner, or crew chief, for example, should all but guarantee a space. This is a difficult sport on a good day, and extraordinary numbers are extraordinary numbers in any era.
I also strongly believe what the voters took into account this year: this is the NASCAR Hall of Fame, not the Sprint Cup Hall of Fame. NASCAR has several divisions outside of Cup, perhaps most notably the Modified Division, whose open wheel cars were the very first to ever race under the NASCAR banner, but also the current Nationwide, Camping World Truck, and K&N Pro Series. While the Cup Series is what most drivers aspire to, some choose to make a career elsewhere.
Like Richie Evans, who was elected this year and will be officially inducted in January, these are the best drivers in the history of their series, and are no less deserving than the best Cup drivers. Evans is the winningest driver in NASCAR history with over 600 wins and nine championships, eight of those in a row. Evans was killed in a practice crash at Martinsville before he could collect that ninth trophy; who knows how many more there could have been for the New York native? Many, including many on the voting panel who had seen Evans race, agree that Evans could have won in any series NASCAR could offer. Yet he chose to stay in his beloved Modified.
Evans isn’t the only one. Jack Ingram won a pair titles in what is now the NASCAR Nationwide Series (Ingram also had three titles in the old Sportsman Division, the Nationwide Series’ predecessor). He didn’t view the series as a feeder series; he didn’t want to race in the Cup ranks. Adding to Ingram’s impressive story is the fact that he was the owner, driver, and crew chief of record for his 1982 and 1985 titles. The Camping World Truck Series also has its own stars. Four-time champion Ron Hornaday, Jr. is the series’ all-time wins leader with 48 (and counting). Both Ingram and Hornaday should be locks.
But what about drivers like Mark Martin, who holds the all-time Nationwide Series win record? That’s where it gets fuzzy, because Martin’s primary series is the Cup Series. He’s run more Cup races, and that’s where Martin chose to make a career, never running full time in Nationwide. The same holds true for Kyle Busch, who will likely tie and pass that Nationwide record this season. Busch is a Cup driver as well-evidenced by both his and Martin’s declaration for points this year. And should those wins outside their primary division weigh as heavily when it’s their turn for Hall voting (for both are likely to be nominated at the end of their careers)?
Well, I don’t think so. The primary consideration for a driver should be statistics in the series which that driver chose to make his or her primary focus throughout a career. Other series wins are a nice bonus, but if a driver is going down in history as a Cup driver, then Cup numbers should be the primary focus. For Martin in particular, that makes things tricky. Martin’s 40 Cup wins fall just below the 50-win lock, and without a championship, Martin’s Hall future is not secure. Busch is just 26 and is likely to win a Cup title at some point, and if he races until age 40, is on pace to win about 60 races, which should be enough to put him in the Hall even without his extracurricular wins. Those are nice, but also secondary to his Cup accomplishments in this case.
Numbers don’t always make things crystal clear, either. As a multiple Cup champion, Terry Labonte looks on paper to be a shoo-in. But Labonte’s win total is just 22. That’s nothing to turn up your nose at; it’s good for 28th all-time. But it’s far from the total that the current Hall members enjoy, and also well behind the numbers for other multiple champions. Joe Weatherly also has two titles and a relatively low win total at 25, and though he is on the ballot, hasn’t gotten the votes yet. Tony Stewart has 39 wins and two titles.
It’s also important to take into account the newness of the Hall, and that makes election tougher right now as so many are deserving. Eventually the pool will thin out, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy to get chosen…just that more people will get longer looks on voting day.
Car owners are tougher to figure. Many of the top owners are still active in the sport, making it difficult to pin down numbers. They’re also not as well-known to fans as drivers in many cases, especially those who owned cars in the early days. Crew chiefs and mechanics are also not as public of figures, making them a harder sell to fans in many cases. In fact, lots of drivers from the early days are off the radar of many of today’s fans. I’m not a fan of a fan vote for that reason; many fans simply don’t have enough understanding of the early years of racing to make an educated choice. Many fans who do are older themselves, and less likely to use the online voting system.
What makes someone a Hall of Famer? Perhaps it’s impossible to say, because the criteria change each year, with each driver from each era. That’s probably a good thing. It’s too hard to compare numbers across years as it is, and comparing them for this purpose isn’t right. And rarely do numbers tell the whole story. That’s where the debate comes in.
The committee nailed it this year with its choices. Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip were fierce rivals, yet so close in the record books that it was only right to send them along together. Richie Evans was the best ever to strap into a Modified, and he never moved into Cup simply because he didn’t want to. Dale Inman has more Cup titles as a crew chief (eight) than any driver has ever enjoyed. And teams under the leadership of owner Glen Wood have been winning races in the last seven decades. Except for perhaps Yarborough and Waltrip, they can’t be compared to each other.
Clearly what makes a Hall of Famer differs from era to era, from series to series, from man to man. Because it differs, the choices so far have been right, and are likely to be right for years to come. And that means that all fans, for many generations, will get the nostalgia they paid for. The reason the Hall exists, ultimately, is for fans to be able to look and say, “I remember the time when…” What makes a Hall of Famer is what reminds us all of the best the sport has to offer.
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