Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday May 24, 2013
We’re in the middle of a pretty spectacular month for racing and race fans, culminating in this weekend, where three very different forms of racing hold crown jewel events. And part of this feel-good week for aficionados of speed is the announcement of five new members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. In January 2014, these five men will be enshrined among the best of the best in a sport where everyone to make it there has already reached and surpassed common excellence.
This year’s selections include four drivers and an engine builder, the first motor man to be included. That the engine builder is Maurice Petty should come as no surprise; Petty built engines for Richard Petty’s seven championships in what is now the Sprint Cup Series as well as his seven Daytona 500 wins and also built powerplants for other winning drivers, including Lee Petty, Jim Paschal, Buddy Baker and Pete Hamliton among others. He revolutionized engine building as the Wood brothers revolutionized pit stop strategy, and for that, is a fitting choice.
Two-time Cup champion Tim Flock was the leading vote getter on the strength of his titles and 39 wins, including a 1955 season where he won 18 times, a record that stood until Richard Petty won 27 times in 1967. Flock won his first title in the Hudson Hornet, the car made famous to a new generation in the Disney movie Cars. Flock is the winningest eligible driver not already in the Hall. He’s a solid choice as well, just one shy of the 40-win mark and a pioneer of the sport.
Jack Ingram is arguably the best driver ever in the series that would eventually become the Busch (now Nationwide) Series. He has a total of five titles in NASCAR’s second series, two Busch titles and three in its predecessor, the Sportsman division. His 31 wins in the ten years he raced after the division was reorganized stand as the most by a career regular in that series. It’s good to see the best drivers in series other than Cup get the recognition they so deserve, with Modified driver Richie Evans and now Ingram.
Glenn “Fireball” Roberts was the Dale Earnhardt, Jr. of his day—a racing superstar whose name was practically a household word among fans. He never won a title, but his career was cut short after 33 wins. That win total is good for 20th all-time despite Roberts’ untimely death at the age of 35 due to complications from injuries sustained in a crash at Charlotte. Roberts’ inclusion in this group does require some projection of what might have been because his win total and lack of a title may well have changed with another ten years or so added to his shortened career. Plus, his popularity among fans does count for something.
Finally, 1999 Cup champion Dale Jarrett made the cut with 32 career wins and three Daytona 500 championships. His numbers are decent, to be sure, good enough for 21st on the wins list all time, but I’m not convinced that Jarrett is a Hall of Fame caliber driver, at least, not yet with so many other deserving candidates, including Bobby Isaac, who sits ahead of Jarrett on the all-time wins list yet was not included. Jarrett had the benefit of the best engines in the sport at the height of his career, and while a driver can’t win without good equipment—nobody has made the Hall of Fame driving a second-rate car for his entire career—Jarrett may have grabbed too many of those wins because of the equipment, not just with it. He finished on the lead lap in just under half of his races (and that’s a number you just can’t compare with drivers like Roberts, because in Jarrett’s era, far more cars were finishing on the lead lap each week than in NASCAR’s earlier years). His lead lap finishing percentage is 48.6%, 325 out of 668 races. Compare that to 1998 Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who was winning at the same time as Jarrett and has a comparable number of career starts (700 to date to Jarrett’s 668) and Gordon comes out much higher with a lead lap finishing percentage of 71%. Jarrett isn’t even close.
And then there are the intangibles. To me, a really great driver is one who can take a car that’s not perfect, give enough information so that the team can improve it, and still finish above where the car was probably capable of finishing. In other words, he can finish fifth in a tenth-place car and win with a fifth-place car. That’s something I never saw much of in Jarrett; he was capable of driving a fifth-place car to a fifth-place finish (and that’s not simple; there are drivers who can’t do it), but not of making a car several positions better on a regular basis.
To me, there were quite a few people more deserving of Hall of Fame votes than Jarrett. And it leaves a bit of a troubling question—what makes a driver Hall of Fame caliber? 30 wins (I’d have said 40 without multiple titles)? One title (Does that make Alan Kulwicki a shoo-in with just five wins?)? It seems like it should be more to make it as a driver—if they don’t have the numbers, they should be a true pioneer of the sport, leaving some indelible mark on it for future generations of fans and drivers. And to me, Jarrett just doesn’t do that. He’s not nearly the broadcaster or driver that his father, Ned, was. He’s a nice enough guy, but so are a lot of drivers whose names will never even make the ballot (and rightfully so). It just seems like the Hall took a giant step down on the standards ladder and that leaves a sour taste.
In the end, how good is good and how great is great is a subjective question, but it seems like, while Petty, Flock, Ingram, and Roberts were great and great for the sport, Jarrett was merely good. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of…but it’s nothing to enshrine in the Hall of Fame, either.
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