For the last couple years, some of the buzz heading into May and Charlotte Speedweeks has involved which five NASCAR figures would be inducted into the Hall of Fame. For those of you who missed the memo, this year’s class won’t be inducted until January of 2012. In his Solomonic wisdom that has helped guide our sport to the depths of despair it is trapped in today, Brian France said he felt that the move would help the inductees garner more notice. Sure, why hold an induction ceremony while tens of thousands of race fans are in town for the twin Charlotte weekends? France feels by January, fans will be so desperate for news about NASCAR they will sit up and take notice.
Hmmm. Here’s what I know about January in these parts.
People are either at work, plowing their driveways, riding their snowmobiles to celebrate having finished plowing the driveway (yet again), or drinking beer to celebrate having ridden their snowmobiles or to loom off dread of the next storm. Or… they’re watching football. Lots and lots of football, football games that generate ratings so high they make Cup coverage look like an asterisk. Nobody is thinking about NASCAR nor, to be frank, do they give a rat’s ass about it in January. On a brighter note, if you’re in Charlotte this June and buy a ticket to the Hall of Fame, you can watch an August panel vote on who will be inducted. Yeah, sure. I mean if I can’t get a good seat to watch patrons inflate tires at the local filling station, that’s next on my list.
So who should the next five inductees be?
Recall now, active drivers aren’t eligible so we have to discount some certain (if the edifice and institution survive, very much in doubt given the Hall’s massive financial losses) honorees like Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. For the same reason other worthy candidates like Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte who are still out there running will have to wait until they retire. Some sentimental favorites like Davey Allison, Tim Richmond and Alan Kulwicki will eventually have their turns, but because their careers were all tragically cut short we’ll never really know how they eventually would have stood in the pantheon of racing heroes. With only five drivers a year inducted you have to go with accomplishment, not sentiment.
I feel there’s four drivers who are absolute no-brainers to be inducted this year, and have my own opinions on who the other inductee should be:
A substantial number of people reading this might have never heard of Tim Flock because he raced in the pre-TV era of the sport. For the record, Flock was a two-time Champion in NASCAR’s top tier of competition then known as Grand National racing. During his career he had 39 victories, 18 of them in 1955 alone, second only to the King’s 21 wins in 1967. Those 39 wins occurred in only 189 starts (21%), giving Flock the best winning percentage of any driver ever to compete in more than 50 Cup races. Not even Johnson and Gordon can approach that percentage. His average finish over those 189 races was 9.5. To offer some comparisons to that figure, Dale Earnhardt’s career average finish was 11.1 and prior to the Texas race Saturday night, Jimmie Johnson’s average finish was 11.7.
In an extremely dangerous era of the sport, ironically the worst injury Flock ever endured (and it took him out of racing for months) occurred in a parking lot. In that era NASCAR raced several times a week and Flock drove down from New York to a race in Spartanburg, SC. Exhausted, Flock laid down in the infield grass to sleep (no, drivers didn’t have motor coaches back then) and someone drove over his head as he slept. Flock is also well remembered for having to pit to have a monkey that raced with him in the car as a promotional stunt removed from the car after the simian broke free of its harnesses and freaked out.
OK, let’s deal with the 800-pound gorilla in the room. As a broadcaster, Waltrip is beneath contempt. If there’s ever a NASCAR Broadcasting Hall of Shame not only will it be named after him, the entranceway will be a huge concrete replica of his face, mouth wide open. Fans will enter through his open mouth and be bombarded with neon “Boogity, boogity, boogity” signs as that infamous screech that turns my blood cold plays at volumes that would shame The Who.
But back in the day as a racecar driver, Waltrip was one of the best. He, after all, won three Cup titles and 84 races. (just one less than Bobby Allison). In the early to mid-80s, when it came to the short tracks the odds makers gave gamblers two choices: Waltrip or anyone else at even odds.
As the TV era of stock car racing hit high gear, Waltrip was far more erudite than most of his contemporaries. He wasn’t bad on the other side of the microphone and even occasionally achingly funny. His rivalries with guys like Earnhardt, Yarborough and Allison were the stuff of legends and helped promoters pack the seats. Hell, he was so contentious that after Rusty Wallace bumped him out of the way to win the Winston and most fans were cheering, ol’ DW challenged every fan who was booing him to meet him at the local K-Mart parking lot for a fistfight. I bet there was a hell of a crowd there waiting, too, but wisely North Carolina troopers escorted DW out of the area that night.
Yes, Waltrip stayed too long at the fair but he’s hardly the only legendary driver to do so. Richard Petty comes to mind. Thus a lot of fans only knew Waltrip the racer as the owner/driver who struggled just to make races despite his past success. But trust me, as a witness to his driving, even a non-fan of Waltrip back in the day he was one of the ten best ever. It galls me to say so just as it used to gall me every time he won, but facts are facts.
Here’s another name a lot of newer fans have never even heard before, particularly those not fortunate enough to be from the Northeast. Evans won nine NASCAR championship titles and close to 500 races. Now hold on thar, Bubba-Louie I hear some of you saying, if this guy won more titles than Dale Earnhardt and more races than Richard Petty I’d have heard of him, right? Well Evans raced in the ultra-competitive modified series, a staple of racing here in the Northeast although it’s a form of racing enjoyed in other regions as well. But back in that era, the mod squad was about the same as the Truck Series today. Easily recognizable in his bright GMC orange livery with black numbers outlined in white, those of us who watched him race were as able to pick out Evans cars as we’d one day recognize a certain black car with a big No. 3 on the side. It wasn’t hard because Evans was usually up front and through a combination of talent and intestinal fortitude, he usually won as well.
Evans had won eight straight modified titles in 1985 when he was killed in a savage practice crash at Martinsville during that weekend’s race activities. In fact he had clinched that eighth title the week previously at Thompson so he remains, as best I can recall, the only NASCAR driver who won a title posthumously.
Evans died in the same era when Winston Cup team owners were just beginning to recruit modified drivers for a turn at the big leagues, a movement that brought South such drivers as the Bodine brothers, Jimmy Spencer and Mike McLaughlin. (no relation). Had Evans survived to make the jump, I have no doubts he’d have been a superstar.
Buck Baker was a legendary racer in the 1950s and early ’60s, and yes, he was father to Buddy Baker, a more recognizable name to most of you. The elder Baker won 46 Cup races and was champion of the series in 1956 and 1957, though that 1956 title will forever be shrouded in controversy. Herb Thomas, a two-time champion himself, had started the season driving for mercurial Carl Keikhaefer but decided to quit the outfit. As the series reached the fall stretch, Thomas was still leading the points. Keikhaefer arranged to have a race added to the schedule to give Baker another chance to reel in Thomas. During that race another Keikhaefer driver, Speedy Thompson, seemed to purposely hook the rear bumper of Thomas’s Chevy and put him not only into but halfway through the retaining wall, where Thomas’s stricken car was struck several more times. Thomas was carted from the track comatose with a fractured skull and other severe injuries. His season was over and Baker won the title.
Baker was as tough as they came in a tough era in the sport. And how can you not like a guy who admitted he once tried to smuggle some beer aboard his race car for an event? He secreted the beer in a “douche bag” with a tube running to where he could grab it during the race but later admitted all the bouncing around made the beer too foamy for him to enjoy. Yeah, it was a very different era back in those days when the Wood Brothers used to have a cigarette lighter mounted in the dash of their race car for David Pearson to use.
Baker is also credited with having led 5662 laps of competition and won 42 poles during his career. The biggest challenge to his induction, though, would seem to be some voters’ disinclination to include two drivers from the pre-TV era in the same class as the Hall struggles to raise attendance; as such, I’d be surprised if Tim Flock and Buck Baker go into the Hall of Fame the same year. I understand that if you had known Baker back in that era, you might not have liked him. But if you owned a race car back then, he’d probably have been among your top picks as a driver.
The Other Ones
OK, for the first time this year there’s no more absolute “must” fifth pick.
Here’s my list of worthy candidates, for readers to debate over in the comments section below. (Or that’s my intent. I am sure that some of the normal knuckleheads will choose to debate whether the fact I recently used the term “switchblade” in a column (and I own about a dozen of them) and I used to live in Long Island a few decades ago, if perhaps I am the Long Island mass murderer, etc.).
Inman, a cousin of Richard Petty’s, was crew chief for the King’s seven NASCAR titles and 198 of his 200 wins. He also served as crew chief for Terry Labonte on Billy Hagan’s team when they won the championship in 1984. Eight NASCAR championships as a crew chief? I’d say that’s a Hall of Fame statistic.
Presuming that DW makes the cut this year, every Cup champion from 1971 to 1983 will be in the Hall save one. In a David versus Goliath story worthy of Alan Kulwicki’s later title, Parsons beat the big boys in 1973. It was a thoroughly remarkable story in that Parsons wrecked early in 1973 and his team, aided by a bunch of other independents pieced his thoroughly trashed car back together well enough to complete enough laps to win the title. While Parsons won 21 Cup events during his career, he is of course best recalled these days for his work on ESPN TV during the glory days of the sport. Informed, entertaining and a lot of fun, having Parsons into your living room via the tube every Sunday afternoon was like having a good friend stop by. (As opposed to DW who basically kicks in the door, eats all your food and hollers at you for three hours while annoying the crap out of you.) Among longtime fans, the triumvirate of Parsons, Ned Jarrett (already in the Hall) and Bob Jenkins (now doing IndyCar Racing) is the most cherished and respected team of NASCAR broadcasters ever assembled. Personally, the loss of Parsons to cancer in January of 2007 was like a death in the family.
You’ve heard some of the stories. Unless you’ve read his wildly entertaining three volume autobiography you haven’t heard the best of them, some of which can’t be repeated on a family-oriented website. Suffice it to say, Yunick was the leading innovator early on in this sport’s history. Some will say that’s a nice way of saying he cheated a lot and Smokey did, but his best innovations fell into that vast gray area in the middle. The rulebook said you could do this, the white area, and couldn’t do this, the black area. In between the two there’s that vast area of gray and if the rulebook didn’t say you couldn’t, Yunick did. It is widely accepted in the sport Yunick knew more about engines and building race cars than anyone in the sport has or ever will.
Though he won only two races in NASCAR’s top division, Byron was NASCAR’s first titlist back in 1949. How many other sports haven’t inducted their first champion into the Hall of Fame? Some of you might not know that Byron raced in a leg brace courtesy of injuries suffered while flying over Europe in defense of freedom during World War II.
Thomas became NASCAR’s first two-time champion, backing up his 1951 title with another in 1953. Along the way, he garnered 48 wins in NASCAR’s top league. Thomas actually eclipsed Tim Flock with an average finish of 8.9 in 228 starts.
The Hall would probably prefer to have at least one inductee this year that newer fans have probably heard of, and Wallace would be a good choice. While he won only one title (1989) year after year everyone knew he was out there competing for the honor, including his sometimes buddy and sometimes adversary Dale Earnhardt. I will never forget a thoroughly incensed Wallace bouncing a water bottle off of the Intimidator’s head after a Bristol race. The look on Dale’s face was classic. Between 1986 and 2002, Wallace finished in the top 10 in points every year, save one. In addition to his title he finished second in the points twice during that period and third another time. Best recalled as the pilot of the black Miller cars, first Pontiacs and then Fords, Wallace was usually right there in the mix at the end of a race. He had 202 top-5 finishes in 706 starts. Other than the water bottle assault, my favorite memory of Wallace involves a Richmond race back in the 1980s. He and Earnhardt ran side by side, lap after lap, and the entire enthralled crowd was on their feet the whole time screaming on their favorite. Here’s an odd stat: in race purse winnings (not off track stuff or special awards) Wallace actually out-earned Earnhardt.
So who am I leaving out? Feel free to comment below. (Oh, and for the record I haven’t been on Long Island since Kelly Murphy got married. No sense to it.)
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