Earlier this week, the NASCAR Hall of Fame announced the five members of its ninth class, to be inducted in January 2018. The five inductees are Robert Yates, Red Byron, Ray Evernham, Ken Squier, and Ron Hornaday. The 2018 class is typical in that it reflects some consensus picks and maybe one or two surprises, while leaving out some individuals who fans think should have gotten the nod. Yet above everything else, the 2018 class represents the growing challenge that the Hall faces in representing all of NASCAR and the difficult choices that accompany that task.
When the NASCAR Hall of Fame opened and inducted its first class in 2010, its inaugural inductees figured to be the legends among legends of the sport. Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, for instance, were no-brainers for the first class as soon as the Hall came into existence. The pattern of having one or more “locks” for subsequent classes continued for several more years. David Pearson was a lock for the 2011 class, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip were locks for 2012, and Herb Thomas was a lock for 2013. The first few classes of the Hall honored NASCAR’s legends among legends, who, by and large, earned most of their accolades competing in NASCAR’s top division. The only real exception is Richie Evans, the nine-time Modified Series champion, who was inducted in 2012.
The premier series has mostly maintained its dominance of the NASCAR Hall of Fame classes. However, this year felt a little different. In the first place, who among the 20 nominees could have been considered a lock for 2018? Yates did wind up getting 94 percemt of the induction panel’s vote, but it is reasonable to suggest that his support was partially intended as a show of solidarity as the legendary engine builder and former team owner continues to battle liver cancer. Byron received 74 percent of the vote, and Evernham got barely over half.
In addition to a lack of clear-cut favorites, Squier and Hornaday represent a different kind of mindset toward the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Squier is the first person to be inducted strictly as a broadcaster. He also joins Bill France Sr., Bill France Jr. and Bruton Smith as Hall members whose contributions to NASCAR existed outside the realm of competition. Hornaday, meanwhile, enters the Hall on the strength of his record in the Camping World Truck Series. Previously, there were no members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame honored primarily as Truck Series drivers.
The 2018 class has once again sparked discussion about a seven-year-old debate. Should the NASCAR Hall of Fame be focused on premier series stars, or should it represent the legends across all levels of NASCAR? The answer seems simple at first.
To be a NASCAR Hall of Fame, it must reflect broad representation of individuals who were involved in NASCAR in all kinds of ways in all different divisions. However, this mindset comes with a challenge. Fans must weigh the accomplishments of one nominee against another, particularly when their bodies of work make them representatives of different series.
For instance, how do Hornaday’s four Truck Series titles and 51 wins compare to fellow nominee Bobby Labonte, who has 21 wins and one championship at NASCAR’s highest level? Is it fair to consider Hornaday’s brief premier series career or Labonte’s few Truck Series starts when making this comparison? What about Mike Stefanik, who has nine NASCAR championships, including seven in the Modified Series with 74 victories? How does one Cup Series title compare to four in the Truck Series or seven in the Modified Series? Then there are individuals like Larry Phillips and Red Farmer, who won hundreds or probably thousands of races across their short track careers. Picking NASCAR Hall of Fame nominees across time is hard enough, but the series challenge raises the task to a whole new level.
Generally speaking, the multi-series approach to the Hall of Fame will reduce the number of locks for future classes. Legends of the premier series will still come up for nomination every now and then, including Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart within the next few years. Yet as NASCAR’s lower divisions get more attention, there will be less obvious picks for the next class and more philosophical discussions about what constitutes a level of excellence that makes an individual Hall of Fame worthy.
For Cup Series drivers, the unofficial threshold has been around 20 wins or one championship. Drivers representing the second-tier division, the Truck Series, and Modified Series are all part of the Hall, but the criteria for their peers is not so well-defined. Thus far, there is a precedent for long careers and multiple championships as being hall-worthy, but it remains to be seen if the single-championship provision gets extended to those divisions.
Car owners, crew chiefs, and mechanics are also part of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, but only those who have ties to NASCAR’s top division. Additionally, Squier’s induction has opened the door for broadcasters and media members without a competition background to be in the Hall.
The end result is that what makes an individual worthy of being in the NASCAR Hall of Fame has become less-well defined in the Hall’s short history. However, it remains important for the Hall to honor excellence across a broad spectrum of achievements within the NASCAR world. Making cross-series judgments and comparisons may provide fans with few concrete answers about what constitutes a Hall of Fame nominee. Yet these discussions are vital to honoring the legends who made NASCAR what it is today, and they give us the opportunity to learn about the wonderful history of our sport, in all its facets.