Race Weekend Central

NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2013 – The Hardest, Yet Easiest Choices Yet

On Wednesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, NC, the inductees for the 2013 Hall of Fame class were announced. Buck Baker, Cotton Owens, Rusty Wallace, Leonard Wood, and Herb Thomas were selected as this year’s selections, in what was a field filled with worthy candidates – a case could have been made for all who were nominated, yet few arguments against any of them.

Leonard Wood follows his brother Glen, who was part of the 2012 NASCAR Hall of Fame class. As part of the legendary Wood Brothers Racing Team from Stuart, Virginia, Wood helped set the standard for mechanical excellence, attention to detail, and perfecting pit stops to the point where they were hired to service Jim Clark’s Lotus at the 1965 Indianapolis 500 – ultimately winning the greatest race on the planet. Jack Roush once recalled a time when he was so excited to share with Leonard Wood a carburetor tuning trick he came up with that improved fuel distribution and improved economy. Upon showing Leonard, he was quiet for a few seconds – then admitted to Roush that he had figured out the same trick ten years earlier.

Cotton Owens won over 100 races in the NASCAR Modified Tour in the 1950s before making the step up to full-fendered machines. He won nine races as a driver, finishing second in points in the 1959 season. While he was clearly a talented driver, it was as an owner and car builder that Owens shined. Fielding primarily Dodges during the factory fueled horsepower wars of the 1960s and 70s, he provided David Pearson with the equipment to win 15 races in 1966 and his first of three Grand National Championships. With Buddy Baker at the helm, his Dodge Charger Daytona was the first car to crack 200 mph around Talladega in March of 1970, at 200.447mph – in a car that put the “stock” in “stock car.” Owens just celebrated his 88th birthday this Monday, however sadly his wife Dot passed last month.

Rusty Wallace, the 1989 Winston Cup Champion, author of 55 wins, purveyor of doing that weird wrist thing before restarts, and responsible for deeming Cup cars as “hot rods” was also announced as a 2012 inductee. This was perhaps one of the few choices that could stir some controversy, but a legitimate choice nonetheless. Wallace was one of the last breed of drivers who was intimately aware of the setup of his car, and knew what adjustments to make – and would sometimes make them himself. Wallace is perhaps best known for spinning out Darrell Waltrip on the final lap of The Winston – the original All-Star Race at Charlotte in 1989, promoting Darrell Waltrip as a fan favorite following years of boos and jeers. Wallace, like fellow champions Ned Jarrett and Benny Parsons (who also was nominated) has made a transition to broadcasting, and currently is a NASCAR commentator for ESPN.

Buck Baker is a driver who unless you have a deep understanding of the history of the sport, may have no clue who he is. Those who have followed the sport for some time may recognize the name, but likely have no idea how impressive of a record he compiled during his 26 year career. Baker was part of the golden age of NASCAR, making his mark during the mid to late 1950’s when the sport was still rooted in the south, a rough and tumble bunch who were helping to take a sport to national awareness, as well as engender the support of the automakers in Detroit. His 46 wins rank him 14th on the all-time wins list, and while his back-to-back titles in 1956 and 1957 were a first, perhaps more impressive is that they were bookended by runner-up title runs as well. The Buck Baker Racing School opened in 1980, which has an impressive list of graduates including Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Jeff Burton, and Ward Burton.

Herb Thomas is another name that many fans may not recognize, however if you happened to see the movie “Cars”, you will immediately recognize the car he is associated with, the Paul Newman-voiced character of Doc Hudson – The Fabulous Hudson Hornet. Thomas raced for ten years, amassing 48 wins and two championships in 1951 (the first as an owner and a driver) and 1953, as well as posting runner-up finishes in 1954 and 1956. In 1955 he was injured in a crash the forced him to sit out for six weeks, though he still managed to finish fifth in the season standings. Another hard crash in 1956 at a race in Shelby, NC effectively ended his career. Thomas won three Southern 500’s during his short career – the equivalent of the Daytona 500 before there was a Daytona International Speedway. His 20.85% winning percentage is just a tick behind Tim Flock’s 21.39% average as the highest of all-time.

Perhaps the most fitting announcement is the creation of the Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR Media Excellence. Squier’s commentary calling that first live, flag-to-flag Daytona 500 telecast in 1979 is one of the most endearing moments of our sport’s history, as well as his color commentary during races that helped lend credibility to NASCAR as a legitimate professional motorsport – not the southern stereotype that many have had of the stockcar racing. Barney Hall is best known as the voice of MRN, his calm steady voice broadcasting racing to the masses before every race was televised.

Growing up and living in Michigan before my family had cable, MRN was pretty much the only way to get any sort of motorsports coverage – short of the three races a year that CBS would televise – or waiting for my Dad’s weekly copy of Southern MotoRacing to arrive in the mail. It goes without saying that more than a few fans have likely muted the television at one time or another, and let Barney Hall and his crew call the race.

NASCAR media personalities would do best to listen to Barney Hall and dial up some YouTube videos of Ken Squier calling races; they set the gold standard by which all others should be measured by, and if you’re going to copy somebody, copy the best. Being part of the NASCAR media, these are two of the guys that you look up to when you want to see how to do things right, be it interviewing a driver, or reporting a story, or interacting with other members of the media.

I’ve often said it would be fitting that during the Daytona 500 they should invite Squier and Hall into the booth to call a few laps out of deference and respect. The Detroit Tigers did this with Ernie Harwell his final few years. Our sport, the fans, and those who are carrying on in their footsteps would be a lot better off for it.

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