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Caraviello: Inman blazes trail for crew chiefs to Hall

January 22, 2012, David Caraviello,

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There was the event in Riverside, Calif., in 1958, when he hauled the race car all the way out there, broke down somewhere in Arizona on the way home, and had to wait for a replacement part to be delivered by bus. There was the event in Daytona Beach, not on the track but the last one on the beach itself -- down the shoreline, through a sand bank, and back through all the brine and muck. There was the Fourth of July weekend race in Daytona in 1969, when they ran it on whatever day July 4 was, which in this case happened to be a Friday.

"The only problem was, we had [to] run Dover on Sunday, and had never seen the place. Nobody had ever seen it," Dale Inman said. "And of course, we won that one."

They won a lot of them, Inman and Richard Petty did, on their way to being one of the most potent combinations that NASCAR has ever known. It's always been Petty in the forefront, of course, natural in a sport where the driver gets most of the attention and nearly all of the glory, the King's sunglasses and cowboy hat cutting an unmistakable image that for decades has come to define his sport. But Inman was right there, doing work that was often unheralded and groundbreaking at the same time, along the way essentially creating a crew chief's position that's become as integral to stock-car racing as tires and fuel.

Friday night those contributions were rewarded in the grandest way, when Inman was inducted into the third class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame along with Wood Brothers founder Glen Wood and drivers Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough and Richie Evans. It was a big moment for an eight-time series champion whose compatriot and second cousin Petty went in as part of the inaugural class in 2010. But it may prove even bigger for Inman's former profession, given the roles crew chiefs have played in shaping NASCAR as we know it, and the relative lack of consideration those signal-callers have received in the Hall of Fame's nominating process.

"They use the term eight championships, but it's in a different league from what the drivers are, and I give that respect," Inman said after the induction ceremony. "But to be the first crew chief coming in, I'm sure there will be more after this. It's quite an honor."

Inman was, of course, the no-brainer. He won 193 races, and seven championships with Petty, and another crown with Terry Labonte in 1984, proving to all the doubters that he could do it with a vehicle other than that blue No. 43. If any crew chief was going to break through, it was going to be the one-time dean of what Petty and his wife, Linda, called the "Dale Inman School of Petty Enterprises," which produced graduates like Mike Beam, Barry Dodson, Jake Elder, Tony Glover, Steve Hmiel, Robbie Loomis and Robin Pemberton. It was going to be one of the first who took cars apart when they got back to the shop after a race, just to make sure nothing was wrong.

"He was one of the first ones to come in and take a car in and completely disassemble it from one race to another, instead of waiting until something broke or just checking wheel bearings and stuff like that," Petty said. "[He] completely disassembled engines, the cars. And in doing that, that made those cars almost bulletproof. That's the reason we won a lot of races."

He did it under conditions that seemed unthinkably oppressive by today's standards -- hauling the car out to far-flung race tracks on his own, racing on the beach at Daytona, making that frenzied two-day turnaround before that inaugural Dover race. He remembers times like Petty's first race, in Columbia, S.C., in July 1958, when they needed hand signals to communicate with their 21-year-old driver. Petty had never wheeled a car before, and the signal to call for a relief driver was for the future King to touch his head. Soon enough, he was touching it again and again and again. The relief driver was summoned. But Richard kept going and going and going.

"Going home, I said, 'Richard, what were you doing?' " Inman remembered. "He said, 'Oh, my head was itching.' So it's come a long way."

It has indeed, and crew chiefs have had plenty to do with that, even if the fledgling stages of the Hall of Fame's evolution have struggled to accommodate that. When the nominating list was released for the inaugural class, there wasn't a crew chief on it. Three-time championship crew chief Ray Evernham wasn't on the nominating list for this year's class, even though he's been off the box since 1999. Some believe Glen Wood should have been inducted along with brother Leonard, the mechanical whiz behind the Wood Brothers' early success, and the architect of the modern pit stop.

"I think Dale Inman would agree," Glen Wood said, "[Leonard] knows more about a car than anybody who's ever been in NASCAR."

'Racing benchmark'

Inman didn't set out to be a crew chief; it just came with the evolution of the sport.

Yarborough agreed. "You won't be far behind us, bud," he told Leonard during his speech.

* Leonard Wood's impact | Video: Evolution of the Pit Stop

There are unquestionably others, like Elder, who started out as a fabricator at Petty under Inman, and went on to win two championships with David Pearson. Smokey Yunick is almost universally regarded as the most imaginative mechanical mind of his day, but he's never sniffed the Hall of Fame. You would think that Chad Knaus, with five championships and counting, would merit a place on the nominating list the moment he's eligible. But with crew chiefs, it seems, nothing is guaranteed. Maybe now, with Inman in and his contributions so obviously recognized, that will change.

The candidates are out there, and more are yet to come, particularly given how difficult and thankless the crew chief's job is today. Although he didn't have all the modern toys and engineering tools of today at his disposal, Inman sounds relieved he didn't work in the age of the wave-around, the free pass, and 90-minute practice sessions. Some things, though never change. When it comes time to play enforcer for their driver, the crew chief is often the first to step up.

"I tell Dale this all the time, and I'm serious. If I got into a little run in with Richard, all Richard ever really did, he just poked me in the chest with, it looked like ET's finger. So I knew he'd go away," Waltrip remembered. "But Dale, on the other hand .... I had a little problem with Richard one race at Richmond. I wasn't looking for Richard to apologize [to], I was looking for Dale to apologize [to]. Because Dale Inman would hurt you."

Of course, Inman was much better known for his skills with the race car, which earned him his place in the Hall of Fame. And in the process, he perhaps blazed a trail that others in his former profession will one day follow. Inman, for one, seems certain that more crew chiefs are bound for consideration -- and perhaps one day enshrinement.

"I'm sure there will be," he said. "I'm really looking forward to seeing what the next group will be, because there are some other categories out there that should be added. But ... there are crew chiefs that will be in, for sure, later on down the line. They've already asked me who do you think, or who should be in. I wouldn't touch that with a 10-foot pole."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.