Think Richard Petty is the most successful NASCAR competitor from North Carolina? Think again. He’s beaten in his own hometown of Level Cross — and in his own shop.
Dale Inman, one of the five men who will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Friday night, topped his cousin in championships.
A true innovator and a creative mechanic, Inman fostered in the men around him not only a desire to win but a genuine love for the ability to do so. He knew both how to make a car run fast and how to bring out the most in the people around him. That combination crafted one of the dynasties of the sport — and set him apart as one of the sport’s true geniuses.
Soft-spoken and hard-working, Inman essentially created and then re-created the crew chief role, setting it up as one of leadership within the team. He didn’t do so for a massive paycheck or the respect it garnered from competitors around him. In fact, neither was evidenced in heavy doses during his tenure at the top.
Instead, he labored at a time before mechanics were widely applauded by fans and drivers alike. He worked diligently and continually to make cars better, faster, safer.
And he did so well outside the spotlight that shines so brightly on men of his ilk today.
Inman quietly and steadily became a fixture in Victory Lane and in those group championship shots.
He won seven titles with Petty, widely known as The King, and an additional title with Terry Labonte. That gives the longtime crew chief one more title than his longtime coworker.
Don’t think the pair go around comparing resumes, though. Petty and Inman grew up together, literally. And they learned how to be increasingly successful in NASCAR together, creating the most successful and potent driver-crew chief relationship in the sport’s history.
They developed bonds of friendship and respect — and changed the way NASCAR was viewed by both outsiders and those competing week to week. Inman also forever altered what a crew chief is, defining the role with his own work ethic, innovations and style.
Just what was it about Inman that made him so successful?
His ability to teach and to lead. Certainly he knew the cars, knew them well.
But he also knew people.
“The things that you learned were not always about being or trying to be the best race car mechanic or your win-loss record; they were also about how you represented your team on and off the track,” said Robin Pemberton, a former winning crew chief for Mark Martin, Kyle Petty and Rusty Wallace who worked under Inman and now serves as NASCAR’s vice president for competition and racing development. “Dale was very good at a lot of things, but I really think he was one of the best race strategists I have ever seen week in and week out. The vast majority of the time Dale made the right call to get the most out of the day.”
Inman, now 75, can’t capture an exact moment he would call the best of his career, though after winning seven Daytona 500s with Petty, he rates the 1981 race among his best. Why? Because the team didn’t enter the race with the best car — it had to work to make it competitive and use strategy to snare the win.
Humble about his record-setting career, one wouldn’t know while listening to him that Inman earned 193 wins over the course of his career. He doesn’t tout his own talent or abilities. Instead, he just treats it as a job, albeit one he did as well as he could.
“You had to do whatever was necessary to win, I guess,” he said. “If it was work all night and drive all day . . . Looking at the record book, I tell people it hasn’t always been this easy.”
He made it look as if it might be, though. His standout year came in 1967, when he and Petty won 27 races, 10 of them consecutively. Those came in a car they had built the previous year.
And those were put together in an era when teams were traveling all the time, running track to track and doing their best to just keep up the pace.
In Inman’s day, they’d run at one track on a Friday and another on a Sunday. If they had not raced at the previous track, well, they’d better be able to adjust real quickly. There wasn’t any additional testing time built in, as there is now.
Crews worked on the cars constantly, shifted between dirt and asphalt tracks, worked diligently to repair parts and keep up with potential changes. Inman worked with his team to plan out the cars and the parts, to keep track of needed changes and advancements in the sport.
“It had to be preplanned,” he said. “We’d run maybe dirt one night and asphalt the next night, but we had to make sure that on our truck we had the right gearing and the right springs. We carried a pretty good variety of stuff.”
Sometimes, they missed it. Usually, though, if they did they could recover.
”You could borrow from people or get (things) brought to you,” he said. “But a lot of our races were within driving distance of home.”
And a lot of them were marked by victories.
Inman wasn’t always a crew chief, but he was always close with Richard Petty.
Less than a year older than the driver, Inman grew up watching and working with Richard’s father, Lee, as he raced to wins and titles.
Inman and Petty played football together at Randleman High School, then slowly moved into the NASCAR ranks.
“Me and Richard, we’ve been together since we were babies,” Inman said. “We probably laid in the same crib together. I’m 10 months older than him. We growed up from Day 1. We played football together in high school, raced a little together on the highway. It’s just a different life now from what life used to be.”
And Petty sees in Inman a lot of attributes that led to his success — ones that venture beyond mere mechanical knowledge of the cars.
What is it that marked Inman as a unique crew chief?
“Personality and dedication,” Petty said. “There’s nobody ever been around racing that was more dedicated to what they were doing than Dale was. He was so good at taking a person and getting the very best out of that person. (He knew the mechanical side), but it was the way he handled people. He made people want to work for Dale, want to get better than they were; he had that magical touch and made it work for all of us.”
Now, the two will be united in another area, as well — the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Richard Petty is already enshrined in the Hall; he was a member of the first class.
When Inman’s induction was announced, Petty was quick to offer up congratulations. Now, the men who shared glorious careers in NASCAR’s growing years will share another bond in the eyes of fans.
“Dale played a huge part in the overall success of Petty Enterprises working alongside Maurice (Petty) and our crew,” Petty said. “He continues to be active within NASCAR and Richard Petty Motorsports and still serves an important role in our sport.”