Clinton, South Carolina, Thursday, May 21, 2015, 10:41 a.m.
NASCAR has announced five more members of its Hall of Fame: Jerry Cook, Bobby Isaac, Terry Labonte, Bruton Smith and Curtis Turner. Those wouldn’t have been my choices, at least not all of them, but I don’t have any particular qualms.
I don’t have a vote, and it would lessen my respect for the Hall if its selection process had room for me. It doesn’t matter what I think. I’m just going to write a little of what I know about the men who were selected.
Cook is the establishment alternative to a Modified driver inducted ahead of him, Richie Evans. Cook won more championships. Evans won more races. Cook was consistent. Evans was brilliant, but mercurial. It is said that Evans occasionally lost races but never parties. Cook survived his racing career and went to work for NASCAR. Evans died in a race car at Martinsville, the site of his most spectacular victory. Cook is a nice man, one who is absolutely sure he belongs in the Hall of Fame. He expected to be inducted several years ago, based on our occasional conversations.
Before I was even a teen-ager, I attended most of the Grand National (now Sprint Cup) races at Greenville-Pickens Speedway. In all those years, I only saw Richard Petty and Isaac win the 100-milers there. I always went to G-P hoping that David Pearson would win. Petty won the two on dirt I attended. When the half-mile track was paved, Isaac dominated. I couldn’t stand him. He seemed contrary and unfriendly. In those days, they opened the gates after the races, and it was fairly easy to have a picture made with drivers. Somewhere at my mother’s house, in a shoe box most likely, are Kodak Instamatic photos of me posing with Bobby Allison, Wendell Scott, Tiny Lund, and others.
What I later learned was that Isaac was uncomfortable because he was self-conscious. He was Pearson’s best friend, an unschooled country boy who never learned to read and write until long after he had learned to win races. I wish I had known this at the time.
The best story I ever heard about Isaac, who died of a heart attack after a Late Model race at Hickory Motor Speedway, was from one of the golf tournaments I later played in at Darlington. Supposedly, Isaac was having a miserable day. After he dumped a tee shot into a pond located in front of a tee box, he slammed his club into the bag, hoisted it above his head and threw it into the pond. Then he stomped off for the clubhouse.
A few minutes later, Isaac returned. Witnesses figured, well, he’s over it. Isaac, dressed in golfing attire, dove into the pond and retrieved his bag. Then he unzipped one of the pockets, found his car keys, threw the bag back into the pond and stomped away again.
Terry Labonte’s first and last victories occurred at Darlington. The former he inherited when a car blew its engine in front of Pearson, who may or may not have been the best who ever lived but was certainly the best at Darlington, and the Wood Brothers Mercury skidded in the oil. I remember calling Mike Hembree, who was there, and asking what happened. I was working in the sports information office at my alma mater, having graduated that year, and Hembree, whose Greenville News beat at the time was split between NASCAR and Furman athletics, had covered the race.
Thirteen years later, my beat was NASCAR, and I came to value Labonte for his low-key sense of humor. Anyone who asked Dale Earnhardt a dumb question got his head bitten off, but Labonte was more subtle. He could make a writer shrink to the size of a toddler while smiling and shrugging. Once, after he won the pole at Rockingham, someone asked him if his improved performance had anything to do with securing a ride at Hendrick Motorsports.
“Well, I haven’t been in this sport very long, but one of things I’ve noticed is that it helps to have good equipment,” Labonte said, smiling.
Another way he handled stupid questions was to smile, shrug, pause and say, “Uh … I don’t know.”
Labonte got mad at me once for something I’d written, and the way he showed it was simply to answer every question I asked in as few words as possible. Finally, I took him aside at a NASCAR Media Day, insisted on setting the matter straight, explained why I’d written what angered him, told him I didn’t take back a word of it but that I had always liked him and it was in no way personal, and, for the rest of my time on the beat, he and I got along fine.
Ah, Bruton Smith. There’s a charmer. He always reminded me of what I read about the baseball star Dizzy Dean, who was a broadcaster when I was a boy. Dean would tell one writer his name was Jay Hanna Dean from Hannibal, Missouri, and another that he was Jerome Herman Dean of Lucas, Arkansas. When a writer confronted him about his duplicity, Dean reportedly said, “I just wanted to give all y’uns a scoop.”
Smith has often driven his employees mad by unveiling incredible plans – oh, a roof over Bristol, a new grandstand in Las Vegas, hell, a chariot race in Las Vegas for all I know – that they knew nothing about and, quite possibly, he didn’t, either, until the words came out of his mouth. I imagine him at a meeting leading up to a race, hearing that ticket sales could use a boost.
Smith: “Let’s propose another football game in the infield. The local media always loves that. What did we say we’d pay each team the last time?”
Staffer: “Uh, $500,000.”
Smith: “Okay, uh, this time … let’s say, uh, $5 million.”
The story has a punch line. On September 10, 2016, Tennessee and Virginia Tech are really playing a game in the spacious infield of Bristol Motor Speedway. Doubt his motives if you will, but never underestimate him.
Finally, consider Curtis Turner, Smith’s onetime partner, and a racer of legendary renown. Old-timers say he drove dirt tracks by skidding his cars sideways down the straights, and they say they never saw anything like it. He made and lost millions, partied like a rock star, and died in a plane crash when I was 12 years old. I never saw him race, but the best story I ever read about a race car driver was the one Bob Myers wrote about Turner after his death. The last time I was there, the column was still on display at Darlington’s museum.
I’ve only read a handful of truly great racing books, none of which I wrote. One of them is Full Throttle: The Life and Fast Times of NASCAR Legend Curtis Turner, by Robert Edelstein.
In other words, the legend of Turner probably had the effect of making good writers great.
Regarding the latest additions to the Hall of Fame, that’s what I’ve got.
While my racing books aren’t great, they have their moments, and you can buy them, along with my two novels, here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1