CHARLOTTE — The most obvious question about the annual unveiling of five additions to the NASCAR Hall of Fame also is the most difficult to answer:
Did the voters get it right by electing the most justifiable class available?
It’s impractical to analyze whether the worthiest inductees are chosen because there’s virtually no criteria provided about their selection. Each year, voters are provided a three-ring binder with 50 pages chock full of biographical and statistical data.
There are no guidelines on what constitutes a Hall of Fame career.
But there does seem to be a philosophy that has emerged in the stock car shrine’s nascent stages: The 2014 class only will be the fifth, bringing the total membership to 25.
Put the focus on the fame.
So far, it’s a philosophy that’s working in assembling a Hall of Fame whose dignitaries seem right even without a road map.
Despite a list of nominees that is top-heavy on “pioneers,” i.e. men and women who toiled in obscurity to build NASCAR, the inductees being culled each year are those who earned headlines during their respective glory years, and each fills a role that every class should have.
As champion-turned-TV analyst Rusty Wallace was last year, Dale Jarrett was elected Wednesday in his first year on the ballot, giving the Hall of Fame an articulate and affable ambassador who can spread the racing gospel to millions via ESPN. Though his racing credentials are strong — three Daytona 500 victories, two Brickyard 400 wins and a 1999 championship — they also are validation for Jarrett as the face of this year’s class — a la Wallace in 2012 and Darrell Waltrip in ’11.
Two more overdue legends — Tim Flock and Fireball Roberts — were added Wednesday, proving when the old guard is gone, it’s not forgotten by voters, who last year chose the late Herb Thomas and Buck Baker. Wednesday, they also remembered the feats of five-time champ Jack Ingram, the first full-time Nationwide Series driver elected. Ingram and Modified king Richie Evans (Class of 2012) make the Hall representative of NASCAR as a sanctioning body whose 65-year roots go far beyond its premier Sprint Cup division.
But the most important lesson from the Class of 2014’s blueprint was the first-ballot election of Maurice Petty. The Hall’s first engine builder follows on the heels of crew chiefs Dale Inman (2012) and Leonard Wood (2013) and served as another reminder that those who turn the wrenches are underrepresented. (The inaugural nominee list had no full-time crew chiefs.)
When the 21-member nominating committee, which consists mostly of NASCAR officials and track operators, chooses the next list of 25 nominees, it would be wise to add more mechanics (Smokey Yunick, Harry Hyde and Ray Evernham) and cull some of the executives, accountants and sponsor reps who delivered important work but not the crowd-pleasing achievements worthy of being celebrated at a $200-million temple of vroom in uptown Charlotte. It’s possible to make strong cases for candidates who stretch far beyond the 25 nominees presented each year.
And it’s impossible to reach a consensus on five or construct an informed prediction of the class.
It’s why the two-hour discussion Wednesday among a 54-member panel of driving legends, industry heavyweights and media that preceded the vote produced the most contentious and spirited debate in the process’ relatively brief history.
It’s why Jarrett showed up for the announcement in a casual summer ensemble of white golf shoes, pants and a blue checkered shirt. (He dressed for his son’s high school graduation party instead of a crowning achievement of his own).
It’s why Hall of Fame voting day has become the most consistent way to stoke healthy and lively discourse in a sport that often desperately needs provocative storylines that don’t latch onto the negative. But despite its nebulous nature, which seems apropos for a sport spawned by moonshiners outrunning the law and fueled by crew chiefs working in gray areas of the rule book, a loose template is emerging for each class. And it’s positive because it focuses on an inherent and self-evident requirement for enshrinement.
The Hall of Fame should feature the famous.