The NASCAR Hall of Fame announced its 2016 inductees this week in Charlotte, and the list was, perhaps, a touch different than others – one that included three Sprint Cup drivers, a modified driver, a track owner and promoter. Most were not particularly surprising. Bobby Isaac was the winningest champion not yet enshrined. Terry Labonte was the only driver with multiple championships who had yet to be honored. Jerry Cook has six titles and more than 300 wins in the modified division. Curtis Turner was a bit of an outlier; his personality certainly gained the interest of fans, but with just 17 wins and no titles, his inclusion will raise some interesting questions down the road when the discussion becomes about the worthiness of say, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has comparable numbers.
Speedway Motorsports Inc. Owner O. Bruton Smith was perhaps the biggest surprise, because while he has done more than almost anyone to make the experience at the track a good one, Smith, whose tracks include Atlanta, Las Vegas, Texas, Bristol, Charlotte, Sonoma, Kentucky and New Hampshire, is also a polarizing figure. While there’s no doubt he has gone above and beyond to make sure fans have the best possible experience at the track, he was also instrumental in North Wilkesboro Speedway and Rockingham Speedway being removed from the Cup schedule. Still, as far as track owners go, Smith has made attending a race quite a spectacle.
Overall, though, perhaps it’s time to change up the voting for the Hall. In the first couple of years, five new inductees were needed. The Hall was brand-new and needed to build its membership. Now, however, maybe the time is right to change to a system more like the one that the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame uses, where only those nominees who get a certain percentage of votes are enshrined. That could be five people or one, depending on the year.
One thing that has yet to be done among Hall voters is to set a standard for wins, championships and other criteria that serve as a threshold for determining worthiness. In other sports, there seems to be an unwritten cutoff: this many home runs, that many rushing yards, so many points. There are, and always will be exceptions, but for the most part the bar for those who are selected as athletes are held to the highest possible standard.
The NASCAR voting panels haven’t really done that, and that opens up some questions. What makes a driver Hall-worthy? How many wins? Should anyone with a Cup-level title be voted in? What about wins? Is a 30-win career good enough? 20 wins? A handful of wins and a title? It’s been all over the place. In addition, it’s hard to judge the sport’s pioneers against today’s drivers. Everything was so different then, but numbers are numbers. Turner’s numbers are similar to those of Earnhardt Jr.’s… does that make Junior a future lock?
As the years go on, will the Hall of Fame become the Hall of Mediocrity? Surely 40 wins or more in the driver’s chosen series is worthy. How about 30 and at least one title? OK, I can live with that; otherwise we’d run out of worthy drivers pretty fast. But 20 wins? A dozen and a championship?
It can be argued that some of the sport’s pioneers deserve a spot with perhaps lower numbers because of their contributions to the growth and popularity of the sport. There are certainly eligible folks who merit a spot, and it’s not that most of those who have already been voted in don’t deserve their own spots. But it is something that bears watching as the years go on; a Hall of Fame is meant for a sport’s most elite. Is NASCAR’s living up to that, or is the bar slipping?