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Inside NASCAR: Electing Hall of Fame classes matter of when, not who

May 05, 2011, Dave Rodman, NASCAR.com

Richard Petty (Class of 2010) and Bobby Allison (Class of 2011) are members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Is Darrell Watrip destined to become a member of the Class of 2012? (Getty Images/NASCAR Media)

Electing Hall of Fame classes not so much a matter of who, but rather when

With the first two classes of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in place, discussions and debates about who will comprise the Class of 2012 are sure to begin soon, and the central theme is certain.

Who's next? It's a simple question with no correct answer -- yet.

As NASCAR steers through its 63rd season and enshrines the Class of 2011 -- Bobby Allison, Ned Jarrett, Bud Moore, David Pearson and Lee Petty -- opinions are certain to vary.

The sport's history, while creating a deep pool of candidates, fosters a double-edged conundrum for the media, fans and even NASCAR's five-time defending champion.

"I don't have the slightest clue," Jimmie Johnson said with a chuckle. "I do know that we have 60-some years of very worthy men and women that need to go in there, so it doesn't surprise me that there's a lot of good talk about who needs to be in."

Johnson's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, Jeff Gordon, agrees with Johnson's assessment of history. Both are sure to garner lots of NASCAR Hall of Fame votes themselves one day, and they appreciate the work and dedication it takes to be considered as a NASCAR legend.

Prevailing wisdom has Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough being voted in the Hall of Fame's Class of 2012. (Getty Images/NASCAR Media)

"At this point, there are so many that are capable of being in it that it's hard to narrow it down to five each year," said Gordon, himself a four-time NASCAR champion.

Who, what, where and why?

With so many worthy candidates and only five chosen each year, some NASCAR legends wait, and that fuels interesting conversations. In the inaugural class, Pearson didn't get the call despite being considered the "best driver ever" by many -- including inaugural inductee Richard Petty.

Pearson gained 94 percent of the vote for the second class, after being considered "a lock" after his inaugural class exclusion. But for 2011, two three-time champions still didn't get in, and more than a few eyebrows were raised.

Fan Vote


Vote for up to five nominees for the Class of 2012.

Looking to the next selection process, Dale Jarrett, the 1999 Cup Series champion who has followed his father, 2011 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Ned Jarrett, into broadcasting, mentions two multi-year NASCAR champions in his list of the "How did they miss?" candidates.

"Two names that certainly come to mind are Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough," Dale Jarrett said of his 2012 forecast. "I think that they're people that made a difference in this sport."

While Waltrip and Yarborough's names rest on most everybody's lips, there is no such thing as a "given" for the next class, and that's exactly as it should be, says the man at the helm of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

"A line has to be drawn," executive director Winston Kelley said. "I think we'll have the same thing again this year [looking at 2012]. Are Darrell and Cale for the next class what David Pearson was for the 2011 class? I don't know."

Kelley believes the voting panel looks at the all-inclusive body of work that helps define a NASCAR career just as much as statistics.

"I think it says that there is not one criteria or one right answer, as to what makes a NASCAR Hall of Famer," Kelley said. "It's not just about the numbers, and this is a NASCAR Hall of Fame -- it's not just a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Hall of Fame."

That balance is never far from the debate when considering future classes.

"That's a tough question," said DeLana Harvick, who has a family legacy in racing and who also included Waltrip and Yarborough at the top of her list. "After that, it depends on the criteria that they set. I think the first class was great. I could have thought of 50 people that could have been inducted."

But the daughter and niece of a couple of hard-core NASCAR racers, John and Dickie Linville, and who with her marriage to Richard Childress Racing's lead driver, Kevin Harvick, became a partner in one of the most successful current Camping World Truck and Nationwide series teams, Kevin Harvick, Inc., said the sport's history has earned a deeper, broader consideration.

Leonard Wood (left) and Dale Inman were instrumental forces behind two of NASCAR's most iconic numbers, cars driven by Hall of Famers David Pearson (21) and Richard Petty (43). (Harold Hinson/HHP Images/NASCAR Media)

"I think they need to dig deep, for who made the sport what it really is," DeLana Harvick said. "Whether that's in the Modifieds, or team owners, or crew chiefs or pit-crew guys -- that's the thing that's different about our sport. There are so many different facets and levels of it, with people who have impacted the direction of where this sport has gone, and so I do think they all should be considered."

Competitors weigh in

The list of nominees for the second class included everyone from current owners Rick Hendrick and Childress, to drivers, owners, mechanics and officials from every era of the sport.

It makes the "who's next?" question difficult to answer. Waltrip, Yarborough and seven-time champion crew chief Dale Inman all received votes for the 2011 class. Hendrick said his first vote would be for his former driver, Waltrip.

"Guys like Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip -- Dale Inman -- those should be givens," Kevin Harvick said. "But there are some pioneers of the sport that many people don't know [about], and I think they should go in.

"Obviously you've got Richard Petty and a lot of guys that have meant a lot, but I think there are some people that NASCAR is responsible for putting in there -- whether the committee or the fans or anybody votes on it -- that need to be in there before a lot of people go in there."

Dale Jarrett recognized the difficult task. He, like Harvick, also cited Inman.

"I think balancing the pioneers of the sport against the more modern competitors is always going to be a difficult decision that [the voting panel] has," Jarrett said. "When do you look at just the facts and the figures versus understanding what it took to help get this sport to the point that it needed a Hall of Fame and for people to be recognized?"

A two-time NASCAR Mechanic of the Year, Smokey Yunick is a member of several halls of fame. (fireballroberts.com)

Honoring the past

Some of the legends, themselves, certainly agree with the premise that the sport's founders need special -- or at least equal -- recognition.

"You know, it's so many people that deserves to be in there," 62-year NASCAR participant Leonard Wood said in the garage area at Homestead-Miami Speedway this past November. "What you look at is the guys like Tim Flock, Buck Baker, Buddy Shuman, Smokey Yunick and all those guys in the early days -- Red Byron, Red Vogt. There's just a ton of people that deserve to be in there.

"Guys like Ray Hendrick, you know, he was such a great Modified driver. And as time goes on you forget people like Curtis Turner, who was one of the greatest drivers of all time. If it was voted when he was racing, he would've been one of the first ones in there."

Of course, Wood never included himself or his older brother, Glen, on the list -- even though the pair, both singly and together thanks to their Wood Brothers Racing entity, are in several halls of fame already.

Asked if the Wood Brothers deserved to be in the next induction class, Pearson didn't mince words.

"Well, yes sir," he said firmly. "There is no smarter man than Leonard Wood as far as working on cars and doing things. I feel like if there's a mechanic that goes in, Leonard Wood ought to be the one."

Glen Wood's son, Eddie, who has spent a lifetime in the sport and admitted to a "family bias," said his class would include his father and uncle; Inman, "who goes back to the beginning;" Turner, "the first legend;" and Raymond Parks.

The fact that the selection committee only numbers about 50 persons is probably a good thing, given the diversity of opinions about possible inductees.

"While this [2011] class is certainly deserving of recognition in the Hall of Fame, it is important not to forget about the countless other pioneers who helped make NASCAR the world-class sport that it is today," Darlington Raceway president Chris Browning said. "This is also a time to remember the extraordinary efforts of early race promoters Harold Brasington, H. Clay Earles, Paul Sawyer and Enoch Staley, who took a chance on a young and relatively unknown sport and helped shape it into the NASCAR that millions of fans around the world recognize today."

One of this year's inductees, the head of the historic Alabama Gang, Bobby Allison, recognized that as well -- although, even at age 73, you couldn't take the competitor out of Allison.

"Once again, there's an incredible roster to pick from," Allison said. "But I really feel that Cale [Yarborough] and Darrell [Waltrip] should be in this next step. I'm still really pleased that I was in this [class] and they weren't -- at least I was ahead of them, again. But 2012 may have one or two of the pioneers that are so incredibly deserving to be in the Hall, also.

On hand at NASCAR's formation, Raymond Parks' legacy lives in the Hall of Fame with donated memorabilia, including the sport's first two championship trophies. (Getty Images/NASCAR Media)

"You know, to take five [inductees] a year is really neat because it keeps it such a nice, tight, special, special deal. But there are so many you can look at that are so qualified to be there."

When time runs out

Unfortunately, whether or not one of the sport's legends is still alive, in perfect health or something less has no bearing on their election status. Parks, who was alive when the first class was announced, but passed away before the second class was voted in, is an example of someone that could have been honored while alive -- when the appreciation, obviously, is greater.

Pearson does have a strong feeling about the future that befits his legendary status as he entered the sport late in its first decade, and Allison joined Pearson in citing one of NASCAR's notable early car owners in Parks.

"I think the first class should have went to the guys that first started the dad-gum thing -- I still feel that way about it."

--DAVID PEARSON

"I think the first class should have went to the guys that first started the dad-gum thing -- I still feel that way about it," Pearson said on the day he was announced as an inductee. "Like Herb Thomas and some other people -- like Parks. I understand [Parks] furnished the money at some of the races because there wasn't a big enough crowd to pay the purse, and he also had four or five cars that he had, or he sponsored. I definitely thought that he should have gone in first."

Rusty Wallace, the 1989 Cup champion who said his top driver nominees would be Waltrip, Yarborough and Buddy Baker, added "the Hall of Fame has inducted a lot of people outside of drivers, and so there are a lot of smart guys that are innovators, that really need to go in there -- guys that started the sport like Banjo Matthews and the big [car] builders like the [Dick] Hutcherson / [Eddie] Pagan guys and [John] Holman and [Ralph] Moody.

"Ralph Seagraves [of R.J. Reynolds] needs to go in there. When I came into the sport, Ralph was a guy who everybody knew, and he took such good care of everybody, it was ridiculous.

"I personally hope that some of the older guys, some of the guys that may be struggling with their health, get in there first. I hope they get in there right away [because] I want them and their families to be able to sit there and to enjoy being in the Hall of Fame instead of them not being there to be able to see it. I would hope that some of the older guys that deserve it go in [first]. I hope that I get in there one of these days but I'm willing to wait a long time [laughing]."

Pearson agreed the more time that passes, Parks' chance of induction might diminish; thus, Pearson feels the Hall should have a true "veterans committee."

"Last year [Parks] was alive, and I went to his last birthday party, which was 96," Pearson said, referring to 2009. "It would have been awful nice if he could have got in in time to know it. Now that he's passed away, you don't ever know how long it's going to be before he gets in.

"I really do feel like they should have [a veterans committee]. You know, [the veterans] are the ones that really started the sport and stuff like that, so I feel like they really ought to be the first ones to go in."

"Raymond Parks is certainly one of those that need to be in there soon," Allison said. "But then again, he's another one of those guys that contributed to the sport and then backed out of the current picture -- the limelight, I guess, is the way you'd put it. Some people knew of him and had high regard for him, but he wasn't visible daily. And I think that might have contributed to him not getting elected [with the first class]. And then, unfortunately we did lose him, when he passed away.

If Jimmie Johnson has solidifed his place in the Hall of Fame, then Jeff Burton wants to know why he has to wait until he retires to be so honored? (Autostock)

"I don't really know if there needs to be a veterans committee or not. The way they're doing it has got to be pretty good, and we have to be careful to contribute and not take away anything that's been part of the original success."

Banging the drum firmly -- and right now

Jeff Burton, another of the career owner Childress' veteran drivers, said he would break one of the Hall's inaugural molds -- that active owners are eligible inductees while a driver inductee must be retired.

"I don't see how you don't put Jimmie Johnson in right now," Burton said adamantly. "Who else has won [five] championships in a row? Nobody has. You could make an argument that he's the most successful driver in the history of the sport. How many drivers have won more championships than him? And he's won them consecutively."

"Richard's place in the Hall is assured -- the question is 'when?' The Hall selection is a difficult thing because I think the calendar ... how old you are and how long you've been -- all that matters. "

--JEFF BURTON

Hendrick agreed, saying "in the climate that [Johnson's] operating in today, he should go into the Hall in a hurry."

"But I think our Hall, and our sport should celebrate our history, too, so that it's a balance," Burton said. "I think that putting somebody like Richard Childress in, but also putting a guy like Jimmie Johnson in, I think all that makes a lot of sense.

"It really is cool to have a hall that people can be inducted in and still enjoy it and feel it. The [Naismith Memorial] Basketball Hall of Fame is like that -- there are basketball coaches that are still highly active that have been inducted. Some of the other halls of fames' people are well, well late in their life before they get inducted and they don't really have the time to cherish it as much. And I think that's a cool thing about what our Hall can be."

It's why Burton wants to see Childress inducted.

"Richard's been a car owner from the previous generation, that was successful and in this generation that's successful," Burton said. "He's one of the guys in the sport that's literally made his living in this sport. If you look at the championships and the races -- not only Cup championships but Nationwide and Truck championships -- and the races won, the impact that Richard's had on this sport [is significant].

"If you go and talk to some of the newer car owners, Richard was a big influence to them. So Richard's place in the Hall is assured -- the question is 'when?' The Hall selection is a difficult thing because I think the calendar matters, I think how old you are and how long you've been -- all that matters."

Clint Bowyer, who said his "driver's vote" would go to Yarborough, because "he was a cool racer, and I liked him" seconded Burton's opinion on their team owner.

"Richard is definitely a big part of this sport and one of the biggest parts of a dynasty era and he's a Hall of Famer," Bowyer said. "And everybody knows it and I believe he knows that. But I don't believe it matters when that time comes and I think that's the thing that's important.

"Some of the guys that are either still alive or still part of this sport -- there are guys before them that aren't around any more that I think it's only right and fitting that they get in first.

Richard Childress debuted in NASCAR in 1969, first as an owner/driver and later fielded a championship team with Dale Earnhardt. He operates one of the more successful multi-car teams to this day. (Getty Images)

"Everybody has an opinion on how that is and some people view that differently. That's just the way I see any hall of fame, whether it's this sport or anything. There are time frames where people were in this sport or any sport and the ones that were in it first should be recognized first, and on down the road."

Waiting 'til next year

It raises the question of the "dismay" of persons who have gone unselected for the first two classes. Burton said that's inappropriate.

"Time will sort all of those things out," Burton said. "You shouldn't lose sleep over 'when.' If you're honored enough to get into the Hall of Fame, you shouldn't lose sleep about when you got into the Hall of Fame. The third class is no less important than the second class and the 10th class will be no less important than the third class.

"Trying to ask for yourself to be put in there is kinda like buying a trophy for yourself, I guess."

--LEONARD WOOD

"So, for those who didn't get into it that expressed disappointment, I guess I understand that in some ways [but] it's a hell of an honor to be considered to be in the Hall of Fame. I think the emphasis should be placed on the people who did get in it, because there's no one that got in it that didn't deserve to be in it."

"I think this year's [2011 class] selection was perfect," Dale Jarrett summed up. "But it's not going to get any easier, with each year coming."

"I was surprised that a couple people didn't make it in, but I was surprised [in 2009] and I'll probably be surprised [this] year," NASCAR chairman Brian France said. "I think, clearly what the committee paid a lot of deference to was the pioneers -- the anchors of the sport -- and they also paid a lot of deference to the contributions that were made off the track."

For the 2011 class, Glen Wood was on the list of nominated candidates but his brother was not. Leonard Wood, since added to the list of nominees for the 2012 class, isn't losing sleep over it.

"I'm not worried about it," Leonard Wood said. "It's only worth something if they want you in there. Trying to ask for yourself to be put in there is kinda like buying a trophy for yourself, I guess [laughing]."