My Brain on NASCAR: Palmetto State’s roots run deep in racing

The motorsports press corps is a dedicated and close-knit group. Just like the teams on the top three NASCAR racing circuits, they travel as a group. They log thousands of miles, spend thousands of hours and consume thousands of calories together. They know one another’s spouses and kids, and they also know most of the triumphs and tribulations associated with those spouses and kids.

They have each other’s backs. They are a family. But, as with any family, sometimes they do stuff that just doesn’t make sense. You’ll go to the mattresses for them in public, but you’ll be scratching your head when you do it.

I had the distinct honor of being asked to write a profile of Mr. Russell William Wallace — you might know him as Rusty — for the NASCAR Hall of Fame (HOF) induction ceremony’s 2013 souvenir program. Yet another stellar group of stock car racing legends was inducted into the HOF on Feb. 9, and although I wasn’t able to attend, I have followed the ceremony and all its surrounding hoopla with great interest, excitement and yes, a sense of pride that I am associated in some small way with the very big deal that is NASCAR.

The morning after the induction ceremony, I grabbed the sports page of my local newspaper to check out the coverage of the event. They hadn’t printed a preview piece the day before, so I was hoping for a nice recap story. Tucked away on page 2, I found this headline: “Wallace Takes His Place Among NASCAR Greats.” The accompanying story was a scant five paragraphs long, and mainly consisted of a bit of bio information and a lengthy quote from Wallace’s HOF induction speech. The other four inductees were reduced to “also ran” status.

These racing pioneers, by the way, were Leonard Wood, one of the famed Wood Brothers team, whose brother Glen was inducted into the Hall last year;  championship drivers Herb Thomas and Buck Baker;  and championship car owner Cotton Owens.

I take no issue with the placement of the story on page 2; page 1 was entirely filled with current, local coverage. I take no issue with featuring Rusty Wallace in the headline and accompanying photograph, as he is the most contemporary of the five inductees and therefore the most well-known. (He is also, by the way, the youngest member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.)

But I do take issue with this: Although I am a self-acknowledged Wallace fan and proud of it, I also have to concede that when you’re talking about the  “pioneers” of NASCAR, Rusty is the one in that group of five to which the description least applies. It’s not his fault. You can’t be a contributor to anything’s early days if you’re not born yet.

I live and work in the literal shadow of Darlington Raceway, and I am not ashamed to say I am a homer. While Daytona Beach, Fla. is always referred to as the birthplace of NASCAR — and that is true of the business organization — there is a very solid argument to be made for Darlington, S.C. as the home of NASCAR competition. Darlington Raceway is a pioneer. Viewed through this admittedly very personal lens, the 2013 HOF class looks very different.

Cale Yarborough got his first Darlington victory driving for the Wood Brothers, and David Pearson, in his first race with the team, won the 1972 Rebel 400 at Darlington, the first of 43 victories he would claim for the Wood Brothers (please note that one sentence includes three “firsts”.) Yarborough and Pearson, of course, are members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and native South Carolinians.

Cotton Owens won nine races as a driver before moving on to team ownership, and is on NASCAR’s list of its 50 greatest  drivers. Pearson won a championship for Owens, and on Feb. 8, had the honor or inducting him into the HOF.  Owens is also a South Carolina native.

Herb Thomas, whom I recently heard someone much more educated in NASCAR history than I refer to as one of racing’s first superstars, won back-to-back Southern 500s at Darlington, in 1954 and 1955. The only other drivers in history to accomplish this difficult task are Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, and Jeff Gordon, who won four in a row.  Thomas also won the 1951 Southern 500. Two-time championship Buck Baker was a three-time winner at Darlington.

By the way, the only checkered flags Rusty Wallace ever saw at Darlington Raceway were waving for somebody else. He never got a win at the track “Too Tough To Tame.”

So despite my deep admiration and respect for Wallace, and my firm belief that his inclusion in the NASCAR Hall of Fame is merited, I guess I do take issue with the placement of that one small story after all. South Carolina is extremely well represented in the HOF, and Darlington Raceway has played a significant role in that.

In my mind — and in this neck of the woods — that should be front-page news.

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