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4 Burning Questions: What’s Wrong With the NASCAR Hall of Fame?

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.

Notice a few problems with the members of this committee?:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

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About Michael Finley

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Michael has watched NASCAR for 15 years and began covering the sport five years ago. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and a proud member of the National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA).

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28 comments

  1. Avatar

    I live near Charlotte Motor Speedway. I went to the Hall of Fame once. The location makes no sense. If it were on Speedway Blvd. in Concord, with a parking lot capable of RV parking, very close to I-85, how much more business would it have? People heading South for the winter, and North for the summer, in an RV, could stop and see the Hall. As it is now, that group is shut out trying to park in Uptown Charlotte. Plus, on Race weeks, the amount of business it would get being within 2 miles of the speedway, would be far greater than being in Uptown Charlotte. But the big money won out, and I don’t think it has ever had a profitable year. Not trying to change the subject, but honestly, the location is a problem.

  2. Avatar

    Hey dude, and the rest of you in the “media:”

    You are not important. You do not make decisions about ANYTHING. You WRITE. That is all. You are not the story. You are not celebrities. In fact, we shouldn’t even know your names. You are no more qualified to give input on the Hall of Fame, or anything related to NASCAR really, than the average fan. Quit stroking each other off every chance you get and simply do your job.

    • Avatar

      You said it all Mom!!! There was a day when members of the media were content to write about celebrities. Now they are more concerned with BEING celebrities themselves. Today’s media does not grasp the fact that with each different era it takes a different resume to make it to HOF status. Back in the day when drivers were more hands-on it took more to just make it to the track on a regular basis. The tracks were rough, the cars were primitive, heck there was only the beginning of an interstate highway system to haul everything around the country. The same 40 drivers didn’t show up at every race ike they do now.

    • Avatar

      … My job at Frontstretch is to literally write a weekly column where I give my opinion on the week’s news.

      That’s like getting mad at a librarian for scanning the books you want to check out.

      • Avatar

        The librarian doesn’t decide which books are in the library though. Your analogy is stupid. You spent most of the column whining about how the media doesn’t have more input into hall selections. And they shouldn’t. Why you people think you are so important baffling, and that you are so much more knowledgeable about the sport than the former drivers, crew chiefs, officials, etc. is laughable. Articles and columns like this where you self-annointed idiots bloviate about your infinite wisdom is why people don’t respect the media anymore. Congratulations.

        • Avatar

          your mother,
          Don’t the other sports hall of fame selection processes rely heavily on the input from sport journalists? Gee why is that?
          Maybe it’s the idea that journalists are knowledgeable and far enough outside the sport to be relatively objective. Especially if there is a large enough number of them voting that those who may not be objective about certain players will be drowned out by those who are (relatively) objective. If you leave it to insiders politics creep into it and you end up with Smokey not being voted in. If you leave it to fans it becomes a popularity contest where Kerry Earnhardt gets voted in (no disrespect to Kerry).

          BTW, Michael, I think it’s really cool how you interact with the commenters. As long as everyone can keep the interaction civil it will be a good thing.

          • Avatar

            I get what ‘your mother’ is saying. I think it relates more to political reporting “fake news” than auto racing. Stick & Ball reporters are a lot different than today’s racing journalists. I am not impressed with the resumes of FRONSTRETCH contributors. Maybe Michael F watched 10 minutes of the 2004 Daytona 500 while channel surfing on a cold winter day and uses that as a starting date for NASCAR expertise. Writers like Chris Economacki and Robin Miller know HOF material, not these guys of today. Have a small nominating committee that has been working in NASCAR, any division, for over 35 years and limit the inductees from 5 to 2 or 3.
            I also like how you interact with us. It shows character.

          • Avatar

            Tom B, you make a good point about Stick & Ball reporters vs. NASCAR reporters. With a home team in every major city and somewhere between 32 teams x 16 games (NFL) and 30 teams x 162 games (MLB) there are a hell of a lot more seasoned media people covering those sports across the country than NASCAR has covering it. A deep pool of media folks is necessary to really make it work.

  3. Avatar

    If a single championship or a tragic death is the criteria then I can understand some of these enshrinements
    But there are better drivers than Allan Kulwicki, Davey Allison or Dale Jarrett or Mark Martin who I like but were not even the greatest drivers of their era. You don’t need to enshrine 5 guys a year either. Also don’t think the HOF needs to enshrine a silver spoon owner who’s money has done more harm to motorsports than good. JMO

    • Avatar

      When an untimely death or injury happens, most people’s natural response is to project forward what someone would have accomplished. Normally people project greater accomplishment to avoid seeming insensitive.
      Alan Kulwicki won 5 Cup races and had only one Top 10 points finish outside of his championship season, in an era where a Top 10 finish was built over a full season’s body of work. It is hard to objectively justify his induction.

    • Avatar

      I used to be of the same opinion as well. In fact I wouldn’t have voted for Kulwicki that year. But then I listened to the Dinner With Racer’s podcast series on Kulwicki, and in those eight hours of interviews it kind of dawned on me just how ridiculous of an accomplishment that championship was.

      Like that’s just not supposed to be possible. His budget was probably equivalent to RPM’s, but unlike RPM he also built his own chassis and engines. That’s not supposed to happen in any era; even if we go back to the days of Red Byron, you still had Raymond Parks dropping more money in that operation than any other team owner.

      Also, Kulwicki was one of the first degree-holding engineers involved with the sport, and over 25 years later just about every team in the garage has multiple engineers with the same qualifications as Kulwicki.

      • Avatar

        The team engineers don’t drive the car. If Alan thought of something that might work he drives the car and finds out if it does or not. If not he can figure out why. The team engineer says “This might work. Go try it.” If it doesn’t Johnson goes back and says “It doesn’t work. Why?” And the engineer says “It should have. Back to the drawing board.” Alan could do that at the track. Drivers now don’t know how.

  4. Avatar

    All they need to do is get away from that 5 per year deal. Get a panel that is somewhat independent of internal politics and let the process take place.

  5. Avatar

    Speaking for me and my peers who have grown up in the Carolinas with NA$CAR since the 60’s, the HOF is
    a joke! From it’s inception by the local Visitors Bureau and it’s laughable attendance projections, it has bled the the taxpayers. When the numbers were questioned, they were buried in numbers from other venues. Just try and get that information and other operating details. Sic ’em Frontstretch.

    The nomination process is like the senior high school superlative selection. Time to open it up to the real fans.
    The Smokey/France controversy defines the politics of the whole situation.

    • Avatar

      The NASCAR Hall is definitely a sore subject in the Charlotte area for all of the reasons you mentioned. Add to that, it would have made much more sense to have it near the Speedway but the Uptown Charlotte crowd won out as usual.

    • Avatar

      I didn’t mention this because Hall of Fames in general have a reputation as money losers; local governments take the loss as they feel they make the money back through tourism. But yes, they did over-estimate the business they were expecting to get in the initial years by a pretty awful margin. There’s also no real way to prove the Hall is still failing to meet revised standards by using data from almost a decade ago now.

  6. Avatar

    Can’t change the rules now, it’s too late. Why? Because it would create another Era with different rules. In other words it would create a saga similar to the Petty/Bush 200 wins. Some HOF members would go in under one set of rules and others would go in under another different set of rules. Change or don’t change the rules either way they are screwed!

    • Avatar

      Not really a problem in this case when everybody in the Hall currently is worthy of induction no matter how you slice it.

  7. Avatar

    Until the France family gets over their animosity toward Smokey Yunick, which was started by their father/grandfather Big Bill because Smokey had the audacity to stand up to “Big Bill”, and induct Smokey, the hall will forever be a joke!

    • Avatar

      Without Smokey the Hall is a joke and a hypocrisy! He was one of the TRUE legends of NASCAR but gets zero recognition from them. Shameful.

      • Avatar

        I’d like to go to the Hall of Fame someday, but I will never set foot in there until Smokey is there.

  8. Avatar

    The system is definitely flawed. I believe in the next few years the hotdogs at Martinsville will be inducted. The
    way they are burning thru names old and recently, very recently retired. Oh, maybe BIG HOSS TV too?

  9. Avatar

    Maybe you need to do a little more research or grow a fw more brains before you evaluate the careers of Panch, Paschal and Bonnett.

    Bonnett was hampered by injuries throughout most of his career. The number of 100-mile or shorter races won by Panch and Paschal was because that the vast majority of races were that length when they raced. You think they should have ridden around for a few hours after the checkered flag to meet you criteria? Panch was a Daytona 500 winner and won Charlotte’s 600. Paschal was the first to win the 600 twice and set a record for most laps led in that event until Truex bested it a couple of years ago.
    But what does anyone else know? After all, you’re a member of the National Motorsports Slap Yourselves on The Back and Vote Your Buddies an Award Association.

    • Avatar

      Preach on. People who came of age when Jooonoyer was awesome and Jeff was the greatest, but have done no research & have no concept of racing history have no credibility.

    • Avatar

      If Panch, Paschal, and Bonnett were all wiped from the history books, would NASCAR be radically different today? Are they really stronger candidates for the Hall than Carl Edwards, without factoring in anything Edwards did in the lower series because if we did you’d have even less of an argument? How about Smokey?

      Panch and Paschal were good drivers in their day, but neither were at Fireball Roberts’ tier when it came to winning or at the Curtis Turner level of legend on-and-off the racetrack. I’m sorry, but winning a 200 lap race in Montgomery Speedway against 13 other drivers does not help a driver’s Hall of Fame argument to me. And if we were to do that anyway, neither were on the same level of Bobby Isaac or Ned Jarrett when it came to short track dominance in the 60’s.

      This is the Hall of Fame. Not the Hall of What If. What if Bonnett didn’t get hurt? It doesn’t matter when it comes to the Hall because What Ifs have no part of the matter. If they did, Tim Richmond and Lee Roy Yarbrough would have been in second class. And Bonnett was a great commentator, by all accounts and having watched older races on tape/Youtube. But that was only for a few years and thus Bonnett didn’t have the longevity a Buddy Baker or Benny Parsons had in that role.

      If I had no concept of racing history, why would I be supportive of Red Vogt? If I were so dumb to base all of my arguments for the Hall on stats I found on Racing Reference, why would I say in-effect that Red Vogt has a stronger or just as strong case as Edwards? And it’s not because he named Bill France’s company.

      • Avatar

        Hall of What If? What if today’s writers could see far enough past their noses to realize that every era has its own set of challenges, circumstances, etc. Which means it takes something different to be a standout in each era. Granted, there are a few like Curtis Turner, David Pearson, and that type who would excel in any era. But some couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with a bass fiddle if they moved from one time period to another.