Best bets for the upcoming class
by Vito Pugliese
The 25 nominees for the 2013 NASCAR Hall of Fame class were announced Thursday in Charlotte, NC. A mix of pioneers, drivers, owners and promoters pepper the list, and going through the names, virtually all of them are qualified to make it into the Hall on the first ballot. However, only five are eligible to get in each year, so there are 20 who will be going home — kind of like the largest go-or-go-home field made up of all-stars and who's who of NASCAR history.
So who of this elite group will be selected in NASCAR’s fourth Hall of Fame class? While I’m not going to reveal my ballot quite yet, the following is who I believe will end up being voted in as the 2013 class.
One part of the legendary flock of Flocks, Tim (his first name was actually Julius) along with brothers Fonty and Bob and sister Ethel Mobley — the second woman to compete in NASCAR — were pioneers of the sport, and part of the original guard that brought NASCAR from its infancy on dirt tracks and beaches to pavement and speedways during the mid- to late-1950s.
Upon learning of the organized racing series in stock cars by way of a comic strip, Flock finished fifth in the very first NASCAR race, a Strictly Stock event at the Charlotte Speedway dirt track in 1949. He finished eighth in NASCAR’s first official full season, and would end up a two-time series champion in just eight season of competition to go along with 39 wins in 187 starts.
Before there was a Ryan Newman, there was Flock — a wheelman feared in qualifying sessions He set the record for poles in a season in 1955 with 19 and held the record for most wins that same year with 18 until Richard Petty disposed of that 12 years later. Flock won the Daytona Beach race that season, and is generally regarded as the best Daytona Beach Course driver of all time.
Flock also has the distinction of being the only driver to compete with a primate on board — a monkey by the name of Jocko Flocko — as well as being the winner of the only sportscar race in NASCAR history, also in ’55. And for all of you Moneyball stat geeks, Flock’s percent winning percentage of 20.8 percent ranks second to Herb Thomas’ 21.0 percent.
Glenn “Fireball” Roberts
Edward Glenn “Fireball” Roberts is another legend of the sport that many new fans may have heard of, yet know little about. The most popular driver of the 1957 season, Roberts was one of the first speedway aces in the series, becoming the first driver to win two 500-mile races in the same season (Trenton, N.J., and the Southern 500 at Darlington in ’58).
In a career that lasted 15 seasons but witnessed only 206 starts (pretty standard in an era where a bowling shirt and a leather helmet constituted safety equipment), Roberts won the Southern 500 twice (’58, ’63), and the 1962 Daytona 500.
Roberts actually resented the nickname “Fireball,” preferring to go by Glen. Curtis Turner shortened the nickname to something more fitting given his tenacity on the new, larger speedways of the early 1960s: “Balls.” In 64 races at tracks larger than one mile, Roberts tallied 14 wins, 27 top 5s and 37 top 10s. More telling, he led more than 50 percent of the laps run at these tracks.
Driving for owner and mechanic Smokey Yunick — himself an International Motorsports Hall of Famer —in the Super Duty Pontiacs fielded from “The Best Damn Garage in Town,” Roberts won the pole, qualifying race and Daytona 500 in ’62. Entering just 19 of 53 races that season, they would win or finish second six times.
In a tragic twist of fate, Roberts was involved in horrific fiery crash during the 1964 World 600 at Charlotte. His fuel tank ruptured, pouring gasoline into the car as it burned with Roberts trapped inside. Suffering first and second degree burns over 80 percent of his body, he clung to life for weeks in a hospital only to succumb to pneumonia and blood poisoning.
You’d be hard pressed to find someone that had a negative word about Benny Parsons, because such a thing has never been muttered. The 1973 Winston Cup champion who denied King Richard what would have been an eighth title would go on to even more success as a broadcaster for ESPN and NBC Sports.
As an on-air personality, Parsons provided his perspective as a driver, genuine warmth and humor, and memorable features such as “Buffet Benny,” his catchphrase of “Man oh man oh man” and the patented, “... WOOOWWW!!!!”
Born in Ellerbe, N.C., just north of the site of this weekend's Truck Series race in Rockingham, it was a move to Detroit in 1960 to work at his father’s taxi service that would be Parsons’ first professional drive. Benny made his first Cup (then Grand National) start in 1964, driving for one of the most legendary names in Ford racing history: Holman-Moody. It was an inauspicious debut — an overheating engine resulting in a less-than-impressive 21st — at the half-mile oval in Weaverville, N.C., right behind another Holman-Moody entry, that of 2012 Hall of Fame inductee Cale Yarborough.
He may be best known for his title season of 1973. Involved in an early accident in the season finale at Rockingham, crews from up and down pit road pitched in to get his damaged Chevy back on track. Despite being 184 laps down, he earned enough points to best Petty in the championship standings.
A Daytona 500 win followed in 1975. Petty, who dominated the event but was laps down following repairs for a water leak, towed Parsons back to the front of the field with just a few laps left. And the “you can't pit right now, we’re eating ice cream” scene from Days of Thunder? That was Benny Parsons, subbing for an ailing Tim Richmond in 1987.
Parsons passed away in January 2007 after battling cancer. He took off the summer of ’06 to ensure he would be well enough to call the final races of the Chase for the Championship later that season. And that, friends, more than any winning percentage, is what being a racer is all about.
The numbers may not exactly scream “Hall of Fame,” but the legend of Curtis Turner speaks volumes. A lumber baron by day, liquor runner by night and a general hellraiser regardless of what time it was, Turner has a lot in common with 2011 inductee Junior Johnson — except for one important point: The law never caught Turner.
The story goes that Turner once lined up eight glass jars of moonshine on an empty road and proceeded to slide a Cadillac in between them — in reverse — executing a 180-degree “Bootlegger Turn.” He explained that he had to so he wouldn’t “waste all that good liquor.”
A self-made millionaire (in 1950s dollars, mind you) he made his fortune buying and selling timberlands, once trying to broker a deal that would have allowed the Ford Motor Company to advertise on U.S. currency. In 1959, with barely enough money to buy the property, Turner would start construction on the Charlotte Motor Speedway — and with the help of a .38 Special Smith & Wesson, helped see it to completion.
The Blond Blizzard of Virginia was a legend bore of the lifestyle he lived: hard living, hard driving and hard partying. Turner never won what today is known as a Cup Series title, but he never lost a party. Fittingly, it was Turner that was the first NASCAR driver to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, heralded as “The Babe Ruth of Stock Car Racing.”
Turner would earn a lifetime ban from NASCAR founder Bill France for attempting to organize a drivers union in 1961, though he was allowed to return in ’65. He retired from competition in 1968 and was killed in an airplane crash near Punxsutawney, Penn., on October 14, 1970, along with golfer Clarence King.
Benny Parsons once said, “Ask any fan under the age of 50 who the best driver is and they’ll tell you Dale Earnhardt. Ask any fan over the age of 50 and they’ll say Curtis Turner.”
Anne Bledsoe France
Forget any talk of Danica Patrick for a moment. Anne B. France was truly the First Lady of NASCAR.
While we can prattle on about championships, win ratios and the like, NASCAR was also a business, and businesses don’t just run themselves — particularly start-up companies in their infancy. While Big Bill France was promoting races, buying land and building high-banked superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega, it was Anne who managed the finances and day-to-day operations of the burgeoning empires.
She first served as secretary and treasurer of NASCAR in its earliest years, and when Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959, served in the same roles for what would become International Speedway Corporation. She also managed Daytona's ticket office, remaining active in the business life until her passing in 1992.
Bill France Sr. and son Bill Jr. were honored in the first Hall of Fame class of 2010. It would only be fitting that the one missing member of NASCAR’s First Family be enshrined in 2013.
Agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts on the Hall of Fame with Vito below. And follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese