Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s race? Amy Henderson will have you covered each week this season with the answers to six race-day questions, covering all five Ws and even the H… the Big Six. For this first edition, Amy looks back at NASCAR’s final weekend to hype up 2013 with a firsthand look at the sport’s Acceleration Weekend down in Charlotte.
Who… gets my shoutout of the weekend?
Without a doubt, the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2013 was a deserving group of men. The five inductees span the sport’s history from its beginning into a new millennium, and they represent all sides of the sport. Front and center was the second half of the Wood Brothers’ award-winning combination, Leonard – a legendary mechanic and car owner. Wood is credited with revolutionizing the pit stop and making pit strategy part of racing. As a car owner, he and his brother Glen, a 2012 Hall inductee, fielded race cars for more than 30 drivers, over 20 of whom went to Victory Lane in a Wood Brothers machine. Two of them (Cale Yarborough and David Pearson) are also Hall of Famers already.
On the driving side, Herb Thomas was the first two-time champion in NASCAR’s premier division (’51 & ’53). Thomas won 48 races during his seven-year career, and his 21.05 winning percentage still stands as the best ever. In those seven seasons, before a horrific injury during a wreck cut his career short, Thomas finished in the top two in points six times.
Then, you had the multi-talented Cotton Owens (nicknamed for his light hair color) who won more than 100 races in the Modified division, lending him the nickname “King of the Modifieds.” He also won nine times in what is now the Sprint Cup Series and is credited with an additional 38 victories as a car owner. Owens fielded cars for Hall of Famers Junior Johnson and Pearson, winning the 1966 title with the latter.
Buck Baker, fourth on my list was the first driver to win back-to-back Cup Series titles. Baker won races for a record eight different manufacturers and in four NASCAR divisions, including 46 in its top series. His legacy continued well into the Modern Era via a driving school, too. Baker’s Hall of Fame video was introduced by one of his graduates: four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who races in NASCAR’s Cup Series today.
Rusty Wallace represents the Modern Era of NASCAR in this year’s class. Wallace, the 1989 Cup Series champion, amassed 55 wins in his Cup career. The driver’s accomplishments include 25 victories on short tracks, along with at least one in all three of the road courses he raced on in the Cup Series. He has continued to contribute to the sport as a television analyst and car owner.
What… was the coolest part of the 2013 Preview?
You have to hand it to NASCAR on this one: the now-annual season Acceleration event, held on the Saturday after Hall of Fame inductions, is probably the best fan-accessible one of the year. For $20, racing enthusiasts could attend both the preview and the Hall of Fame while meeting some of their favorite drivers. Superstars from across the sport were in attendance: Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, Sprint Cup Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Nationwide and Truck Series champs Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and James Buescher were among the more than 75 drivers who signed autographs and participated in Q&A sessions with fans. Five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was notably absent after the blizzard in the Northeast forced him to reschedule flight plans. Johnson apologized on Twitter to his supporters:
I'm sorry to all of my fans at the #NASCARPreview. The weather is still an issue so I won't be able to attend.
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) February 9, 2013
Fans could also meet the 2013 Miss Sprint Cup lineup, NASCAR artist Sam Bass, and several radio and television personalities.
But the best part was watching the drivers and fans interact in a setting away from the stress and bustle of the racetrack. Most drivers took time to speak with fans, pose for photos, and share a story or two; most seemed to genuinely enjoy it. Fans brought items that included race car tires, sheetmetal, even a splitter for their heroes to sign.
As sponsor demands go up and their time for personal connections with others goes down, it’s definitely a positive anytime they can participate in a Q&A or autograph session. But to have them all in one place, each year with no pressure is simply fantastic. Any race fan planning a trip to Charlotte to see the Hall of Fame would be well-served to come to this event if a race weekend isn’t in the cards.
Where… will Hall of Fame voters set the bar?
This question is one that will have to be answered in the coming years as the choices become less obvious. In most sports, Hall of Fame voters usually have an unofficial bar that separates a shoo-in from someone who requires more consideration before getting the nod. In baseball, for example, 400 home runs for a hitter or 300 wins for a pitcher will almost always get a player in. So far, among the members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame who ran primarily in the Sprint Cup Series and were considered primarily as drivers, the lowest win total at that level is Baker’s 46. All eligible drivers above that number have been voted in, and it’s likely that other, active ones with more wins (Johnson, Gordon and Tony Stewart) will be when they become eligible after retirement.
The questions that will need to be answered in the next few years include that magic win number, but that will not and should not be the only consideration. How will championships be weighed? For example, will Mark Martin, with 40 wins but no titles be included? What about someone like Dale Jarrett, who has a title but fewer wins than Martin? Should anyone with a Cup title be voted in? How many wins is “enough” when combined with that championship? Without one?
Voters will have to walk a fine line between including all of those who are truly deserving and keeping membership among the very best the sport has ever seen. Surely the pioneers, whose contributions to the growth of the sport are as important as their race performance, will need to be considered differently than those whose performance is equal but who came into an already established and thriving level of stock car competition.
When… did the helmet toss get to be so cool?
While the drivers headlined NASCAR’s 2013 Preview in Charlotte, many of the tracks that play host to NASCAR’s national touring series were also represented. Tracks had displays at the event, many of which were interactive with activities for fans to try and win a variety of prizes. Many held raffles for race tickets, and some had games, like a Wheel-of-Fortune lookalike where fans could win various swag.
But leave it to Bristol Motor Speedway to capitalize on its rough-and-tumble reputation in what was perhaps the most creative game of the day in terms of the actual racing at that track. Everyone has seen the carnival games where someone has to launch a beanbag or a ball through a deceptively small hole to win a prize. But for Bristol, could there be a more appropriate version of this one than a helmet toss, paying homage to, among other incidents, Stewart’s display of anger toward Matt Kenseth last summer? Apparently not, because in order to win Bristol’s prizes, fans had to fire a miniature helmet smack through the driver’s side windshield of a cardboard racecar. Sometimes things are simply right, and this game was one of those times.
Why… will nobody in attendance at the Hall of Fame inductions never look at a ham sandwich the same way again?
Well, at least they won’t be able to think of one for a while without thinking of some advice that Richard Petty once gave Wallace. Wallace, whose Hall of Fame induction speech lasted more than 20 minutes and included a plethora of stories, included this gem about that piece of advice, which, as it happens, came just before a brutal practice crash for Wallace at Bristol.
“I was there and I grabbed a ham sandwich,” Wallace explains. “I made it up real quick and I wolfed that baby down and I took it and Richard Petty comes over to me and says, ‘hey, kid, what are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m having a sandwich.’ He said, ‘You can’t do that before you practice. Any smart racecar driver knows you can’t have a sandwich and jump right out on the racetrack and go practice. If you wreck, that thing could get clogged up in your esophagus and you could choke and die.’ I said, ah, whatever.
“I go out on the racetrack and I blow a right-front tire in practice. That baby hits the wall end over end, I’m tore all to pieces and I’m knocked out. I’m starting to come in and out of consciousness, and I look up, and I see this guy pulling the windshield out of my car, and I’m going, what the world, that’s Dale Earnhardt Sr. Earnhardt is up there on the hood ripping the windshield out going, don’t die, kid, keep talking to me, don’t die. And I’ve got this guy with his hand around my neck, and he’s pushing my neck back. I’m going, what is this. Well, what I didn’t know I was unconscious and not breathing, there’s Dr. Jerry Punch holding my neck up, and Dr. Jerry Punch that day in Bristol saved my life. I was dead, not breathing, and he got me going.
“We were driving over to the hospital, I go to the hospital and I get there and I’m in an ambulance going over there and Barry Dodson is there, Jimmy Makar is there, they’re talking to me, and I’m saying, ‘Hey, take that gurney off me, take that strap off me, it hurts so bad, and I heard Jimmy Makar car telling Barry, there’s no strap, man, his ribs must be broken all to heck. His ribs must be all tore up because it’s loose, it’s loose.
‘So they take me to the hospital, load me in there and they lean me up, they stand me up, and I just puked right over the nurse, and that doggone ham sandwich was jammed up in my esophagus, and I get to the racetrack the very next day, and Richard Petty says, ‘Kid, you don’t listen too good, do you?'”
You have to wonder if today’s drivers are getting such sage advice from veterans like Petty and Wallace. And if they listen any better than Rusty did.
How… about the 2013 Nationwide cars?
With the 2013 Sprint Cup cars taking center stage, the Nationwide Series cars haven’t gotten a lot of thought in the offseason. To be fair, there haven’t been many notable changes to the cars in that series, certainly nothing on the scale of the sixth-generation Cup designs. The departure of Dodge from NASCAR meant their display was smaller by one compared to a year ago.
Still, it was refreshing to see the Nationwide cars on campus at the NASCAR Preview on Saturday. The biggest change from 2012 is Chevrolet’s entry, which switches models to the Camaro after the Impala was phased out of the Cup Series to make way for the new SS. While Dodge and Ford had previously changed to the Challenger and Mustang in Nationwide Series competition, Chevrolet resisted, citing necessary changes to the car to make it race ready which would make it look too distant from the showroom version.
With the Chevrolet model change, Toyota is the only manufacturer not running a separate model in NASCAR’s second series. The manufacturer doesn’t produce a muscle car similar to the Mustang or Camaro, though.