Difficult choices made in selecting NASCAR's 2013 Hall of Fame class
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For a moment, Ned Jarrett thought about not voting. How could he?
It had been difficult choosing five people for the next NASCAR Hall of Fame class, but when it was announced there was a tie for the final spot between Buck Baker and Fireball Roberts, Jarrett's heart sank.
"Oh Lord,'' Jarrett said.
He'd have to choose between two friends.
It was Jarrett who pulled a burning Roberts out of his car after the crash in the 1964 World 600 that eventually claimed Roberts' life. It was Baker who sold Jarrett the first competitive engine Jarrett ever raced. Roberts or Baker?
There was no other choice. One would be in the Hall of Fame. One would not. As a Hall of Famer, Jarrett knew what it meant for him and what it would mean for the families of the deceased men.
Such emotion was evident at Wednesday's announcement. Cotton Owens' grandson wiped tears from his eyes after Owens' selection. Leonard Woods' family cheered after it was announced he would join his brother, an inductee last year. Rusty Wallace beamed as he'll enter the Hall of Fame in a class that includes Herb Thomas and Baker.
Those celebrations came after the voting committee made their initial decisions and then had to vote on the tiebreaker -- the first time that there had ever been for the final spot. The tiebreaking process was simple. Write the name of the man who deserved to be in this Hall of Fame class on a sheet of paper.
The blank ballot stared at Jarrett.
"Agony,'' is how Jarrett described it. "I think mental pain is harder than if you take a hammer and hit your fingers.''
The memories returned.
It was Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was May 24, 1964 again. Jarrett and Junior Johnson made contact, sending both cars spinning. Roberts could not avoid the incident.
Roberts' car spun, backed into the inside wall and turned over. His fuel tank ruptured, igniting and dumping gasoline into the car. Thick black smoke rose. Jarrett's car stopped about 30 feet away. Jarrett exited before the interior of his began burning. He walked toward the wall to sit down when he saw Roberts' car in flames. Roberts was trying to crawl out as his body burned.
Jarrett ran and grabbed Roberts around the shoulders.
"Oh my God, Ned! Help me, I'm on fire!'' Jarrett recalls Roberts yelling.
Jarrett jerked Roberts out. He ripped Roberts' burning uniform off. Roberts suffered burns over much of his body.
It was only the night before that Jarrett and Roberts had sat poolside at a local hotel chatting for a couple of hours about life and racing. They had become good friends within the last year. That night Roberts told Jarrett that he was planning to retire after the season, a decision few knew.
"I felt our friendship develop more that night than any other time,'' Jarrett said.
And then it was gone. Not expected to make it through the night, Roberts survived until July 2.
Jarrett always will be tied to Roberts for that incident, but his ties to Baker also are significant on a personal level.
He recalls how the father of Buddy Baker helped so many in the sport, including himself. Jarrett was racing in the Sportsman division and needed a motor but money was short. Jarrett said he had to "scrape'' to get enough money to purchase a motor that Baker sold for the discounted price of $500. It normally cost about $700.
"He saw a young man that he felt maybe could go somewhere in the sport and he gave me a break on it,'' Jarrett said. "I've always appreciated that.''
Later, Jarrett bought a Grand National car from Baker, who even told Jarrett it was not a good car but Jarrett bought it anyway at a cheap price.
"He was always there,'' Jarrett said of Baker. "He struggled. I struggled. Most people did in those days to make it. I just appreciated the fact the way he did it and helping other people along the way, including me.''
Through the memories, Jarrett still had a decision to make.
Baker or Roberts?
Jarrett choose Baker. Jarrett noted the two championships Baker won compared to Roberts having never won a crown. It likely was the deciding factor for many people.
"There's one consolation I had with the voting,'' Jarrett said, wearing the blue jacket given to Hall of Famers. "The other one will get in sooner or later and I think it will be sooner rather than later. That helped to ease the pain a little bit.''
For as difficult as this decision was, Jarrett said he looks forward to returning next year to mark his ballot for the fifth Hall of Fame class.
"It's sort of like race drivers,'' he said. "If you go through a crash, people say, "Man, you shouldn't want to do that again but that makes you braver and this is sort of the same way. Once you've gone through it, and say, "Well, I've withstood that, surely it won't get any worse.'
One can't imagine it being any more difficult for Jarrett.
The easy choices came the past three years. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and David Pearson. Of course, they belonged in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
But this year? With no consensus as to who should be among the five, the decisions became more difficult for myself and the other 53 voters. Then we had to vote a second time after a tie for the final spot between two former drivers.
This isn't supposed to be easy, but I can only imagine how much more difficult this could become in the coming years.
My ballot looked a little different from the five-man class that will be inducted Feb. 8 into the Hall of Fame. I had Thomas, Wood and Owens on my ballot, but I also had Wendell Scott and Rick Hendrick. When we had to pick between Baker and Roberts, I chose Baker because of his two championships.
Each year, there seems to be a theme associated with the voting. "Pioneer" was this year's buzzword. The point? With the sport's true superstars in the Hall, some felt it was time to reward pioneers. But they saw pioneers as the sport's founders, those who were there in the early days.
I voted for pioneers but they all weren't founders.
Here's how I made my selections.
To ignore what Scott had to endure is akin to sticking one's head in the sand. He raced in what is now the Sprint Cup series from 1961-73. His family once told me about how before going to races he had to plot where they could stop for gas or where they could stop for the night because some communities were not as friendly to African-Americans in the 1960s.
An element of a Hall of Famer is a person's spirit and what they had to endure to achieve what they did. It's hard to imagine any more difficult circumstances than what Scott endured just to make to the racetrack. Not many agreed. He was not among the top eight vote getters this year.
A 21-year-old Jeff Gordon first raced for Hendrick in an era when team owners typically didn't hire drivers under the age of 30 for good rides. Their success led car owners to search for teenagers, forcing NASCAR to make a rule about a minimum age.
Hendrick also showed that the multi-car model could work for a team. Teams began to grow so much that NASCAR created a rule limiting how big teams could be.
If Hendrick had done these things in the early days of NASCAR, he'd be in the Hall of Fame. Yet, he's penalized for being a part of the modern era. I find that logic baffling.
He played a significant role in making pit stops faster and also developed several devices that helped pit crews save time from lightweight jacks, modified air wrenches and high-flow gas cans. That's a pioneer.
I'd consider him a pioneer for the role he played in Hall of Famer David Pearson's career. Pearson won the first of his three championships with Owens in 1966. Owens gave Pearson the first extended opportunity to succeed in the sport and Pearson did.