NASCAR Hall of Fame welcomes five stock car racing titans
By: By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service, Superior Telegram
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — One of NASCAR racing's legendary hard chargers, a mechanic of unparalleled genius, a pioneering car owner, the sport's first two-time champion, and a prolific winner with the gift of gab — those five men make up the fourth class of inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
At Friday night's induction ceremony in the Crown Ballroom at the Charlotte Convention Center, Buck Baker, Leonard Wood, Cotton Owens, Herb Thomas and Rusty Wallace took their places beside the 15 legends of the sport who have preceded them into the hall.
Baker, Owens and Thomas were inducted posthumously.
Ned Jarrett, a member of the second Hall of Fame class, inducted Thomas, who won titles in NASCAR's foremost series in 1951 and 1953 and finished second in the standings in 1952, 1954 and 1956. With 48 victories in 228 starts, Thomas has the best winning percentage in the history of what is now NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series (21.05).
Thomas also was the first three-time winner of the Southern 500 at Darlington and the first owner/driver to win a championship.
"I truly believe that this is the greatest honor a driver could receive," said Thomas' son Joel, who accepted induction on behalf of his father, the first of the 2013 class to be recognized on Friday night. "Thanks to all his fans for cheering him on and keeping his memory alive. ...
"I wish he could be here right now so that I could see the expression on his face."
Owens' grandson Kyle Davis accepted induction on behalf his grandfather from another member of the second NASCAR Hall of Fame class, driver David Pearson, who won 15 races in a car fielded by Owens in his 1966 championship season.
"I appreciate the Owens family picking me to put Cotton into the Hall of Fame," said Pearson, who acknowledged that Owens had been perhaps his best friend. "Every Sunday after church, I'd go and pick him up and take him and Dot (Owens' wife) to eat, and it (was) that way for years."
Known as the "King of the Modifieds" based on more than 100 wins in that type of race car, Owens also posted nine victories as a driver in NASCAR's elite series before making his reputation as a car owner. All told, Owens collected 38 wins fielding cars for star drivers such as Pearson, Junior Johnson, Bobby Isaac, Jim Paschal and Buddy Baker.
"I'm honored to be here tonight on behalf of my grandfather and my hero," Davis said of Owens, who last year lost his battle against cancer within weeks of learning he had been voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. "My grandfather was the most loyal, hard-working man I've ever met. ...
"He was a wizard turning wrenches and behind the wheel."
Leonard Wood was ushered into the hall by his nephew Eddie Wood, who with brother Len Wood currently operates Wood Brothers Racing, an organization that has been an integral part of NASCAR racing since its founding in 1953.
The original Wood brothers were Leonard (the crew chief) and Glen (the driver). After Glen retired as a driver, the team fielded cars for a litany of the motorsports' greatest wheel men—Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Dan Gurney, A.J. Foyt, Curtis Turner, Marvin Panch and Bill Elliott among them.
All told, the Wood Brothers have won 98 Cup races, the last victory coming in the 2011 Daytona 500 when Trevor Bayne shocked the racing world with his unlikely triumph in the Great American Race.
In 1965, the Wood Brothers also revolutionized pit stops in the Indianapolis 500, where they were hired to pit the Lotus-Ford of eventual race winner Jim Clark. To this day, Leonard Wood is a fixture in the Cup garage, and to this day, other mechanics still seek his counsel.
"It's a good thing they did the ring size and not the hat size—I wouldn't have been able to get it on," said Wood, whom ceremonies host Mike Joy called the "Leonardo da Vinci of NASCAR." "I'm proud to go in the Hall of Fame with legends Buck Baker, Herb Thomas, Cotton Owens and Rusty Wallace."
Wood remarked how special it was to follow his brother Glen into the Hall. "We learned together, and we won together," he said.
Buck Baker, whose toughness matched the era in which he drove, was inducted by his son Buddy, himself a legendary charger. Like Thomas, Baker was a two-time champion, winning back-to-back titles in 1956 and 1957—part of a run of eight straight top-five finishes in the standings.
Baker, a three-time Southern 500 champion, won 46 races in NASCAR's top division, with 24 victories coming in his two championship seasons combined. His wife, Susan Baker, accepted induction on his behalf.
Buck's son, 19-time Cup winner Buddy Baker, raised his fist in satisfaction as he performed the official induction.
"I only wish that Buck were here tonight, because he would have something very witty to say," Susan Baker said. "But I know that he's here in spirit. Buck always made an impression on people—whether it was good or bad. If you met him, you never forgot him."
Wallace, the 1989 Cup champion, entered the Hall through induction by his son Greg. With the addition of Wallace, all eligible drivers with 50 or more Cup victories are now are members of the Hall of Fame.
In a career that spanned 26 years, Wallace won 55 times at NASCAR's highest level, including nine times at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Since leaving the seat of the No. 2 Penske Racing car after the 2005 season, Wallace has performed double duty as a broadcaster for ESPN and a Nationwide Series car owner.
"I'm humbled that I've made it here, I'm humbled that I'm standing up here, and I just can't thank everybody enough for selecting me to be in the Hall of Fame—I just can't," said Wallace who went on to thank his uncle Gary for firing him from his job at a vacuum cleaner store in St. Louis and thereby launching his racing career.
At the induction dinner preceding the ceremony, NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France presented Ken Squier and Barney Hall with medals commemorating their selection as the first two recipients of the Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR Media Excellence.
As a new wrinkle to the induction ceremonies, current Sprint Cup drivers introduced each new member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Carl Edwards did the honors for Thomas, Mark Martin for Owens, Bayne for Wood, Jeff Gordon for Baker and reigning champion Brad Keselowski for Wallace.