Commentary

Hall of Fame memories for 2013

Updated: February 8, 2013, 9:47 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

This is one of those rarest of occasions when I don't feel old enough.

With each induction class into NASCAR's Hall of Fame, I have tried to provide my own up close and personal remembrances of the men.

This time, well, not even I go back far enough to have personal memories of Herb Thomas and Cotton Owens. I just wasn't around in their days.

I did know Buck Baker some, but only after he briefly came out of retirement to race at Darlington in 1976. I knew Leonard Wood more by his work than his talk. He was always a reticent wizard with engines, speaking to the media only when spoken to, and even then softly and sparingly.

But Rusty Wallace? You couldn't miss him. He arrived in 1980 with plenty to say, and he never let up, through his retirement in 2005, and he's still speaking in his staccato style as a television analyst for ESPN.

Here, in alphabetical order, are my up-close memories of some, and thoughts on the careers of others.

Buck Baker

Out of retirement, and right back onto center stage, at age 57, the legend came. This was at the spring race, Darlington, 1976. Elzie Wylie "Buck" Baker felt, he said, "like an old World War II propeller plane pilot coming back trying to fly a jet fighter."

[+] EnlargeBaker and Owens
ISC Images/Getty ImagesBuck Baker, left, and Cotton Owens were friendly rivals on the track and are now entering the NASCAR Hall of Fame in the same class.

He regaled us with stories of NASCAR's "prop plane" era, and didn't do too badly in the jet. After qualifying 13th, he shrugged and said "A man 57 years old don't need to be goin' no faster'n that."

Then he surveyed the grounds of the battered Lady in Black, and recalled running in the first Southern 500 there, in 1950. He had the gaggle of journalists around him laughing ourselves out of breath.

Never before had NASCAR run such a long race, and "none of us knew what it would take to go 500 miles," Baker began. Even then they had vague notions of staying hydrated, so several drivers secured -- they thought -- containers of liquid in their cars.

"One guy took beer," Baker recalled. After only a few laps, with the car pitching and jerking on the crude banking, "that beer foamed up. The car had so much foam pouring out of it that it looked like a washing machine was overflowing inside it."

Baker had decided to take a jug of tomato juice, for energy.

"Well, then I wrecked," he recalled. "The tomato juice spilled all over me, and I was slumped over in the seat."

When the safety workers got there, "one of 'em looked inside and hollered to the others, 'There ain't no helpin' this one. Po' feller's done got his head cut off!'"

Baker fared much better in NASCAR after that, winning back-to-back championships in 1956-57 and a career total of 46 race victories.

At Darlington in '76, the old prop pilot picked his way through all the melees of jet fighters and finished sixth. That was his last Cup race.

Not long before Buck died in 2002, his elder son, Buddy Baker, a NASCAR star in his own right, shook his head as he told me a story of just how feisty his father remained, into his 80s.

On a North Carolina highway, Buddy was driving with Buck as his passenger, and the driver of another car began gesturing at them in some sort of road rage. When the other driver pulled into a parking lot, "My daddy told me, 'Pull over there and stop,'" Buddy recounted.

"I said, 'What for?' He said, 'So I can whip that guy's a--.'"

Cotton Owens

He was just about the most famous guy around NASCAR that I never met. He fielded his last cars in 1973, and I didn't come to the beat until '74. But it's not like I didn't hear about him.

From Bobby Allison to Buddy Baker to David Pearson, you would hear, time and again, "I was driving for Cotton Owens then," or "That was when I was in Cotton's car."

In one of Cotton's Dodges, Baker became the first NASCAR driver to top 200 mph, at Talladega in 1970. It was for Owens, in '66, that Pearson won the first of his three championships.

Heck, even Elvis Presley drove for Cotton -- sort of. It was in an Owens-built Dodge that Elvis filmed the action scenes for the 1968 film, "Speedway."

And Owens' all-time roster of drivers included another singing star, Marty Robbins, who was racing for real. Others in his cars at one time or another included Fireball Roberts, Ralph Earnhardt, Benny Parsons, Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Junior Johnson … even road-racing stars Sam Posey and Peter Gregg.

In other words, Everett "Cotton" Owens, working out of the then-hotbed of Spartanburg, S.C., developed his own sort of hall of fame. Now he will be inducted into NASCAR's official Hall of Fame.

He began as a driver, known as "King of the Modifieds," with 100-plus victories in NASCAR's true backbone division. In Grand National, now known as Cup, he drove to nine wins in 160 starts, then fielded cars for others to win 38 times.

Owens died last June at age 88, knowing he'd made it into the Hall of Fame. His selection had been announced two weeks earlier.

Herb Thomas

I'll never forget how Richard Petty virtually leapt out of his chair, for emphasis, and stabbed at the air with that long right forefinger, an instant after I questioned his judgment.

This was in 1996, and I was seeking the King's input as to the top 10 drivers of NASCAR's first 50 years, and early on his list came a name out of the blue -- to me at least.

"Herb Thomas," he said.

"Herb Thomas?" I questioned.

"Yes, sir!" he said with the aforementioned body language.

So effusive was Petty about the single-minded aggressiveness of a man he'd watched in his youth that I began to ask around about this obscure figure.

[+] EnlargeThomas
Getty ImagesHerb Thomas won championships in 1951 and 1953 and had an ubelievable winning percentage of 20.9 during his career.

Just for openers, Thomas had the best winning percentage of any Cup driver, 20.9, with 48 wins in 230 races. He won championships in 1951 and '53.

Thomas was one of the great triumph-and-disaster tragedies of stock car racing, in the view of my late friend Benny Phillips, a North Carolina sports writer who covered NASCAR for half a century.

Thomas went against the flow, and it cost him what might otherwise have been a career that stood alongside those of Lee Petty (Richard's father), Buck Baker and Junior Johnson.

In midseason, 1956, Thomas quit driving for the dominant car owner of the time, Wisconsin millionaire Carl Kiekhaefer, known for arriving at the tracks with one of those big auto transporters like you see on the interstates -- full of race cars.

By late season, driving his own Chevrolets, Thomas led the point standings. Kiekhaefer was an industrialist accustomed to getting his way -- or making a way -- so he leased some tracks and convinced the still-struggling NASCAR founder, Bill France Sr., to extend the season. That was so Kiekhaefer's drivers, Baker and Speedy Thompson, would get additional cracks at Thomas for the title.

Phillips and others believed Kiekhaefer sent Thompson out to wreck Thomas at one of those tracks, on Oct. 23, at Shelby, N.C. Intentionally or not, Thompson hit Thomas' rear bumper and sent him into the third turn fence. Thomas hit hard, and other cars piled into his.

Baker went on to win the championship for Kiekhaefer.

Thomas suffered a fractured skull and brain injuries. He raced only three times after that, and was uncompetitive, so he quit for good in 1962. He died in 2000.

Now, with his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Thomas at last takes his rightful place alongside Lee Petty and Johnson, who are already in, and Baker, who goes in with Thomas this year.

Rusty Wallace

When Roger Penske hired Rusty Wallace full time in 1991, some of us doubted they would succeed together. We figured they might talk each other to death on the radio.

Wallace, ever-staccato in his speech on and off the track, and Penske, compulsive coach and spotter for his drivers, speaking on virtually every lap, might not be able to communicate at all -- what with both holding down the "talk" buttons all the time.

Talking was, ultimately, what had separated Wallace from Raymond Beadle, the car owner for whom Wallace won his only championship, in 1989. It began with Dale Earnhardt, who for years played Butch Cassidy to Wallace's Sundance Kid, razzing Wallace for not getting a bigger cut of the merchandising sales of Beadle's Blue Max team.

It continued with us media types carrying tales back and forth between Wallace and Beadle, inflaming the relationship more and more.

And now here was Wallace, paired with the most prolific radio talker among all car owners, everything to be said directly, all the time.

"I love it," Wallace responded when I asked, first thing, at the Daytona 500 of '91. "Roger's so enthusiastic … he's always on the radio saying, 'Good line, good line!' or whatever."

It was a matter of time, I figured, before they fell out -- probably on the radio.

But chatter and all, they stuck together for 15 years, collecting 37 of Wallace's 55 Cup wins, and coming close to a second season championship for him in '93, when they won 10 races.

Together they made the "Blue Deuce," the No. 2 Miller Lite car, an icon of the Cup series, a ride inherited by Kurt Busch after Wallace's retirement at the end of 2005, and then by 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski.

And to this day, Rusty Wallace has not stopped talking. It's just that he gets paid for that specifically now, as an ESPN television analyst. And although he has slowed his rate of speech from the Penske years, he still gets in more words per minute than anybody else I know.

Leonard Wood

David Pearson sometimes wondered, he once told me, whether he was driving the Wood Brothers car or whether Leonard Wood was standing in the pits operating some sort of remote control device.

[+] EnlargeWood
Jason Smith/Getty ImagesLeonard Wood was the mechanical wizard in the famous Wood Brothers cars in their heyday.

That's how mystifying the car's behavior was at times, in ways that Pearson couldn't quite comprehend.

And that was Leonard Wood, through the team's prime decades: looked like a math professor, worked like a magician, always somehow in the background.

Elder brother Glen Wood, inducted into NASCAR's Hall of Fame last year, was the leader and primary spokesman for the team. But in the heyday years of Pearson and the Wood Brothers, 1973-79, it was hard to decide who was more reticent, more "bashful," as Pearson said later of himself -- the driver or the quiet engine-building and tuning maestro, Leonard.

To Leonard, components were components -- and in ways, drivers were components.

Once at Darlington, qualifying had started but the No. 21 Mercury still sat in its garage, silent. Pearson was nowhere to be found -- likely hiding from us media types.

A few of us approached Leonard Wood, and somebody asked "Aren't y'all gonna qualify?"

"Yes," Leonard said in that soft, genteel Virginia accent, "if I can find my drivah."

Translation: The car was ready to go, pending the plugging in of the final component, Pearson.

When we reporters moved on, Pearson showed up, climbed in, and won the pole.

It was Leonard's engine mastery that propelled, in mysterious ways, not only Pearson but … well … just plug in Tiny Lund to replace the injured Marvin Panch, and win the Daytona 500 in 1963 … plug in Dan Gurney, and win on the road course at Riverside, Calif., in 1968 … plug in Cale Yarborough, and win the Daytona 500 in '68 and '70 … plug in A.J. Foyt, and win Daytona in '72 … and even in the twilight of the team, plug in Trevor Bayne to win Daytona in 2011 …

And so it is fitting that Leonard joins Glen in the Hall of Fame so rapidly, in the Class of 2013.