Commentary

Class of 2014: Greatness times five

Originally Published: January 29, 2014
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Remembrances of the careers of the five 2014 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees ...

Fireball Roberts

NASCAR's Hall is, of course, "of Fame." Emphasize the last word, and Fireball Roberts should have been inducted in its first class. He was NASCAR's first FAMOUS driver -- nationally famous, even known in Europe, where he once drove a Ferrari at Le Mans.

The morning after he died on July 2, 1964, of complications from severe burns suffered in a cloud of flame during Charlotte's World 600 that May, NBC's "Today Show" ran the news of his passing, and concluded the obituary simply:

[+] EnlargeFireball Roberts
ISC Images & Archives/Getty ImagesFireball Roberts, left, celebrated with John Holman of Holman-Moody after a Cup victory in 1963.

"Fireball Roberts."

The name was enough.

It resounded through American households when no other NASCAR name did. It wasn't just the nickname; it was the way the driving style fulfilled the nickname: all-out, all the time. Win, wreck or blow. Thirty-three times he won.

He was the archetype, the way race drivers are supposed to be in movies, but rarely are, especially nowadays.

Of course he never won a NASCAR championship, with that life- and car-gambling style, and that selectivity of races. He never ran a full schedule.

By consensus of those who knew him, he exuded charisma and fearlessness. His favorite song on the juke boxes in the beer joints and diners was by Faron Young: "Hello, Walls."

Edward Glenn Roberts Jr., it was long believed, got his nickname as a fastball pitcher in his youth in Central Florida. NASCAR historians now question the story, with input from Roberts' family and friends. Maybe, just maybe, Fireball got the name purely for his racing career.

His shorter, more poignant nickname in the inner circles was, simply, "Balls."

Driving for legendary mechanic Smokey Yunick, Roberts won the first two Firecracker 250s at Daytona (now the summer 400-miler there) in 1959-60, with less endurance required of his cars. But he didn't win the Daytona 500 until 1962, beating an upstart kid, NASCAR's household name in waiting, Richard Petty.

Roberts left Yunick to drive for Banjo Matthews, and won the Firecracker again that summer, becoming the first driver to sweep Daytona's major races in one season. How hard is that? Jimmie Johnson did it in 2013, and before him it hadn't been done since Bobby Allison in 1988.

Roberts' fearlessness might have found its limits in 1961, when the future if not the very existence of NASCAR teetered on his name. He at first was the brightest star in a movement by the Teamsters union to organize NASCAR drivers as the "Federation of Professional Athletes." Had it stuck, that union might have spread to other sports.

The movement started with Curtis Turner, and included Tim Flock, another 2014 inductee into the Hall of Fame.

But Roberts was the key. The three of them were banned for life from NASCAR that August of '61. But Roberts took what old-timers would remember as "The Long Ride," across western North Carolina from Winston-Salem to Asheville, with Pat Purcell, the right-hand enforcer of NASCAR's founder and first czar, Bill France Sr., "Big Bill."

Purcell came out of the carnival business, reputedly carried bottles of scotch in his briefcase for negotiation purposes, but played nothing but the hard line. Whatever was said in that passenger car moving west into the Blue Ridge mountains, Fireball Roberts got out in Asheville and announced he was through with the union movement.

Roberts was reinstated, and that was the beginning of the end of the FPA.

Toward the end of his career, which is to say his life, Roberts drove a Ford for the fabled Holman-Moody team. One teammate was an Indy car regular who also raced NASCAR, Dave MacDonald. On the same Memorial Day weekend in 1964, both MacDonald and Roberts were engulfed in flame, MacDonald in the Indianapolis 500, with Eddie Sachs, and Roberts in the World 600. All three were fatally injured.

Those deaths led to safety innovations taken for granted today: fire-resistant uniforms, and explosion-resistant fuel cells in NASCAR and fuel bladders at Indy.

And so the name resounds down through the decades, for charisma, daring and the end of a deadly era.

Fireball Roberts.

Tim Flock

No other driver has leapt this obstacle into the Hall of Fame: Tim Flock was banned for life from NASCAR in 1961.

The subject is so touchy, to this day, that the official news release from NASCAR on Flock, as a member of the induction class of 2014, says that he "retired after the 1961 season."

Well, you could say that. Or you could say he "was retired," by Big Bill France, NASCAR's founder and first czar. Flock continued to race, under other sanctioning bodies, into 1963.

He was reinstated in '65, but by then the two-time champion (1952, '55) and 39-race winner was 41 years old, and his heart and reflexes just weren't in it anymore.

So the best way to put it is that Tim Flock was done in NASCAR after '61.

[+] EnlargeTim Flock
ISC Archives via Getty ImagesTim Flock won this convertible race on the sands of Daytona Beach -- his first convertible division win -- driving the Bill Stroppe 1957 Mercury on Feb. 16, '57.

NASCAR suffered the greater loss, because Flock was a showman the likes of which NASCAR had never seen, and will never see -- nor probably allow -- again.

All the Flock Boys, all northern Georgia moonshine runners turned racers, transplanted from Alabama, were showmen. Bob, the eldest, once busted through the fence in his modified car at Atlanta's Lakewood Speedway when police took after him, and ran off. Middle brother Fonty liked to drive in Bermuda shorts, and first spawned the notion of an enormous track somewhere between Atlanta and Birmingham, which Big Bill France would later build at Talladega.

But Tim, the youngest, topped them all, winning more, even winning once with a Rhesus monkey he dubbed Jocko Flocko, aboard in 1953. But Jocko didn't have the nerve, went ape in an ensuing race, and became literally a monkey on Flock's back. Jocko was relieved of his racing duties midrace, never to return to the tracks.

Flock won the '52 championship in a Hudson Hornet -- we must be specific here: "The Fabulous Hudson Hornet," the paint scheme proclaimed. In '55, he won in a Chrysler 300, aptly carrying the number 300. (NASCAR would soon ban three-digit numbers, to make scoring with pencil and paper easier.)

Then came Jimmy Hoffa's Teamsters in '61, seeking to unionize the NASCAR drivers. The notoriously colorful driver Curtis Turner had gotten in cahoots with them via a loan for building his dream track, which we know now as Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Flock and Fireball Roberts, another 2014 HOF inductee, deemed the union a good idea. The Teamsters were of course anathema to Big Bill's dictatorship, and so France banned Turner, Flock and Roberts for life. Under pressure, Roberts quickly relented and withdrew from the movement, and was immediately reinstated.

Turner and Flock held out, and their ban continued for three more seasons. Turner returned, with mediocre results, but Tim Flock was in fact gone from the NASCAR tracks for life. Flock spent his last 30 years working in the marketing department of the speedway that had been the flashpoint, Charlotte.

He never showed bitterness, and became in fact one of the finest goodwill ambassadors ever known to NASCAR – and to the moonshine industry of the northern Georgia mountains.

While the more-notorious moonshine runner Junior Johnson disparaged Georgia liquor as rotgut -- said whenever the revenuers dried up North Carolina he'd go all the way to Mississippi for big loads, bypassing Georgia entirely -- Flock touted Georgia 'shine as the finest.

"They called it 'double-twist,'" he once said, meaning the Georgia boys ran the liquor through their stills twice, for purity.

In the spring of 1998, with Flock near death from cancer, Darrell Waltrip raced at Darlington with a car bearing the number 300. The ever-cheerful, ever-talkative Flock joined the news conference by phone.

Then he was gone.

Jack Ingram

An old Woody Guthrie song that should have been Jack Ingram's theme:

I been havin' some hard travelin'

I thought you knowed

I been havin' some hard travelin'

Way down the road ...

When NASCAR's original Iron Man arrived at Richmond International Raceway last September, he could hardly believe the great deal he'd gotten from NASCAR just to show up and talk about being voted into the 2014 induction class of the Hall of Fame.

"They paid for my gas and picked up our motel bill," he said.

[+] EnlargeJack Ingram
ISC Images & Archives via Getty ImagesJack Ingram, who once ran 86 races in a single season, was NASCAR's original Iron Man.

That, in Ingram's tough old frame of reference, was living pretty high on the hog.

He had come up through, and triumphed in, the hardest-traveling series NASCAR ever sanctioned.

Out of the mountain town of Asheville, N.C., he went way down the road, running 86 races in a single season -- "sometimes three and four times a week in as many different states," as the official HOF news release about him points out -- to win the 1972 championship in a series long gone, long since remodeled, fancied up with high-dollar sponsorships and simplified schedules, but still revered by those who remember it as perhaps the purest racing, in spirit, NASCAR has ever produced.

Late Model Sportsman.

Those three words thunder, echo down the decades to the knowing, right through the later commercial names, Busch and now the Nationwide Series.

The hard traveling kept on and on, as he three-peated, adding the Late Model Sportsman championships of '73 and '74. When, in 1982, NASCAR announced the highfalutin Busch Series with a schedule of only 29 races, Ingram took what for him was a couple of relative cakewalks, to the Busch titles of '82 and '85.

That makes five in the same series with the different names. Or is it really the same? Hardly.

Consider the modern-day Nationwide team: more crewmen than can get out of one another's way, well-to-do ownership, millions in sponsorship.

On Ingram's team in the hard-traveling days:

Driver -- Jack Ingram.

Crew chief -- Jack Ingram.

Car owner -- Jack Ingram.

Engine tuner -- Jack Ingram.

Chassis man -- Jack Ingram.

Chief truck driver, welder, sheet-metal fabricator -- Jack Ingram.

"Chief bottle washer," as the late, savvy NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter once put it -- Jack Ingram.

Eighty-six races. One season.

That's why he was the first in NASCAR to be called Iron Man.

Consider the modern-day gratitude expressed from Victory Lane to "all the guys back at the shop."

Hell, he was the shop, on the road, all the time, always traveling hard, always moving tirelessly around the pits and infields, often without the shelter of garages at the little tracks, working and driving in those high-top brogan work shoes of his.

Blessed are the pure in spirit, for they will come no more to NASCAR, and there wouldn't be room for them if they did.

But at least when Ingram, at age 82, comes around nowadays, they pay for his gas and pick up his motel bill.

To him, that's plenty.

Maurice Petty

William Faulkner's wiliest character "don't even tell hisself what he's thinkin'," the Nobel laureate wrote.

Maurice Petty might have confided in himself -- but nobody else -- about his innovations with the engines that took his older brother, Richard, to most of the King's 200 wins.

"Even the people that worked for you didn't know," the mechanical maestro, now 74, told NASCAR historians some years back. "You did it in the middle of the night."

He stayed so far in the background that nobody outside the family pronounced his name right, and he never corrected them. On television and elsewhere, they pronounced it traditionally by the spelling, "Mau-REECE." His father, patriarch Lee Petty, pronounced it "Morris," and so did Richard, who also called him "Chief."

[+] EnlargeMaurice Petty
ISC Archives/Getty ImagesEngine builder Maurice Petty, center, was a master of innovation, fueling big brother Richard Petty to most of his 200 NASCAR wins.

The first answer Maurice (think "Morris") Petty ever gave me -- and, as I recall, the only answer he ever gave me, in all his years in NASCAR -- was, "Ain't got time to talk about it." He was busy removing a carburetor for inspection, at Daytona, in 1975.

At least he had spoken in some fashion. That was rare. The previous winter, I had gone to the Petty compound at Level Cross, N.C., with some boat-manufacturing executives who were showing Richard how to use the controls on a high-powered ski boat he'd won as an extra prize in a race at Atlanta.

It was powered by a V-8 Ford engine, with a mighty "351 Cleveland" block, akin to what the Pettys' archrivals, David Pearson and the Wood Brothers team, were running in NASCAR.

Richard and Lee both spoke with the executives. Finally, Chief nudged his way in among those of us surrounding the boat.

Chief said not a word. He had eyes only for that engine -- didn't even glance at the propellers, the bow, the steering wheel, the seats, the windshield. Nothing but the engine.

He looked at it as if he were trying to stare it down, read its mind, make it blink. He turned his head sideways, like a crow listening for sounds, and looked at it from an angle.

Then he limped away -- he'd contracted polio as a child -- silently.

Just as silently, just as deeply in the background, he took the fall, some believe, for a landmark cheating incident at Charlotte in 1983.

After breezing to what still is recorded as his 198th win, Richard Petty's engine was found to be considerably oversized, nearly 382 cubic inches when the rulebook mandated 358 maximum.

During the postrace controversy, in a passenger car in the garage, with crusty crew chief Harry Hyde, sat a young entrepreneur who was considering starting a racing team: Rick Hendrick.

Richard Petty walked over to speak to Hyde, who introduced Hendrick, who was awestruck at the presence. Maybe, young Hendrick offered, when the engine cooled down, it would pass inspection.

"'They could take that engine to Alaska,'" Hendrick recalled Richard saying, "'And it still wouldn't pass.'"

Then-NASCAR president Bill France Jr. allowed Petty to keep the win and pay a stiff fine, and the precedent was set that rules today: Fans will leave the track knowing who won the race. A win stands, regardless of what is found in postrace inspection.

Maurice, some observers thought, was privately blamed for the embarrassment. Whatever the exact truth, he faded from the Petty operation from that point on.

What had the trick been with the engine? Speculation was that wax might have been put into the cylinder heads for the inspection of cubic inches, and then melted away to leave the larger capacity once the race started and the engine heated up.

What other innovations, legal, illegal -- or mostly in the "gray areas" the NASCAR mechanical wizards often cite -- had Chief come up with?

Maurice (think "Morris") never said. And likely never will.

Dale Jarrett

Considering what a star he was by 2000, when he dominated in his third Daytona 500 win, fresh off the 1999 championship, it is astonishing to think back further -- to recall how long Dale Jarrett had languished in NASCAR obscurity, the family name notwithstanding.

To call him a late bloomer is to ignore, to slight, his singular persistence. It was more that the seeds of his desire to race fell so early on such hardscrabble ground, and lay there so long, and that he wouldn't let them die.

He taught a life lesson as he followed and fulfilled a condition for manhood set by the poet Rudyard Kipling:

[+] EnlargeDale Jarrett
Getty ImagesDale Jarrett scored his first Cup series victory in August 1991 at Michigan, edging Davey Allison in a photo finish.

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

And now, of the 15 drivers either in the Hall of Fame mainly due to their Cup careers, nobody held on longer, with less, than Jarrett.

That his father, Ned Jarrett, was a two-time champion, bound for the Hall of Fame, was of little help to Dale on his long way up.

Dale didn't hit the Cup tour till age 30, and even then the rides were ragtag, with such struggling owners as Buddy Arrington and Jimmy Means, who themselves had never been anything but backmarkers as drivers. Oh, he drove for Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough, but the great driver was tightfisted as a low-budget owner.

Not till 34, pushing 35, did Jarrett win his first Cup race, and that was an upset, in that he drove for a Wood Brothers team long past its glory days, to beat then-rising star Davey Allison by less than a foot at Michigan in 1991.

Not till 36 did he emerge toward the end of the 1993 Daytona 500, driving for second-year owner Joe Gibbs, to win a duel with Dale Earnhardt. But by 43 Jarrett had three wins in NASCAR's showcase event.

He was 42 when he finally won the Cup, second-oldest champion ever, behind Bobby Allison -- who was 45, almost 46 -- when he won the title in '83.

Jarrett might well have been more successful, sooner, as a professional golfer on the PGA Tour, where he was headed before he strapped into a race car, just to try it, at little Hickory Speedway in North Carolina, where his father had been promoter.

So in a way, Ned's love of racing hurt -- that first fling at Hickory diverted Dale, an all-around athlete in high school, from a full golf scholarship offer to the University of South Carolina.

But in golf, Dale might have been over the hill by the age at which he hit full stride in NASCAR.

When he won the 500 in '93, he hadn't peaked yet -- indeed, he had controversial career moves left to make. He left Gibbs in '95 to replace the badly injured Ernie Irvan with the then-powerful Robert Yates Racing team. Critics deemed the move disloyal to Gibbs, and iffy for both Yates and Jarrett.

But it was with Yates that Jarrett had his greatest success, winning 18 races, including two Daytona 500s and two Brickyard 400s at Indianapolis, and the '99 championship.

In 2008, going on 52, after two seasons struggling with the fledgling Michael Waltrip team, Jarrett retired and followed his father into the telecast booth, as an analyst for ESPN and ABC, where he works today.

Ned has said he thinks he made it into the Hall of Fame as much as a broadcaster as a race driver. But Dale hasn't spent nearly as long in the booth as his father did.

No, Dale Jarrett got in on a driving record that came late, and earned it with sheer persistence, after holding on for so long with so little in the hardscrabble years.

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