Mike Neff · Tuesday May 24, 2011
The NASCAR Hall of Fame inducted its latest class and the members of the class have one thing in common, they were all racers. Lee Petty was the patriarch of the Petty family. David Pearson raced for anyone that had a car and asked him to, provided they’d let him have 50% of the purse. Ned Jarrett won two championships and then hung up his helmet to move into a career that included broadcasting, promoting and sponsor support. Bud Moore came back from war and dedicated himself to building race cars and racing for a career. Bobby Allison went through many highs and lows in racing and in the end being in the car was what his entire life revolved around. All of them were part of racing before it became big money, when it was all about racing.
Jarrett has told the story before and reiterated it during the media availability after the induction ceremony about his first experience in Grand National racing. Jarrett purchased his first Grand National car with a check that he wrote after the bank was closed on Friday. He packed the car onto the trailer with the tools and the truck he bartered for with the car, along with two crew members and headed to Myrtle Beach for a race that paid $950 to win. He won the race and then headed to Charlotte to run a race that also paid $950 to win on Sunday. He won that race too and covered the check that he wrote for that car. He scrounged together the other $100 and covered the check by the time the bank opened on Monday. As a two time national champion in what is now the Nationwide series he thought he’d have owners asking him to drive but he ended up having to write a check that he wouldn’t be able to cash unless he won the races.
Moore talked about his early forays into racing. He, Cotton Owens and Joe Eubanks raced around the area of Spartanburg before he went to the war and made some spare cash by beating people who’d bet him about how fast his car was. When he got back from the war Owens was working at a junk yard and a local racer showed up and asked Owens to put a body on his race car. Moore helped Owens hang the body in two days which amazed the racer, who then took it out and won the next race with it. After Moore found out people were winning money by racing he decided to get into it with Owens and that is how he started into the sport. Again, he was doing it because he enjoyed racing against other people and proving his cars were faster.
Allison got the racing bug when his father took him to a race as a young boy. He thought it was the coolest thing he’d ever seen and decided to build his own car. He ran at some tracks around southern Florida and then made a trip to Alabama and won some “real” money ($135 for finishing fifth in three races). After he made that kind of money in Alabama, he decided to move there and eventually got with the group of guys who would become nicknamed the Alabama gang. There were times when they didn’t know if they’d have the money to buy gas when it was only $.25 a gallon, but they had a dream of running against the biggest names in the sport at the time and that was all that mattered at the time.
When you look at modern NASCAR racing and the business it has become, Lee Petty is the first person who looked at racing as a business and made that work. There still wasn’t a lot of money in the sport at his time but he approached it by making the commitment to have what equipment he had better than anyone else’s by means of pure grit and determination. Petty’s manta was that you would get beat sometimes but it wasn’t going to be because the competition out worked the Petty organization. After his accident in Daytona Maurice and Richard picked up the business and continued on but they only had enough to make one car for a period of time and that is why Richard ended up being the driver and Maurice didn’t race anymore.
The underlying theme of the induction ceremony this year, as well as the theme from most of last year’s ceremony was that the people being inducted into the Hall of Fame had one singular purpose. They wanted to race and they wanted to beat whoever they were racing against. They made some money out of it, but they didn’t get rich, although Dale Earnhardt did make quite a bit of money in the latter stages of his career. They got on the race track and got behind the wheel of a race car because they loved the competition and they loved the challenge. For them the money they won racing was simply a means to get to race the next time. Racing put food on the table and tires on the car and every once in a while was enough to get a new engine. It wasn’t about getting a multi-million dollar house on the lake or having a personal plane to ferry them around from track to track. It was about beating other guys who were running cars that were similar around tracks that were challenging to drive. They spent as much time running dirt as they did running on asphalt and they relished winning over anything else.
Racing in the early years before NASCAR wasn’t pure. There were unscrupulous people who took advantage of drivers and fans. Because of those people Bill France established NASCAR to make sure that drivers would show up for races knowing they’d get paid for their efforts. It also ensured that everyone ran with the same rules package so they could run at different race tracks and bring the same vehicles week after week. The drivers who showed up at the tracks risked life and limb for the chance to win a trophy, kiss the trophy girl, and have enough money to pay for tires, fuel and some spare parts for the next race. It was competition in its purest form and it is why so many people fell in love with auto racing before it became a big business. It is the kind of racing that the fans would like to see again on Saturdays and Sundays now but can only be found at local short tracks around the country. Thankfully there are enough people left on the nomination list that we’ll continue to celebrate these early heroes of the sport for years to come with the Hall of Fame inductions.
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