The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : Hall'In Class by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday July 9, 2009

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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : Hall'In Class

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday July 9, 2009

 

I’ve gotten a lot of email from readers asking me which five people I hope, or think, will make up the first set of inductees into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame. I’ve debated the topic with more than a few fans and have to agree that narrowing the group down to just five individuals is a difficult task — though, in my mind, selecting four of the first five folks so honored is a no-brainer few can dispute.

Let me preface my picks by saying that I feel no active driver, or even semi-active driver, should be considered for induction into the Hall of Fame. Allowing an active driver to make the Hall would turn the balloting process from a recognition of career long achievement into a popularity contest. Drivers like Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson will all be inducted one day, but their storied careers aren’t over yet. To vote them in this year or next would be like writing a book review on a novel that’s only half-finished. As best I recall, no other sport allows players to be inducted into their Halls of Fame until they retire.

I’d also like to state on the record that I feel the rule stating that any driver had to have been actively involved with NASCAR racing for at least 10 years to even be considered for inclusion is wrong. Call me paranoid, but it seems like a backdoor mechanism to make sure that Tim Richmond never enters the Hall. The rift between Richmond, the first modern era driver to stand up to NASCAR, and the France family is legendary, with the wounds especially raw right now considering the whole Jeremy Mayfield mess. Unfortunately, the 10-year rule also means that other Cup drivers like former champion Alan Kulwicki and the late Davey Allison can never be inducted.

Editor’s Note: The Top 25 finalists do include drivers like Joe Weatherly, Red Byron, and others who don’t fit the 10-year rule Matt discusses. No clarification has been provided from NASCAR on these exceptions.

Two individuals top my list of nominees as no-brainers — so obvious that the exclusion of either of them would destroy the credibility of the Hall: Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. (Lest any newer fans become confused, I am, of course, referring to driver of the black 3 car who won seven titles — not his kid who is struggling to post top 10 finishes in the 88 car this season.)

Richard Petty was NASCAR’s first seven-time champion. He won 200 races at NASCAR’s top level, including seven Daytona 500s — marks that nobody is ever going to match. He won 10 races in a row in 1967, part of a year in which he set the sport’s single-season victory record at 27. Petty might have won many more races, too, if not for the 1965 Chrysler Boycott of NASCAR racing when he was in his prime. While the organization he took over from his late father Lee has struggled since the King retired, Petty remains active in NASCAR racing today and provides the only living link between NASCAR’s first Cup race in 1949 and the present day era.

With a record-setting NASCAR career that reached its 50th year last season, King Richard Petty’s place in the first Hall Of Fame class is secure.

Perhaps more importantly, Richard Petty was the face of stock car racing back in an era when the general public knew little of the sport. His beaming smile, simple nature, and “aw shucks” attitude embodied the sport in its infancy. Petty’s willingness to hang out in the garage area and sign autographs until every last fan who wanted one had been greeted and accommodated is one of the reasons this sport flourished and developed such a fanatically loyal fan base. Today’s drivers would do well to attend the Petty School of Public Relations, even as they earn more for a lackluster season than the King earned during his entire career as the sport’s most prolific winner.

When TV started paying attention to stock car racing, Petty was, of course, the star of the show. His last lap altercation with David Pearson in the 1976 Daytona 500, shown in part on ABC, grabbed national headlines. He was the eventual winner of the 1979 Daytona 500 — the first superspeedway race shown flag-to-flag on CBS — after the infamous Donnie Allison/Cale Yarborough last lap wreck that shoved NASCAR into the national spotlight.

Of course Petty hung on too long, racing for years beyond his last win in 1984 to the point he even failed to qualify for races. But that was his right. He put up the carnival tent, and he deserved to remain in the ring. There have been and will be other multi-time champions, and there will be drivers who define their eras — but none like Petty. Always and forever, there will only be one King of NASCAR racing… Period. End of sentence. It isn’t open for debate. If you think otherwise, you, sir, are a fool.

Dale Earnhardt’s early career overlapped the twilight years of Petty’s racing legend. The two battled side-by-side numerous times, and Earnhardt’s 1980 title might be seen in retrospect as the changing of the guard as drivers like Earnhardt, Elliott, and Wallace began dominating while the proven heroes like Petty, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, and Bobby Allison entered their twilight.

When Earnhardt was in his prime, ESPN adopted the sport of stock car racing. Dale became the face of our sport — the rough around the edges, straight shooting, former mill-town kid who wheeled a stock car fender-to-fender and bumper-to-bumper with both generations of drivers, no quarter given and no quarter asked. His hard-charging, take no prisoner, offer no apologies style of racing enthralled a television audience, adopting a sport which once was a regional curiosity and making it a national sensation. Some fans worshiped him and some fans loathed him, but when it came down to those last laps, all eyes were glued on that number 3 car. No question about it, Dale Earnhardt defined the sport in his era.

In his later years, the Intimidator mellowed a bit. He was better spoken, if still controversial from time to time. But when Earnhardt spoke in the garage, everyone right up to Bill France, Jr. listened. Earnhardt seemed a force unto himself — an unstoppable force until that tragic last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. In death, Earnhardt was on the cover of both of the top news weekly magazines and was the lead story on most national newscasts. Dale was larger than life, but twice as real is the way his army of fans still mourn his passing on a daily basis and sorely miss seeing that black number 3 car out there creating havoc and collecting trophies every Sunday afternoon.

David Pearson seems another obvious pick to me. His 105 Cup wins are second only to Petty — and Pearson ran part-time most seasons. Pearson won two titles during the great factory wars of the ’60s, and when paired with the legendary Wood Brothers during the transition from manufacturer involvement to the current days of sponsor-driven race teams, he was a nearly unstoppable force on the superspeedways. The Silver Fox would hang back most of the race, but when it got down to the money laps at the end, he’d come charging out of nowhere to become a factor. And when it came down to wheeling a race car on worn tires, Pearson was practically unequaled, with the only possible exception being Tim Richmond.

Personality-wise, Pearson was the embodiment of cool, even if his way of calmly smoking cigarettes in the car under caution isn’t entirely PC these days. Regardless, many of his contemporaries have shown their respect by recognizing Pearson as the toughest challenge they ever had to face on the way to Victory Lane… even more so than his longtime rival, the King.

My fourth nominee is Cale Yarborough, the first driver to win three consecutive championships — a record that lasted nearly 30 years until Jimmie Johnson pulled off the feat last year. Yarborough won 83 Cup races, with 14 of those victories scored after he cut back to a part-time schedule in 1981 in order to spend more time with his family. Cale was short of stature, but broad in shoulder. He’d emerge from a winning race car with his face tomato red, and, after downing a few beers in Victory Lane, he’d proclaim he hadn’t done anything extraordinary; he’d just done his job. Yarborough drove for legendary car owner Junior Johnson in his prime and, by estimation, he’s the only driver that Junior never felt was “laying down on him.”

The above four picks seem self-evident to me. It’s when we get down to the final of five finalists, I have to struggle. Again, without disrespecting any current driver, I am limiting my picks to retired drivers. Here are my top five potential nominees for slot number five:

Bobby Allison – Allison’s only title came in 1983, but he won 85 Cup races. (Some sources say 84, but that disregards his win in a Ford Mustang which was a legally entered in a Grand National race at Bowman-Gray stadium in 1971. The issue might seem insignificant until one recalls Allison and archrival Darrell Waltrip are officially tied at 84 wins with the non-inclusion of Allison’s win in a Mustang.) Bobby won a highly emotional 1988 Daytona 500 victory over his son Davey, just months before the elder Allison was critically injured at Pocono, suffering closed head injuries that would forever alter his life. The wreck ended Allison’s Cup racing career, but he’d later lose much more — both of his sons, Davey and Clifford — to the sport. On a emotional level, there’s no better pick for the fifth inductee than Allison.

Tim Flock – Most newer fans have never even heard of Flock. But based on percentages, his 39 wins in just 149 starts remains the golden standard. In 1955, driving for the unassailable Karl Kiekhaefer squad, Flock won 18 of that season’s 39 races he entered. And you want to talk about tough? Flock started racing again just months after his head was run over in the infield while he was napping.

Junior Johnson – Johnson never won a championship as a driver, but he did win 50 races. As a team owner, he won 132 races and six titles. More than anything else, the convicted moonshiner (never caught on the road but busted while tending his ailing Daddy’s still) was perhaps the most colorful figure ever associated with a sport that is chock full of them. I’m not sure there’s ever been a man ever born besides Johnson whose every utterance in his deep Southern drawl was instantly quotable. As a driver, Junior was WFO every lap — he’d either win, or his equipment would break. As an owner, he expected the same of his drivers, who ranged from hard chargers LeeRoy Yarbrough, Cale Yarborough, Curtis Turner, and Darrell Waltrip to more calculating men like Terry Labonte and Bill Elliott. More than once, Junior would ask his drivers who were running second, “Boy, you ain’t laying down on me out there, are you?”

Johnson once famously bought Darrell Waltrip a mule as a reward for winning a title, saying, “Every good man needs a mule.” Darrell’s agent had once asked Junior what he’d do for Waltrip if he won a title. Junior’s reply was simple: “I’ll tell you what I’ll do to him if he don’t.” In a sport forged in the hard-scrabble, bare-fisted mountains of North Carolina, Junior Johnson still epitomizes that time and era. He’s the toughest son of a bitch to ever wheel a race car around a rutted dirt track and win… or blow trying. “The Last American Hero,” Tom Wolfe once wrote of Johnson. Indeed.

Darrell Waltrip – It might be tough for newer fans who know him only from his TV work to conceive but, in his day, old DW was a right handy racer. He won three titles and 84 races, the most of any driver in NASCAR’s “modern era” (1972-present). Almost as importantly, as TV became the main medium for this sport, Waltrip was the first media-savvy driver. In an era when Dale Earnhardt could only snap, mutter, and curse on camera, Waltrip was a great interview off the track. On it, his rivalries with Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison were the stuff of legends. Yes, he’s now an annoying old man who makes you wish you could go deaf during the FOX portion of the season, and yes, he’s the ultimate NASCAR kiss-ass; but in his day, ol’ DW could drive a race car about as well as any man that ever lived.

Lee Petty – If there’s any man who might give Junior Johnson a run for his money as the “toughest son of a bitch” in racing, it was Lee Petty. We’re talking a guy who once put his own son into the wall because he wasn’t convinced Richard was getting out of his way fast enough when the elder Petty came up to lap him. And that was his softer side; Lee once took several laps around the track with Richard on the hood of his car after the King wasn’t fast enough cleaning his windshield during a pit stop. NASCAR finally had to black flag Petty, who gave his son a bare-ass spanking after the incident to chastise him for not jumping off the car when ordered to do so. Yes, Lee Petty was about as cuddly as a cactus, but he could wheel a dang race car. He won 54 races, including the first Daytona 500, and claimed three titles. Petty would have won four, but NASCAR stripped him of all his points when he chose to run in a race the sanctioning body didn’t support. Petty finished in the top 10 in an astounding 332 of his 427 career starts, and from 1949 to 1959, he never finished outside the top 5 in points. A savage wreck in one of the 1961 Daytona qualifying races saw Petty’s No. 42 car fly out of the ballpark into the parking lot, effectively ending his career as a driver just as his son began to excel.

In racing, there’s Tough and there’s North Carolina Tough. Lee Petty was the epitome of North Carolina Tough. Even in this era, if Junior Johnson, Tim Flock, and Lee Petty were still out there racing, some of the young drivers currently competing in the sport would still be waiting tables at a Red Lobster.

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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Bruce Florman
07/09/2009 01:54 AM
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Somebody ought to delete that space between “Flock” and the trailing asterisk.

janice
07/09/2009 08:15 AM
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good initial class matt.

hey, do you ever think we’ll see brain fart France in the “hall of fame”?

Carl D.
07/09/2009 08:22 AM
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Matt…

Maybe I’m wrong, but I thought the HOF was open to non-drivers as well as retired drivers, and as such, Big Bill France would be a no-brainer as well.

Glad to see you picked Cale. Other writers seem to think he’s a second or third year inductee, but apparently they were still watching saturday morning cartoons in their Smurf jammies when Cale was kickin’ ass in Darlington. Cale was the MAN.

Ryan
07/09/2009 08:24 AM
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Good column Matt . One thing to keep in mind is the fact that there already is a Hall of Fame . Its at Talladega and it was built by the France family . Brian wants to make himself king and wipe out any trace of his father and grandfather , so we now have to have a new Hall of Fame that Brian built . Just don’t forget that the first one is the real one .
You are correct about the ten year rule keeping out some great competitors , do you suppose that was accidental ?
I don’t agree that Lee and Richard Petty should be automatic inclusions in the first round as they seem to be . I do think a very good case could be made for Wendell Scott getting in on the first round .
And i don’t believe that stats alone should be the deciding factor . Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts , Smokey Yunick , those names were the draw that brought untold numbers of fans to the races and gave young boys a name to aspire to .

Overa88ted
07/09/2009 09:54 AM
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This is all going to be pretty predictable. Both France’s, Petty, Earnhardt, and another name driver (who should really be a 3rd or 4th year class inductee), will be the inductees. The first class is going to be all about $$$ and nothing less. Deserving individuals who help get Na$crap to where it is today, will be ignored. Na$crap will want to have “star” power in it’s inductees, in order to pull in $$$….OOPHS, I mean fans the first year the HOF is open. Being a Dale Sr. fan, even I could make a case for a 2nd year induction. I really wonder if in 5 years, will Na$crap’s HOF be turning a profit?

marshall
07/09/2009 10:12 AM
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In truth , we’re all doing exactly what the Nascar marketing dept. was praying we’d do , we’re all talking about their goofy Hall of Fame like it really matters .

Joe
07/09/2009 10:35 AM
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Couple things here-

Wendell Scott- can’t put someone in to a HoF on the “what might have been” Same could be said for Richmond. There should be a separate wing for drivers who went before their time which would include guys like Allison, Kulwicki, Richmond, Weatherly, Fireball Roberts, Tiny Lund, etc. Guys who accomplished a lot in a short time. Also, in re Wendell Scott, he was obviously very talented but we’ll never know how good he could have been as he drove in garbage rides. Again, same could be said for any number of drivers. Bobby Hamilton said it best when he used to say the best stock car driver is probably working at a garage now because he never got the opportunity or the timing.

Honestly, I’d probably put Richmond in the Davey Allison, Terry Labonte, Benny Parsons, Ricky Rudd, Dale Jarrett category. We simply do not know if Richmond would have had the interest to stick with NASCAR. He hit his stride right before he got sick, but we really can’t tell if he’d have been the next Earnhardt, or had a Bobby Labonte like career, or chucked it all and went acting. Playing the could have’s is always fun. Hell we could probably put Rob Moroso or Irwin or Adam Petty in that class.

You also only named drivers. I think Raymond Parks, H. Clay Earles, the Wood Brothers, Hulman-Moody, Robert Yates, Bill France and Bill Jr., T Wayne Robertson, Jake Elder, etc. deserve inclusion although not all are first ballot guys.

Nice article, but you couldn’t avoid the Richmond thing.

chris
07/09/2009 11:02 AM
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Honestly, I do not understand why Richie Evans isn’t in most people’s top-5 list. It is not the “cup series” hall of fame, but the Nascar hall of fame. Noone has the track record of success that Evans had. Have to wonder if not for that practice crash in 1985, how many championships would he have? 12? 15?

My 1st 5: Petty, Earnhardt, Big Bill, Pearson, Evans.

There are lots of Hall-worthy individuals, but I say go with the best of the best to start, all those other folks will get in eventually.

Joe
07/09/2009 11:10 AM
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if you go with Richie Evans, then you almost have to include Sam Ard, Ingram, the Bodines, and pretty much every Saturday night short track ace. I say, keep it to Cup because if not, you run into a whole new can of worms.

also, for my last what might have beens, I forgot Lloyd Seay and Roy Hall. Obviously I read a few books.

Jim
07/09/2009 11:27 AM
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i don’t know, I like the HOF concept…it will give us plenty to talk about in the off-season, assuming they make the nominations during the winter.

It’s worked great for baseball, at least up until the steroid era.

By the way, the original MLB inductees were all players as opposed to builders, managers, etc…they inducted a commissioner and 2 managers the folowing year.

If anyone wants to read an awesome book on the early days of NASCAR, pick up “Driving with the Devil” by Neal Thompson.

chris
07/09/2009 11:59 AM
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Joe, Nascar’s already made that decision by having Evans be one of the 25 nominees, so that train’s left the station. It is a Nascar HOF, not Cup Series HOF.

Many of those guys (if not all) will end up in the HOF eventually, and deservedly so. However, I don’t think any of those other guys have 9 “series championships”, 400 wins at nascar sanctioned events, or their number retired in the division they raced in.

Joe
07/09/2009 12:15 PM
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Chris,

I think Dick Trickle may be close to Richie.

HankZ
07/09/2009 12:51 PM
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How and whomever is elected, either first, second or whenever, I am praying that this HOF does not turn out like the Rock ‘n Roll HOF – a crock!!

Ed
07/09/2009 01:15 PM
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Great article, Matt. I agree 100% with your top 4. The 5th entry is very much open to debate.

Bad Wolf
07/09/2009 04:37 PM
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Great article Matt.

It’s really a shame what has become of DW these days. I remember watching him back in his prime and that boy could drive. If he is inducted he will try to milk it for all the cash he can wring out of it, and probably pitch his HOF products non stop during the Fox broadcasts. When he makes it I hope the picture they use is the one of him in his silver drivers suit and unglasses at the All Star race. He makes it really hard to remember how good he actually was back in the day.

Bad Wolf
07/09/2009 04:41 PM
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Looks like DW has been here and voted for himself 3 times.

Joey Wilson
07/11/2009 10:46 AM
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Allison, Flock and Junior Johnson over DW? I don’t think so. You might not like him, Matt, but DW was one great racer in the 80s.