Ingram's Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
France Jr. A Year Early
After his victory in Charlotte on Saturday night, Jimmie Johnson appears to be on his way to a fourth straight Sprint Cup championship. But will he be able to get into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility when that day arrives?
This sort of calculation, as odd as it may seem, arises after the man almost universally hailed as stock car racing's best driver, one who posted the statistics to back it up, failed to make NASCAR's hall in his first year of eligibility. If not David Pearson, then whom?
Well, it is NASCAR's hall of fame, so why not have two owners and administrators in the first class of five? On the other hand, the hall was built by six decades of ticket sales and sponsor investment, both hastened by the appeal of drivers.
Having spoken with two media members of the voting committee, Racin'Today.com's Jim Pedley and Mike Harris, it's clear there was far-ranging debate on who should enter, how many and how the pioneer era might get short-changed. In the end, the people considered to have the most impact on the sport outweighed the accomplishments, however great they may have been, of others.
It does send a mixed message. When the doors open to the public, will the sport be seen through the eyes of ownership instead of a weather eye on what the hell really happened?
I witnessed firsthand how Bill France Jr. employed some remarkable wisdom over the years as NASCAR's chief administrator during his tenure and as much courage as any stock car driver. He was in many significant ways a peer of the other four inductees: his father and NASCAR founder William H.G. France, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Junior Johnson.
There were countless crucial decisions made by France Jr. during his long tenure. Nearly two decades ago, for example, shortly after Major League Baseball signed its first billion dollar TV contract I asked France Jr. why NASCAR couldn't do the same thing? "We like the way it works now," he said in a typically gruff response. He pointed out that the method at that time, when contracts were individually negotiated by track owners, brought in multiple networks and created needed competition when it came to broadcasting races.
Over the ensuing decade of the 1990's, this approach indeed built the expertise and commitment needed to telecast a complicated and under-appreciated sport, one where ratings could soar and dip dramatically, a sport still dependent on ticket sales and sponsors.
When the timing was right after a whole new generation of younger fans and more female followers were brought in by Jeff Gordon, along came a the multi-billion dollar contract negotiated by NASCAR at the start of the new millennium.
This example would be one of many, many key decisions made by France Jr. that required the ability to see around the corner, confidence in one's own counsel and careful timing. Shortly after a crewman was killed on the pit road in Atlanta, on the other hand, he acted quickly to slow pit road speeds, starting with a ban on stops under yellow before moving to the current system of a speed limit -- subsequently copied by every major sanctioning body in the world.
Just as his father Bill France Sr. had done before him, the second generation president put the NASCAR house in order internally before handing it over to his son Brian. France Jr. put Mike Helton in charge of the garage and created a board of directors that spread the responsibility for a large enterprise among key stake holders.
During this process, France Jr. endured the death of superstar and close friend Dale Earnhardt Sr. with a gutsy grace, artfully defusing the outcries of the media through a safety commission. But he had received the message. He tackled head on the issues of safety by launching an unprecedented commitment to engineering at the NASCAR Research and Development Center. That ultimately led to the Car of Tomorrow, which now provides solid racing and will continue to save lives and careers.
When doubts arose about the points system, France Jr. oversaw the transition to the Chase and a new corporate sponsor. All of these latter-day efforts were made while doggedly fighting a bout with cancer, which included radiation treatment. So it's understandable how colleagues and those within the NASCAR structure who hold votes would want to honor France Jr. within two years of his death.
This sort of proximity has always been the Achilles heel of any hall of fame, including those where the media hold all the votes. Players who stayed on to work as announcers, for instance, had a better chance of making it to baseball's hall in Cooperstown than those who went back to the family farm, despite glaring differences in accomplishments on the field.
The proximity between voters and the entrants can never be eliminated, especially in a sport like motor racing. But it's the better part of wisdom to insist that entrants must have been retired or deceased for at least five years.
If one could ask France Jr., I suspect he would have preferred to be voted into the second class out of a palpable and humble respect for his father, the founder of NASCAR and the architect of the Daytona International Speedway. From this perspective, adding a second member of the France family and excluding Pearson lacked the very vision, patience, hard-headed toughness and wisdom that France Jr. himself so often championed.
Quote of the Week: Richard Childress commenting on the difficulties of a son following a very successful father in the same profession, in this case Dale Earnhardt Jr.:
"I spoke to him earlier in the year. It's a tough situation. I don't know if you've ever heard the song that Hank Williams Jr. sings, it's tough living (in the shadow) of a very famous man. That's what Junior is doing and everybody's got their expectations so high. And when you don't fulfill those expectations, people think you're not there.
"But Junior can still drive a race car. He can compete. He can win. And he will win a championship some day; it's just a matter of going through a few of these peaks and valleys and I've spoke to him a couple of times trying to give him the encouragement to keep digging because we've been there (at Richard Childress Racing). We're almost there right now. We're seeing a little daylight."
F1's Number Ones: If money-laden Formula One had anything so classically American and commercial as a hall of fame, who would be the first five inductees? The picks here: Enzo Ferrari, Juan Manuel Fangio, Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna and Jimmy Clark. (Please note the absence of administrators, including one Bernard Charles Ecclestone. A stickler for procedural rules, Ecclestone loses on a technicality. He's still working.) ... Now that Brawn GP has clinched the manufacturers' and drivers' championship in its first season, does that improve the expectations for the start-up of USF1 for the 2010 season? So far, there are no cars in sight and there's been precious little equipment seen by inquiring minds who want to know at the team's headquarters near Charlotte.
Talladega Bound: Since the behemoth of Alabama has been cast as the potential spoiler for Jimmie Johnson's fourth straight championship, could we have a little chat? Forget about the white line at the Talladega Superspeedway. When the trailing driver puts his front quarter panel alongside the rear quarterpanel of the leader, it's a clean pass and a done deal. Regan Smith failed this test at Talladega a year ago and lost to Tony Stewart, who cleanly blocked him. Brad Keselowski passed this test and leader Carl Edwards, who wrecked himself trying a late block, to win at Talladega in the spring. ...The last non-Chase driver to win a race during the Chase? Greg Biffle at the Kansas Speedway on Sept. 30, 2007.
See ya! ... At the races.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.