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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: The Next 5 Hall of Famers

The hullabaloo surrounding the opening of the new NASCAR Hall of Fame has reached a crescendo, or at least the highest level of noise the marketing types in Charlotte and Daytona Beach have been able to achieve. Let’s just say that said opening is a few notches beneath the general public’s radar screen, and it’s unlikely Diane Sawyer will be broadcasting the Nightly News from the Hall unless maybe Carl Edwards agrees to put Brad Keselowski on his roof again.

With that said, the building is a pretty impressive edifice, and even if worries of technical difficulties continued through opening day, let’s try to give the folks in charge the benefit of the doubt and guess that one day they’ll get it all sorted out. Certainly, stock car racing’s rich and colorful history and the legendary and equally colorful (and nowadays equally rich) slate of competitors deserve the recognition.

I don’t want to get into how the Hall was financed, its financial challenges, or the rest. Local politics here in Hysterical Guthriesville and surrounding burgs are ugly and sordid enough without my wanting to know what’s going on in the Queen City. For those who must know, here in Guthriesville, Wawa and its planned store were run out of town on a rail under cover of darkness, so you still can’t get a decent cup of coffee without enduring the 30 Bypass, and several local politicos are still wondering if this means they have to return all those big bribe checks to Wawa. The local historical commission (the last three or four folks on earth you’d want to get cornered by at a cocktail party) is strutting about like roosters thanks to a key assist by the Army Corps of Engineers, and the world’s ugliest historical general store remains standing, despite remaining vacant and even if folks like me wouldn’t shed a tear or piss on the ashes if it burned down tonight. In brighter news, the vending machine outside the AM/PM store has featured a particularly lively batch of night crawlers for fishermen fond of the Culbertson Run River, which a lame man could leap over in most places.

But back to business. It’s hard to argue with three of the first five inductees into the Hall: Richard Petty (200 wins, seven titles and the face of the sport for two decades) Dale Earnhardt (the sport’s other seven-time titlist and the face that replaced Petty as the TV age bloomed) and Junior Johnson (not only a racer with 50 wins, but a multi-time championship car owner.) The Bills France? Yeah, you could make an argument there, but what’s done is done.

So who should the five drivers inducted into the Hall in 2011 be? In my mind (and it’s a dark and scary place) there are four drivers that should automatically make the cut.

There’s Cale Yarborough, until last year the only driver to win three consecutive titles. It would have been nice to see Cale and Junior inducted together, as that was the combination that produced those three championships, but again we have to look forward, not back. Yarborough himself wasn’t the largest of men in the sport back in the days before power steering and cool boxes. He’d emerge from his car, usually in victory lane, tomato-red in the face, down a few brews, then confuse the Hell out of Ken Squier and other Yankee broadcasters with a rapid fire torrent of Southernism incomprehensible to anyone born north of the Mason-Dixon line in that era.

Yarborough was the first driver to carry an in-car camera for the networks (it was the size of a largish microwave oven) to victory lane at Daytona. He was also one of the three protagonists in the post-race fistfight after the 1979 Daytona 500, and seemingly at the losing end of that altercation with the Allison boys. That fight is still credited by many, this writer included, with putting NASCAR racing on the map that historic day in February, and to this day that wreck and subsequent fight still gets re-aired time after time during each year’s Daytona 500 coverage. Yarborough won 83 of the 560 Cup level races he entered, finishing within the top five in 255 of those races while leading a mind-numbing 31,659 laps – including all 500 at Bristol in the spring of 1973. Perhaps most importantly, Yarborough left the circuit still in his prime, leaving us to wonder how many more races he could have won if he stuck around. My guess is the man could have won a lot more races if he chose to.

It’s hard for me to comprehend that any sane person would argue David Pearson shouldn’t be part of the Class of 2011. The three-time champion is second on NASCAR’s all-time list with 105 victories in Cup. He’d likely have won bunches more, but during the early ’70s Pearson and the Wood Brothers ran only select races, the big superspeedways that paid the big checks to win. In 1973, Pearson won 11 of the 18 races he entered; in 1976, he won 10 of 22 races he competed in. It seemed at the end of every race in that era, it came down to Pearson in his Mercury and Petty in his Mopar battling for the win, and in head-to-head competition Pearson actually outdid Petty (the tally reads 33-30 in races where they finished 1-2).

Tall, lanky, and usually soft-spoken, Pearson was the embodiment of cool, while he smoked his cigarettes under caution and calmly tossed them out the window coming to the green flag. Early in a lot of races, Pearson was all but invisible, leaving fans to wonder what was wrong with his car. More often than not, he was out on a Sunday ride, saving his equipment, staying out of wrecks, and waiting for the laps that decided who got the trophy and the big check. At the end of those races, he’d seemingly come out of nowhere and power his way to the lead with moves that were calculated when they could be and bold when they had to be. There just seemed to be no stopping that red and white Wood Brothers Mercury once Pearson put the spurs to it. If you were a fan of the Ford Motor Company in the late ’60s and ’70s, Pearson carried your flag and did you proud. In 574 starts, he averaged an 11th-place finish.

Some of you newer fans might never have even heard of Tim Flock, one of the three Flock brothers that once were superstars of the sport. Flock won two Cup titles (1952 and 1955). In 1955, he won 18 of the 39 races he ran in and finished within the top five in 32 of those events. He led 3,495 of the 6,208 laps he ran that year. Jimmie Johnson is never going to approach that sort of number, nor will his average career finish be 9.5. Flock was also one of the sport’s first superstars in an era where racing was dangerous to a level today’s fans could ever comprehend. You wouldn’t let your kid ride a bicycle wearing the sort of crash helmet Flock wore in competition. The dangers drivers faced in that era extended beyond the track, too. After a long run back South from the race at Rochester, N.Y. to compete in a race at Spartanburg that Fourth of July (such was commonplace in the era) Flock laid down in the grass to catch some sleep. (No, his motorcoach wasn’t being re-outfitted with a leather interior that weekend.) Some marketing type looking for a place to park threw it in reverse and parked his back wheel atop Flock’s head. The craziest part of all? Flock was back racing a little over a month later. He finished sixth in that year’s points standings.

I was shocked to take a phone call from Flock shortly before his death from cancer to thank me as one of several scribes encouraging fans to support the still living legend as he was forced not only to battle off the illness but sell off his lifetime accrual of trophies and other racing memorabilia to pay for his treatment. He was as charming and personable a man as I’ve over spoken to, still fully in charge of his faculties and generous to a fault in telling me stories from racing’s days of yore. Flock’s unparalleled racing success occurred before I was born, and long before TV was part of the NASCAR equation. I do recall as a young fan attending races in that era, I was eager to learn of the sport’s history, the part of the story I’d missed because of my age. The gnarled railbirds, almost to a man, kind enough to speak to an eager young kid told me there was no better or braver driver ever to turn a lap in a racecar than Flock. I look at those black and white photos in Greg Fielden’s pinnacle series of books on our sport’s history and hope that before I die, time travel becomes possible so I could be there just one time to watch Flock running the Daytona Beach road course in a great big old white Chrysler 300B. Until then, Tim’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame is just going to have to do.

On an emotional level, I can think of no candidate more worthy of inclusion in next year’s Hall class than Bobby Allison. Long before Alan Kulwicki was honored with the song “My Way” at his championship banquet, there was Allison doing it his way… often using the hardest road possible. Still, his level of success is unquestionable. Allison won 85 races. Some record books still show Allison with just 84 victories, tied with his once arch-nemesis Darrell Waltrip on the all-time winners list. Balderdash (and I’m self-editing here, there’s a far more colloquial term I’d like to use.) On August 6, 1971, Allison won at Winston-Salem. That night, he drove a Ford Mustang, not one of the Grand National mid-size cars. By the entry form, that Mustang was eligible to compete for the race win, not a separate win. Such was the case in several small-track events late that season, as NASCAR and track promoters struggled to fill fields in the wake of Ford and Chrysler’s withdrawal of factory support of our sport. Allison got the trophy that night, beating no less a driver than Petty in a Charger to earn the win. (For the record, the rivalry between Petty and Allison for several seasons can be compared to the recent dustups between Jeff Gordon and Johnson, sort of like a nuclear war and a short quiet fart in a broom closet.)

Somehow, historical revisionists have eliminated that win from Allison’s total, leaving him tied with Waltrip. But oddly enough, Allison’s second-place finish at Ona two days later to Petty is officially recognized as one of his 336 top-five finishes in 718 career Cup starts. (And his total of 446 top 10s… Jimmie who?) To paraphrase Moe Howard, it’s time for Waltrip and his self-aggrandizing self to help set the record straight and acknowledge that Allison won one more Cup race than DW did. If you’re going to have a Hall of Fame, you need to get your stats straight. In fact, if that old Mustang still exists it ought to be put in the entrance of the Hall to help right a 40-year wrong.

Allison might have set that record straight himself if it weren’t for a near-fatal wreck at Pocono four months and four days after his memorable and emotional win over his son Davey in the 1988 Daytona 500, still one of the best races in NASCAR history. Brain injuries suffered in that crash ended his driving career, and he never fully recovered from them despite returning as a car owner shortly thereafter. Cruelly, the same sport that cost him his health cost Allison both his sons; Clifford in a Busch Series practice wreck at Michigan in 1992, and Davey in a helicopter wreck at Talladega the next year.

Bobby Allison has paid his way into the Hall in with his own blood and that of his two sons. I watched him race back in the day, and there was nobody more determined nor any driver who did more with less when he couldn’t find a competitive ride. If Allison isn’t in this year’s class, I might just pay a crack-head half of my annual salary to burn the joint down. And if DW is inducted prior to Bobby, I might up that offer to two years’ salary.

My fifth pick is a split decision. Obviously, I don’t think much of Waltrip as a broadcaster, but as a racecar driver he was one of the best ever, at least until the waning years of his career when the struggles tarnished his own legend. It’s hard to argue with three championships and 84 race wins. At places like Bristol and Martinsville in his day, Waltrip was all but unbeatable. NASCAR in that era was enjoying its growing TV exposure, and Waltrip was a master in front of the TV cameras, one of the more erudite drivers of the day. Long before Kyle Busch was born, Waltrip wasn’t afraid to wear the black hat of the bad guy, taking on the sport’s monarchy of Petty, Pearson, Allison and Yarborough. Other newer drivers would exclaim, gosh and golly they were just thrilled to be out there racing those fellows. DW confidently predicted he wasn’t going to race, he was going to beat them because he was a superior driver.

Waltrip’s ongoing feuds with Allison and Yarborough were the stuff of legends and a race promoter’s dream. He crossed swords with Earnhardt more than once, too, as the next generation of drivers came into the sport – although the unlikely duo would eventually become close friends. For him, there was never a dull moment; Waltrip once famously challenged the entire crowd that was booing him after a win at Charlotte to meet him at a K-Mart parking lot to settle matters. (Cooler heads prevailed, and DW was whisked out of the speedway under heavy police protection.) In later years, Waltrip mellowed and fans started warming to him. That was about the same time he stopped winning. Go figure. Between 1984 and 2000, Waltrip was the only driver other than Bill Elliott to win the Most Popular Driver award (Waltrip won in 1989 and 1990.) Think what you want of DW as a broadcaster (which incidentally rhymes with “disaster”) but the man could wheel a stock car like few others. I might have been booing him from the cheap seats in the grandstands, pulling for the No. 9 Coors car but I was amazed at what Waltrip could do at the wheel of a battered car late in a race.

The lone alternative for the class of 2011 would be Lee Petty, patriarch of the Petty clan and founder of Lee Petty Engineering, which would evolve into the famous Petty Racing team. Petty was there for the very first NASCAR race held that June afternoon in 1949, though the event didn’t turn out so well. Purportedly driving a Buick borrowed from a neighbor, Petty ended up on his roof and officially listed as the first NASCAR driver out of a race due to a crash; and then, legend has it the Petty clan had to hitchhike home because they’d arrived at the event driving the Buick. Petty went on to drive in six of that year’s eight Strictly Stock events, and won one race in Pittsburg, of all places. He finished second to the late Red Byron in that year’s points championship.

He’d go on to win 54 races and three titles, and should have been awarded a fourth. In that era, NASCAR was still trying to corral the top-name drivers into the fold and wanted to prevent them from running in rival series, which were myriad in the day. NASCAR’s Cup schedule in 1950 took a three-week hiatus in July, probably to spare fans the sweltering Southern heat. Petty reckoned he had a perfectly good racecar, and there were events run outside of NASCAR that paid good money, so he raced in them. As a result, an angry Bill France stripped Petty of the 809 points he’d earned to that point in the season. Petty would go on to compete in 17 of that season’s 19 Cup races, but would finish third in the points behind Bill Rexford and Fireball Roberts – 369 points away from a championship.

There’s no sugarcoating history. Lee Petty was a man as hard as the soil of North Carolina that borne him. In an era where most Cup racers were hobbyists, Petty was the first to decide that racing was a full-time career. He did so because he was damn good at racing and it paid better than farming. If it hadn’t, he’d have traded in his racecar on a tractor and been back to the farm. Notoriously tight with a buck, short-tempered and argumentative, he wasn’t an easy guy to race against or get along with. He was a product of his times, and to fellows in the grandstands Lee was their kind of guy. He won the Most Popular Driver award in 1952, ’53 and ’54. That’s plenty of fanfare for a guy who once drove two laps with his son Richard on the hood of his racecar because the King was too slow cleaning the windshield during a pit stop. Lee was ordering Richard to jump off the car, but Richard was holding on for dear life… literally. NASCAR eventually black-flagged Lee, who took a switch to Richard’s backside after the race for insubordination.

During Richard Petty’s first NASCAR hardtop race, his own dad wrecked him for failing to get out of the way fast enough when trying to lap his son. Yeah, Lee Petty was cuddly as a cactus, but he put butts in the grandstands back in an era where it was crucial to NASCAR’s very survival as a viable enterprise. The elder Petty could have done even more, but his racing career was effectively ended in the second qualifying race for the 1961 Daytona 500 when his car exited the track and landed in the parking lot. He’d go on to drive a handful more races before retiring and leaving the family business to his sons.