The Frontstretch: Five Classy Competitors: One Last Look Back At 2013's NASCAR Hall of Famers by Mike Neff -- Monday February 11, 2013

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The NASCAR Hall of Fame is now 20 members strong with the induction of the Class of 2013. The five members all made significant contributions to the sport, albeit in different ways. A mechanic, a driver owner, and three drivers make up this year’s group of honorees, helping the Hall’s diverse membership evolve as we’re now four years into its existence.

Each of the inductees, as you would expect stands out in different ways. Leonard Wood never drove a race car, but his knowledge of making pit stops faster probably resulted in the passing of more cars than any driver ever did. Herb Thomas was the most successful wheelman in history in terms of winning races compared to how many he entered. Buck Baker not only had a great career, but shaped thousands of others with his driving school, created long after retirement. Rusty Wallace was the foil to Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and is responsible for keeping Roger Penske in the sport, a partnership which eventually helped create Brad Keselowski’s 2012 championship. Finally, Cotton Owens taught people that safety in NASCAR’s early years was more important than anyone at the time thought, building the perfect combination of vehicles that could win races and titles — including the first for David Pearson.

The stories and accomplishments of these men could fill volumes, as you might expect. We don’t have that much space here, but here is a brief synopsis of each…

Buck Baker is not too well known by most modern NASCAR fans. They probably recognize the name as Buddy Baker’s dad or the driver who started the driving school that bears his name. But in his time, Baker was one of the most dynamic personalities in the sport and the first to win consecutive championships. He won 46 races during his Cup career and, from 1953 through 1960 he didn’t finish lower than fifth in the final point standings.

Buck’s 46 series victories ranks him 15th on the all-time win list at this point in time, one of many reasons he was voted one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998. Baker not only won races in the Cup Series but also scored wins in the Modified and Grand American divisions as well. In 1952, Baker also scored the series championship in the NASCAR Open Wheel Speedway division. Then, after winding down from full-time driving in the 1960s, Baker founded the Buck Baker driving school and saw the likes of Jeff Gordon come through the ranks over his career. Not bad for a guy who once drove a school bus for a living to make ends meet before racing took center stage…

Cotton Owens may just be going into the Hall of Fame in 2013, but he’s been a part of two of the other induction classes before this one. Owens, Bud Moore and David Pearson all grew up in the Spartanburg, SC area, although Owens’ hometown is Union, SC. Owens not only won hundreds of Modified races but also scored victories in nine of 160 Cup events in which he competed. In addition to driving, Owens also owned and built race cars. In 1966, he spearheaded the team that won the Cup championship with David Pearson behind the wheel.

Beyond being a brilliant mechanical mind, Owens also labored arduously over the safety of his cars. He started in racing when that wasn’t nearly as much of a focus as it is today, during an era superstar drivers were routinely lost far too early in tragic on-track incidents. An injury early in his career cut his driving years short, but became a blessing in disguise — it influenced him to concentrate more on safety than most of the other car owners of his time. Owens’ grandson noted during the post-induction press conference his grandfather was always proud of the fact that no driver ever died in one of his race cars. That’s an impressive accomplishment for someone whose team competed that much, especially at a time when drivers lost their lives far more frequently than they do now.

Leonard Wood (left), pictured with former driver David Pearson in 2008 has had a legendary NASCAR career as a car owner that’s spanned seven different decades.

Leonard Wood is one of the founding fathers of the Wood Brothers race team. He is the second member of the historic family to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, following brother Glen, who was inducted as part of the 2012 Class. Wood is the third inductee into the Hall who is not a former driver, joining only the Frances as someone to earn that distinction. Wood, like his brother Glen, was a master mechanic who was known for his intuition and abundant knowledge of things mechanical and how to make them better. He was the driving force behind the Woods’ famous pit stop prowess.

Wood’s son Eddie spoke of his father’s ability to look at competitor’s cars and be able to learn things without actually measuring or touching them. The younger Wood told the story of how he would be dispatched to the garage area to gather pieces of tape that were removed from the exhaust ports of competitor’s race cars. His father would then be able to analyze them and tell what size headers and cam shaft the other team was running – an amazing feat. Wood’s realization that advantages could be gained from choreographed pit stops revolutionized the sport, earning them a NASCAR edge that ultimately led to their team being hired to pit Jim Clark in the 1965 Indianapolis 500. The first victory for a rear engine race car at the famed oval also gave the Woods extensive notoriety in the entire racing world, not just stock cars.

Interestingly, David Pearson, already in the Hall of Fame, was integral in two of this year’s Inductees roads to the Hall. Pearson drove Cotton Owens’ cars to 27 victories and the 1966 Cup title. He also was the winningest driver in the Wood Brothers’ famous No. 21, scoring 43 victories in 141 starts.

There are a few records in sports that will most certainly never be broken. In Cup racing, there are three of them. 200 wins by Richard Petty will never be touched because there aren’t enough races in a season anymore. Rookie of the Year by Dick Trickle at the age of 47 is next; in the modern world of Cup racing, there will never be a 47-year-old driver running their first full season in the Cup series. The third is Herb Thomas winning over 21% of his races that he started in the Cup Series with over 200 starts. Thomas was the first driver to win more than one championship at that level and, were it not for an injury late in the 1956 season, he would have been the first three-time winner.

Thomas has 48 wins in his 228 starts, which ranks him 13th on the all-time Cup Series list. Like Baker, Thomas was named one of the series’ 50 Greatest Drivers during the 1998 celebration of NASCAR’s 50th anniversary. Thomas ran seven full seasons in search of the championship and finished first or second in six of them. He finished in fifth in 1955, the only full season he did not end up in the top two. Thomas also won the big race of his era. In the early ’50s, the Southern 500 was what defined legends in Cup competition and, between 1951 and 1955 Thomas won the race three times.

Rusty Wallace spent 21 years competing at the top level of NASCAR racing. He amassed 55 wins and captured the 1989 series title, also accomplishing a double-digit win season (10) in 1993. Had he not been competing against Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon for the majority of his Cup career, he very well could have won more than one championship. Wallace is the last member of the 50-win club, who is not racing today, that is in the Hall of Fame.

Wallace parlayed his illustrious racing career into a successful announcing job. Once he hung up his helmet, he moved directly behind the mic for ESPN as their lead analyst. Initially, his role was commentating on open-wheel races until ESPN recaptured the rights to broadcast NASCAR. Wallace also owned a racing team for some time and has restarted it in 2013. It’s a multifaceted career in the sport for a man who has not only won the Cup title — he also captured the ASA National Championship in 1983 and was the USAC Rookie of the Year in 1979 before becoming NASCAR’s top freshman in 1984. Wallace was always known as a very hands-on driver, sometimes to the detriment of his relationship with his crew chiefs. He was extremely knowledgeable about the setup of his race cars and could provide invaluable feedback to his crews.

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