Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: In It for the Long Hall

Last week NASCAR announced the 25 folks eligible for induction into this year’s Hall of Fame class. Five of those people will be enshrined next January. There were some notable names not on the list and there were some surprise inclusions as well.

As always, my email box was flooded with requests for my picks and people wanting to discuss the relative worthiness of various individuals. Many people felt someone obvious had been overlooked and some of them sensed conspiracies afoot.

Unfortunately a lot of fans simply don’t understand the criteria the nominating committee works with.

For drivers, a nominee must have been competing in NASCAR for at least 10 years and he or she must have been retired for at least five years to be considered. For other participants in the sport, there is the same 10-year requirement but there’s no rule that they must be retired.

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That’s why Rick Hendrick and Richard Childress were included. (And I am certain one year soon Jack Roush will be included. So all you Ford zealots, no I don’t think Roush was excluded because he campaigns Fords. Ford’s money is just as green as GM’s and NASCAR is addicted to the stuff.)

I will say that I felt it set a poor precedent to have two team owners still actively campaigning in the sport. This is supposed to be the Hall of Fame, not a popularity contest. I’m sure if you ask them, both Hendrick and Childress would tell you that their teams’ best days are still ahead of them. Both men are worthy of inclusion in the Hall one day, but let their stories play out and reach a conclusion before honoring them for a lifetime of achievement.

In answer to another question I get asked frequently, yes, Jimmie Johnson did win five Cup titles (and Jeff Gordon won four). But as noted above, a driver must be retired for five years before being considered. Both Johnson and Gordon are shoo-ins for the Hall one day (presuming the Hall remains open) and I’m certain both will be inducted the first year they are eligible.

I’m also quite certain one day Bill Elliott will join the NASCAR Hall of Fame. But though he competes infrequently, Elliott is still listed as an active NASCAR driver. I know a lot of you still choose Bill as your favorite driver, but no he’s not being overlooked.

It’s the same deal with Terry Labonte, another future Hall of Famer. One correspondent was enraged that Rusty Wallace was nominated, though he won only one title while Labonte wasn’t included on the list. Until Labonte officially retires, he can’t yet be nominated.

Wallace being included as a potential nominee also brings up another issue: Wallace isn’t that old. If he were to choose to return to the Cup Series even on a limited-schedule basis, would the Hall have to eject him? What a sorry mess that would be.

Two other names folks who wrote me frequently bought up include 1992 Winston Cup champion Alan Kulwicki and his contemporary Davey Allison. Yes, both men were tremendous racecar drivers and individuals, and tragically we lost both of those heroes way too young.

Allison was a huge favorite of many fans and the heir to the Allison racing legacy. Kulwicki’s story is almost too Hollywood for Hollywood, the college-educated engineer from Wisconsin who packed up his things and moved South to do battle with the sport’s big names on his own terms.

Improbably, Kulwicki did things his way with his tiny team and won that Cup title, the last true owner driver to do so.

Both Kulwicki and Allison run afoul of the minimum 10 years racing requirement. (Well, if you fudge things a bit Allison did run one race in what is now the K&N West Series back in 1980.)

When I originally saw the minimum 10-year participation award I just figured it was NASCAR’s way of seeing to it Tim Richmond, who’d they prefer you all forget since he had the audacity to sue them, never got into the Hall of Fame. Researching this article, I stumbled across a bit of a surprise.

NASCAR did give itself a little wiggle room in regards to the 10-year removed rule. The nominating rules state that in extraordinary circumstances, a nominee might be included despite failing to meet that requirement. Well in the case of Allison, Kulwicki and Richmond, all three of them died while in the prime of their careers which I’d personally consider “extraordinary circumstances.”

EIEC (Except In Extraordinary Circumstances) has long been a basis of the NASCAR rulebook. Basically they state, “this is the rule” but we uphold our right to ignore it out of expedience since we’re the only ones that can decide what is “extraordinary” and what is not. There are no rules. We decide what the rules are. And even then there are no rules. Except the ones we decide on.

Happily in this case that means that one day Allison and Kulwicki will make the Hall of Fame. Hopefully Richmond will as well, but even as one of his most ardent and loyal fans I’m ready to admit it’s not Tim’s time quite yet.

I guess what bothers me the most about this year’s list of nominees is a lot of fans simply don’t know who they are. In my mind I divide NASCAR history into two eras, pre-television and post-television. (Though these days it amuses me to hear people divide the sport’s history into pre-Gordon and post-Gordon, with the majority of fans being of the post-Gordon era.)

Yes, Gordon has been racing in the Cup series for 20 years now, but there’s so much more to NASCAR’s rich history that preceded his era. There are so many colorful characters, so many competitors who full deserve the appellation “hero” and so many funny, tragic and bizarre stories too many of you have never heard about and only some of which can be told in polite company.

I’m not sure why so little is written about NASCAR’s history. Baseball fans know about players who died decades ago and can recount games played prior to World War II as if they happened last week. They’ll debate endlessly whether Babe Ruth could have hit a home run off of Sandy Koufax.

Football fans can rattle off the teams that played in every Super Bowl, the final score and the MVPs of the game. The NFL juggernaut may have outgrown the tiny town of Green Bay many years ago, but fans’ appreciation of and devotion to the sport’s history keeps the Packers on the field.

Yet most NASCAR fans haven’t even heard stories about the days when the Flock brothers raced the Thomas brothers for countless wins. They have no idea how dominant the Buicks were in the early 1980s, much less the Hudsons or Chrysler letter cars were in their era.

They don’t recall the tragic gut-wrenching 1964 season when four big name drivers were killed in barely over a year, which thankfully led to the advent of fuel cell and tire inner-liners. They probably don’t recall the Ford-Chrysler factory wars or the two boycott years, nor the PDA driver’s strike that eliminated most of the big-name drivers from competing at the first Talladega race.

The only major effort ever give a detailed history of NASCAR racing was Greg Fielden’s five-book series, Forty Years of Stock Car Racing, a superlative set of books I recommend to any true fan of the sport.

You can’t appreciate where stock car racing is now until you understand its humble roots.

So if I were on the voting panel which five individuals would I choose? To me four names are obvious; Herb Thomas, Buck Baker. Tim Flock and Joe Weatherly. These are the only multi-time retired champions in NASCAR’s top divisions yet to be inducted into the Hall.

Thomas won 48 races in just 228 starts in NASCAR’s top division, then known as Grand National racing. He won 12 races in both 1953 and 1954. Thomas was the series champion in both 1951 and 1953. He was runner-up in the championship chase three times; in 1952, 1954 and 1956. Unfortunately, Thomas’s story doesn’t have a happy ending; this is one of those ugly stories that you don’t hear too often.

In 1956 Thomas was well en route to a third title deep into the season. He’d started that season driving for the dominant team of the era owned by Carl Kiekhaefer. After a falling out, the driver and team owner split after a race at Spartanburg, S.C.

Kiekhaefer was determined to take that year’s title to exact revenge against Thomas. Believe it or not, Kiekhaefer was allowed to add an extra event to the schedule late in the season to give his driver Baker another shot at outrunning Thomas. During that race at Shelby, N.C., another of Keikhaefer’s drivers put Thomas hard into the fence to eliminate him from contention.

The wreck almost cost Thomas his life and did in fact effectively end his racing career.

Baker was bigger than life and twice as real. He won his two championships in 1956 and 1957. Obviously that ‘56 title was a bit tainted but when I attended his driving school, Baker swore to me that he didn’t know about the setup to hurt Thomas – a good friend of his. Baker said that if he had, he wouldn’t have allowed it – and I believe him.

From 1953 to 1959, Baker finished in the top five in Grand National points and he was runner-up in those standings in 1955 and 1958. Baker won 46 races in NASCAR’s top division, 14 of them in 1956 alone. How different were things back then? Baker would later admit he used to sneak beers into his car to enjoy during hot afternoon races.

After retiring, Baker eventually started his own stock car racing school that gave both aspiring drivers (Gordon was a graduate) and curious fans a chance to take laps at the wheel of a stock car.

Buck is also the father of Buddy Baker, a noted racer in his own right who went on to become one of the most entertaining NASCAR TV announcers ever in his day. And yes, I think Buddy should join his dad in the Hall one day, preferably while he’s still alive and kicking and able to reduce those in attendance to mirthful tears with some of his stories.

Weatherly was NASCAR’s crown prince – a hard-driving, hard-partying legend. He and good pal Curtis Turner staged some epic parties and if you missed one, well, as they said the next one would be starting in 15 minutes. Weatherly won his titles back to back in 1962 and 1963, and in that era few drivers chose to compete in every Grand National race. (It was impossible, with over 50 races on the schedule, some of them run on the same day.)

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Weatherly ran 52 of 53 races in 1962 and 53 of 55 races in 1963. In 1963 Weatherly’s primary ride was Bud Moore’s Mercury, but Moore was only running the major events. Hoping to defend his title, Weatherly drove for no less than nine teams that season to rack up the maximum amount of points.

Throughout his career, Weatherly amassed 25 Grand National wins, with the majority of them (nine each season) in 1961 and 1962. He also won 12 races in NASCAR’s old convertible division and was runner-up in series points in that division in 1957. Few people may remember any of those stats and even fewer of them will recall Weatherly was perhaps the most superstitious man ever to walk the face of the Earth.

In fact, Weatherly flat out-refused to run the 13th Southern 500 due to his triskaidekaphobia. In order to lure Weatherly into that race, Darlington track promoters officially billed the event as “The 12th Renewal of the Southern 500.”

Unfortunately Weatherly’s story doesn’t have a happy ending either. He was killed during the fifth race of the 1964 Grand National season at the road course in Riverside, Calif. Weatherly refused to use a shoulder belt, feeling that it would hinder his efforts to escape a burning car after a wreck. Thus, when he hit an embankment at Riverside, his head exited the car and hit the berm, killing him instantly.

My fourth nominee would be Tim Flock, one of the three famous racing Flock brothers. Flock won his titles in 1952 and 1955. He won a total of 39 Grand National races in just 187 starts, giving him the highest winning percentage of any driver of any era in NASCAR history.

I don’t know what baseball player had the highest ever batting average, but I’d bet he’s enshrined at Cooperstown. (Ed. Note – resident Detroit Tigers fan Vito Pugliese is proud to confirm that Ty Cobb holds the all-time batting average record at .366 lifetime.) In 1955 Flock won 18 races, more than any driver in a single season other than the King in 1967.

Unfortunately despite those two titles and all those race wins, Flock’s total career earnings totaled about $100,000. In a sad irony during the start up to NASCAR’s big 50th anniversary bash in 1998, Flock was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Without medical insurance, he was reduced to penury and had to sell off most of his cherished racing memorabilia, including his trophies, to pay his bills.

Throughout the ordeal Flock never lost his sense of notorious sense of humor. He recalled watching the 1997 NASCAR awards banquet when Gordon unexpectedly broke down crying while accepting that big championship check from Winston.

To quote Mr. Flock, “When I saw the amount of that check I was crying as well.”

To me those four men ought to definitely be included. After that the final choice gets more difficult. I am loathe to exclude anyone on the list but in the end you have to choose just one more of a worthy group.

After much consideration I’ll give my final nod to Fred Lorenzen.

“Fast Freddie” as he was known, never won a NASCAR title. The highest he ever finished was third in the points in 1963; newer fans need to be mindful that Lorenzen never ran the complete Grand National schedule. As a factory driver for Ford, he only ran the big events that gave Ford Motor Company some hope of getting some ink and glory in the newspapers.

In 1963, Lorenzen ran 29 races and won six of them (over 20%) and finished within the top five in 21 of those races (about 73%).

If those aren’t Hall of Fame numbers, I don’t know what would be.

I’m torn by not choosing Benny Parsons (1973 Cup champion and one of the great race broadcasters of all time with his folksy down to earth style) or T. Wayne Roberts, who along with Winston helped not only save this sport, but imprinted it on the national consciousness after the car makers withdrew from racing in the early 1970s. I’d choose those two men along with Kulwicki, Allison and Richmond as my new nominees for the class of 2013.

I realize not everyone is going to agree with my five choices for this year’s class. After all, the five drivers I’ve chosen all competed in the 1950s and early 1960s, decidedly before the advent of television embracing NASCAR. That might seem to be a problem to some but not in my mind. Isn’t that the purpose of any Hall of Fame?

In addition to entertaining guests, the Hall ought to edify and inform them about the part of the story they missed. It ought to shed some light on a sport that used to make young men dead before they were old, not young men rich before their time.

As always I present my opinions as just what they are … opinions. Please feel free to nominate or exclude your favorite or least favorite candidates in the comments section below.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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