ON NASCAR: Class of 2012’s Fame Changed The Game For Today’s Top Names

By Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
NASCAR news was hitting me so quickly, and from so many directions, over the past week that I felt like I had accidentally stumbled into a boxing ring with Oscar De La Hoya, only to learn he wasn’t too happy with me for some reason. Ouch. 

The most momentous news, of course, came from Charlotte on June 14, when NASCAR announced its 2012 Hall of Fame class. 

All too often, fame is fleeting. It’s like a folding chair at the beach. You can sit yourself down in it, dig your feet into the sand and get so comfortable, you want to stay there forever. Unfortunately, all too soon, your week is over, your chair is once again relegated to the back of the garage, and the waves have smoothed your spot in preparation for the next guy. 

Oh, well; it was fun while it lasted. 

A hall of fame is a completely different thing, a solid structure built not only on a firm foundation of concrete and steel, but on the accomplishments of those enshrined inside. There’s room for everyone at the beach – on a rotating basis – but space in a hall is limited. And once you are invited through that door, you’re there to stay. 

The five new residents of the NASCAR Hall of Fame are Cale Yarborough, Dale Inman, Richie Evans, Glen Wood, and Darrell Waltrip. 

The first driver ever to win three consecutive Cup Series titles – a record which stood for nearly three decades – Yarborough gave fans plenty to cheer about, and talk about, over the years. He is probably best-known for the infamous post-race dust-up with both Allison brothers after the 1979 Daytona 500. The race was broadcast on live TV in its entirety that year, for the first time in history. Fists flew, cars went sideways, and the most famous name in the sport – Richard Petty – went to Victory Lane. 

The wild finish caused legions of viewers to take a new look at NASCAR, thanks in no small part to the entertainment value provided courtesy of a certain feisty driver from South Carolina. 

"I am very happy about this honor … It caps off a good career that I had. It puts me in the company with some of the best in the world,” Yarborough said. “To be selected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame and now be alongside those that founded the sport and made it what it is today is a tremendous thrill and honor for me."

If NASCAR drivers are comparable to the fast and shiny cars they drive, then crew chiefs are like the engines that power them, and Dale Inman was one of the best ever. Inman was with Richard Petty for all seven of his Cup Series championships and won an eighth with Terry Labonte in 1984. 

Petty may be the king of Cup, but the monarch of modifieds was the late Richie Evans. NASCAR’s Modified Series has been racing in various forms since 1947, and Evans is its biggest name, winning eight consecutive titles from 1978 to 1985. “He has received a lot of rewards, but this is the ultimate. I know he is looking down and smiling ear to ear," said Evans’ widow, Lynn Evans.

There is a sense of extreme satisfaction that comes with seeing someone honored for decades of contributions to racing while still enjoying success in the present. Glen Wood, part of a famed NASCAR dynasty, was the original driver of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing (WBR) Ford. In case you haven’t heard, 20-year-old Trevor Bayne drove that car to victory in the 2011 Daytona 500. WBR has 98 wins to its credit overall. 

“I think this is one of the greatest honors you can get in our sport. It’s something I certainly didn’t expect, at least so early,” the 85-year-old Wood said. 

Millions of contemporary race fans know Darrell Waltrip as the affable, knowledgeable and sometimes goofy broadcaster for the FOX network. But back in the day, the now-beloved Waltrip was one of NASCAR’s most polarizing and controversial figures. 

This was a guy who could have taught current stars like Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski a thing or two about smack-talking. He wasn’t afraid to go head-to-head and wheel-to-wheel with legends like Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, often beating them at their own game; Waltrip won three premier series championships and is currently tied for third on NASCAR’s all-time win list. 

One last thing. I looked up from my computer last weekend when a familiar voice caught my attention. Right there on “E! News,” sandwiched between critical stories about Snookie and the Kardashians, a tuxedoed and articulate Jimmie Johnson was commenting on the value of education. (Disclaimer: I was not actually watching “E! News.” I was waiting for “Fashion Police” to come on.)

At the bottom of the screen was a line of text that read “Jimmie Johnson.” Not “Race Car Driver Jimmie Johnson” or “Five-time NASCAR Champion Jimmie Johnson.” Just “Jimmie Johnson.” It seems a small thing, but when you think about it, it’s a very big deal. 

NASCAR has moved beyond the days when drivers were usually seen on entertainment TV only after a Daytona 500 victory, or being in the center of some controversy, or winning a championship. Thanks to the efforts of men like the 2012 HOF class of inductees, and to the modern-day heroes who have carried the flag forward, no explanation is required. “Jimmie Johnson” – or “Jeff Gordon,” or “Tony Stewart” – is simply enough.

I like famous quotations. Like the people to whom they are attributed, certain quotes become famous for a reason. They make us laugh, or they make us think. They ring true, like this one from the most reputable source of all, the Bible: “Have regard for your name, since it will remain for you longer than a great store of gold.”

With NASCAR, we are definitely getting our money’s worth. 

Cathy Elliott, the former director of public relations for Darlington Raceway, is a syndicated columnist for NASCAR and author of the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR.” (for David M. Kinchen's review on this site:http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/columns/100423-kinchen-columnsbookreview.html). Contact Cathy at.cathyelliott@hotmail.com

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