Thursday, October 14, 2010

Commentary: The Microwave Hall Of Fame

Yesterday provided a shining example of everything that is good about NASCAR. The sport chose five of its favorite sons: three-time Cup Series champion David Pearson, inaugural Daytona 500 winner and three-time champ Lee Petty, legendary car owner Bud Moore, two-time champion and award-winning broadcaster Ned Jarrett and former champion and 84-time race winner Bobby Allison for induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The day was filled with emotion, tears and high drama, as NASCAR embraced five larger-than-life personalities and thanked them for their considerable roles in building the sport.

Today, less than 24 hours later, that feeling is gone, replaced by the petty bickering of a select few observers who sadly seem incapable of letting anything good go unspoiled. While acknowledging the accomplishments and credentials of Wednesday’s honorees, they cannot resist chastising NASCAR for not including their favorite driver, turning what should be a feel-good moment for the sport into just another competition to see who can get to the Finish Line fastest, and at whose expense.

One of the most respected writers in the business, veteran scribe Ed Hinton wrote of Wednesday’s announcement, “Messing with men's lives, especially in their twilight, just so NASCAR can hold an annual publicity stunt, just isn't right. But that's what is happening with the Hall of Fame and its cruelly small groups of inductees.”

There is no writer in the sport for whom I have more respect than Hinton. He will almost certainly have a spot of his own in the Hall Of Fame one day. But on this topic, he is most certainly wrong.

Induction into the NASCAR Hall Of Fame is not a race. It’s not a competition to determine who is better than whom. I walked through the Hall Of Honor just hours before yesterday’s ceremony, and the five men enshrined there were not ranked, in any way. There was no “Best Of All Time,” just a dignified listing of each driver’s accomplishments, both on and off the racetrack. Pitting driver against driver as Ed Hinton and others attempt to do serves no purpose other than to cheapen the process. It robs Wednesday’s honorees of their much-deserved moment in the sun. It diminishes the efforts and integrity of the voting panel that poured heart and soul into their selections. Worse yet, it paints the 20 men not selected for the 2011 Class as losers, when nothing could be further from the truth.

The process of choosing five Hall Of Famers from a list of 25 nominees is akin to taking an exam where there are no wrong answers. There were no “winners and losers” yesterday. All 25 nominees were then – and continue to be now -- worthy of inclusion in the Hall. Pearson, Petty, Moore, Jarrett and Allison were not better or more qualified than the other 20 nominees. They were simply next in a decades-long line of equals, waiting patiently to take their place among the legends of the sport.

Hinton writes that men like Cale Yarborough, Glen Wood, Dale Inman and Darrell Waltrip were “denied” spots in the Hall Of Fame yesterday. That’s not true. They were, at worst, deferred. And while they were most certainly disappointed yesterday, that feeling will pass.

Just moments after last year’s announcement, David Pearson walked sullenly from the Hall Of Fame, hurt (and perhaps even angry) not to be included in the inaugural class. One year later, everything changed. One of the sport’s toughest, most stoic personalities fought back tears as he spoke of being chosen for the Hall’s second class. There was no bitterness, no “I should have been here last year;” just humility and honor to be included among the sport’s all-time greats.

Some wish the NASCAR Hall Of Fame could be filled instantly. That, I suppose, is understandable. Modern society has traded-in its attention span for a life of instant gratification. We eat our food over the sink, straight from the microwave because cooking and setting the table take too much time. We prefer Monday morning highlight packages to watching the actual race, because three hours seems like too long to sit still in an ADHD world. We spend our money on $300 sneakers and let the 401K go begging, because there’s no time to worry about next week, much less old age.

We’ve forgotten that good things take time.

One win – or even one championship -- does not make a Hall Of Fame career. It takes decades of sweat, sacrifice and determination, and there is no short-cut on the road to greatness.

If we’re willing to accept that Hall Of Famers are not made overnight, why can we not accept that a Hall Of Fame cannot be filled in that same amount of time.

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