Idling in a bit of a reflective mood the other day, it occurred to me that I have been lucky enough not only to have met, but also interacted with, most of the15 members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
In many instances my relationship with a few of them was mainly on a professional level. With men such as Bill France Sr., his son Bill France Jr., Lee Petty, and Modified superstar Richie Evans – whom I covered regularly at Martinsville – there wasn’t much personal interaction.
But it wasn’t that way with the Hall’s other 11 members. The media-athlete standard, one that decrees that mutual cooperation is good, but any personal relationship is bad, simply dissolved.
With some (Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt) it was easy to talk about politics, world affairs and life itself. With others (Bud Moore, David Pearson, Dale Inman, Junior Johnson) it was so natural to swap tall tales, jokes, anecdotes and laughs.
It was pretty much the same with others (Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison) but they also spoke their minds about the racing issues of the day. Often they were more blunt and direct than they would have been in public.
Throughout my career, I always practiced what I preached. When I said something was off the record, with me, it remained so.
Over time and increased trust, they all knew this. When I asked them if they wanted their opinions printed sometimes they said no.
At others, they told me to come out with my guns blazing, their words as bullets.
This wasn’t always the case. Inman and Wood, while always friendly, were very cautious with their words.
Ned Jarrett is the only Hall of Fame member with whom I actually worked. After his racing career he became established – and gained further notoriety – as a broadcaster.
In the late 1990s, it came to pass that I joined the panel of TNN’s “Inside NASCAR,” of which Ned was the host.
During the course of one summer we were the only panelists on camera and had to basically carry the show by ourselves.
Ned was the ultimate professional, ably orchestrating our discussions. Working those months alone with him ranks as one of the highlights of my career.
I have said all this not to suggest to you that I am anything special. Far from it.
I did so only to say that in my profession I have been, simply, very fortunate – no more and no less.
I would like to offer some personal observations about two of the incoming members of the Hall of Fame, and do the same for others at a later date.
My life as a motorsports writer had progressed only a few years when I was able to witness the launch of what would be two spectacular careers.
Well, to be honest, it wasn’t the inauguration of Yarborough’s career. By the early 1970’s he had already established himself as a NASCAR star, sweeping to victories with Holman-Moody and the Wood Brothers.
But Yarborough became charmed with Indy Car racing – then easily the dominant form of motorsports in the United States. He got an offer enter the sport and compete in the prestigious Indianapolis 500.
He took it and walked away from NASCAR.
The experience was a disaster.
In only a couple of years Yarborough was out and hunting, again, for a NASCAR ride.
As fate would have it in 1973, there was a good one available. Allison had driven for Johnson in 1972 but their competitively successful yet personally unsatisfactory relationship had some to an end.
Johnson didn’t waste any time. He snatched Yarborough immediately. And, as they say, the rest is history.
You know all about their numerous victories together and the domination that led to three consecutive Winston Cup championships from 1976-78.
It was a perfect fit. As a driver Johnson never coddled a car. Yarborough didn’t either. He didn’t know how.
He was short, stocky and barrel-chested. When he finished a race he was red-faced and sweating profusely – because of the heat, for sure – but many times also because he had wrestled with an uncooperative car over 500 miles and made it win.
He was a tough guy who came from a tough background. It didn’t take long for the media – with whom Yarborough was comfortable – to print stories of his football and boxing days, or how he came to unwillingly wrestle an alligator when he dove into a river, or got bit on the toe by a rattlesnake and the snake was found dead the next day (Yarborough was just fine) or how he survived a hit from a bolt of lightning.
He was the perfect example of the stereotypical stock car driver of the day – rugged, tough and unafraid.
He was much more than that, of course, as I learned over the years. But during his time no other driver was considered tougher by fans and peers alike.
It would be well into the 1980s before anyone suggested there was a driver who could match Yarborough – and his name was Earnhardt.
Waltrip was barely noticed when he came out of Kentucky by way of Tennessee to start a Winston Cup career. He had only his own, one-car team.
But he won with it in 1975, at Nashville, and began to attract attention – probably enough to lure DiGard Racing Co. to hire him as a replacement for Donnie Allison later that season.
As you might expect, Waltrip won again and that set loose upon the NASCAR world something it had never before seen.
It was a man who was bold, candid and irreverent. If he had respect for the stalwarts of the day he didn’t show it. He touted himself, constantly, and said he was the man who would beat the establishment.
You have to understand that during this time to affront the five or six superstars that dominated the sport – or to make snide remarks about virtually anything – was unheard of.
So when Waltrip did it, boldly and willingly, fans and competitors were astonished.
Some hated him for it – Yarborough was no fan – while others relished it. In Waltrip they saw the sport’s first refreshing presence in years. They began to cheer for him, even if they spelled his name “Waldrop.”
As much as many would have loved to see this brash upstart shut up and, more important, fail on the track, neither happened.
Waltrip began to win regularly. He became a consistent championship challenger and in that role, as you might imagine, he was a master at baiting his rivals.
With Johnson, he earned three championships and his ascension to superstardom was complete.
Many might have considered him something of a loudmouth but with his success, and time, he became accepted and respected.
He never shut up. But, interestingly, he spoke more often about what could be done to improve NASCAR and its races than to question the ancestry of another driver.
Yes, he mellowed with age.
He has parlayed his experience, wit and gift of gab into his successful television career.
With your kind tolerance, there’s a bit more to come.