'Hall' of a night in Charlotte
There were smiles and laughs and even a few emotional moments here Friday night as NASCAR honored five new members of its Hall of Fame.
“This is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me,” said Darrell Waltrip — and coming from a guy who won 84 races and 59 poles in 809 career starts, that’s really saying something about what this night meant.
Waltrip was enshrined along with Cale Yarborough, Dale Inman, Glen Wood and the late Richie Evans, forming the Hall’s third induction class.
In Waltrip and Yarborough, NASCAR immortalized two legendary winners — and two equally legendary characters.
In Inman, Wood and Evans, it honored some visionaries and pioneers.
‘Never met a camera he didn’t like’
For Waltrip, who owned a race team for 12 years before starting his second career as a sports analyst, the induction ceremony was a humbling experience. Afterward, DW described himself as a blessed man.
“These men and the people in this room, they’re what inspire me,” Waltrip, 64, said, looking out into the audience.
His former crew chief and current FOX Sports wingman Jeff Hammond said, “Our sport has never seen the likes of Darrell Waltrip before, both on the track or off the track.”
Hammond expounded on the many reasons Waltrip earned the nickname “Jaws” long before the driver moved into the television booth.
“Darrell was the bridge from old-school NASCAR to the modern era of our sport,” Hammond said.
“The media loved him very simply because, as he likes to say, there wasn’t a controversy that he couldn’t add to. I have to admit, he was good-looking, and you never met a camera or microphone that he didn’t like.”
However, the admiration Hammond held for Waltrip was undeniable.
“But his rapid-fire wit off the track was only exceeded by his God-given talent on the track,” Hammond said. “You’re a pretty incredible guy. You really are.”
Waltrip had warned his wife, Stevie, earlier in the evening that he might get a tad emotional — and he did.
Earlier in the week, Waltrip learned that his oldest daughter, Jessica, is expecting her first child. Then his other daughter, Sarah, surprised Waltrip by returning from a mission trip in the Philippines to come to Charlotte for his big night.
“That means a lot to an old dad,” Waltrip said. “Trust me.”
Waltrip acknowledged his mother and his wife, adding, “If there were a Hall of Fame for driver’s wives, Stevie would be in the first class.”
He also recounted his experiences throughout his two careers. He said this moment wasn’t about him or his accomplishments, but rather about family, friends, fans and NASCAR, and that, “I’m just glad to be a part of it.”
He concluded with a story about his 1982 championship ring, which he’d worn “every day since” — until Friday night.
On Friday night, Waltrip exchanged that ring for a new one.
“I’m putting on the Hall of Fame ring,'' he said, "because this is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me.”
‘That long, tough ladder’
Yarborough, 72, was the first NASCAR Cup driver to win three consecutive titles — 1976-78. In 562 starts, the Timmonsville, SC, native scored 83 wins and 69 poles. The former Golden Gloves boxer was tenacious.
For new fans, Yarborough is notorious for his row with Bobby and Donnie Allison in the 1979 Daytona 500. Donnie recalled that he was “the guy that made Cale Yarborough famous.”
Broadcaster Ken Squier said of the new Hall of Famer, “He was always about believing in oneself, self-reliance and the imagination to test it and test it completely. Dream big, that was Cale.”
Yarborough compared his career to climbing “that long, tough ladder,” and that Friday’s honor was that “top step.”
“Can’t go any higher and no one can push me off either,” Yarborough said.
Yarborough thanked his wife, Betty Jo, and reflected on hard times and his start with the legendary Holman Moody race team, where he earned just $1.25 an hour.
The family lived “in a little old cabin” of John Holman's. Yarborough, who has a reputation for being tight, added “he charged us rent.”
Yarborough was reminded of living on black-eyed peas at 10 cents a can after a local dress shop called to inform Betty Jo that her outfit for the event had arrived.
“Well, honey, I’m glad you went and bought that outfit, because you look good in it and I’m glad we could afford it,” Yarborough said. “But needless to say, this coming week we’re going to be looking for another black-eyed pea sale.”
Yarborough’s driving career spanned 31 seasons, including NASCAR and what is now IndyCar. While his tenure as an owner was short-lived — he won one race with John Andretti behind the wheel — Yarborough retired on his own terms, to be with his family.
Hail to the chief
As the only Cup crew chief with eight championships and 193 wins to his credit, Inman, 75, was an obvious candidate for the Hall.
As Inman’s cousin and most successful driver, Richard Petty, mentioned during his introduction speech, “There was no such thing as a crew chief” when the pair started racing.
Over the next three decades, Inman would revolutionize that position.
“We started out 75 years ago,” Petty said with a pause and a grin. “Dale did. I’m not quite that old.”
The King added that what distinguished Inman from other leaders in the day was his attitude, confidence and focus — and his ability to manage the team.
“The big deal that Dale had that made the whole thing work was people — he knew how to work with people,” Petty said. “Dale working with people was what it was all about.”
Inman assisted in launching the careers of Mike Beam, Barry Dodson, Jake Elder, Tony Glover, Robby Loomis and NASCAR’s current vice president of competition, Robin Pemberton.
Inman is the third inductee from the Petty clan to receive this honor. And as Inman accepted his Hall of Fame bling, he said, “I’m kind of familiar with this ring. For the last two or three years, Richard has put it in my face a bunch of times.''
In 1967, his best season with Petty, Inman led the No. 43 team to 27 wins — including 10 consecutive victories. Inman retired in 1998 and again in 2008 but still is a regular fixture in the Sprint Cup garage.
As he left the stage, he commented, “It’s been such a long ride, I hope it’s not over.”
Inman remains the King’s sidekick at the track and in Level Cross, NC. He currently works as a consultant for Richard Petty Motorsports.
All in the family
There’s no one more fitting than Leonard Wood to present his sibling Glen into the Hall.
Although the Wood Brothers — Glen, Leonard, Delano and Ray Lee — were the grassroots of the team, “Uncle Leonard” was the mechanical whiz on the venerable No. 21 car that continues on as NASCAR’s longest-running race team.
And the accomplishments of the family from Stuart, Va., are many.
As the patriarch of the Wood Brothers, Glen, 86, raced to four Cup wins as a driver, and, as Leonard pointed out, “No one was better at Bowman Gray (Stadium in Winston-Salem) than Mr. Glen.”
The Wood Brothers are credited with developing the modern-day pit stop. But perhaps their greatest gifts to the sport were the breaks they afforded aspiring drivers.
“Glen has been supporting this sport for a long, long time,” Leonard Wood said. “They were having races on the beach back in 1947 before NASCAR was formed, and he’s been to Daytona every year since.
“Not only did Glen win 96 races as a driver, but (he) provided the opportunity for a lot of young drivers to win their first race. Seventy-five drivers have driven for the Wood Brothers, 20 of which were (among) NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers.”
Most recently on that first-time list was Trevor Bayne in last year’s Daytona 500 — to earn the family its 118th career win. As Leonard greeted Glen on stage, he humbly said, “This is a long way from the cornfield.”
Glen’s wife, Bernece, echoed that sentiment earlier in the evening as she noted that the couple’s suite at The Ritz-Carlton was larger than their house.
It’s not that Glen Wood was short of words on Friday night — he simply was selective. He directed the night toward those who had helped him achieve this moment, including NASCAR, his sponsors, fellow Hall of Famers David Pearson, Ned Jarrett and Yarborough and the 17 other drivers who won races for the team — naming each one.
Wood defined the success and longevity of the team succinctly, saying, “This is not just about me being inducted in the Hall of Fame. It’s also about the Wood Brothers. And it’s about NASCAR. And I’m proud to have been a NASCAR driver and car owner for the past 60 years, and I’m proud of this great honor.
“This is about two families — the Wood family and the Ford family, which resulted in me being here tonight.”
An absent friend
While Evans might not be a household name in the stock-car set, the “Rapid Roman” from Rome, NY, is a hero to racers everywhere.
NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart said of the late Evans, “(He) was so good in a modified, he was what Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty are to stock cars.”
His former crew chief, Billy Nacewicz, spoke of the nine-time champ’s talent and persistence, which not only set him apart on the track with an estimated 475 victories but elevated him as the first non-stock entry into the Hall.
“Richie loved the modifieds,” Nacewicz said. “With the respect of his competitors and promoters, he became the face of the division.
“As Richie’s crew chief for 11 years, he left me with two lifelong lessons: One, a hard work ethic, and two, to enjoy whatever you’re doing because, he would later say, we’re all just passing through.”
Evans did pass through too quickly. He died in a practice crash at Martinsville Speedway in 1985 at the age of 44. But the legions of fans wearing Evans’ trademark orange on Friday night were proof that he’s far from forgotten.
Evans' widow, Lynn, thanked those fans for keeping “his memory alive,” and reflected on his eight Most Popular Driver Awards. She recognized the voting panel for “stepping outside the box and making Rich the first driver inductee not to have raced in NASCAR‘s top series full-time.”
Lynn Evans added that she was surprised the induction occurred in just the third Hall class.
“With so many deserving people, the task must have been difficult,” she said. “You have now given hope to thousands of NASCAR competitors throughout the country to maybe someday reach their dream.”