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|Fireball Roberts drove with win-or-wreck abandon, winning 33 races but never a season championship.|
Four inductee classes in, I'm still wondering: How can NASCAR have a Hall of Fame that doesn't include Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly, Curtis Turner, Fred Lorenzen and/or Bobby Isaac?
The operative word here is "fame."
Five of NASCAR's most famous names have languished, almost as afterthoughts, on the lists of nominees. And there is no guarantee they'll be on the 2014 list when it is announced in coming weeks. (NASCAR is expected to announce at least a timetable for the nomination process within the next few days.)
Along with the most obvious big-name drivers -- Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt et al -- due recognition has now been given to crew chiefs, executives, owners, even a short-track modified star, Richie Evans.
|Joe Weatherly, left, and Curtis Turner after the Old Dominion 400 at Martinsville on Oct. 28, 1956.|
So now NASCAR has a hall of inclusion. There is room for re-emphasis on the fame factor. So my five inductees for 2014 would be Roberts, Weatherly, Turner, Lorenzen and Isaac.
They are the most resounding names yet to be inducted.
"Fireball Roberts!" was always said with an exclamation point on the radio. The nickname, which Glenn Roberts actually picked up as a high school baseball pitcher, went with his driving style: all-out, win or wreck or blow or wear out tires.
NASCAR's first great charismatic name never won a season championship because he wouldn't slow down, wouldn't run conservatively. He won 33 races; he led 90.
It was only after Fireball's death, 39 days after being badly burned in the World 600 at Charlotte in 1964, that a new star began to emerge in NASCAR by the name of Richard Petty.
Roberts' death was the second blow to NASCAR's original charisma pool in '64. "Little Joe" Weatherly had been killed at Riverside, Calif., that January, after having won two straight season championships. His car owner, Bud Moore, believes to this day that had Weatherly lived, he could have become NASCAR's first three-peat champion.
Crashing in a right-hand turn on the Riverside road course, Weatherly likely would have walked away if his head hadn't gone out the driver's-side window and hit a concrete retaining wall.
The deaths of NASCAR's two most colorful stars of the time, within six months in a bleak '64, led to two milestone safety innovations: flexible bladders inside fuel cells to prevent huge fires like the one that led to Roberts' death, and netting in driver's side windows.
I once asked Bill France Sr., the founder of NASCAR, to name the best driver he'd ever seen. He said Lloyd Seay, the Georgia moonshine runner-turned-racer, who was shot and killed in a bootleggers' quarrel in 1941 at age 21, before there even was a NASCAR.
|Bobby Isaac (71), Bobby Allison (22) and James Hylton rubbin' doors during the 1970 Talladega 500.|
Other than that, Big Bill said, "Curtis Turner."
Turner won but 17 races, but along with drinking buddies Roberts and Weatherly, "Pops" got the real show started in NASCAR. Turner was called "Pops" because he called everybody else "Pops," usually with drink in hand.
In 1966, at Winston-Salem, N.C., the veteran Turner and the upstart Bobby Allison knocked each other off the track and kept up the demolition derby in the infield, ramming each other head-on until "there was nothing left of those two cars but the steam from the radiators," as a witness, my late sportswriter friend Benny Phillips, used to tell it.
Later, Allison watched warily as Turner walked up. But rather than throwing a punch, Turner "put his arm around Allison's shoulders and said, 'Come on, Pops, let's go have a drink,' " Phillips said.
It was for his off-track carousing as much as his racing that Sports Illustrated once called Turner "the Babe Ruth of stock car racing."
Pops flew his own airplanes, and died in a crash in 1970.
Fred Lorenzen, Ford Motor Co.'s "Golden Boy," was the first driver from Up North to find stardom in NASCAR. From the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst, "Fast Freddie" brought a new kind of polish and charisma.
He was selective about his starts for Holman-Moody and didn't run for championships.
In 1964, he started only 16 races and won eight of them. In '65 he won the Daytona 500 and World 600. In all, he won 26 races, more than 20 percent of his starts, before retiring at age 33 in 1967. Realizing he'd retired too early, Lorenzen came back for 29 more races, from 1970 to 72, but didn't get another win.
There remains some controversy over whether Bobby Isaac, a sixth-grade dropout, was functionally literate. But Phillips told me Isaac sometimes asked him to look at his hotel bills to make sure they were correct on checkout.
There is no debate about Isaac's driving ability. In 1969 he won 17 races and a NASCAR-record 20 poles. In '70 he won 11 races and the championship.
|Fred Lorenzen after winning the National 400 NASCAR Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct. 17, 1965.|
He was treated as something of a pariah by his peers after he drove in the inaugural Cup race at Talladega, Ala., in '69, refusing to join a boycott by nearly all other big-name drivers.
His most bizarre race was at Talladega in '73, when he suddenly parked his car, claiming he'd heard a preternatural voice ordering him to stop and get out. In that race, rising young star Larry Smith was killed instantly in what had appeared to be a minor scrape of the wall.
To my famous five, I would add three wild-card names who were famous mainly for what they did with what little they had to do it with: Alan Kulwicki, Wendell Scott and Benny Parsons.
The fiercely independent Kulwicki, on a shoestring budget as an owner-driver, won the 1992 championship, embarrassing the far better-financed teams that went down to the wire with him in the season finale at Atlanta. He was killed in a plane crash the following spring as he returned from a public appearance as the reigning champion.
Scott was the first African-American to compete regularly in NASCAR, and he did it in the bad old days. He won but one race, at Jacksonville, Fla., in 1960, and at first he was even denied that. Initially, Buck Baker took the trophy. Only days later, in a news release, did NASCAR declare Scott the winner.
Scott's legacy lies not in his numbers but in the sheer guts and determination that kept him racing for a dozen years. He is famous for that -- and his induction into the Hall would further NASCAR's aims at inclusion.
Parsons' two greatest achievements in NASCAR -- winning the 1973 championship and the '75 Daytona 500 -- were fueled by the sheer likability of the man.
In '73, driving an unsponsored car, Parsons went into the season finale at Rockingham, N.C., as the highly unlikely points leader. But early in the race, he was caught up in a crash, and the right side of his car was ripped away. Back in the garage, crewmen from other teams surrounded his car, bearing spare parts, and rebuilt it enough that he could finish and win the championship. They just liked the man.
In '75, Parsons was more than 10 seconds behind Daytona 500 leader David Pearson in the waning laps when suddenly, the No. 43 of Richard Petty began towing Parsons toward the front. Petty was several laps down with a cracked engine block, but had the fastest car on the track. Petty couldn't win, and he just plain liked Parsons, so he towed him in the draft until Pearson tangled with Cale Yarborough and wrecked, and Parsons cruised to the checkered flag.
Parsons became even more beloved, and more famous, as a broadcaster than a driver. He died in 2007.
I don't disagree on any of the 20 inductees thus far. I've just felt all along that NASCAR should have inducted 10, rather than five, per year in these early classes. But as the process grinds on slowly, let's think purely this time: Hall of FAME.