Scott Fowler

It’s time to overhaul NASCAR Hall of Fame voting process

The NASCAR Hall of Fame, which will elect another class of five inductees on Wednesday, can’t sustain that pace without watering down the quality of those honored. A change to the system is needed.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame, which will elect another class of five inductees on Wednesday, can’t sustain that pace without watering down the quality of those honored. A change to the system is needed. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The voting process for the NASCAR Hall of Fame has hit the wall.

It was cruising along nicely for several years. But now it is wrecked – limping back to the garage and in need of some major repair.

It is time for the sport to fix it.

As currently constructed, the NASCAR Hall of Fame inducts five people per year. Its voting panel of 53 people will elect its eighth class of five inductees on Wednesday, which means that the hall of fame is about to swell to 40 members.

This is not a sustainable model. I am not diminishing the accomplishments of anyone already in the NASCAR Hall of Fame located in uptown Charlotte, but the qualifications for getting in are becoming more diluted every year.

As former hall of fame voter and NASCAR driver Kyle Petty said to me on Tuesday: “Is everybody who’s ever won a race going to get into the hall of fame? At five men a year, at some point you’re going to run out of people. The pool is just not very big.”

Some voters believe the current system is just fine and say they still struggle with narrowing down their ballot to five each year. Tom Higgins, The Charlotte Observer’s legendary former motorsports writer and a hall of fame voter, is one of those.

“I have no problem with the way it’s set up for right now,” Higgins said. “For the foreseeable future, they’ve got plenty of people who are deserving.”

But I side more with Petty, whose father, Richard, was a headliner in the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s first class. Kyle Petty is now a broadcaster for NBC Sports.

“I love the hall of fame and I think we need it,” Petty said. “But it needs to be a special place, not a place where everyone who has driven a race car is going to get in. It shouldn’t be just a ‘good ole Southern boy’ kind of place. ... It needs to be exclusive.”

No minimum percentage required

Some sports hall of fames require candidates to receive a certain percentage of votes to gain entry. For baseball’s hall of fame, the number is 75 percent. For pro football’s hall of fame, it’s 80 percent.

For NASCAR, the percentage of votes received doesn’t matter as long as the candidate finishes in the overall top five. After discussion, each voter is currently allowed to vote for five people from a list of 20 finalists.

In the past two years, four of the elected Hall of Famers were listed on less than 50 percent of the voters’ ballots – Jerry Cook (47 percent), Bobby Isaac (44), Rex White (43) and Fred Lorenzen (30).

“If 30 or 40 percent of the voters think you’re a Hall of Famer, I’m not really sure what that means,” Petty said. “I would like the sport to have a percentage criteria – maybe you need 65 percent of the vote, or 70 percent.”

Higgins said he does believe that at some point a minimum percentage may need to be installed “much like they have in baseball,” he said.

And what happens if no one meets the minimum percentage that year?

Said Petty: “Well, that’s fine. If we don’t put anybody in that year, we just don’t put in anybody.”

I wouldn’t go that far. I think every hall of fame needs to add somebody every year. That’s both for monetary reasons – no new members means no induction ceremony and fewer opportunities for new exhibits – and because I think there is such a thing as being too exclusive.

The Carolina Panthers’ “Hall of Honor,” for instance, is ridiculously small and could be set up in a walk-in closet. After 21 seasons, it still contains only one player who ever played a down for the Panthers (the late Sam Mills) and has not inducted a single individual for 18 years.

3 simple steps to fix it

But five inductees a year, every year? Even though this hall of fame also spreads its umbrella over every series NASCAR runs – it’s not just for the Cup Series that gets most of the attention – I think it’s too much in the long run.

For this year, go ahead and add five more. (And get Rick Hendrick and Richard Childress in there, will you?)

But for future years, starting with the very next hall class, this is how I would fix it in three simple steps:

1. A minimum of two Hall of Famers and a maximum of five will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame each year.

2. A candidate must be listed on 60 percent of the ballots to be elected.

3. If fewer than two candidates are listed on 60 percent of the first round of ballots, the original list of 20 nominees will be narrowed down to the top five receiving votes. A second ballot will then be taken, and the top two candidates will be elected.

This plan accomplishes a couple of things.

It allows for flexibility and more inductees in a year where there are more accomplished candidates than usual – such as a year when several championship-winning drivers become eligible at the same time.

It ensures that the NASCAR Hall of Fame votes in at least two new members every year. But it doesn’t make the voting panel start reaching into murky territory in a lean year – there will be no more of someone being listed on fewer than half the ballots but still gaining membership. (NASCAR’s top officials did not make themselves available to my requests for an interview about possible changes in the induction process.)

Nothing will please everyone

You might tweak the system differently, and I understand that. Much like officiating, any hall of fame lends itself to all sorts of interpretations – and often it makes no one totally happy.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t try to improve. NASCAR’s Hall of Fame has some extraordinary displays, and I would urge you to visit it at least once if you never have. It needs to also be an extraordinary place filled with extraordinary people.

“Sometimes,” Petty said, “the legend is bigger than the deed. Sometimes we’re getting into popularity contests, into myths and legends instead of what really happened on the track. Something needs to change.”

Exactly. And sooner rather than later.

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