The drivers who should make up the 2016 NASCAR Hall of Fame class
NASCAR’s 2015 Hall of Fame class was announced last week. An all-driver quintet of Bill Elliott, Fred Lorenzen, Wendell Scott, Joe Weatherly and Rex White made for a fine induction group with a natural mix of contemporary and pioneer.
In this first of two posts, Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese highlights the people he believes should occupy the next two classes of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
1. Curtis Turner
One of the most storied names in NASCAR, Curtis “Pops” Turner was one of the pioneers of a sport that, at the time, many had heard of but few truly knew.
Turner wasn’t cut from the mold of others of his time (think Junior Johnson and Lee Petty) and he didn’t race because he needed to — Turner was a millionaire lumber baron (in 1950s millions) who raced because he liked it and partied because he loved it. He was also the driving force behind getting Charlotte Motor Speedway built, investing over $2 million of his own money — including $70,000 to blow up a giant piece of granite — and wielded a pistol to get guys back to work once the money ran out.
That reverse bootlegger turn made famous in Thunder Road? It was perfected by Turner, who once did it with a trunk full of moonshine — and without spilling a drop. When asked how he was able to do that, he replied with the classic, “I couldn’t let all that good whiskey go to waste.”
Working against Turner at the time — and maybe to this day — was his efforts, along with Tim Flock and Fireball Roberts, form a Driver’s Union. Banned from the sport for it in 1961, he was allowed back for the 1965 season, when he won the final race of the season at Rockingham.
Turner’s life was cut short when was killed in a 1970 plane crash in Punxsutawney, Penn. Benny Parson once said of the legend: “Ask any race fan under the age of 50 who the greatest driver is and they’ll say ‘Dale Earnhardt.’ Ask anyone over 50, and they’ll say ‘Curtis Turner.’”
2. Bobby Isaac
While NASCAR historians are keen to focus on the 1970 Plymouth Superbird as one of the greatest race cars ever built, it was actually its cousin, the 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona, that won a title for Bobby Isaac in 1970.
Born during the Great Depression in Catawba, N.C., Isaac quit school after the sixth grade to work in a sawmill — so he could buy himself new shoes. When his mother died he became the family provider at the age of 13. Isaac was forced to become a scrapper out of necessity, having the words “Love and Hate” tattooed across each hand.
When he joined with Nord Krauskopf’s No.71 K&K Insurance team, his fortunes changed. In 1969, he posted 17 wins in 50 starts and a record 20 pole positions on the Grand National circuit. In 1970, the team won 11 races in 47 starts, posting 32 top-5 and 37 top-10 finishes. That year he also set a closed-course record of 201.104 mph in a legit stock car with 1970’s rubber. A year later, Isaac and the “winged wonder” set 28 world speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats, many of which still stand.
Isaac’s career ended in 1976 with 37 wins and 170 top 10s — and the 1970 title — earned over 308 starts.
3. Alan Kulwicki
Alan Kulwicki was a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an enigma with a briefcase in one hand and a comb in the other. He was also years ahead of his time as a college graduate gone racin’ with an engineering degree.
Kulwicki headed south to race stock cars and make a name for himself on his terms. He began running Fords in 1985 at a time when the only guys running and winning with the Blue Oval were Bill Elliott and Cale Yarborough. By 1987 he set out with his self-owned team and captured his first Cup triumph in 1988 at Phoenix — where upon he whipped it around and did his self-described Polish Victory Lap.
His car wore the colors of the U.S. Army as Operation Desert Storm prepared to launch at Daytona in 1991, but when sponsor Hooters joined two races later, it all came together for his rag-tag outfit. Kulwicki won the championship the following season over Bill Elliott by way of leading the most laps in the season finale in Atlanta — fittingly, in the Hooters 500 — in what is lauded as one of the most notable races of NASCAR’s modern era.
A true independent, he was the last owner-driver to win the title until Tony Stewart in 2011 (although it should be noted that Stewart’s team receives engines and engineering from the most powerful organization in the sport). Hall of Famer Junior Johnson maintains there are only two drivers that never had the chance to race for him that he regrets missing out on: Dale Earnhardt and Alan Kulwicki.
4. Robert Yates
When you think of big-time horsepower, Robert Yates is the name that most recognize. His NASCAR career started with the Holman-Moody team and moved on to Junior Johnson & Associates to oversee engine development. Joining DiGard Racing in 1976, he built the engines that powered Bobby Allison to the 1983 championship. A year later he built the engine that Richard Petty used to power past Cale Yarborough coming to the line to win race No. 200 at Daytona.
He started Robert Yates Racing in 1988 from what was Harry Rainer’s operation, with Bobby Allison’s son Davey at the wheel. They finished second to Bobby in their first outing at the Daytona 500. The two would pair to form one of the most potent and, sadly, short-lived combinations in the sport’s history. The duo would win the Daytona 500, the Winston All-Star Race, came within a Swervin’ Irvan of winning the 1992 championship, and would become a Ford firebrand in the early 1990s.
When Dale Jarrett joined the team following Allison’s passing and Ernie Irvan’s injury, Yates was rewarded with two more Daytona 500 wins, two Brickyard 400s and the 1999 Winston Cup. In 2004, he joined forces with another Ford legend, Jack Roush, to establish Yates-Roush Engines, the sole engine supplier for Ford’s NASCAR efforts.
5. Buddy Baker
During the 1970s when NASCAR began migrating from the bullrings to the superspeedways, there was one name that was synonymous with standing on the gas: Buddy Baker.
Nicknamed “Leadfoot,” the son of two-time champion Buck Baker, at 6’6” and nearly 300 lbs, also went by the monker “Gentle Giant.”
Seventeen of Baker’s 19 Cup Series wins came on superspeedways, and he was the first driver to win at NASCAR’s four biggest tracks — Daytona, Talladega, Charlotte and Darlington. On March 24th, 1970, Baker became the first driver to break the 200 mph barrier in a stock car, running 200.447 mph at Talladega in the No. 88 Cotton Owens Dodge Charger Daytona.
Speaking of Daytona, Baker still holds the record for the fastest Daytona 500, winning the race that averaged 177.602 mph in 1980 — the final year of the land barges of the era. His final win, in 1983, also came at Daytona while driving for The Wood Brothers in the Firecracker 400.
Following his career behind the wheel, Baker was equally stout behind the microphone, joining former drivers Ned Jarrett and Benny Parsons as the voice of NASCAR through the 1990s. He acted as a driver coach for Ryan Newman when he took Rookie of the Year Honors in 2002 over Jimmie Johnson. Still active in NASCAR, Baker continues his career today on Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90, hosting the popular program “The Late Shift.”
Follow Vito Pugliese on Twitter: @VitoPugliese