Mike Neff · Friday March 10, 2006
The NASCAR Hall of Fame is going to be located in Charlotte, North Carolina. Happy day, happy day. I couldn’t be happier about my choice to move to the Queen City area back in 1994. It seemed like the logical choice from a fan perspective. NASCAR fans are already coming to the Charlotte area to see the majority of the NASCAR team shops. Now they will have the opportunity to visit their sport’s Hall of Fame at the same time. It may not increase the tourism of the Charlotte area that dramatically, but it will certainly be able to sustain its attendance figures because the target demographics are already coming to the area in the first place. Now, if we can just get someone to take Bruton Smith up on his offer to help fund a monorail from the Hall to the race track.
So, now that the task of selecting a Hall location is completed, the real work begins. I’m not referring to the amount of effort that will be necessary to complete the Hall by its proposed opening date of 2010. I’m referring to the effort required to select the inaugural class that will be enshrined during the initial induction ceremonies that first year. For some historical perspective, let’s look at the inaugural classes in some other Halls.
Baseball: The first class for the Baseball Hall of Fame was elected in 1936. There were five players inducted: Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb.
Football: The initial class for the Pro Football Hall of Fame was a little bigger. There were 17 players inducted in the first year of enshrinement (1963) for the Football Hall. Sammy Baugh, Bert Bell, Joe Carr, Earl "Dutch" Clark, Harold "Red" Grange, George Halas, Mel Hein, Wilbur "Pete" Henry, Robert "Cal" Hubbard, Don Hutson, Earl "Curly" Lambeau, Tim Mara, George Preston Marshall, John "Blood" McNally, Bronko Nagurski, Ernie Nevers and Jim Thorpe.
Basketball: Basketball’s first class, in 1959, included 17 members as well. The First Team ever formed, The Original Celtics, Forrest Clare Allen, Henry Clifford Carlson, Dr. Luther Gullick, Edward J. Hickox, Charles D. Hyatt, Matthew P. Kennedy, Angelo Luisetti, Walter E. Meanwell, George L. Mikan, Ralph Morgan, Dr. James Naismith, Harold G. Olson, John J. Schommer, Amos Alonzo Stagg and Oswald Tower.
Hockey: The maiden class for the Hockey Hall of Fame included 12 members. Donald H. "Dan" Bain, Hobart Amery Hare "Hobey" Baker, Russell "Dubbie" Bowie, Charles Robert "Chuck" Gardiner, Edward George, "Eddie" Gerard, Francis "Frank" McGee, Howard William "Howie" Morenz, Thomas N. "Tommy" Phillips, Harvey Pulford, Arthur Howie "Art" Ross, William H. "Hod" Stuart, and Georges Vezina.
As you can tell from these lists, most of the people inducted are household names, at least to their sport. However, some of them are a little more obscure. Historically significant figures, but not necessarily people in the forefront of the modern memories of their sport. With that in mind, the question of who and how many should be in the inaugural class for the NASCAR Hall of Fame needs to be addressed? And just who will make this important decision?
According to Mike Helton, NASCAR will work with a board in the Charlotte area to select who is to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Forgive me for being pessimistic, but shouldn’t the process be a little more democratic than that? I think there should be a qualified panel that selects the members. It would make sense to have a voting body comprised of current and former drivers, track promoters, team owners, members of the media, and fans. That’s right, I said fans. It has always dumbfounded me that fans are never consulted or polled when it comes to Hall of Fame selections. Isn’t a Hall of Fame all about showcasing the history of the sport to the fans? Shouldn’t the fans have some say in the people who are enshrined for perpetuity in their Hall of Fame? Media members, no matter how despised, tend to be able to take an objective view of things and generally have a pretty decent historical perspective on the sport. Drivers and owners know what people did behind the scenes that the common man may not be aware of. Promoters tend to have their finger on the pulse of the sport and know what it was that had the greatest impact both on the racing and on the fans. I have a very hard time thinking the folks in the ivory tower in Daytona and some fat cats on a board in Charlotte really have the historical perspective necessary to make the proper decision on who should be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Do I really need to drum up some stories about Rockingham, North Wilkesboro and Darlington to remind anyone of the value NASCAR places on history and tradition?
Whoever it is that makes the decisions, I hope they’ll think along the same lines that I do when they evaluate history and come up with their initial inductees. I feel as though the first class should have somewhere close to 20 members. 10 drivers and 10 "contributors" would seem like a good representation of history.
My Drivers Selections would include:
Richard Petty: The King is the man when it comes to NASCAR…no questions asked. There is no way anyone can deny Richard should be in the first class. 200 wins, seven championships, seven Daytona 500s, 126 poles, 555 top fives, 712 top tens. The numbers speak for themselves.
Dale Earnhardt: The other seven-time champion, the man who steered the sport from the roots in the Southeast to mainstream America, and the main reason die cast cars and memorabilia are as popular and as profitable as they are today. Earnhardt’s death was also integral in rapidly advancing the safety standards and innovations that the drivers enjoy today.
David Pearson: Despite not having as many championships as Earnhardt or Petty, the Silver Fox is arguably the best driver in NASCAR history. Second in all time wins with 105, three championships, 301 top fives, 366 top tens. Had Pearson run more full seasons, Richard Petty very well might not have won seven championships.
Cale Yarborough: Cale is the only driver to win three consecutive championships. He has 83 wins, 255 top fives and 319 top tens. He was also part of the trackside brawl during the 1979 Daytona 500 that is credited with vaulting the sport into the eyes of mainstream media.
Curtis Turner: Turner was one of the first true superstars of the sport. Known as much for his flamboyant lifestyle off of the track as his incredible driving ability on it, Turner was kicked out of NASCAR for years because he crossed Bill France. Turner doesn’t have the numbers that the other drivers listed in this group do, but without him on the track in the early years, NASCAR very well may not have survived. The majority of fans that attended the early races of NASCAR came to see Curtis Turner and Joe Weatherly race, and then party with them afterwards.
Joe Weatherly: Weatherly was Turner’s running mate off the track, and his primary foe on the track. The battles between Turner and Weatherly were the stuff of legend in the early years of NASCAR. Were it not for Turner and Weatherly, Bill France’s dream may have never come true.
Bobby Allison: Allison only won one championship, but he is third on the all time list in wins. I know the record book says he is tied with Darrell Waltrip, but he won another race that was sanctioned by NASCAR that they refuse to recognize because he was asked to race to fill the field and his car was not of the exact configuration that NASCAR wanted. Bobby had 85 wins, 336 top fives and 446 top tens in his great career.
Darrell Waltrip: DW is fourth all time in wins with 84. He had 276 top fives and 390 top tens, while also capturing three championships before becoming a TV commentator for FOX in 2001.
Fireball Roberts: Although he doesn’t have the number of wins (33) that some of the others do, Roberts was a great personality, and also integral in pushing the safety aspect of NASCAR forward. His untimely death from injuries suffered in a fiery crash at Charlotte led to requirements for drivers to wear flame retardant clothing.
Herb Thomas: Herb won two championships as a driver, and another as a car owner. He scored 48 wins in the early days of the sport and was the first two-time champion.
Before you write to tell me that Jeff Gordon should be on the list, I excluded him because he is still an active driver. I think a driver should have to be out of the sport for at least five years before they are considered for the Hall, protocol used by several other sports leagues when they select their Hall of Fame members. That is why Derrike Cope isn’t on the list, either…
Here’s what my list of contributors would be:
Bill France, Sr.: He is the man. The initial founder of NASCAR in 1948, if it wasn’t for Big Bill, none of this stuff that we watch and follow passionately would even exist.
Bill France, Jr.: Little Bill is the man who took the sport to the next level, running the show during the period of explosive growth from the 1970s through the 1990s. He oversaw the operation that moved NASCAR out of the Southeast and into every corner of the country (except for the Northwest). He took his daddy’s lead, and ran with it quite well.
Lee Petty: A three-time driving champion, Lee could certainly be considered there, but I chose to put him in the contributor category because he oversaw the operations that ultimately led not only to his three championships, but the seven championships that his son Richard garnered over his storied career.
Junior Johnson: Junior won the second Daytona 500 as a driver, and his victory total is tied for tenth all time. However, his accomplishments as a car owner were what really set him apart. His teams won 139 races, third on the all time list, and his teams won six championships. The most important accomplishment for Johnson was probably his efforts in bringing R.J. Reynolds to NASCAR. His selfless act of pushing the tobacco giant to NASCAR instead of keeping them to himself was largely responsible for the development of what we call the modern era of the sport.
Rick Hendrick: Hendrick became the prototypical owner for the modern NASCAR team. He was one of the first to rely heavily on engineering. His teams have won five championships and 141 races, second all time.
Carl Kiekhaefer: Carl was the first real powerhouse owner. His cars were legendary. He only ran cars for two years in the series, but his teams won both championships. Out of 97 races during the 1955 and 1956 seasons, Kiekhaefer’s cars won 52. A truly dominating performance by a car owner the sport had never seen before or since.
Smokey Yunick: The operator of the "Best Damn Garage in Town" was considered by most to be the greatest mechanic that ever lived. Smokey’s notoriety for pushing the gray area of the rules made Chad Knaus look like an altar boy. In one story, after a race at Daytona, Yunick’s car’s fuel cell was deemed illegal and confiscated. Smokey got into the car, started it, and drove it the four miles to his shop in town. The fuel line was so long and so large there was enough fuel in the line to allow him to get home.
Ralph Moody/John Holman: Holman and Moody were another early team that was dominant in the sport. The best of the best would line up in droves to drive Holman-Moody cars. Those drivers accounted for 96 wins, 285 top fives and 336 top tens.
Harold Brasington: Brasington is the man who built Darlington Raceway. Darlington was the first superspeedway, and probably the first true racing facility to host NASCAR races. Were it not for Brasington, who knows how long the sport would have stayed relegated to the dirt tracks of the local fairgrounds around the Southeast.
So there you have it. These are the people I feel should be in the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. As with any list, I am sure there are names that people will disagree with…but that is the fun of talking about a Hall of Fame. It brings the history of the sport back into the forefront of people’s consciousness. With four years to discuss and debate, I am sure there will be many other opinions voiced before the final decision is made. Let’s just hope that NASCAR comes to their senses and puts a process in place that will do the best possible job of compiling an honorable list, and not a self-centered advertisement campaign.
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