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Hall of Fame class of '12 a great one

1/21/2012 - NASCAR

Again this year, please indulge an old NASCAR writer in some reminiscences about the incoming Hall of Fame class ...

Before DW, Jaws

In midstream of a live "NASCAR Now" on ESPN in 2008, the producers decided Darrell Waltrip and I were arguing so all out and wide open that they scrubbed the rest of the segments and let us have at it the rest of the way.

"I gotta be nice to Hinton," Waltrip quipped during a commercial break on the satellite uplink. "He's the only one left who's old enough to remember how good I was."

How good was he? You're not gonna like this, but it's true: Prior to 1983, Dale Earnhardt was not the Intimidator. He was the Intimidated.

Waltrip got under Earnhardt's skin and stayed there for years. Waltrip was, simply, better. Slicker. Smoother. Cooler. And vastly more articulate.

My mind's eye still sees the enraged, whipped, almost apoplectic Earnhardt stomping back through the Daytona garage area in 1982 after Waltrip rubbed him and Neil Bonnett out of the way just to finish second in a qualifying race.

"Did he cut you off?" somebody asked Earnhardt.

"Cut me off? He ran all over the side of my g--damn race car!" Earnhardt howled.

Waltrip had superb car control long before Earnhardt figured it out. Their ruthlessness was equal but different. Earnhardt was blatantly roughshod. Waltrip took out others with such finesse that he sometimes made it look like the other guy's fault.

He had infuriated the fans almost upon arrival in the 1970s, openly poking fun at homespun icons Richard Petty and David Pearson, showing respect only for Cale Yarborough. It was Yarborough who nicknamed Waltrip "Jaws."

"Cale and I are both greedy drivers," Waltrip said to me in 1978. "We both want it all."

Waltrip made both Petty and Pearson look bad as he won the old Rebel 500 at Darlington in 1979. Pearson belly-flopped his car in the pits by driving away with two wheels loose while trying to beat Waltrip out. On the last lap, side-by-side with Petty, Waltrip tricked the King into driving too hard into Turn 3 and skating up, allowing Waltrip to pass for the win.

Driving for Junior Johnson, Waltrip won a dozen races each season of 1981 and '82 and added a third championship in 1985.

When you think about it, Waltrip won more races in less time against better competition -- 84 in 18 years, 1975-92 -- than any other NASCAR driver.

What slowed him down?

Waltrip has always denied this, but I believe one turning point in his career was his bad wreck in the 1983 Daytona 500. Waltrip was forced sideways exiting Turn 4, and his car bounced like a pinball between the outside and inside retaining walls.

For weeks afterward he was in a daze, fading in and out of awareness of where he was. At Rockingham, I asked him whether he realized what a close call he'd had.

He looked me in the eye and said, "Look, this ain't my first rodeo. I know you can get hurt in this business. I know you can get killed."

Not long afterward, at Atlanta, I overheard him giving another writer his career philosophy: "I want to win as many races as I can -- going as slow as I can."

Earnhardt began to get the upper hand in their ongoing staredown.

"Can't wait for Talladega," Earnhardt said. "Everybody knows Darrell don't like to run that fast anymore."

In 1986, Earnhardt took the upper hand for keeps. Going for the win, Waltrip thought he'd cleared Earnhardt on the backstretch on the old, flat Richmond Fairgrounds track.
Earnhardt clipped Waltrip on the right-rear quarter panel and turned Waltrip head-on into the Armco barrier. In the process, Earnhardt wrecked himself, giving dark horse Kyle Petty his first Cup win.

Waltrip came walking back across the infield as if he'd seen a ghost. Jaws was gone. Across the garage area, the Intimidator was born.

The only wreck Waltrip has ever admitted slowed him down -- "That one scared the crap out of me," he told me -- was the one where he spun and was T-boned during practice at Daytona in the summer of 1990. He would limp for more than a year with a steel rod placed in a badly broken leg.

After 1992, he never won again. Worse, he mainly puttered around the tracks in his own team's cars, which weren't very good. I asked him why he hung around and made himself look bad. He said the money was too good to quit.

Younger fans' memories of him as good old, hapless DW are of his own doing.

I've always found that a bit sad. We came into NASCAR full time in the same year, 1974, largely in the same boat: both brash, brassy, ambitious -- and both entirely too iconoclastic for the liking of the Cup establishment of the time.
Naturally, he and I clashed on and off through the decades. In 1981 at Daytona, he addressed me in 12-letter terminology, blaming me for a headline on one of my stories in Atlanta, "Waltrip to Fans: Let's Duke It Out." He tried to shift the blame for the uproar he'd caused by saying maybe his fans and his detractors should meet in some parking lot for a rumble.

"Hinton, what do you want, you trouble-making a------?" he growled in his hauler after I'd written what he'd said in 1991 -- that if the Gulf War became ground warfare, the Daytona 500 should be canceled. Reading that, NASCAR president Bill France Jr. had returned Waltrip's entry blank for the 500.

Circa 1993 at Daytona, genial Chevrolet publicist Ray Cooper invited me to join a few other reporters for a small group interview with Waltrip in his garage stall. I declined.

"C'mon," Coop said. "Darrell said to bring you along."

"You tell Waltrip I said I don't waste my time on over-the-hill drivers," I said.

Maybe an hour later, having dutifully delivered the message, Coop returned with the response.

"The trouble with Hinton and me," he quoted Waltrip as saying, "is that we're too much alike."

DW and I had our feuds and had our fun. But to this day, he knows I know just how good he was.

A lifetime of close calls

I think it was in 1979 that a gaggle of us gathered in Yarborough's hotel room in Atlanta to watch a breakthrough -- the first guest-starring role by a NASCAR driver on a popular network television show. It was "The Dukes of Hazzard."

Petty had started an uproar by telling some of us that the producers had asked him first but that he considered the program insulting to Southerners and refused to appear.

An irate Yarborough said that wasn't true -- that they'd asked him first. Coming off three straight Winston Cup championships in 1976, '77 and '78, he was the hottest name in NASCAR.

The promo ads had been going all week, featuring Yarborough telling the Duke boys, "If we get out of this, I'm gonna ADOPT you two!"

Yarborough had agreed to let three writers watch the airing with him. There were no DVRs in those days, so you watched a program live with no recording or rewinding. All three of us were pretty talkative, and to be honest, we may have had a few before we got to Yarborough's room. We jawed on and on until the titles began to roll for the show.

"Y'all gonna need to be quiet now, so we can hear this," Yarborough said.

And we hushed. For an hour -- the longest I could remember any one of us, let alone all three of us, maintaining silence.

When the little bulldog of NASCAR spoke, you did what he said. Friendly as he was, there was nobody tougher in the sport. Nobody tougher from the state of South Carolina, or the South, period.

We'd learned just how tough not long before the "Dukes of Hazzard" appearance.

Yarborough was known for having the most spectacular wreck ever at Darlington -- and for his calm in walking back up the embankment from it. His car had flown completely over the guardrail and out of the racetrack in 1967.

So at Darlington, we asked him what other scary things had happened to him. We got far more than we'd bargained for.

"Well, let's see," he began, casually as could be. "I got bitten by a rattlesnake one time ... got struck by lightning one time ... jumped out of a plane and the parachute wouldn't open ... and, oh yeah, I got shot one time."

This had all happened to the farm kid William Caleb Yarborough around Timmonsville, S.C., long before he ever got to NASCAR.

He was maybe 10 or 11 when the rattlesnake bit him, and although he was sick for a while, he came out far better than the snake. Days later, he was walking in the yard and saw, under a bush, the rattlesnake, dead.

"Guess after he bit me, he just crawled off and died," Yarborough said.

Then there was the time "I was standing in a house, watching a lightning storm," he said. "I saw a lightning bolt hit out in the middle of a field. Big bright ball. Then all of a sudden it looked like it was coming right at me, through the open window ...

"I woke up a while later, on the floor, with the room all filled with smoke."

In his youth, he decided the then-new sport of skydiving was for him. He leapt from an old plane, enjoyed the freefall for a few moments and then pulled the rip cord.

The chute didn't open. He pulled the cord for the backup. It didn't open either.

He pulled again at the primary cord as the ground soared up to meet him, and this time it opened, maybe 200 feet from disaster.

"It was also a good thing that I landed in some tall weeds," he said, laughing.

The shooting wasn't too bad. At a drive-in restaurant, he was on a date with his wife-to-be, Betty Jo, when a drunk began openly relieving himself in the parking lot.

Yarborough took issue with the guy, who produced a .22 revolver and began firing at the ground in front of Yarborough's feet.

It was only later, after the altercation had stopped, that Yarborough noticed some blood trickling from one of his cowboy boots. He'd caught one of the bullets in a foot.

With all that, to the best of my knowledge, the first time Yarborough was ever truly frightened was in 1979, and it wasn't in the melee he's most famous for -- "The Fight" with brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison just after the Daytona 500 that year. (That, he always said, "was just a little misunderstanding.")

The fright came in the immediate aftermath of a massive wreck at Talladega that May. Buddy Baker, leading a freight-train draft, had gotten sideways and taken out most of the front of the field with him. The entire first turn was engulfed in smoke, so the cars just kept wrecking and wrecking. Yarborough had climbed out of his car when yet another car piled into the melee, trapping him between his car and Dave Marcis'.

Yarborough went to the ground and realized he couldn't move or feel his legs. He was afraid to look -- afraid he'd go into shock if his worst fears were realized. By that point, Marcis had emerged from his car.

"Dave! Look and see if I've got any legs!" Yarborough yelled.

"What?" said the incredulous Marcis, taking a look. "Of course you got legs! What the hell are you talking about?"

It turned out the impact of the two cars had been tire-to-tire, so Yarborough's legs were numb for a while but not seriously injured.

Just one more close call in a lifetime of them.

The quiet commander

The more he liked you and the better you knew him, the less you wanted to shake hands with Dale Inman.

A little smile would appear on his face as he grasped your hand, and then he would squeeze to the point of crushing.

He was, and still is, that strong. He got his comeuppance only once, when he messed with NASCAR official and former NFL All-Pro linebacker Les Richter, who in retaliation squeezed Inman's hand until he went to his knees.

Yet Inman was so quiet, and worked so much in the background, that many people for years mistook his first cousin, Maurice Petty, as Richard Petty's crew chief -- including me at first.

Maurice was the magnet for media in those days, probably because he was the King's brother. Maurice was actually the engine builder. Inman did everything else.

Inman was a crew chief before there was even such a term. And he was the winningest ever at that post: 193 races and eight championships with two drivers -- seven with Petty and one with Terry Labonte.

Sometimes after dinner on a race weekend on the road, Inman would hang out with a handful of sportswriter friends. Sometimes we'd kid him about the No. 1 criticism of Petty Enterprises dominance -- that many of Richard's 200 wins, and many championship points, came at small tracks in remote places, when the Pettys were the only NASCAR regular team that ventured off the East Coast.

Inman's answer was always the same:

"Everybody got an entry blank in the mail."

In other words, it wasn't the Pettys' fault if nobody else wanted to compete as often.

It wasn't until I did an in-depth story from the pits during a Talladega race in 1978 that I realized who the real commander of the Petty operation was.

I picked a position between the Petty pits and those of Waltrip, then with the DiGard team, whose crew chief was Buddy Parrott. There were no pit boxes to sit on in those days and no spotters. Inman and Parrott stood on the pavement in their pits, largely working blind, considering the 2.66 miles of the enormous Talladega track.
Parrott would speak often to the flamboyant young Waltrip, who at the time was just making his way from upstart to contender.

Inman, on the other hand, kept pursing his lips at the microphone of his headset, as though he were about to say something. He did that dozens of times, and I would move closer to try to hear what he was saying to the King. But time after time, Inman stopped short of speaking.

Suddenly, out of sequence, Waltrip's green Gatorade car appeared in the DiGard pits. Moments later, the yellow flew from the flagstand across the track.

Inman pressed an earphone closer with his right hand. Apparently Petty was telling him he'd escaped the crash.

Racing back to caution was allowed back then. It was usually up to the driver how much risk he would take, navigating the wreckage to get back to the flag.

Finally Inman spoke: "Run hard, Richard. Run HAAAAARD, Richard. And come on around and lap Darrell."

The King obeyed his crew chief, came flying off the fourth turn and lapped the green car; going a lap down at Talladega in those days pretty much finished your chances.

Inman showed a slight smile, the same one that still accompanies his crushing handshake, but this one was of satisfaction for finishing off the brash whippersnapper for the day. He didn't say another word on the radio for the rest of the race.

Waltrip would fall out with a blown engine, and Petty would manage only a seventh-place finish.

But Inman had won the duel with the flamboyant challengers.

No bragging, just facts

The first time I ever heard Glen Wood talk, I thought surely he would be "great copy," as we said in the newspaper business of colorful figures.

His driver, Pearson, had just outfoxed Richard Petty to win the first Cup race I ever covered, the Firecracker 400 at Daytona in 1974.

Pearson, leading late, realized he couldn't hold off Petty's slingshot pass on the final lap, so he figured out a way to make Petty pass him at the white flag.

Pearson let completely off the throttle and turned onto the apron, faking a blown engine. Petty turned right and drove around Pearson, only to look in his rearview mirror and see Pearson's red-and-white Mercury looming again, at full throttle.

Pearson passed Petty as they came toward the checkered flag, and MRN radio reporters rushed to interview car owner Wood. The broadcast was carried on the public address system.

"What David pulled on Richard out there was just about the slickest trick I've ever seen in racing," Wood said.

Petty was already seething over being tricked with a move he deemed dangerous to both drivers. Upon Wood's remark, Petty was so outraged that he came to the press box to state his case, interrupting Pearson's interview.

That was the first and last controversial remark I ever heard from Wood, the eldest of five brothers including Leonard, Delano, Clay and Ray Lee.

The second generation Woods, Eddie and Len, are open and comfortable with the media. The first generation Woods so thoroughly let their actions speak for them that they were almost mime artists with their pioneering of choreographed pit stops and their brilliant, highly secretive combinations of engines, chassis and body work. Their drivers -- including Marvin Panch, Tiny Lund, A.J. Foyt, Baker, Bonnett and Dan Gurney -- were told only the bare essentials of what they needed to know about the setups and engines.

Pearson told me that sometimes he was baffled, without a clue where the uncanny speed came from. Sometimes he wondered whether they didn't have some sort of remote control in the pits for the car.

Looking back, I didn't know Wood well.

"Hell, nobody did," said my longtime colleague Benny Phillips, now retired as sports editor of the High Point (N.C.) Enterprise who began covering NASCAR in 1960, the year Wood got three of his four wins as a driver.

Even when some colorful story arose about the Woods, Glen likely as not would debunk the myth.

The story of the Wood Brothers' first Daytona 500 win, in 1963 with Lund at the wheel, was embellished. True, Lund arrived rideless that February, with just a few cents in change in his pocket. True, during a sports car race earlier in the week, the Woods' regular driver, Panch, was injured in a crash, and bystander Lund had helped pull Panch out of his flaming Maserati.

The myth goes that Panch, from his hospital bed, persuaded the Woods to put Lund in their car, out of gratitude.

They were much more pragmatic than that, Glen would tell Phillips first and me later.

"Glen and Leonard Wood made that decision," he said, "because Tiny Lund was the best available driver."

From that race through the 2011 Daytona 500, winning with Trevor Bayne, Glen Wood arose as the winningest NASCAR car owner in Daytona history with 15 victories. By comparison, Richard Petty has 11, Rick Hendrick 10, Junior Johnson six and Joe Gibbs four.

Wood remains the only car owner to win three straight Daytona points races, all with Yarborough: the 1967 Firecracker, '68 Daytona 500 and '68 Firecracker.

But Pearson, who drove to 43 of the Wood Brothers' 98 wins, remains their most closely identified driver.

In 1973 the team entered only 18 races and won 11 -- the highest winning percentage ever for a NASCAR season.

It was all done quietly, without fanfare.

Win, party, win, party ...

I missed my chances to know Richie Evans. Never have I regretted that more than lately.

For memories of him, I asked two old friends. Ken Squier and Dick Berggren were both in the thick of Northeastern modified action, Squier as a promoter/announcer and Berggren as a journalist, long before they became legendary network broadcasters -- Squier with CBS, and Berggren with CBS and now Fox.

Evans epitomized "the men who live by the grace of God and 800 horsepower," as Squier had dubbed them in New England long ago -- and as they were heralded by the track announcers when they'd come to Daytona to run each February. The cars were too powerful to run only on the banking, so NASCAR ran them on the road-oval course meant for sports cars.

They were an eerie sort of presence, working on their monstrous, mean-as-hell-looking little cars on the infield grass; they weren't even given a garage area. But to a young journalist from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, there seemed little reason to interview them -- modified racing was long gone from the South.

Still, the mystery men: Carl Bergman, who raced under the alias of Bugs Stevens ... Jerry Cook ... Maynard Troyer ... an up and coming youngster named Geoff Bodine ...

And most of all the undisputed king of modifieds, Evans. Against the aforementioned competition, he won eight straight NASCAR modified championships from 1978 through 1985. Only his death, in a crash during practice at Martinsville, Va., in October 1985, ended his string of championships.

But just an interview or two wouldn't have revealed the real Evans, Squier assured me.

"He was very quiet," Squier said. "If you'd met him, you'd never have suspected the deviltry of which he was capable."

But if you knew him, really knew him, there was a clue.

"There was always a little smile that told you the devil was in the doing," Squier said.

In what ways? "This," said Squier, "was in the era when people would wake up after race weekends and find their cars in motel swimming pools."

"Sometimes [Evans'] parties would last into the morning -- by that I mean daylight," Berggren said. "He'd win on Friday night, and as soon as the checkered flag was passed into his hands, the party would start.

"It would go on all night, and then Richie would sleep a few hours, then work on the car, and strap in, and kick everyone's ass on Saturday night. And the party would start again."

"He was a complete, unmitigated wild man," Squier said. "He was infamous for getting into trouble at Martinsville. It's interesting that that's the track where he died."

His greatest rivalry was with Cook, "because they were both from that Utica-Rome area of New York," Squier said. "Cook was the conservative one. Evans was always the one with his foot on the floor. ...

"Once he won Martinsville upside down. He got into the wall coming off Turn 4 but still came across the line first."

Evans becomes the first non-Cup driver inducted into the Hall of Fame, which "is a very big deal for grass-roots short-track American racing," Berggren said. "Those people are just blown away with the fact that one of their own has been included."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.