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Full Throttle – The Hall of Fame should be above politics

The NASCAR Hall of Fame announced the list of the 25 nominees available for induction into the exclusive fraternity this past week. The previous 20 who were not inducted last year are still on the list and then five new names were included. Rusty Wallace and Wendell Scott are the two drivers whose names have been added to the list. Ray Fox is the only new crew chief / team owner. Finally, Ralph Seagraves from R.J. Reynolds and Anne France, wife of Bill France Sr., are the two administrators who’ve been added to the ballot. While all the nominees are certainly part of the foundation on which NASCAR has been built, there are some key blocks of the first level that have not even been nominated yet. The process of proposing icons for inclusion in the Hall of Fame should be about accomplishments, not about politics, and this year’s class at least smells of insider negotiation if not completely wreaks of nepotism.

Rusty Wallace should have already been on the list of nominees. He is the only Cup driver with 50 victories to his name, who is not currently racing in the series. He should be inducted in the next few years easily and it would be hard to argue against him if he were selected this year. Wendell Scott, however, is a little tougher to immediately wave the green flag to for membership in the Hall. There is no doubt that there should be a display solely dedicated to Scott and his struggles to overcome the rampant racism that existed in and around NASCAR when he was breaking the color barrier for the sport. The problem is that he only won one race and that also happened to be the lone event he led. In fact, it 495 starts, he had just 20 top-5 finishes (4%). While Scott’s effort and courage in the face of adversity is remarkable and an inspiration to NASCAR fans and non-NASCAR fans everywhere, his on-track accomplishments are simply not nearly as impressive. And after all, aren’t the on-track accomplishments more important?

Ralph Seagraves should eventually be included within the walls of the Hall because of the fact that he is the person who brought R.J. Reynolds to the table and that partnership ultimately put NASCAR on the national map. The only problem with Seagraves is that, like Red Byron, his notoriety within the sport is primarily a function of timing rather than career accomplishment. Byron’s NASCAR stint included the first championship in what is now the Sprint Cup Series. Were it not for that one line on his resume, he wouldn’t be anywhere near the list of nominees for the Hall of Fame at this point. While Seagraves happened to be the point person when Reynolds struck the deal with NASCAR, his role was more of a check writer than a promoter. He funneled a large amount of money into race tracks and the sport in general that helped move it to new heights, but T. Wayne Robertson was the real marketing genius at Reynolds. Seagraves was the man in the big chair at the right time, but what he did from an innovation standpoint was less than impressive.

The final two nominees are the ones that have truly shaken my belief that this process is less about putting the truly “Hall of Fame worthy” people in the fraternity and more about simply sucking up to the France family and scratching the back of long-time France cronies. Ray Fox was an engine builder and car owner whose cars won 14 races and 16 pole positions. When you’re talking about accomplishments that are truly extraordinary, those are hardly earth-shattering numbers. Fox is on the list simply because once he retired from being an owner and engine builder, he worked with the sanctioning body as a motor inspector for seven years. While Fox built engines and owned cars that won some of the biggest races in the sport, they didn’t win an inordinate number of them. Having Fox on this list screams of an old-boy-network, back slapping deal with an old friend of the Frances and nothing more.

But with that said, the most shocking name on the nominee list is Anne France. Big Bill’s wife certainly was instrumental in helping NASCAR along in the early years because she had a better handle on financial matters than her husband did. While Bill France, Sr. was a tremendous promoter, his knowledge on the accounting side was not as profound. That void is where Anne stepped in. She was NASCAR’s first secretary and treasurer and also filled those roles at Daytona International Speedway when the track opened.

In her later years she managed the speedway’s ticket office and was active in the business until she passed away in 1992. While she filled the position of “the great woman behind the great man,” she is really just another Red Byron or Ralph Seagraves. She just happened to be the one who was in the right place at the right time and ended up marrying the guy who built NASCAR. She was a really nice person and did support the sport and her husband early on, but to think she did anything extraordinary is laughable, and to have her on the nominee list at this point in time is a slap in the face of many of the people who truly did make a difference in the sport.

The list of people who have been snubbed on this latest list of nominees is long and several of them are very distinguished. Bruton Smith is as responsible for moving NASCAR from a regional to a national sport as anyone else in the business. His efforts to make the racing experience all about the fans and building tracks that focus on that experience is crucial to the advancement of the sport. The problem is Smith and NASCAR have clashed for years on many issues and the Frances have long had a contentious relationship with him. Having any list of the most influential people in the sport without Smith on it is like having a compilation of great Americans and leaving off Ben Franklin. He may not be the father of the country but he’s at least on the same branch of the family tree.

Another name who, at least from the outside looking in, appears to be on a black list from the NASCAR establishment is Smokey Yunick. Prior to the introduction of the new car design, no two people were responsible for more pages in the NASCAR rule book than Junior Johnson and Smokey Yunick. Yunick’s work in the gray area of the rule book is legendary and often ruffled the feathers of the officials of the sport. Can there be any other reason than his abrasive relationship with NASCAR that Yunick is not on this list but Ray Fox is? Yunick scored 57 victories in the sport and even notched an IndyCar win. He was twice voted the NASCAR Mechanic of the Year and also won two Cup series championships. He has at least 11 patents to his name and has been enshrined in at least 15 different Halls of Fame across the country. The only explanation for Yunick being bypassed for the NASCAR Hall of Fame is either the nominating committee doesn’t have a clue what he did in his career or the people who run NASCAR are black balling him.

There are many other people who should have their name on the list before some of the people who are on there now but the additions this year truly exemplify that the process is not about accomplishment but about who you know, knew, or screwed over in the past. Unfortunately for the fans of the sport, the Hall of Fame that was supposed to celebrate the people who are the best of the best in the history of NASCAR has been reduced to the best of the best who haven’t wronged the Frances in their lifetime.

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