When NASCAR was just a fledgling sport, trying to gain a foothold in its early days, several men gained notice and helped take it to prominence.
Wednesday in Charlotte, several of those pioneers who left a mark on the sport in those days showed that their impact continues as they were named members of the 2013 NASCAR Hall of Fame class.
Four of the five represent NASCAR’s roots: Herb Thomas and Buck Baker, both two-time champions in the 1950s; driver-turned-championship-owner Cotton Owens, who embarked on his career in 1950; and engine builder and pit stop innovator Leonard Wood, whose team is one of the oldest in the sport. They joined the youngster of the group, 1989 Cup champion Rusty Wallace, as the new five members for NASCAR’s Hall.
The group will be inducted on Feb. 8.
NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France said that this was “the toughest class to date in making the choices” for who would be the inductees from the list of the 25 nominees. Thomas and Wood each earned 57 percent of the vote, followed by Wallace (52 percent), Owens (50 percent) and Baker (39 percent).
And for the first time in the four-year history of the voting, there was a tie for the fifth and final induction spot. Baker took the spot over Fireball Roberts after a re-vote between the two nominees.
The next top vote getters were Roberts, Jerry Cook and Tim Flock. The fan vote, in alphabetical order, was Benny Parsons, Fireball Roberts, Wendell Scott, Rusty Wallace and Leonard Wood.
The group brings a diverse background into the Hall.
Thomas, a true pioneer known for his pure talent and working for his own team, was later introduced to a new generation when his Hudson Hornet once more gained prominence through the “Cars” movie. Thomas earned a pair of championships early in his career — in 1951 and ’53 — and won almost 21 percent of the races he ran. He made his mark in the early days of NASCAR, when he owned and worked on his own car week to week. He also finished as series runner-up in 1952 and ’54.
Wood, the man who revolutionized the modern-day pit stop, earned a spot alongside his brother, 2012 inductee Glen Wood. Leonard Wood was not only one of the top engine builders of NASCAR, all time, he also studied the pit stops and worked to speed them up. He is known for changing the way teams handled pit stops and making those an integral part of winning races.
His nephews, Eddie and Len Wood, and niece Kim Wood Hall share the ownership of the team with Glen Wood, and each beamed with pride as Leonard Wood stood on the stage.
Wood’s career has been diverse, from running the team’s engine shop to upgrading pit stops to taking his team to the Indianapolis 500, where it serviced Jim Clark’s winning car in 1965.
How did he get started with the innovations? Wood said he noticed that Fireball Roberts and Smokey Yunick changed two tires in what is now the Coca-Cola 600 and made the change in 45 seconds — and that made him start thinking about how he could make up some time.
“Any little problem you had, you try to come up with an idea to cure this problem,” he said. “… When you got a problem, you start thinking strongly, concentrating, ‘How can I fix it?’ So that’s how we came up with all that.”
Wood competed against his fellow inductees and offered praise for them in general. Did he think he would have a shot at earning a spot in the Hall just a year after his brother, though?
“I kind of thought I might have a shot at it, but you never know how people are going to vote,” he said. “I’m highly honored to be in it. … It’s just such a great honor to go in behind brother Glen; we always did so much together, so to be in there with him and our former drivers … so rewarding.”
Wallace, the 1989 NASCAR Cup champ, was often larger than life during his NASCAR career. His 55 wins, with the first coming in his first Cup race, were enlivened by Wallace’s outspoken nature and personality. A fan favorite throughout his career, Wallace is ninth on the all-time wins list. After his driving career ended, he remained active in NASCAR and continued to contribute to the sport as a Nationwide Series team owner and an analyst for ESPN.
He earned a slate of wins outside of the Cup ranks, too, including snaring an IROC championship in 1991, and his contributions to the sport go beyond racing. He’s also actively involved in the NASCAR Foundation charity.
For Wallace, a man generally willing to offer an opinion on any topic, this recognition briefly left him struggling to express his thoughts.
“I’m totally humbled, I really am,” he said. “I’m blowed away. I’m so happy, it’s unreal. I almost feel like Jesse James; I feel like I robbed a bank and I pulled off something because there’s just so many heroes out there that need to get in.”
He later added: “I’m going to lay in bed tonight just staring at the ceiling.”
Owens saw the sport from the angle of both an owner and a driver as he competed as both. He was a versatile figure who helped get NASCAR off and running. Owens competed as a driver from 1950-64, winning nine races, and as an owner from 1950-73, winning 38 races. He won the 1966 championship with driver David Pearson, and amassed a total of nine wins as a driver and 38 wins as an owner over the course of his career. Owens was the 1953 and ’54 modified division champion as well.
Finally, Baker was the first champion in NASCAR to win back-to-back championships. Baker won the titles in 1956 and ’57, sparking a long career through which he won 46 races. He was the 1955 and ’58 series runner-up, setting up a four-year run among the top two in the sport. In addition, Baker snared 45 pole positions in his career.
NASCAR president Mike Helton summed up this historic class simply: “I think the whole class is just a good balance of our whole heritage.”
FOXSports.com’s Rea White is president of the National Motorsports Press Association and is a voting member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.