What is wrong with the Hall of Fame?
The NASCAR Hall of Fame has cracks beginning to form.
It’s not a broken institution just yet. None of the 50 inductees by this point have been unworthy of selection. It has been a decent mix of stat guys and inductees who bring more to the table, such as Alan Kulwicki or Wendell Scott. The architects who laid the ground work for this sport, such as Bill France and Bill France Jr., Raymond Parks and Bruton Smith, have been enshrined. Owners who have invested so much in this sport such as Rick Hendrick and Roger Penske have been rewarded with both success and a Hall of Fame ring. And then there are pioneers such as Red Byron and Curtis Turner, drivers who have become bigger in retrospect than their statistics would indicate.
But the cracks are there anyway. And if the Hall chooses to be reactive instead of proactive in this situation, I’m afraid we’ll reach the point where induction into the Hall means nothing. The building will be reduced to a tourist pit stop, something to walk through before getting a bite to eat at the Buffalo Wild Wings next door. And I don’t think anybody involved in the sport would like to see that happen.
How did these cracks form?
When the NASCAR Hall of Fame announced the 25 nominations for the inaugural 2010 class, it was a who’s-who of legends. Every single one of those nominees have since become inductees.
Since that initial five-driver class, the Hall has kept hard caps on both its nominees and its inductees, although the institution did eventually whittle the nominees down to 20. These caps were OK in the early years, as the Hall had over 60 years of NASCAR racing to get through before catching up to the modern game.
But now, the Hall is running out of slam-dunk Hall of Famers. Of the 20 nominees this year, 11 are obvious future Hall of Famers. But what are we going to do in 2022, when those 11 are gone and after Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are more-than-likely inducted? More borderline nominees such as Hershel McGriff and Marvin Panch are going to become locks eventually simply due to the diminishing field. Inducting five a year is going to hurt the long-term viability of the Hall and is such an obvious problem I’m shocked the Hall has shown no signs of changing it.
It would be different if there were more than five of those slam-dunk Hall of Famers retiring every year. But the reality of NASCAR is that it’s a significantly smaller universe than any other major sport. 40 drivers and 40 crew chiefs can start any given Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, with 18 team owners fielding cars. Even if you extend that to all of the lower series, there are still less participants in NASCAR per year than just one conference in the NFL or one league in MLB.
Wait, what about the nominating committee?
One of the most glaring-yet-underreported problems with the Hall has emerged as the nominating committee.
More nominating committee:
Track operators: Lesa France Kennedy; Marcus Smith; John Saunders; Ron Bennett; Clay Campbell; Ken Clapp; Ed Clark; Jody Deery; Tony George; Eddie Gossage; Denis McGlynn; Looie Mattioli; Dale Pinilis.
Media: Mike Joy.
— Jenna Fryer (@JennaFryer) March 13, 2019
Notice a few problems with the members of this committee?:
- There are few media members on the 21 person panel. If we were to count Winston Kelley and Tom Jensen as media members due to their background, that’s just one-seventh of the committee! That’s insane compared to every other Hall of Fame.
- There is a large number of NASCAR executives in the committee, along with Lesa France Kennedy, who definitely has a stake and influence on the private organization. No other sports Hall of Fame I could find has the major sanctioning body/league with so much power in who exactly gets nominated.
- There is a large number of track owners and operators on the list. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it exacerbates a major problem with the institution: everybody only cares about drivers, and famous ones at that.
It is a Hall of Fame, after all, but that doesn’t mean excellent lower series drivers such as Ray Hendrick or Bob Welborn should face such an uphill battle to get nominated.
This means that crew chiefs and owners also need to jump over significantly more hurdles than mid-tier Cup drivers. Kirk Shelmerdine was taken off the nominee list this year for no explained reason, even though his bonafides as Dale Earnhardt’s greatest crew chief should make him an easy pick. Legendary crew chiefs such as Jake Elder or car builders such as Banjo Matthews are forced to wait for whatever arbitrary amount of time when they should already be nominees.
And then there’s Smokey. Smokey Yunick, one of the greatest mechanics to ever tune a racecar in NASCAR, arguably the most influential author of the rulebook, the brains behind the Fabulous Hudson Hornet and a man so revolutionary he created a prototype SAFER barrier decades before soft walls became a thing, cannot be nominated. Is it because nobody on the nominating committee knows who he is? Or is it because almost half of the nominating committee either works for a France or is a France and knows exactly who he is?
Of the five new nominations this year, only two (Tony Stewart and Red Vogt) have a better argument for induction than Yunick. But because Yunick hated the France family and ragged on them in his book, suddenly he’s been given a shadow ban from the Hall. The only other organization with that degree of control over its HOF is the MLB, and even then the most notable person banned from Cooperstown (Pete Rose) has a legitimate reason for being barred.
This is why, after years of endorsing nominees for the Hall, I can no longer do so with a straight face. The lack of respect the nominating committee has for crew chiefs/mechanics and its refusal to put aside petty feuds to properly honor the legends of the sport has numbed me to the idea of even trying to put one together. How can anybody sit here and debate about who should go in when Yunick should have been in years ago?
But let’s talk some of these nominees. There’s Jim Paschal, who won nine races that were over 100 miles and never placed higher than fifth in points. Then there’s Marvin Panch, who won seven races that were over 100 miles. Neil Bonnett has credentials Panch and Paschal do not. But 18 wins and one top-five finish in points in the modern era is just not a stronger resume than Carl Edwards, who was not nominated this year for reasons. Edwards had two more top-five finishes in points than Bonnett had full-time seasons.
So, what should the Hall do?
There needs to be a major retooling on the nominating committee. The selection committee, although not strong, is the least of the Hall’s problems right now. The nominating committee is actively harming the Hall. It should consist entirely of (mostly) objective journalists.
The nominating cap needs to go. At this point the list of viable nominees are big enough to where you can get away with 40-50 nominees and satisfy everybody. There should not be a lot of gatekeeping when it comes to nominees; that’s what the induction process is for.
The inductee selection process is fine, but the criteria to make it into the Hall obviously needs to change. Eventually, the Hall will run out of potential inductees worthy of enshrinement if it continuea to put five in at a time.
Instead, the Hall could take some cues from the Baseball Hall of Fame, still the most legitimate of all the sports Halls of Fame. How about every member on the selection committee is allowed to put a maximum of 10 people on their ballot, with those who receive 60% of the vote getting the nod? And if nobody gets 60% of the vote, the one nominee with the highest percentage of the vote would be the lone inductee in that year. If a nominee gets 10% or less of the vote or has been on the ballot for 10 years and gets 15% of the vote, they’re gone.
Nominee qualifications should be changed so that we can properly determine a nominee’s legacy. If Danica Patrick were to go on the ballot in 2021, as she would now under the current system, she would not get that much support. Now, if we move the goalposts to 10 years after retirement (or 30 years in the sport for owners) and we have five or six women at the Cup level in 2028 crediting Patrick for inspiring them to take up racing, suddenly Patrick has a good argument for induction.
The Landmark Award is largely fine, although there should be a new rule that no nominees are taken off the ballot year to year. There’s no reason for Janet Guthrie’s exclusion this year after being nominated for it last year. The Squier-Hall Award should not be open to broadcast journalists thanks to Ken Squier’s induction into the Hall of Fame proper.
The Hall of Fame can still turn it around. After all, all 50 inductees have been deserving of enshrinement. The building simply needs to lay some more bricks of credibility on top of a solid foundation. If not, how credible is a sport if its Hall of Fame, what should be the ultimate goal of everybody involved in this industry, becomes a participation award for some and for others a near-impossible dream?