Race Weekend Central

Professor of Speed: For NASCAR, It’s Hall About the Numbers

The NASCAR Hall of Fame’s “Class of 2012” was announced recently with great anticipation and fanfare – both totally expected and wholly appropriate given the magnitude of such an honor. In the weeks leading up to the announcement, much ink was spilled, many voices heard and many millions of bytes dedicated to the reasoning behind the selection process; as such, the questions are always the same: who deserves to be inducted, and when should said induction be bestowed?

Is it best to opt for “the pioneers” of NASCAR, many of whom – very sadly – are no longer with us, or do you opt for the more-readily-recognized names fans so often associate with the development of the sport? We are at a unique point in the history of NASCAR in that there are still a handful of people who fit both bills; a Hall of Fame member like 2010 inductee Junior Johnson spans the threshold between NASCAR’s historic development and its present-day mythology.

A NASCAR fan may have never seen Johnson drive, nor even know him from his days as a car owner, but they know his name by association and the folklore that will forever be associated with him.

A hall of fame, regardless of its focus, is in a tough spot. First of all, it has to be an institution dedicated to preserving, recording, and displaying the accomplishments of a very select population. A hall of fame must put the careers and achievements of its membership into a relevant context, one that fits a rationale for inducting the person in the first place.

Secondly, a hall of fame has to present itself as a form of popular entertainment. Just hanging plaques on a wall under track lighting isn’t good enough to cover the electric bill and keep those lights lit; a hall of fame must see itself as a destination capable of attracting paying customers, especially during difficult economic times when donors and sponsors are less likely to step up and hand over a big check.

I speak of such matters from extensive personal experience. As a college professor who’s been educated in cultural history, material culture and folklore, I understand the tenuous relationship between history and entertainment. As an academic who studies, writes about and teaches courses in popular culture, I understand the nature of audience and interest, and how fickle (demanding?) people can be when it comes to what they select as a popular diversion.

When free time is limited and money is tight, people often put their entertainment options into a competition for attention; simply put: is this hall of fame/museum/movie/amusement park worthy of my time and resources? From two decades of personal experience, I’ve watched this competition be waged with varying levels of success.

Allow me to make a disclaimer right here: I have been directly involved with the NASCAR Hall of Fame since prior to its completion. I did preliminary interviews for two positions there back in the days before the structure had even been built; I sat for an interview to be the Executive Director (the position now held by Winston Kelley) and I was interviewed for the position of Curator (the position now held by Buz McKim).

It was my background as a motorsports/NASCAR historian and my professional experience in popular culture/material culture/folklore that led to me doing these interviews and it became readily obvious that such administrative roles would be far from my comfort zone. Much braver men than I were selected to navigate the swirling waters of uptown Charlotte and the always-changing tides of tourism. That said….

I actively participate in the selection and voting process for the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, a nationally-recognized institution based out of Novi, Mich. My involvement dates back more than a decade, stemming from my doing lectures and book signings there during the late-1990s. This organization commemorates racers from numerous forms of motorsport, including drag racing, sports cars and motorcycles, as well as from open-wheel racing and stock cars.

The Motorsports Hall of Fame of America recognizes historic figures and more general, “at-large” participants, as well, so as to better acknowledge the broad swath that racing cuts across our nation. Criteria for induction into the MSHF is pretty specific, but that doesn’t mean our selections come any more quickly or easily. It’s pretty much the same kind of deal seen at the NASCAR Hall of Fame when their selection process heats up each year.

See also
Holding a Pretty Wheel: What Makes a NASCAR Hall of Famer, Anyway?

The inherent problem is that an accomplished racer can be thought of in a couple of ways. There’s the basic quantitative data – the statistics capable of being found, reviewed, compared, and put forth as “proof” for a racer’s possible inclusion in the hall. Then there’s more qualitative data – the stories, histories, and memories that offer evidence of greatness and relevance.

While numbers can be crunched and argued from a more objective perspective, it’s the anecdotal stuff that tends to open up a much more subjective can of worms. When “I show” changes into “I think”, there’s gonna be major debate and – quite often – hurt feelings. But is this not the price to pay when trying to immortalize someone based on the merits of their life’s accomplishments? It’s a tough question to answer.

The current roster of inductees in the NASCAR Hall of Fame offers up an example of what I mean. There’s no doubt that the incoming “Class of 2012” has generated some incredible numbers during their collective careers. When you think about the accomplishments of someone like Dale Inman (193 wins in Cup competition, eight NASCAR titles with two drivers), or the longevity of someone like Glen Wood (98 team victories over 61 years in competition), the statistics documented approach a level bordering on amazing.

Consider, too, the runaway-freight-train-of-statistics linked to the late Richie Evans (approximately 478 modified feature victories, 26 track titles and nine NASCAR Modified championships) and it’s easy to see how purely quantitative data (even if some of the numbers have been reduced to what might be called “guesstimates” in the case of Evans, who ran a ton of races on tracks that no longer exist) makes a substantial argument in favor of their induction.

Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough also generated impressive numbers during their careers. When you consider that Waltrip earned 59 poles, 84 wins, a win in the Daytona 500 (1989) and three NASCAR championships, his statistics put him safely in the Hall. Same for Yarborough, whose NASCAR career generated 69 poles, 83 wins, four Daytona 500 victories (1968, 1977, 1983 and 1984), and three consecutive Cup championships; such numbers guaranteed his place alongside the greats.

This is where, however, the more anecdotal/qualitative aspect of induction seems to enter the fray. Simply put: can a driver’s attitude, behavior, antics and relationships within NASCAR supersede his career statistical output?

Again, let’s consider the career achievements of Waltrip. For all the race numbers posted by DW, he also played a major role in the growth of NASCAR following the advent of network television coverage, mass-audience exposure for the sport that stemmed from the events of 1979 and the birth of a cable outlet like ESPN.

Whereas a driver like Richard Petty discovered the importance of working closely with fans – the benefits to be gained by staying late after races in order to accommodate autograph seekers, and the loyalty fostered through hosting an “open house” at your shop every year – Darrell Waltrip recognized the importance of working closely with the media.

A quick interview with “Jaws” usually led to a colorful sound bite for that evening’s sports report or a quotable quip that looked good in the morning paper. Waltrip recognized that NASCAR ran on money and that the fortunes of the then-Winston Cup Series rode on the crest of major media coverage. If “King Richard” was fan-savvy, “ol’ DW” was media-savvy, much to the benefit of everyone running in NASCAR.

See also
That's History Profile: Darrell Waltrip

Such attention to playing a more “culturally relevant” role within the sport became the hallmark of NASCAR as stock car racing developed a mainstream relationship with American society. When Yarborough gained public recognition for his ties to President Jimmy Carter during the mid-1970s and appeared as a guest on CBS’s The Dukes of Hazzard back in 1979 (and again in 1984), he showed that a successful NASCAR driver could transcend the on-track business that made them famous.

Demonstrating more cultural relevance allowed stock car racing to move beyond the retaining walls of southern speedways; it allowed NASCAR to locate a larger, more diverse, and fiercely loyal audience. That accomplishment, generated through the merits of Petty, Waltrip and Yarborough seemed to push the meaning of career achievement beyond the realm of mere statistics.

Discovering the importance of a competitor’s cultural relevance is essential since that cultural role is often easily translated into displays, exhibits, stories and other artifacts that will draw a paying audience. Race statistics look good on paper or on a big sign near a photograph of the competitor in question, but it’s the relevant output derived by the competitor’s effect on the culture-at-large that can add depth to a hall of fame’s content.

Allow me to share an example. During my days as a doctoral student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, I became involved with a community group in the small town of Wauseon, located about 30 miles west of Toledo. Wauseon was the hometown of Barney Oldfield, the legendary bicycle-racer-turned-racecar-driver whose talents behind the wheel helped Henry Ford become the force he became in the automobile industry.

Oldfield became recognized as the first professional racecar driver in America (meaning that he actually earned his living through racing competition), and his accomplishments transcended the realm of motorsports. By the time he died in 1946, Oldfield had been the first to cover “a mile-in-a-minute” in a car (in 1902), set a world land-speed record (131.7 mph along Daytona Beach in 1910) and world land speed record for farm tractors (in 1933), and develop a safety-oriented racecar designed to protect drivers through the use of an enclosed and reinforced cockpit (the “Golden Submarine” that Oldfield raced during the 1917 season).

In addition to all his competitive accomplishments, Oldfield also recognized the importance of corporate sponsorship. He became a national spokesman for Pepsi-Cola in 1902 (nearly a century before Jeff Gordon), the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, and the Standard Oil Company of New York (what became known as Socony/Mobil). Oldfield also appeared on Broadway in a musical (The Vanderbilt Cup), went on a national tour with that show, played himself in several motion pictures and wrote regular newspaper columns about maintaining and driving automobiles.

These essays ended up being compiled into a book about motoring, which allowed Oldfield to become a published author, along with his other copious accomplishments. Oldfield helped make motorsports a national phenomenon, so-much-so that his very name became synonymous with high-performance driving (being pulled over by a police officer for speeding often came with the question – “Who do you think you are? Barney Oldfield?”).

Oldfield’s legacy earned him induction into several halls of fame, including the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America (as an “at-large” inductee in the hall’s inaugural class back in 1989) and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega.

His inductions stemmed mainly from his role as an automobile racing personality – not so much as a statistical giant among his peers. Oldfield earned one AAA national driving title, could finish no better than fifth in both the 1914 and 1916 Indianapolis 500s (although he was the first to ever circle the speedway at better than 100 mph in 1916), and enjoyed numerous victories in many cars on many tracks, but never celebrated the kind of dominance connected to what we might consider a “hall of fame” career. Oldfield was culturally significant, but others during his era (like Tommy Milton and Ralph DePalma) were statistically better.

Such are the decisions selection committees face when charged with the task of commemorating the past in order to educate (and entertain) the present. All this needs to be done with an eye on the future, too, since the idea is for the hall of fame to remain active for decades and generations to come.

It’s essential to remember that any hall of fame – regardless of its subject – is intended for longevity; the institution will not (hopefully, if managed carefully) close its doors after 25 or 50 years. The intent is for the facility to be both active and operational for all time, as much as such a period might be calculated. Given that, the annual call for adding as many inductees as possible to insure these people can enjoy their time as a “hall of famer” is not only unrealistic, but also detrimental to the overall nature of such an institution.

Time is not such a great enemy. There have been candidates for induction in the MSHF whose names have appeared on ballots five or six times before they ever made it in. “Frontloading” a hall of fame diminishes the significance of being inducted, especially for those selected during those years of a “cattle call” admission. To be recognized during a year when only five inductees are named is meaningful; being one of 20 inductees selected simply to race the clock and fill the hall with names demeans the entire exercise.

The same is true if separate “wings” of the hall are introduced. The NASCAR Hall of Fame is just that: a hall of fame dedicated to those who’ve exhibited excellence during their NASCAR careers. Making everyone an equal part of the overall sport is more meaningful than subdividing inductees into separate, “specialty” areas of achievement. If such subdividing takes place, who receives top-billing? Does the attention get placed on drivers? How about car owners? Why might crew chiefs get second-tier status? Where do media people wind up?

By separating the inductees into distinct wings, the overall honor of being selected suddenly becomes a matter of implied importance and assumed ranking. Forcing a hall of fame to prioritize its membership forces visitors to acknowledge and accept such prioritization, and suddenly important accomplishments get shuffled off into quiet corners where they can easily be overlooked. The emphasis of a hall of fame (and the NASCAR Hall of Fame, in particular) needs to be on creating and maintaining an egalitarian institution where everyone inducted is a central part to the greater whole.

Not that creating and maintaining such an institution is simple. The powers-that-be need to consider the quantitative data related to possible inductees, while making sure to record any anecdotal material that builds a qualitative assessment of the potential member. As this process takes place, the hall of fame needs to think about its larger mission – what, precisely, is the intent for the institution and its long-term goals. Since many of those long-term goals involve staying relevant and remaining in operation, a doubly-essential task is for the hall of fame to think about its audience and what those paying customers want to see.

Unfortunately, what we want to see and what we need to learn are often two distinctly separate things. Such is the challenge facing the NASCAR Hall of Fame each year, and such will be the source of the annual (and natural, and expected) heated debate. It’s a good thing there are so many worthy individuals in NASCAR with accomplishments and stories suitable for induction; we’ll never be at a loss for future classes.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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