The NASCAR Hall of Fame is holding its grand induction tonight, honoring in person the careers of Rusty Wallace and Leonard Wood and posthumously the grand memories of Buck Baker, Cotton Owens and Herb Thomas.
What can one write about Rusty Wallace that he has not himself suggested? When I arrived on the NASCAR scene, he was near the top of it. He was, is and forever shall be a talker. If ever there were a stock car racer incapable of holding back, it was Wallace. He’s prone to hyperbole, which causes some to cheer and others to jeer. Interviewing Wallace could be exasperating. Of his own free will, he would invariably say something expansive enough to make headlines. Once I tried to pay Wallace a compliment that he took exactly the wrong way.
“I’ve always admired the fact that you say what you think and don’t worry too much about the consequences,” I said.
Wallace’s eyes flashed. “Well, I tell you what, I’ve let you guys blow things wide open one too many times,” he said. “I’m going to stop speaking out if you guys don’t stop making a big deal about everything.”
Then, barely taking a breath, Wallace would go on to say something so colorful that Les Nessman couldn’t have kept it out of the morning farm report on WKRP. Yes, thinking of Rusty Wallace makes me smile.
Thinking of Cotton Owens makes my eyes dampen. I cut my NASCAR teeth at the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, which gave me a chance to get to know the Upstate South Carolina luminaries Owens, Bud Moore, David Pearson and James Hylton. On several occasions I drove to Cherokee Speedway (and once to forgotten I-85 Raceway) to watch Cotton turn the wrenches on the dirt-track entries of grandsons Ryan, Kyle and Brandon. I’m not alone in the belief that Cotton and Dot were the finest couple I’ve encountered in racing. Perhaps it’s because I spent those dirt-track Saturday nights in the infield, watching Cotton counsel his impetuous charges and blunt the jealousy other competitors occasionally expressed at having a legendary mechanic prepare four-cylinder compacts as immaculate as superspeedway Chargers.
I read a column describing Leonard Wood as shy and quiet. That’s not the Leonard I know. About once a year for 20, I’ve enjoyed the distinct privilege of chatting with Leonard in some Sprint Cup garage. At various times we’ve talked about Jim Clark, Marvin Panch, Tiny Lund, Cale Yarborough, Neil Bonnett, Fred Lorenzen and, especially, David Pearson.
In fact, the mention of that name – “Pearson!” – caused the eyes of both Cotton Owens and Leonard Wood to light up. They both spoke of him as if he dressed in phone booths and wore a cape. It reminded me of the way baseball old-timers speak of Ted Williams.
Cotton said he and Pearson broke up because “I felt like he was my son, and I think David acted sometimes like I was his daddy, and you know how hard it is for daddies and sons to get along.” Twenty years ago, it was unusual to drop by the Peach Blossom Diner off I-85 without encountering a breakfast bull session involving Owens, Pearson and Moore. That place hosted lots of laughing by legends.
Most of what I know about Buck Baker I got from his son, Buddy, who has a delightful knack with similes and metaphors even though he probably doesn’t know what those words mean and couldn’t possibly tell them apart. I know that Elzie Wylie Baker Sr. made Elzie Wylie Baker Jr. earn his way to the top, and the work ethic his father required made Buddy the driver he became.
I wrote about Herb Thomas two days ago, and I won’t pretend to be someone I’m not by claiming I know more about NASCAR’s first two-time champion and the Southern 500’s first three-time winner than I’ve already revealed. When I covered minor-league baseball, I got to know Luke Appling a bit, and the two reminded me of each other.
I’m not going to be at the induction, but neither is Cotton, who barely lived long enough to know, on his death bed, that he was going in. That will make me wistful, and given a choice, I’d whole lot rather be wistful somewhere else.