Petty: Dale Inman Invented The Position Now Called NASCAR Crew Chief
Richard Petty’s Cousin Had Uncanny Ability To Communicate With ‘The King’
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 12, 2012) – Within the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage, among crew chiefs and mechanics, the most popular addition to the NASCAR Hall of Fame is one of their own – Dale Inman.
Inman, according to his first cousin Richard Petty, invented the position we now call the crew chief.
“Dale was a racing benchmark,” said Petty. “He was the sport's first official crew chief and people modeled themselves after him. He knew what, when and where -- and when he made a mistake he wasn't afraid to admit it. Everyone respected him for that. Nobody even comes close to the number of wins that Dale has recorded."
He’ll be inducted Jan. 20 as a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s third class that includes Richie Evans, Darrell Waltrip, Glen Wood and Cale Yarborough.
Inman’s numbers between 1958 and 1992 indeed support “The King’s” belief: eight NASCAR Sprint Cup championships, 193 victories and 129 poles.
The 75-year-old Inman won seven titles with Petty and another with Terry Labonte.
Inman began working in the Petty Enterprises Level Cross, N.C. shop for Lee Petty when he was too young to go to the track and be the team’s chief mechanic.
Inman’s stand-out year was 1967. That season, Inman and Petty won a NASCAR-record, 27 races – 10 of them consecutively. All 27 victories were in the same car they built a year earlier.
“Maurice was in the engine room and we had six employees,” said Inman, when asked if he and the team were aware of what they were accomplishing. “We were so busy we didn’t have time to think about what we were doing.”
In the current era, a crew chief can puzzle over a dozen or more cars before selecting which one to take to a specific race. That was hardly the case for Inman.
Richard Petty frequently had only two or three cars for Inman to supervise, perhaps an even more difficult task considering a 50-race schedule that featured multiple dates during a given week on both dirt and asphalt surfaces.
“Somebody asked me if I was nervous,” Inman said, discussing his feelings before the NASCAR Hall of Fame announcement was made. “And I said, ‘not as much as I was in some of those races.’”
While Inman was The King’s cousin, it seemed as if the pair could be twin brothers. The two worked in the shop on Lee Petty’s race cars but also had played football together at Randleman High School. Inman was the team’s halfback; Petty was a guard on the offensive line.
“It was scary sometimes how we came up with the same answers,” Inman said.
Inman didn’t set out to be a crew chief; it just came with the evolution of the sport. “There had to be a leadership role,” he said. “I picked that up.”
Unlike his cousin, Inman never had a desire to drive race cars. “I just didn’t see me tearing up somebody else’s equipment,” he said. “I always was pretty well content to work on the race cars and make them better.”
He also was a gifted teacher. Many of the sport’s top crew chiefs matriculated at what became Dale Inman University, among them Mike Beam, Barry Dodson, Jake Elder, Tony Glover, Steve Hmiel, Robbie Loomis, Todd Parrott, Robin Pemberton and Wade Thronburg.
“The things that you learned were not always about being or trying to be the best race car mechanic or your win-loss record; they were also about how you represented your team on and off the track,” said Pemberton, a winning crew chief for Mark Martin, Kyle Petty and Rusty Wallace and now NASCAR’s Vice President, Competition and Racing Development, recalled of his time working under Inman. “Dale was very good at a lot of things but I really think he was one of the best race strategist I have ever seen week in and week out. The vast majority of the time Dale made the right call to get the most out of the day.”
Inman didn’t disagree but put it this way: “I kept up with who we we had to beat and what their weaknesses were,” he said. “We also surrounded ourselves with good people.”
Inman left the team shortly after Petty’s 1981 Daytona 500 victory. The decision to move on was incredibly emotional – for both Inman and Petty.
“After I told him I was leaving the team in '81, he looked at me like he was going to cry,” Inman said in a feature published later in “Stock Car Illustrated.” “'Dale,' he said, 'when I go off down into one of those turns at 170 mph, who am I going to depend on so I know that all the bolts are tight?' I went home and cried.”
Inman later worked for Rod Osterlund, J.D. Stacy and Billy Hagan – the latter owner of Labonte’s championship-winning team – before returning to Petty Enterprises to manage the organization’s business affairs in 1986. He helped mold the careers of John Andretti and Bobby Hamilton, both race winners.
Inman retired from NASCAR in 1998 but remained close to the sport. He helped Kyle Petty complete the Victory Junction camp. When the NASCAR Hall of Fame was opened, Inman brought in its first artifact, the restored Plymouth Belvedere in which Petty set the records in 1967.
In 2006 a national motorsports’ journalism organization proclaimed Inman NASCAR’s second greatest crew chief. Always humble, Inman responded, “I’m not sure I should even be ranked.” He called Leonard Wood of the Wood Brothers – fellow NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Glen Wood’s brother – the best crew chief he’d ever seen.