On Wednesday, the NASCAR Hall of Fame announced the 25 men and women who will be on the ballot for induction in January of 2013. 20 of those names were no surprise; they were all on the ballot last year but were not elected. The other five: Ray Fox, Anne France, Wendell Scott, Rusty Wallace, and Ralph Seagraves. Five of these nominees will be immortalized on a spire in the Hall of Honor next year, voted by a panel of insiders with a fan vote equaling one ballot as well. The challenge now is a double one: who gets in this time around and where do we go from here.
With 15 men already enshrined, the choice becomes more difficult as the years go by. The obvious choices, like the King, Richard Petty; Big Bill France and his son Bill Jr.; and the Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt are already safely inside. Though the nod has mostly been given to the sport’s pioneers, Earnhardt, Bobby Allison, and Darrell Waltrip bridge into the 1980’s and beyond, and it’s hard to argue their inclusion as three of the finest drivers to ever sit behind the wheel of a stock car.
This year marks a bit of a crossroads. In other sports, there seems to be an unofficial “magic number” that all but guarantees inclusion. In baseball, for example, 300 wins by a pitcher or 500 home runs by a hitter make that player a virtual lock. Because so far, the drivers who have been given the nod represent the very upper echelon of the sport, that number hasn’t yet been defined by the voters and likely won’t for a few years. And even then, like in any other sport, there will be exceptions. This is the first time voters will have to weigh exceptions for the NASCAR driver contingent.
This is also the time when both the nominating committee and the voting panel need to make some other decisions. Will media be included, with the likes of Chris Economacki and Ken Squier, who brought the sport to the masses in ways that at the time, hadn’t been done before and who made the sport grow considerably as a direct result. How about promoters? Like him or loathe him, Bruton Smith has revolutionized the fan experience at his racetracks. T. Wayne Robertson and Seagraves, both executives with the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, helped forge a decades-long partnership that rocketed NASCAR into the modern era and saw it grow into a massive enterprise in the 1990’s. Robertson and Seagraves are both on the ballot, Smith and any media members are not.
The way these questions are answered in the coming years will do a great deal in showing both longtime and casual fans what is most valued in the history of the sport. When the men and women who built the sport are no longer here to tell their stories, the Hall of Fame will be charged with telling them instead, and who is honored there will be the centerpiece of that story. Choosing carefully and making the right decisions each year is a huge task, beyond the here and now.
It will be increasingly important to showcase people whose roles in the sport weren’t necessarily on the racetrack but behind the scenes as well. Should there be a separate media wing like there is in Cooperstown, or should there be no distinction between those who pioneered the sport, whether it be from behind the wheel, behind a desk, or behind a pen? That question will need to be addressed soon, because those pioneers need to be entered at some point. There is a display that covers the history of the media, but it doesn’t chronicle the individuals whose coverage of the sport brought it to people whose consciousness it had never even entered and made it stick with them like the bad penny you can never shake. The sport owes them a debt of gratitude.
Robertson and Seagraves also have a very real place in this history. Their vision took a regional sport and took it national and even global. Without its partnership with R.J. Reynolds and its Winston brand, NASCAR would not have become a household name when it did, because there wasn’t the money, or the ability to promote that the corporation brought the sport at a critical time in its development among the major sports in America. And down the line, does this open the door for other executives, perhaps of longtime team sponsors or television networks in the future?
The inclusion (or exclusion) of men like Bruton Smith will not only set the tone for honoring those whose contributions were off the track, but also of whether or not someone who has, in many ways, been both a partner and an adversary to the France family over the years. Excluding the likes of Smith and Humpy Wheeler could send an unintended (or perhaps intended) message that only the France family or their minions will be included in the center of the sport’s history, and while the Frances have held the sport in the palm of their collective hand for decades, it’s important to remember that they weren’t the only ones who shaped the fan experience. It’s not a line in the sand that should ever be drawn in the Hall.
These are just a few of the questions that are on the table for the nominating and voting committees in the near future. Their answers will define not only how we view the history of the sport, but also the careers of the men and women who made it their life’s work.
Other questions revolve around driver inductees, and some will need to be addressed this year when the voting committee meets. How many wins will mean a shoo-in for a driver? How many championships will override a lower win count? What about wins or titles in other NASCAR series (though this was at least partially answered with the induction of Modified legend Richie Evans)? If a driver didn’t reach that milestone, or doesn’t have a championship title, how will he be evaluated? Will significant accomplishments outside the scope of the racetrack trump on-track records and numbers? Those are going to be asked about Fireball Roberts and Wendell Scott, among others. In the future the decisions made on these men will shape decisions made for drivers like Davey Allison and Tim Richmond. It’s not just about who’s voted in this year, it’s about the tone that’s set for future votes.
In the end, the men and women selected to represent the best of the best as inductees to the NASCAR Hall of Fame will also represent how race fans in the future will view the history of the sport. Should they see it as mainly driver-centric, or do they need to know about the other individuals whose work brought those drivers into their lives and onto their t-shirts and the sport into the collective imagination of millions? These are questions that must be answered soon, and the answers will have an indelible impact on how future generations know the sport and its history.
So, all that said, who are my five picks for the next elite group?
*T. Wayne Robertson* Before R.J. Reynolds came onto the scene, NASCAR was considered to be a regional sport. Sponsors were mainly local businesses. The sport needed revamping to make it as a major American sport, and the money had to come from somewhere. R.J. Reynolds provided the means to expand into new markets and that meant a new means of stardom for a generation of drivers. Winston’s branding moved the sport toward and into the 21st century as a mainstream sport.
*Rusty Wallace* This one’s all about the numbers. Wallace is the winningest eligible driver not already in the Hall, and he has more wins than some other inductees. While some will argue that Wallace only had one championship, Bobby Allison has already been inducted with just one, making Wallace the next logical choice for a driver.
*Leonard Wood* Brother Glen made it in last year, and it’s only logical that Leonard should follow given that the two were part of the singular entity of Wood Brothers, a team that has won races in each of the last six decades and fielded cars for no less than four Hall of Fame inductees. The Woods also revolutionized the pit stop, taking it from a noncompetitive process to the integral part of race strategy.
*Fireball Roberts* He’s one of those mentioned earlier where circumstances other than pure numbers enter the equation. Roberts amassed 33 wins in his 15-year career, but was killed in a fiery wreck at the age of 35, still in his prime. Nicknamed not for racing but for his blistering fastball as a baseball pitcher, Roberts is one of the sport’s early heroes, and his untimely death left much of his story untold. His induction into the Hall of Fame would finally finish it, nearly 50 years later.
*Jack Ingram* Ingram is one of the most influential drivers in the history of the NASCAR Nationwide Series, holding two titles from the current incarnation beginning in 1982 of that series in addition to three more in its predecessor, the Late Model Sportsman division. Only six other drivers have five or more NASCAR championships. 2012 saw the induction of the best Modified racer of all time, and now it’s time to include the best of the Nationwide Series from the days when it had its own identity.
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