The five-member class restriction per year has sparked a furor of theoretical debate, the news cycle turned into a college classroom of positive publicity as the rich history of the sport is laid out for the masses to ingest and understand. Each inductee is given their time in the spotlight, their accomplishments garnishing individual attention instead of getting lost in a sea of 25, 30, even more inductees all ushered in at once. Could you imagine if the sport buckled to peer pressure and just automatically let everyone special in just to catch up? What would you do once they were all enshrined, a mess of names half the fans don't understand lost in the shuffle like one of your first-year freshman seminars where you're lucky to sit 500 feet from the teacher.
Add in a 53-member voting committee where the perfect mix of media, track owners, historical aficionados, even fans get a say and you're cooking up a recipe designed for long-term success. Only in NASCAR does each voter come together, locked in the same room for a discussion designed to ensure their well-rounded knowledge on each of the 25 finalists.
It's a design that should have made organizers proud. All these voters had to do was pick the right people, letting the stats be their guide. So this panel stepped up to the plate, saw the softball coming slowly down the middle ... and whiffed.
Shockingly, for a second straight year, they missed the mark with this year's class, politics trumping professionalism on a list that perplexes even the casual observer. No one's going to argue with David Pearson, last year's mistake passed over for Junior Johnson who was a virtual lock since last October (he wound up with 94 percent of the vote). Lee Petty, the three-time NASCAR champion who won the sport's inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959 also deserved to make the cut. But the other three selections, Ned Jarrett, Bud Moore and Bobby Allison, raise some interesting questions on just how these selections should be made.
Let's start with Ned, a 50-time winner and ambassador to the sport through two decades of on-air brilliance with CBS and ESPN. His legendary call of son Dale's first Daytona 500 victory in 1993 brings chills every time you watch. It was a rare departure from a career known for unbiased, detailed reporting; one that made you feel like your grandfather was right alongside you on the couch.
Certainly, that's more than enough to put the man in the final field of 25. But are those "nice guy" characteristics, helpful in growing the sport off the track, enough to make up for a shortened on-track career? Fifty victories and two championships pale in comparison to the 167 and six combined of Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip, two other drivers who failed to make the cut. And while ol' DW has a love/hate relationship with the NASCAR community, you could argue his broadcasting tenure over the last decade coincided with the sport's largest period of growth in its 60-year history. The two-time Most Popular Driver certainly didn't hinder fans from watching, his "tell it like it is" attitude as revered as it is reviled by millions around the country.
So what gives? It's called personal attachment, with half the voting room close friends with Jarrett, a man who doesn't have a mean bone in his body. Whoever said "nice guys finish last" obviously didn't sit in a Hall of Fame discussion where the "personality" quotient shouldn't be quantified, but inevitably becomes the "X" factor.
Nowhere was that more evident than with Moore, the longtime car owner who won two championships with Joe Weatherly and 63 races during a distinguished, four-decade career. While impressive, those numbers pale in comparison to those of Petty Enterprises (268), Rick Hendrick (194) or even the Wood Brothers (98), whose co-founder, Glen, joined Hendrick on the list of 25 finalists. Shouldn't those have gotten in over someone with just one Daytona 500 and Southern 500 victory to his credit?
The crux of the argument here is that Moore was an incredible man when it came to both crew and driver development, grooming legends like Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Ricky Rudd for great careers elsewhere while helping with several NASCAR financial projects behind the scenes. Such success, though, still lumps him in the same category as other independent car owners of his day, Junie Donlavey among them, but left him with one advantage in the voting room we can't ignore: half those men owe their NASCAR careers to a man who handpicked them for future stardom. It's an admirable quality, yet just because someone's your mentor doesn't automatically make him one of the 10 most influential NASCAR personnel of all-time, what this "pick 5" system was unintentionally designed to do from the start.
And then there's Bobby, whose 84 victories (and in many minds, 85 -- his 1971 victory in an "illegal" car remains off the NASCAR record books for virtually no reason) ranks third in the record books yet virtually tied with Waltrip and Yarborough. What makes Allison's stats so much better than the other two? He has two fewer championships than Yarborough, took 158 more starts to collect those victories and holds three Daytona 500 trophies on the mantle to his rival's four. Allison also lost head-to-head with Waltrip in two championship battles in 1981-82, pulling one out in '83 before age and attrition finally began to catch up to him.
For this one, the intangibles again come into play, Allison enduring a lifetime of tragedy you wouldn't wish on anyone. A career-ending head injury in a June 1988 crash came four months after he became half of the first father/son duo to finish first and second at Daytona, son Davey displaying great potential to be a NASCAR champion in his own right. Yet five years later, he was killed in a helicopter crash, the second of two racing sons lost. It caused so much grief, Bobby and wife Judy once divorced over the stress.
They have since remarried, but the grace and composure with which this legend handled it all, remaining in racing while freely advertising himself at short tracks and sponsor appearances around the country helped sway voters tempted by their heart and not their head. For if you look at pure stats on paper, Allison deserved to be lumped in the same class as his peers around him, perhaps making eight-time champion crew chief Dale Inman -- who finished sixth in this year's voting -- the proper choice to slot in his place.
Those decisions leave Yarborough and Waltrip handling their exclusion with class in public, but frustration in private, losing out over the personal connections that will haunt them until long into the following October. Cale's three straight titles were unmatched until a man in a Lowe's suit named Jimmie came along, but his contentious relationship with NASCAR remains well documented among inner circles. His attendance at those record-breaking moments came with a price, the latest in a long line of post-driving demands others in his position would gladly do for free. The nail in his coffin came in helping to consult on a rival racing series, TRAC (Team Auto Racing Circuit), a concept that never made it onto the track nearly a decade ago but caused the legend to land on NASCAR's black list. In many voters' heads, right or wrong, that's good for at least a 50-win deletion right there.
Waltrip's demise in the voting room happened no differently, the man once labeled "Jaws" punished for simply opening his mouth and speaking his mind one too many times. Personal grudges can be crazy love affairs, people anxious to enact revenge at the most inappropriate of times. Say what you want about the man, and they did, venting behind closed doors even though his legendary stats tend to speak for themselves. But isn't that what the Hall of Fame is supposed to honor, the guys who were best of the best and not the friends of people in high places?
Personally, while not on the panel, my voting list consisted of Petty, Pearson, Allison, Waltrip and Yarborough, matching the fan vote that counted for 1.5 percent of the final total. Amazing how millions could get it right while 53 experts fell short.
A healthy debate is part of what a great Hall of Fame is about, and the 25 finalists will all inevitably earn their entrance into these hallowed grounds. But the next time these experts meet to determine who ranks above whom, my one piece of advice is to check your emotions and personal attachments at the door. Voting with your heart is a dangerous game, an ugly habit setting precedent for years down the road when the choices won't be quite so much of a slam dunk.
After all, I've never heard of a Daytona 500 won by feelings alone. Have you?