I always had the opinion that any racing Hall of Fame should only be for drivers and maybe a few mechanics, but as time expanded so did the categories, along with the places of honor. Owners, designers, pioneers, broadcasters, announcers and writers were welcomed into the fold, as midgets and sprints started their own HOFs along with NASCAR, AMA, USAC and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America seemed to be the melting pot for every discipline or skill involved in racing on two or four wheels.
So when George Levy called me a few months ago and said I’d been voted into the Motorsports HOF, I was a little conflicted. On one hand I was obviously gob-smacked, flattered and humbled to be joining a group that included my boyhood heroes A.J., Mario and Parnelli, but I also felt kinda guilty because of all the great talents that aren’t in, and may never be nominated.
I know that’s a terrible reaction, but after all the years of criticizing the IMS HOF for ignoring Jim Hurtubise, Paul Newman and Bill Finley, or questioning other HOF inductees, it was simply my normal thought process in regards to what constitutes the credentials for being in any HOF.
When my longtime Star/News compatriot Dick Mittman was kind enough to submit my name two years ago and I wound up on the ballot next to P.L. Newman, that was more than I ever expected. I’m on the voting panel of the Motorsports HOF and have written stories on the various inductees for the program, but I truly never considered the possibility of being elected. Especially when you consider that Brock Yates and Shav Glick are the only two motorsports writers in the HOF and sages like Pete Lyons, Joe Scalzo, Gordon Kirby, Al Pearce and Ed Hinton aren’t included.
The fact there is a category for media is cool, because it shows reporting and writing are represented and respected. I want to nominate Dave Despain for all the things he contributed for four decades on television, and Terry Lingner for creating Thursday Night Thunder and being IndyCar racing’s best producer forever.
But where it gets a little uncomfortable for me is looking at all the badasses that have never been nominated, and likely won’t be. I eat lunch every Friday with two of them – Pancho Carter and Lee Kunzman.
Carter, a USAC multi-champion, was the finest combo pavement/dirt sprint driver I ever saw, and one of USAC’s all-time best in midgets, sprints and dirt cars, but never got the best equipment in Indy cars. Yet he made a miraculous comeback from devastating injuries right in his prime, and won the pole at Indy in 1985.
Kunzer was on the fast-track to stardom in the early 1970s in USAC sprints and midgets before two horrendous crashes (neither his fault) nearly killed him and brought his career to a standstill. He recovered from terrible burns and a broken neck to win again, and race pieces of crap at Indy before finally scoring a first-class ride. Then, he nearly died in a testing crash at Ontario that required two years off to learn how to read, write, walk and talk again.
Then I think about Jan Opperman, possibly the best dirt racer ever, who gave outlaws an identity and also conquered IRP, Dayton and Indianapolis before suffering grave injuries that effectively ended his career. Bubby Jones, Doug Wolfgang and Ron Shuman were phenomenal open-wheel racers who won hundreds of main events, and Bentley Warren was the king of Owego who captured all kinds of modified races and championships while also running Indy three times. Jim Champine and Richie Evans were also east coast greats, while Brett Hearn has racked up almost 1,000 modified stock victories.
Gary Bettenhausen was one of the toughest competitors ever in anything he drove and his fierce rivalry with Lightin’ Larry Dickson gave USAC a national identity and they were two of the best in sprinters.
Steve Kinser and Tommy Hinnershitz are in the Motorsports HOF and represent the short-track community, and I’m hoping ageless Sammy Swindell follows them when he finally walks away, but it feels like those other guys I mentioned are also worthy.
Bettenhausen, Lyons and Swindell are on the 2022 HOF ballot.
Willy T. Ribbs deserves consideration for his winning ways in Trans-Am and breaking the color barrier at Indy, while Sarah Fisher and Danica Patrick gave IndyCar its first really competitive female racers.
Of course I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Herk, as he made more fans than anyone in the early ‘60s at Indy, and kept them for a decade with his panache and personality.
Obviously, everyone can’t make it, but it’s heartening to see a world-class fabricator like Phil Remington in the HOF along with Clint Brawner, A.J. Watson and Colin Chapman – the backbone of the innovative 1960s.
It would be nice to see Bill Marvel at least nominated, since he ran Pocono, Texas, promoted the Astrodome midget race, owned and operated The Charger newspaper, was a marketing and promotion maven and ran USAC’s Benevolent Fund until his death last December.
I do understand that all these HOFs need warm bodies so they can honor the living, and sell tables for the induction ceremony, and keep the doors open, so that can present a challenge. But I think George, Donna Sprague and Adam Saal have done a nice job of mixing the past with the present in the Motorsport HOF. The diversity is also impressive, and this year Drs. Terry Trammell and Steve Olvey are on the ballot along with HANs inventors Jim Downing and Dr. Bob Hubbard, and builder/manufacturer Ted Halibrand.
The inclusion of Judy Stropus this year is a good example of doing the right thing, because she’s not well known to the racing public but has been invaluable as a worker bee for five decades.
I’ve got so many people to thank for making racing a career. Herk, of course, for giving me a start at 18 and “suggesting” I not pursue mechanics. Bobby Grim Jr. for taking me to the Beverage Inn every day for lunch and dinner, and getting into the inner circle of Vuky, Gary B. and Johnny Parsons before schooling me about all things racing. Art Pollard, for getting me a discount on my Formula Ford with Andy Granatelli and then taking me to IRP for its shakedown, only to find out I forgot to add oil and water.
The Bettenhausens for making me their fourth brother, selling me a good midget and giving me tough love at every turn. Finley for rebuilding my Formula Ford and both of my midgets more times than I can count, and letting me be on his IndyCar crew. Bob Collins, Cy McBride and John Bansch for letting me start writing about Indy in 1969 and Ray Marquette for getting me a job at the Indianapolis Star, where I had a forum for 32 years.
Tim Coffeen, Rick Duman, Steve & Rick Long, Ray Kuelthau, Danny Jones, Don Brown, Jerry Weeks, Mark Alderson, Larry Rice, Ronnie Shuman, Marshall Sheper and Grim for always making sure the wheels were tight and keeping my midgets running. Barry Sacks for giving me a shot at ESPN and RPM 2Night and Frank Wilson for hiring me at SPEED, where Despain graciously made me part of his fantastic show WIND TUNNEL. Paul Pfanner and David Malsher for bringing me into the RACER family, and Rob Dyson and Pfanner for keeping RACER alive. Randy Bernard for talking Rich O’Connor, Terry Lingner and Sam Flood into putting me on NBC, where they gave me a presence with the Grid Run.
And a big thank-you to Mario, Parnelli, Super Tex, Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Don Prudomme, because I understand they were campaign managers to get me in the HOF.
Twenty years ago I got fired from The Star, and the first call I received was from Mario. After offering me a job at his car wash in Nazareth, he turned serious and said: “Listen racer, this may open up a lot of doors for you, and you’ll be able to expand your audience and do more than just write.”
That’s exactly what happened, and nobody has ever been luckier or more grateful than this college dropout with a face for radio.