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Minter: No Shortage of Worthy Candidates For Hall of Fame

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, July 1 2009
Were two future members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame on the same stage in New York City last December? (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Were two future members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame on the same stage in New York City last December? (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

As sports go, NASCAR is still relatively young. The first championship-winning car owner, Raymond Parks, is still making the rounds today. Richard Petty, whose race team won two weeks ago at Infineon Raceway, was on hand in 1949, when the first race of the series now known as Sprint Cup was run at Charlotte.

Still, some worry that as the official NASCAR Hall of Fame begins inducting members that some of the pioneers will be overlooked, at least in the early rounds.

Most of them have been inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association’s Stock Car Hall of Fame at Darlington, which until the latest venture came along, was regarded as the official place for deserving NASCAR drivers to be honored.

As the names of the nominees for the inaugural class of five are released this week, many of them will be familiar ones to today’s fans – Petty, Pearson, Yarborough, Allison, Waltrip, Bill France Sr. and Jr., Dale Earnhardt. Soon, there will be new names to consider – Wallace, Martin, Elliott, Labonte.

But what about the drivers who were the backbone of the sport in the early days? Will they be penalized by the passage of time? Will those who are deceased fare poorly versus those still around to recount their exploits?

Take the late Herb Thomas. He was the sport’s first two-time champion, and had a Jimmie Johnson-like points run, finishing either first or second for four straight years, from 1951 to 1954. He was the first three-time winner of the Southern 500, which in his day was like the Brickyard 400 and the Daytona 500 rolled into one.

Thomas won 48 races, 12th on the all-time list. His winning percentage of .21 has never been equaled. He likely would have had many more if not for a near-fatal crash in 1956, during the prime of his career. Many fans today know of him only because of the Paul Newman character in the movie “Cars” is patterned after Thomas, who drove a Hudson Hornet for much of his career.

 

Even though he likely won’t be among the first five inductees, Junior Johnson deserves serious consideration for the inaugural class. His 50 wins as a driver are impressive enough alone. But he had an even better career as a car owner, winning 139 races and six championships. And he was instrumental in NASCAR getting its first title sponsor, Winston, for its elite series.

Johnson also brought national attention to NASCAR at a time it needed it. The former moonshiner was the subject of a feature, “The Last American” Hero, by Thomas Wolfe in a 1965 edition of Esquire magazine.

The Fabulous Flocks from Atlanta, Ga., were the Earnhardts of their era. They were colorful and talented and responsible for much of the early success of NASCAR.

The most successful of the three racing brothers was the youngest, Tim. He won two championships and 39 races in just 189 career starts, a winning percentage of .208, second all-time.

In 1955, he won 18 races, a single-season record that stood until20Richard Petty’s 27-win season in 1967.

Flock wound up being banned from NASCAR for his role in trying to form a driver’s union, but his accomplishments can’t be overlooked.

Fireball Roberts, who was the sport’s star driver at the start of the superspeedway era, played as big a role as anyone in attracting mainstream fans to NASCAR. He was handsome, well-spoken and a fierce competitor on the track. Many of his 33 career wins came in marquee events on tracks like Darlington, Daytona and Atlanta. In today’s NASCAR world, championships trump all, but in Roberts’ day, that wasn’t always the case. He never ran a full season and therefore never won a title. He died from burns suffered in a crash at Charlotte in 1964.

Although he’ll likely be among the nominees for the first group, it’ll probably be several years before he’s inducted.

Little Joe Weatherly has a lot in common with Roberts, except that he won two Cup titles, one of them in 1963 driving for nine different teams over the course of the season. He won 25 races in the series now known as Sprint Cup. In the old Modified division he won 101 races and a championship over a two-year span, and he also won 12 Convertible Division races. He was the reigning champion when he was killed in a race at Riverside, Calif.

Like Roberts, he was a showman and helped attract new fans to the sport. He was often referred to as NASCAR’s “Clown Prince.”

Even the NMPA Hall of Fame, which has done a commendable job of recognizing the pioneers of the sport, didn’t induct Raymond Parks until nearly 50 years after he won the first car-owner championship. Hopefully, the official Hall in Charlotte won’t wait that long.

Many old-timers say that if not for Parks there likely would be no NASCAR as it is now known. In the early days, Parks was the Rick Hendrick of his day. He carried a fleet of well-prepared and neat-appearing cars to tracks across the nation, and he hired colorful, talented drivers like Lloyd Seay, Roy Hall and Red Byron to wheel them. NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. even drove his c ars at times.

Parks’ trophies and memorabilia are headed to the Hall. He should be too, and soon.

Those who work on cars shouldn’t be overlooked either. When it comes to preparing championship-winning cars, Dale Inman is in a class by himself. He won seven titles with his cousin Richard Petty, then took an eighth with Terry Labonte in 1984.

 The media has played a major role too, and if there’s ever been a scribe who belongs alongside people like Richard Petty and David Pearson it’s Chris Economaki of National Speed Sport News, where he started selling papers at age 13 and eventually came to own and run the company.

 A Hall of Fame should be about remembering. But sometimes it’s easy to forget. The challenge facing the selection committee members at Charlotte, as they do their remembering, is to not forget.

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, July 1 2009
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