NASCAR’s Hall of Fame Class of 2016 was enshrined Saturday, a day late because of Friday’s winter storm.
But the ceremony in uptown Charlotte still showed how varied the influences were on the sport by the five new hall-of-famers: drivers Jerry Cook, Bobby Isaac, Terry Labonte and Curtis Turner and executive Bruton Smith.
The underlying sentiment, however, was the deep honor each of them felt.
“I got to do a lot of cool things, got to go a lot of places, and be introduced as a two-time NASCAR champion,” Labonte said during his induction speech. “But I’ll tell you what: It’s going to be a whole lot better introduced as a NASCAR Hall of Famer.”
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Labonte’s two Cup championships came 12 years apart – 1984 and ’96. The first of his 22 career victories came in 1980 at one NASCAR’s toughest tracks, Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.
But Labonte also came close to quitting the sport when he was still racing at local tracks near his hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas.
One spring day in 1977, he overheard his father telling his mother that the family would have to borrow money for Terry to continue racing. Labonte decided he would look for other pursuits, rather than send his family into debt.
I got to do a lot of cool things, got to go a lot of places, and be introduced as a two-time NASCAR champion. But I’ll tell you what: It’s going to be a whole lot better introduced as a NASCAR Hall of Famer.
Later that day, Labonte watched as A.J. Foyt, who had just won the Indianapolis 500, tell a television interviewer that the key to his victory was not giving up.
“It was almost like when you go to church and it’s like the preacher is talking to you,” Labonte said. “It felt like (Foyt) was talking to me.”
Labonte decided to stick with racing. A week later, he was introduced to NASCAR team owner Billy Hagan, who later invited Labonte to come to North Carolina to join his team.
Then there was Smith, whose 15-minute speech was probably the highlight of the afternoon. Smith, one of the sport’s visionaries whose Speedway Motorsports Inc. owns eight NASCAR tracks spent much of it describing the difficulties of financing and building Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1959.
NASCAR’s Hall of Fame ceremonies had been postponed from Friday night due to a winter storm that passed through Charlotte.
During a trip to New York, Smith said he asked Pepsi-Cola to invest in his venture. Officials at the soft-drink company declined, a snub Smith wouldn’t forget.
“And you know,” said Smith, whose signature race at the Charlotte track is the Coca-Cola 600, “we still haven’t sold any Pepsi there.”
Among the chief challenges of building the speedway, Smith said, was workers who kept running into hornets nests on the 551-acre property in Concord.
“At one time I had six (bull)dozer operators in the hospital, and they were not hurt per se, but (they) we couldn’t see,” said Smith. Their eyes were shut (from) hitting hornet nests. But as they came out of the hospital, we’d get them then to wear nets. But they had to make a trip to the hospital before they would ever agree to wear them. But that helped us tremendously.”
Isaac won one Cup championship in a career that was cut short when he died at the age of 45 in 1977. In 1969, Isaac won 19 poles. His grave in Catawba Memorial Park overlooks his home track – Hickory Motor Speedway.
Turner, who won 17 Cup races from 1949-68, is the only driver in history to win two consecutive races from the pole while leading every lap. He was tough in a convertible, winning 38 races with the top down. Turner also had his pilot’s license and often flew so close to the ground that he used familiar roads as navigation.
“He liked to be up there because he was free, and close to whatever that spiritual aspect was with him,” said his daughter Margaret Sue Turner Wright.
Cook spent his driving career in modifieds, winning six NASCAR championships from 1963-82 in his familiar No. 38 car. He often raced six times a week, 100 times per year.
▪ Broadcaster Steve Byrnes was honored with the Squier-Hall Award for journalism excellence. Byrnes, who had a 30-year career in the sport and was most recently play-by-play announcer for the Truck series and co-host of NASCAR Race Hub on Fox, died last April after a battle with cancer.
▪ Harold Brasington won the hall of fame’s Landmark Award for outstanding contributions to NASCAR. Brasington built Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, the sport’s first superspeedway, as well as North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham.