CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was popularity vs. performance in voting for NASCAR’s second Hall of Fame class, a five-member group that likely will be remembered for the exclusion of three-time champions Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough.
David Pearson, the only true “lock” of the group, was the leading vote-getter in Wednesday’s lengthy selection process. A year after the “Silver Fox” surprisingly was left out of the inaugural class, he was on all but three of the 53 ballots cast after two hours of spirited debate.
The 105-race winner received a standing ovation when NASCAR chairman Brian France called his name from the Great Hall of the Hall of Fame.
“I am just proud that that many people thought enough to vote for me,” Pearson said, insisting he’d never been upset at losing by a single vote last year to former NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr.
“I really didn’t know if I was going to make it (Wednesday) or not because like I said, I was told last year I was going to get in and I didn’t. Nobody never knows ’til they call it right then.”
Not so for Waltrip, who knew by the time the third name was called that he had not made the cut this year.
Three-time Daytona 500 winner Bobby Allison, whose 84 wins are tied for third on the victory list, was the second inductee announced and was followed by Lee Petty, a 54-race winner and patriarch of a Petty Enterprises organization that dominated NASCAR for more than three decades.
Waltrip, watching the announcement from a stage where he was waiting to analyze the selections for Speed, looked crestfallen when Petty’s name was announced.
“I knew right there that I was probably not going to make it,” said Waltrip, who had campaigned for a spot. “Five people. Kind of hard to fit. Somebody was going to be the odd man out.”
The remaining two slots went to two-time champion Ned Jarrett, who believed he was selected as much for his racing resume as he was for his post-driving career as a popular broadcaster, and pioneer Bud Moore, who fielded cars for Pearson, Allison, Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Buddy Baker and Benny Parsons over 37 seasons.
Nobody begrudged the selections.
But many wondered how Waltrip and Yarborough could have been excluded when Allison, a driver with very similar numbers, made the class. Waltrip is tied with Allison with 84 career wins, and Yarborough, who won three straight championships and four Daytona 500s, had 83 career victories.
The answer was politics.
Voters said after the inductees were announced that a great deal of the discussion Wednesday focused more on character and off-track contributions to NASCAR than it did on statistics.
Waltrip was a polarizing figure as a driver and has angered many in the industry with his criticism as a broadcaster for Fox. Yarborough has had very little to do with NASCAR since his 1999 retirement. He made a rare appearance two years ago to honor Jimmie Johnson when Johnson tied his 30-year record of winning three straight titles.
“You don’t want to say the most popular people are the ones who are going to be in the Hall of Fame, that should not be (all of it), but people are human beings,” said longtime race promoter Humpy Wheeler, a member of the voting committee.
“I don’t think that there’s a vote anytime, anywhere that personal feelings aren’t involved in it.”
Dustin Long, a reporter for Landmark Newspapers and president of the National Motorsports Press Association, said the criteria for selecting inductees has not been made clear by NASCAR and that contributed to statistics being bypassed in Wednesday’s vote.
“We have to decide as a group what matters. Sometimes personal things would come into it and there was more discussion about what happened after their careers,” Long said. “How do they stay a part of the sport? Did they stay a part of the sport? Cale Yarborough’s name was mentioned as not being as involved after he retired and that likely impacted him.
“We spent a lot of time just trying to figure out, ‘Is it the founders we put in? Do we put in the rock stars? Drivers? … How we go about it?'”
Waltrip dismissed personal feelings playing a part in his exclusion, instead blaming his age. At 63 years old, he believes voters feel he’s got plenty of time to get elected.
There may be some truth to that, too. Jarrett, who turned 78 on Tuesday, said when he was nominated he made it a goal to “live long enough to be able to be enshrined.
“I worked hard on my health the last year, particularly, so I could get to this day,” he said. “This was the prize — to get in the NASCAR Hall of Fame while I was still living.”
Waltrip seemed fine with his fate an hour after the announcement: “I’m not angry. I got over that 100 years ago. I got over that the last time Bobby (Allison) put me in the wall.”
But the elephant in the room was that if Allison was in, Waltrip and Yarborough had been slighted based on people simply not liking them.
“Cale don’t go anywhere he don’t really have to go, he wants to get paid everywhere he does go, which there ain’t nothing wrong with that,” Pearson said. “Darrell? How do you know?”
The induction will be in May, when the new class officially joins NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., France Jr., seven-time champions Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt and icon Junior Johnson in the Hall.