News & Media

Evans' election sets stage for tougher decisions ahead

June 20, 2011, David Caraviello,

It's tough to compare drivers that didn't compete at Cup level with those who did

The drama, what little there was, ended early. The second sentence uttered by Brian France revealed that Cale Yarborough had at last been granted initiation to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Moments later, Darrell Waltrip was bounding up on stage to give the series chairman a hug and a kiss after his name had been called. And with that, everyone exhaled. Two legends with six championships and 167 Cup victories between them were finally in, after petty grudges, personal differences or misconceptions had inexplicably forced them to wait a year to take their rightful places within the sport's shrine.

After two years of glaring omissions and hall classes defined more by who didn't get in than who did, the 54 members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame election panel -- which also includes a fan vote -- pretty much got it right Tuesday, selecting a five-man class of 2012 that covers all the bases and leaves very little room for consternation. There was Waltrip, whose polarizing personality and broadcasting style has earned him as many enemies as friends, but cannot overshadow an ironclad record on the race track. There was Yarborough, before Jimmie Johnson the only man to win three consecutive Cup titles, stunningly snubbed a year ago because some voters thought he should have done more to promote the sport in his retirement, as if 83 victories weren't enough..

Class of 2012

Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Inman, Richie Evans and Glen Wood honored with enshrinement.

Video highlights

Relive the moments as Brian France reveals the third five voted to the Hall of Fame.

There was Dale Inman, the greatest ever to turn a wrench, a crew chief who won seven championships with Richard Petty and another with Terry Labonte, and got in even though the Hall of Fame nominating committee overlooked him on their list of candidates for the inaugural class two years ago. There was Glen Wood, who won four races as a driver before becoming the patriarch of a Wood Brothers team that would go on to reinvent the pit crew and win 98 times, including this year's Daytona 500 with Trevor Bayne. It's difficult to find any argument with that quartet, who between them are responsible for 14 championships and 336 race victories in the sport's premier series.

And then there was Richie Evans. The "King of the Modifieds" won nine national championships in that division, eight of them consecutively, and the final one posthumously after his death in a crash in practice at Martinsville Speedway in 1985. His career statistics are mind-boggling -- 26 track championships across 11 venues, and 478 feature victories. His exploits on NASCAR's oldest circuit were enough to get him into almost every other racing hall of fame and have his No. 61 retired, the only numeral to receive that honor in any NASCAR division. He did it all without making a single career start in what are now known as the Sprint Cup or Nationwide series.

No one doubts Evans' chops as a racer, and anyone who does risks incurring the wrath of a Northeast-based Modified crowd that to this day still speaks of the man in revered tones. That Evans will be enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame in January of 2012 is no shock -- he was a NASCAR driver, after all, and he was going to get there eventually. It's not surprising that a Modified racer would find support on a voting panel that includes some short-track operators, and others who want to ensure the NASCAR shrine isn't solely a Sprint Cup hall of fame. And yet, given that Evans competed at a level a few steps below NASCAR's premier division, it can be difficult to wrap your head around the idea of him getting in before others who achieved meritorious exploits on what's universally viewed as NASCAR's highest level.

Granted, this is all a question of timing, but with only five inductees every year and a suffocating backlog of hall-worthy candidates waiting to get in, timing becomes an issue. Fair or not, someone perceived to be from a minor-league series is going into the NASCAR Hall of Fame before men like Rick Hendrick (10 Cup titles as a car owner), Richard Childress (six Cup titles as a car owner), and multiple-time Cup champions like Joe Weatherly, Tim Flock, Buck Baker, and Herb Thomas. Characterizations like that are sure to chafe the Modified crowd, which can be very sensitive when anyone questions the comparative merits of their drivers, particularly Evans. But then again, we're told over and over that Cup competitors are the 43 best drivers in the world, so shouldn't someone who excelled at that level be given the benefit of the doubt?

It's a question stickier than a hot day at Talladega Superspeedway, and it opens the door for more vigorous debate down the road. What's more important -- huge victory totals in a lower series, or impressive but still lesser statistics at the sport's highest level? Is the table being set for debates within that voting room that one day might pit Jack Ingram against Dale Jarrett, or Ron Hornaday against Tony Stewart, or Jerry Cook against Mark Martin? Is Evans' selection to the Hall of Fame a show of respect to a beloved, deceased champion from NASCAR's oldest division, or a sign that all competitors will be judged equally regardless of the inequities of the levels at which they competed?

"It's the NASCAR Hall of Fame," series president Mike Helton, himself a voter, told reporters at the Charlotte facility after Tuesday's announcement. "It was designed from day one to be that way, and we're three years into an induction process. And for the process to evolve to that, I think is healthy. It's healthy for NASCAR, it's healthy for the Hall of Fame, and it's certainly very respectful of the importance of the our heritage around short tracks and in different series, like the Modified series that Richie is very much a part of."

Other voters agreed. "Richie Evans kind of broke the barrier that people outside what's now Sprint Cup racing, that there is another avenue to this," former Charlotte Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler told reporters. "It could have been him or Jack Ingram or Jerry Cook. We needed to do that."

"It's the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It was designed from day one to be that way, and we're three years into an induction process. And for the process to evolve to that, I think is healthy. "


The 16-race NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour of today is markedly different from the Modified circuit of Evans' era, when competitors raced several times a week at different tracks and towed their cars to wherever the points and the money were. In 1979, Evans competed in 60 races, winning 37 of them, often racing Wednesday through Saturday. It was very much like the time before the modern Cup era, when drivers would race one night at Columbia and the next at Greenville-Pickens and the next at Hickory. And for top Modified racers, the money was good. In his final season Evans made $104,306, about as much as Phil Parsons earned for finishing 21st in Cup points, and more than Tommy Houston earned for placing fourth in the Busch Series.

So there wasn't really a financial incentive to scrap it all and head down south, even though some tried. Top Modified drivers like Evans or his rival Cook felt like they didn't have anything to prove, and they didn't to their fellow competitors or the legions of fans who cheered them at speedways like Thompson, Fulton, or Utica-Rome. But the equation changes when drivers from divisions like the Truck, Nationwide and Modified circuits are thrown into a pot with those from the Cup circuit, and it becomes time to pick and choose. Evans' selection caused the only ripple, and a modest one at that, in a 2012 class that has otherwise been praised for its breadth.

"You've got Richie Evans, who ... demonstrates the Hall of Fame is more than just the Sprint Cup Series," France said. Even so, some selections raise eyebrows more than others. Evans is a special case in that his career victory and championship totals are so overwhelmingly impressive, they're impossible to ignore. He also benefits from never having competed at the Cup level, thereby making it difficult to directly compare him to those who did. But those decisions are coming. Who gets in -- the Cup star, or the lower-level driver with better numbers, but who might not have made it in Cup? Do voters ignore failures on one level and concentrate only on successes at another?

It's an unenviable task. Richie Evans was the first to force voters to venture out into these murky waters. Others -- Cook, Hornaday, Ingram, Sam Ard, Todd Bodine, Jack Sprague -- are coming. "It was by far harder than the first two," Tom Higgins, elector and veteran motorsports journalist, told reporters of this year's selections. "... It's probably going to get only harder."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.