Friday, October 16, 2009

NASCAR Hall Of Fame - Did The Voters Get It Right?

Much has been written about the NASCAR Hall Of Fame's inaugural year inductees. Are these the right people to put in the HOF?

NASCAR could probably have saved itself some headaches had they allowed more than just 5 in for 2010. But what it is, obviously, is what we've got.

I can't find fault with putting Bill France Sr. in the Hall Of Fame, as the number one pick even. Without Big Bill, it's entirely likely that we would have some more or less standardized national, or even international stock car racing series today. What we do have is what is known as the National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing, and that was very much Bill Sr.'s baby from the very beginning. Bill France Sr. was also a race car driver, racing frequently on the many tracks that abounded in the South long before stock car racing became an organized sport. From driver, he became a promoter, and from promoter, he became the iron-fisted chief executive officer of the organization that still rules all aspects of top tier professional stock car racing in America today.

Not putting Richard Petty, NASCAR's 'King,' in the first 5 was unthinkable to me. Not only has Richard Petty won more races than anyone else, he also was the first driver to win 7 championships at the top level of stock car racing. Though many of Petty's wins and championships came before 1972, which launched what is now called the 'modern era' of NASCAR, Petty's accomplishments can't be ignored.

Petty, a second generation driver, enjoyed some of the best factory support available during most of his career, which obviously enabled him to win races and championships. Petty was obviously a wheel man in his own right though, and his talent and passion for the sport can't be ignored. Richard Petty was one of the guys who "put NASCAR on the map," so to speak. If for nothing else, Richard Petty's desire to accommodate his many fans during his career make him an easy choice.

After the first two picks, opinions tend to flare about the remaining 3 picks for class '10.

Personally, I feel that Bill France Jr. was a good choice, because he basically took over the reigns just as the aforementioned modern era came into being in NASCAR. Little Bill, as he was often known, worked very hard at keeping sponsors happy, and keeping the sport as interesting as possible. In many ways, Bill Jr. was just as influential in what NASCAR has now become as was his father. Bill France Jr. saw NASCAR through some hard times, but kept growing the sport during his tenure.

Dale Earnhardt was one questionable pick in many people's eyes. He earned his reputation as the "Intimidator" because of his aggressive driving style, and his rather ruthless attitude toward winning. Earnhardt didn't come to the track to make friends. He came to win.

Dale Earnhardt did, however, win 7 championships, tied only with Richard Petty in that amazing feat. Though Earnhardt never came close to eclipsing Petty's amazing 200 wins, at 76 Cup wins, Dale Earnhardt was no slouch in the wins department either.

I feel that Earnhardt belongs in the inaugural class because to many, he represented the face of NASCAR from the late 1980's until his death in 2001. Dale drove a black car, and his icy gaze could make a competing driver make a mistake which would allow Dale to win a race, or at least gain another spot on the track.

Dale Earnhardt's true legacy was that he was the 'every man's driver' in many ways. Dale grew up from a blue collar background, was also driven to try to succeed, early on in his career just to pay the rent and put food on his family table. Later in his career, he was a multi-millionaire, but still worked on his farm, feeding the chickens and the cattle, and taking every opportunity to get away to do some hunting and fishing.

Earnhardt's death in 2001 marked, for me at least, another important transitional period in the history of NASCAR. His death brought out a lot of casual fans and turned them into regular fans, and even hard core fans. His death also brought a flurry of safety measures into the sport, including rules for the races themselves, to equipment changes, and even a new car deemed to be safer for all involved. Whether in life or death, Dale Earnhardt's influence on NASCAR has been substantial and undeniable.

To be honest, I can't argue with the selection of Junior Johnson to the class of '10 either. Johnson's driving days were done before I became a fan of the sport, but I did watch him for many years in his role as a team owner. Junior Johnson was one of the more inventive, creative, and in my opinion, brilliant team owners ever. Though Johnson had practically no formal training at anything, and coming from a bootlegging career into racing, Junior was the very definition of inventiveness.

Junior Johnson could build nearly indestructible race cars and racing engines, and encouraged his drivers to push the cars as hard as they could. In Junior's mind, there was no reason to save a race car for next week. If his drivers tore a car up, he'd build them a better one for next week.

Johnson's accomplishments as a driver cannot be denied either. He drove the way he later encouraged his drivers to drive, which is all out.

With only 5 finalists for the HOF class of 2010, there are understandably some arguments concerning whom was picked and whom wasn't. Personally, back during the 70's, I was a huge David Pearson fan, partly because he was from just down the road in Spartanburg, South Carolina, just 20 or so miles from where I grew up. David was an amazing driver, and rarely drove a full time schedule, but still managed to win an incredible 105 races during his career. Richard Petty has often been quoted as saying that Pearson was the best driver he ever competed against.

Other people who could easily have been included in the inaugural top 5 would have to include Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison. Mostly likely, I feel they will be in the class of 2011 though.

The fact is, out of the literally hundreds of people who have made an impact on NASCAR over the years, in my opinion, these first 5 are not bad choices. Those who didn't make it this time will invariably be honored in Charlotte in coming years.

5 people were just not enough, but the many other deserving drivers, owners, crew chiefs, and others will be honored eventually.

Overall, I feel the NASCAR Hall Of Fame is off to a great start, and will be a place in which I will want to spend much time in the coming years.

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