Fred Lorenzen was a NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee last year. A modest man, he never told his family all that he’d accomplished as a driver. His children honestly didn’t know how respected and revered he was until they accompanied him to the ceremony in Charotte.
I don’t have a vote for the Class of ’16. But as a testament to the great Fred Lorenzen, I’d like to get it right. In alphabetical order these are the five men for whom I’d vote.
Ray Evernham, 57, and Jeff Gordon made their debut in 1992 in the final Cup race of the season. The race is better known as Richard Petty’s last.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
By 1995 they emerged. They won championships that season and in ’97 and ’98. Evernham the crew chief and Gordon the driver were smooth and daring. Although Evernham was adept beneath the hood, he saw things others didn’t no matter where he stood.
He was an innovator. Under his auspices pit crew members became specialists. If a driver sweated to carve seconds off his time, why wouldn’t his crew train to do the same?
Evernham and Gordon won 47 races during the ’90s. It’s tough to distinguish driver from crew chief. But you can make the case that Evernham is as good as any crew chief ever has been.
Also, he likes boxing. I like guys who like boxing.
Rick Hendrick, 65, has won 11 Cup series championships and 14 national car series championships as a team owner. Both are records. He is adept at finding and developing talent.
But there are other qualities that distinguish him. During a tour of his shop, I saw so many signs that alluded to respect I thought Respect was a sponsor. He insisted on respect for the mission and for each other.
In 2009 three Hendrick drivers competed in the finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, and each had a shot at the championship. This is what Hendrick said to them before the race:
“Let me tell you guys what I’m going to do. When it’s over, I’m going to the losers first and congratulate them on a great year. So it will be the third-place guy I go to first and then the second-place guy and then I’ll celebrate the championship.”
Jimmie Johnson won, Mark Martin, who then drove for Hendrick, finished second and Gordon finished third.
“I wanted them to know that in advance,” Hendrick told me. “Because if I go running into Victory Lane to celebrate the championship, here’s the two guys that got beat (and) it will look like I don’t care about them. And when I get to Victory Lane, I don’t want to look like I’m not happy.”
Hendrick looked happy.
Harry Hyde, who died in 1996 at the age of 71, helped Geoff Bodine, Dave Marcis and Neil Bonnett to their first victories. He was a leader, and in 1969 he was crew chief for Bobby Isaac, who won an incredible 17 races and 19 poles. A year later, Hyde helped Isaac to the championship.
Hyde also worked with Tim Richmond, who was charismatic and mercurial and raw and very good and had never been a good ol’ boy in his life. The movie “Days of Thunder” was based as much on the relationship between the veteran crew chief (Hyde was played by Robert Duvall) and the young driver (Richmond was played by Tom Cruise) as it was on NASCAR.
This is to say it probably wasn’t based too much on either. The movie was supposed to portray the real NASCAR. It didn’t, but it had some nice moments.
Hyde had many more.
Martin’s sponsors might have dealt with fast food, but Martin, 56, didn’t. He had no fat. Ask him about his exercise and dietary regimen and you had to call home to say you’d be late.
You get one body to take you through life, and Martin tried to get his to take him to a championship. Alas, it was as if the title was covered in cheese fries. He finished second five times in the Cup series standings.
But this is an impressive driver with an impressive career. He won 40 Cup races, and he won 96 races in NASCAR’s top three series.
What would NASCAR pay to have a driver with Curtis Turner’s style and guile competing in 2015? He was colorful, he was enormously talented and if there was a surface and a car, he had a shot at winning.
Turner, who died in 1970 at the age of 46, won on short tracks and dirt ovals. He won 38 of the 79 races he entered in NASCAR’s Convertible Division. He even won in a Nash. Nash was one of the top cars manufactured in Wisconsin, and Turner is the only driver to win a premier series race in one of them.
Some people have it. They’re going to compete, they might win and they will look good doing it. Turner was one of them.
Sorensen: 704-358-5119; email@example.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen