Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
The First Five, Perhaps!
Later this week, NASCAR will announce details about the process of choosing the inaugural five inductees into its Hall of Fame. The first inductees will remain an official mystery until the Hall opens in 2010, but there's not too much suspense involved, at least for the first four.
Opinions held by those on the annual NASCAR Media Tour begin to vary on who deserves to be the fifth inductee in the first class. Like Major League Baseball's Hall, fans will remember the first five participants honored by NASCAR for, well, a long time. So it's a big deal.
There will be a tribute to early veterans of stock car racing at the first induction ceremony as well. This will discount some potential members of the first class such as Raymond Parks, the original championship car owner and a pillar of support for NASCAR racing in its earliest days, or drivers like Herb Thomas and Tim Flock.
From a list of those retired for at least five years, here is one writer's opinion of the inevitable first four and a pick for fifth.
1. Bill France -- NASCAR founder William Henry Getty France was known as "Big Bill" for a reason. He was not the only man to envision stock car racing as a big-time sport. He not only had partners, but he had rivals. But "Big Bill" was the guy who made it happen through his success as a promoter and his willingness to commit to a bona fide national championship. Finally, France started the superspeedway era of the 1960's by building Daytona, a track where speeds could compete with those of the open-wheel cars at Indianapolis, followed by his track at Talladega.
2. Richard Petty -- "The King" is the Babe Ruth of stock car racing, of course. He's still going strong in his role as a team owner, as this week's official announcement of the merger with George Gillett's team indicates. The key criteria are championships -- seven in this case -- and victories, 200.
3. David Pearson -- If victories are the criteria, Pearson is an automatic first-year inductee. His 105 wins are second only to Petty and he remains the only other driver to break the century mark; that's not likely to change in the current era, although Jeff Gordon is a candidate to get there. Pearson is one of a handful of drivers who have won three or more championships as well.
4. Dale Earnhardt -- No driver other than Petty had a greater impact on the sport with his personal style, although the approach of "Ironhead" differed dramatically from "The King" on and off the track. The seven championships are the key criteria, a mark that is beginning to look like he will share only with Petty.
5. Junior Johnson -- The North Carolina bootlegger became the sport's greatest legend thanks to writer Tom Wolfe, although much of the story occurred somewhere other than the race track and was written at the conclusion of his driving career. Johnson's 50 victories stand tall in the ledger books. As a car owner, Johnson won three championships with Cale Yarborough and three with Darrell Waltrip.
Other picks for the fifth inductee:
A. Curtis Turner -- Easily the most controversial pick for the fifth spot in the inaugural class. The Virginian never won a championship. Heck, he only won 17 Grand National races. He failed to catch Johnson when the Feds decided to use one bootlegger to chase another. But Turner, who maintained a playboy lifestyle which cut down on his victory total, did have the similar impact on the sport as Petty and Earnhardt in terms of fan excitement as well as demonstrations of extraordinary skill on the track.
Turner helped build the Lowe's Motor Speedway and his partner in that enterprise, Bruton Smith, says Turner was the greatest driver in the sport's history. Turner was suspended from competition by Bill France for trying to engage The Teamsters in unionizing drivers and subsequently re-instated. Not only did the four-year suspension during the mid-1960's hurt his victory total. It likely means Turner won't make the list of every voter, which will include NASCAR officials, track owners and media members.
B. Cale Yarborough -- Until last year, Yarborough was the only driver to ever win three straight championships. The winner of 83 races, Yarborough was one of the four horsepower men. That group included Petty, Pearson and Bobby Allison, whose collective impact saved NASCAR from myriad political and economic problems in the 1970's by selling tickets.
C. Bobby Allison -- The "Alabama Gang" member regularly won the Most Popular Driver award five times during his career and is arguably third on the all-time victory list. (NASCAR did not credit him for a 1971 victory in Winston-Salem, N.C. despite announcing it would award Grand National points for the event.) As it stands, Allison is tied for third with Darrell Waltrip at 84 victories. Allison's lone championship falls short of some, but puts him ahead of Turner and Johnson.
D. Darrell Waltrip -- As an "impact player," few could rival Waltrip for his skill with the media and ability to carry a car on the track. His victory total of 84 in the modern era, i.e. a shorter schedule, is remarkable as well. And, he is among the handful of drivers to win three championships.
The voting process is expected to be officially announced by NASCAR later this week. It will include on-line fan participation. But the majority of the voting power will remain in the hands of NASCAR officials and track owners.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.