Thoughts On The NASCAR Class Of 2019

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 7 2018

Jeff Gordon will surely be elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame on the first ballot. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Gregg Ellman)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

The lists of nominees for the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s class of 2018 and for its Landmark Award were released on Tuesday and here is the take of a former voting panel member: The list contains one absolutely automatic candidate, one absolutely a thumbs-down candidate, two personal favorites and 21 other candidates who are worthy but negotiable.

The nominee who should/will get enshrined in the class is Jeff Gordon.

Gordon’s numbers in the Cup Series are well known to all who even marginally followed the sport in the past 25 years: Four championships (fourth most all-time); 93 race victories (third most behind Hall members Richard Petty and David Pearson); four Daytona 500 wins (tied with Hall members Dale Jarrett and Bobby Allison for third most behind Richard Petty (7) and Cale Yarborough (4).

Yes, those bona fides alone would put Gordon in on the first ballot.

But there is much more to the Gordon story. He is one of a small handful of drivers who changed the sport in a hugely significant way. Changed it for the better or for the worse.

Prior to Gordon, stock-car racing was ruled by tough guys from the Southeast. Guys who could run their hands through three wash and rinse cycles on washing machines and still emerge with grease and grit under their fingernails. Guys with thick accents, thicker forearms and faces that sure weren’t the kind that could sell fabric softener to California housewives.

Then came the good looking kid from California by way of Indiana, the one who spoke softy and enunciated all his words and made sure those words were well thought-out and respectful. Just like that, television had its guy.

The traditional Southeastern fanbase hated Gordon for all of the above reasons. It was on a February flight on approach into Orlando in the late 1990s when a flight attendant got on the jet’s public address system and tried to ingratiate herself with Daytona-bound passengers by calling out the names of drivers.

When she got to Gordon’s name, there were boos and catcalls. Stunned, the flight attendant asked, “What’s wrong with Gordon?” From somewhere near the back of the jet came this: “F@@@ing pretty boy!”

In the years since, there have been a steady stream of pretty boys into the sport. Pretty boys who don’t know which end of a wrench to hold but who know the value of keeping sponsors and NASCAR officials happy.

Nobody on that airplane that day had anything disparaging to say about Gordon’s skills on the track – nobody who was sober, that is. The kid could drive and win on any type of track and in any kind of circumstance. And there was nothing soft about him; he took some might nasty hits and kept coming back for more wins.

Jeff Gordon, NASCAR’s first ambassador to crossover audiences in the Northeast and upper-Midwest, will be a first ballot choice and if the choice is not unanimous, then gut the Hall and turn it into a flea market.

The two personal favorites are exactly that so there will be no lengthy sales pitch here. They are Hall candidate Larry Phillips, an absolute driving legend in the nation’s Heartland, and former NASCAR public relations person and track president Jim Hunter, who is up for the Landmark Award.

It was off in a corner of a bar in a swank hotel in Kansas City 20 years ago that then-driver Rusty Wallace was asked about Phillips, a native of Wallace’s Missouri. Best stock car driver ever. Ever, Wallace said. Similar words have been used by Cup stars like Mark Martin and Wallace’s brothers.

Ask Wallace or any of the other drivers and crew chiefs mentored by Phillips about why it was the Springfield resident never made it to Cup and you will get an answer like this: Phillips loved racing, not the BS that went along with driving in NASCAR’s premier series. (Talk about an impeccable credential!)

Phillips remains the only five-time NASCAR weekly series national champion and the patron saint of Heartland race fans and drivers.

He likely will never be elected into the Hall in Charlotte – two years ago I made a pitch for him in the room where the voting is held, and got very little response from the other voters – and that’s too bad. Regional shoes like Phillips built the sport and may, sadly, have their exploits disintegrate to dust over the years.

The other personal favorite is the late Jim Hunter.

First, as president of Darlington Raceway and then as head of media relations at NASCAR, South Carolinian Hunter took a yankee reporter who was much better versed in sports cars and open wheel cars, into his confidence.

Hunter, who himself had the confidence of Bill Frances Jr. and Sr., knew the sport like few others. But most importantly and most quietly, he placed the interests of the sport and its fans above those of people in Daytona Beach who were more interested in keeping the corporate dollars flowing.

Hunter – perhaps because he got his start as a sportswriter – was, without peer, the most interesting and concerned person I met in NASCAR.

The one name that keeps popping up on Hall of Fame ballots that I hope does not get in is that of Ralph Seagraves.

In the late 1960s, Seagraves was an official with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, a cigarette-producing operation that had been searching for a means to market cigarettes after the federal government banned tobacco advertising on television and radio because of its links to cancer and heart disease.

RJR saw NASCAR as an opportunity to skirt the regulations and became the title sponsor of the Winston Cup series.

Seagraves became – and still is – very popular among many in the stock-car racing industry as he directed millions of corporate dollars into the sport and its tracks, and wined and dined powerful dignitaries.

Some of those people are on the voting panel and will once again try to convince others in the room of the importance of RJR’s impact on NASCAR in its formative days.

The guess here is that one day, Seagraves, now in the running for the Landmark Award, will be enshrined. And yes, if the only criteria for enshrinement is having a strong impact on stock car racing, he probably should be in.

But for a person whose final memories of his mother were the images of her in a coma in a hospital room hooked up to a machine that kept her “alive” because of lung problems associated with an early life cigarette smoking, a tobacco company executive being awarded a place in any kind of hall of fame is unacceptable.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 7 2018
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