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 No. 3 car who won seven titles – not his kid who is struggling to post top-10 finishes in the No. 88 car this season.)
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 Petty 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.
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 fanbase. 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.
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, Bill Elliott and Rusty Wallace began dominating while the proven heroes like Petty, Yarborough, 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, 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.
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 racecar on worn tires, Pearson was practically unequaled, with the only possible exception being 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 Yarborough, the first driver to win three consecutive championships – a record that lasted nearly 30 years until 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 to spend more time with his family. Cale was short of stature, but broad in shoulder. He’d emerge from a winning racecar 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 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, Yarborough, Curtis Turner and Waltrip to more calculating men like Terry Labonte and 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 racecar 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 Earnhardt could only snap, mutter, and curse on camera, Waltrip was a great interview off the track. On it, his rivalries with 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 racecar 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 racecar. 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 five 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, 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.