Q&A with NASCAR Hall director Winston Kelley: 2019 class, Danica's HOF prospects, more

Winston Kelley, right, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, congratulates former team owner Robert Yates after Yates was named as a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2018. Yates passed away before his induction ceremony.
Winston Kelley, right, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, congratulates former team owner Robert Yates after Yates was named as a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2018. Yates passed away before his induction ceremony. AP Photo

This is one of Winston Kelley's favorite weeks of the year.

And shouldn't it be? As executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, this is the week Kelley and his colleagues choose the newest additions to racing's most exclusive club.

The Observer caught up with Kelley on Tuesday afternoon, the day before the class of 2019 is voted upon, to talk all things Hall of Fame.

The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q. What are you expecting from the Class of 2019?

A. I think the discussion tomorrow is going to be like all the other discussions, but it gets harder and harder for folks to decide which five (nominees) they want to vote for. The reason is because there's so many people that have similar statistics, and then (voters) trying to decide who they vote for what year. Every voter who gets up starts their comments with, 'Can we all agree that all 20 are deserving? But here's the two or three or so that I feel like we should look at this year.'

I expect it to continue to be a spirited discussion and people having passion for different folks. How it ends up? I think there's probably a hundred different combinations.

Q. This is Jeff Gordon's first year on the ballot. What would it mean for him to become the first unanimous selection, and how important will it be to the Hall of Fame for someone of Gordon's stature to be inducted?

A. If he's the first unanimous one, it's certainly a bellwether moment and he is definitely deserving of going in the Hall. I mentioned earlier that there isn't a numerical differentiation in most cases — Jeff is certainly an exception to that rule. Being the third-winningest driver in the 70-year history of the NASCAR premier series, having four championships, having won all the big races — Daytona three times, Indy five times, the Southern 500 — and he was a transformational figure.

There are a lot of people who feel like Jeff Gordon is the leading candidate to go in and a lock for most people. That's the one that would greatly surprise me if he wasn't selected.

As far as him being unanimous, I'm not going to make a prediction there because there have been a few others in the past who I felt like would be unanimous, one of those being Richard Petty. But Richard was not on the panel at the time and advocated for his father over himself, so Richard didn't help his own case. Jeff has been so humble about the whole discussion since he announced his retirement, so we'll just see how that falls.

Q. Jeff Gordon is the first of several big names — Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr., to name two others — who will be up for consideration in the coming years. How does having an obvious headliner like those guys impact the Hall of Fame overall?

A. It helps support us in bridging the incredible history of NASCAR with the more recent history. One of the things I like about the result of the voting — and my ballot is not always 5-for-5 — is, I like the balance of having those pioneers of the sport from back in the 40's, 50's, and 60's with newer people. People like Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, and now Jeff Gordon. Having them sprinkled in, I think we have a really good balance of eras.

We don't have the volume of more recent competitors because we're a younger Hall of Fame than some of the stick-and-ball sports, but I think helps show the significance of all of the eras. Some of the newer fans can relate better to a Jeff Gordon or a Harry Gant and Davey Allison (2019 nominees) than they can to some of the earlier competitors.

I think there will continue to be that balance (in the future), and I think drivers will tend to retire at a little bit younger age. We've had a number of first ballot Hall of Famers that are older than Jeff is now. I think those three — Gordon, Stewart, and Dale Jr. — are absolutely candidates for early selection when they're eligible.

Q. The Hall of Fame's operating revenue for 2017 was up compared with past years. How do you feel about the growth of the Hall of Fame since its inception in 2010, and how would you like to see it grow in the future?

A. I feel very good about it. I look back to four of the original objectives that the city, the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA), the banks and NASCAR had, and four of those items were: 1. Make an economic impact both directly and indirectly; 2. Enhance the hospitality and tourism industry; 3. To be a unique, one-of-a-kind attraction; and 4. To be a catalyst for the Crown Ballroom adjacent to us, the additional parking, the NASCAR Tower, and the Stonewall Street development.

If I take those items one at a time, the economic impact we have had has been significant. It's $36 million for 2017 in direct spending and over $67 million in overall economic impact, and that's because of things like travel. Over 70 percent of our people come from over 200 miles away, they stay for an average of three nights, and they spend an average of $700. You can do the math from there, so that's something we've been very successful in achieving.

Our education program is something that has grown very gradually but steadily over the past four years, and that's one of the areas we would like to see growing in the future. We did around 4,000 students (as visitors) four years ago, and it's gradually gone up to where we expect to do about 16,000 students this year. We're going to be setting up an education foundation to help raise money subsidize some of those lower-income schools that may not be able to afford to come, because we have that authentic, hands-on experience for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.

Q. As a lifelong NASCAR fan who has also worked in the industry for years, are there any drivers — past or present — who you personally would like to see be inducted?

A. That's like asking a grandparent who their favorite grandchild is (laughs). I'm not going to go there. I have been blessed. Not a lot of little boys grow up and work with their childhood heroes like Richard Petty, Junior Johnson, and David Pearson, and I've been blessed to do that. I did the very first interview with Jeff Gordon for Motor Racing Network (MRN), and I would have done the last one had he not gotten back in the car for Dale Jr. I got to see him evolve from a 19-year-old young man, how nice and polite he was then, to exactly the same today.

It's like asking you who your favorite work colleague is — because that's what they are, they're work colleagues and they're friends. You wish the best for all of them. Davey Allison is not with us anymore, but he's someone I had great respect for. Same for Harry Gant, I used to ride motorcycles with him all over the country. Bobby Labonte I've gotten to know very well. They all are just special friends. I wish I were young enough to stay around long enough to see them all get in.

Q. ESPN published an article debating Danica Patrick's Hall of Fame candidacy in the future (she isn't eligible for at least three years after retirement). Your thoughts on that, or is it still too early to discuss?

A. I think it's too early to talk about. My initial reaction is that the Landmark Award was developed for special contributions to NASCAR, either on or off the track, and when I look at how she has helped mold and change the sport, and get more female participation at the lower levels, and how she connected with younger girls, while there might not have been as much success on the track as far as just the finishes, she had a huge impact. So my initial reaction would be I think that's where she may be considered first.

I'd let the nominating committee and the voting panel decide on that, but I do think she's had a huge impact, and I think a Landmark discussion would be very relevant at some point in time.

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889; @brendanrmarks