Hall of Fame memories for 2013
Ed Hinton [ARCHIVE]
February 8, 2013
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This is one of those rarest of occasions when I don't feel old enough.

With each induction class into NASCAR's Hall of Fame, I have tried to provide my own up close and personal remembrances of the men.

This time, well, not even I go back far enough to have personal memories of Herb Thomas and Cotton Owens. I just wasn't around in their days.

I did know Buck Baker some, but only after he briefly came out of retirement to race at Darlington in 1976. I knew Leonard Wood more by his work than his talk. He was always a reticent wizard with engines, speaking to the media only when spoken to, and even then softly and sparingly.

But Rusty Wallace? You couldn't miss him. He arrived in 1980 with plenty to say, and he never let up, through his retirement in 2005, and he's still speaking in his staccato style as a television analyst for ESPN.

Here, in alphabetical order, are my up-close memories of some, and thoughts on the careers of others.

Buck Baker

Out of retirement, and right back onto center stage, at age 57, the legend came. This was at the spring race, Darlington, 1976. Elzie Wylie "Buck" Baker felt, he said, "like an old World War II propeller plane pilot coming back trying to fly a jet fighter."

He regaled us with stories of NASCAR's "prop plane" era, and didn't do too badly in the jet. After qualifying 13th, he shrugged and said "A man 57 years old don't need to be goin' no faster'n that."

Then he surveyed the grounds of the battered Lady in Black, and recalled running in the first Southern 500 there, in 1950. He had the gaggle of journalists around him laughing ourselves out of breath.

Never before had NASCAR run such a long race, and "none of us knew what it would take to go 500 miles," Baker began. Even then they had vague notions of staying hydrated, so several drivers secured -- they thought -- containers of liquid in their cars.

"One guy took beer," Baker recalled. After only a few laps, with the car pitching and jerking on the crude banking, "that beer foamed up. The car had so much foam pouring out of it that it looked like a washing machine was overflowing inside it."

Baker had decided to take a jug of tomato juice, for energy.

"Well, then I wrecked," he recalled. "The tomato juice spilled all over me, and I was slumped over in the seat."

When the safety workers got there, "one of 'em looked inside and hollered to the others, 'There ain't no helpin' this one. Po' feller's done got his head cut off!'"

Baker fared much better in NASCAR after that, winning back-to-back championships in 1956-57 and a career total of 46 race victories.

At Darlington in '76, the old prop pilot picked his way through all the melees of jet fighters and finished sixth. That was his last Cup race.

Not long before Buck died in 2002, his elder son, Buddy Baker, a NASCAR star in his own right, shook his head as he told me a story of just how feisty his father remained, into his 80s.

On a North Carolina highway, Buddy was driving with Buck as his passenger, and the driver of another car began gesturing at them in some sort of road rage. When the other driver pulled into a parking lot, "My daddy told me, 'Pull over there and stop,'" Buddy recounted.

"I said, 'What for?' He said, 'So I can whip that guy's a--.'"

Cotton Owens

He was just about the most famous guy around NASCAR that I never met. He fielded his last cars in 1973, and I didn't come to the beat until '74. But it's not like I didn't hear about him.

From Bobby Allison to Buddy Baker to David Pearson, you would hear, time and again, "I was driving for Cotton Owens then," or "That was when I was in Cotton's car."

In one of Cotton's Dodges, Baker became the first NASCAR driver to top 200 mph, at Talladega in 1970. It was for Owens, in '66, that Pearson won the first of his three championships.

Heck, even Elvis Presley drove for Cotton -- sort of. It was in an Owens-built Dodge that Elvis filmed the action scenes for the 1968 film, "Speedway."

And Owens' all-time roster of drivers included another singing star, Marty Robbins, who was racing for real. Others in his cars at one time or another included Fireball Roberts, Ralph Earnhardt, Benny Parsons, Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Junior Johnson … even road-racing stars Sam Posey and Peter Gregg.

In other words, Everett "Cotton" Owens, working out of the then-hotbed of Spartanburg, S.C., developed his own sort of hall of fame. Now he will be inducted into NASCAR's official Hall of Fame.

He began as a driver, known as "King of the Modifieds," with 100-plus victories in NASCAR's true backbone division. In Grand National, now known as Cup, he drove to nine wins in 160 starts, then fielded cars for others to win 38 times.

Owens died last June at age 88, knowing he'd made it into the Hall of Fame. His selection had been announced two weeks earlier.

Herb Thomas

I'll never forget how Richard Petty virtually leapt out of his chair, for emphasis, and stabbed at the air with that long right forefinger, an instant after I questioned his judgment.

This was in 1996, and I was seeking the King's input as to the top 10 drivers of NASCAR's first 50 years, and early on his list came a name out of the blue -- to me at least.

"Herb Thomas," he said.

"Herb Thomas?" I questioned.

"Yes, sir!" he said with the aforementioned body language.

So effusive was Petty about the single-minded aggressiveness of a man he'd watched in his youth that I began to ask around about this obscure figure.

Just for openers, Thomas had the best winning percentage of any Cup driver, 20.9, with 48 wins in 230 races. He won championships in 1951 and '53.

Thomas was one of the great triumph-and-disaster tragedies of stock car racing, in the view of my late friend Benny Phillips, a North Carolina sports writer who covered NASCAR for half a century.

Thomas went against the flow, and it cost him what might otherwise have been a career that stood alongside those of Lee Petty (Richard's father), Buck Baker and Junior Johnson.

In midseason, 1956, Thomas quit driving for the dominant car owner of the time, Wisconsin millionaire Carl Kiekhaefer, known for arriving at the tracks with one of those big auto transporters like you see on the interstates -- full of race cars.

By late season, driving his own Chevrolets, Thomas led the point standings. Kiekhaefer was an industrialist accustomed to getting his way -- or making a way -- so he leased some tracks and convinced the still-struggling NASCAR founder, Bill France Sr., to extend the season. That was so Kiekhaefer's drivers, Baker and Speedy Thompson, would get additional cracks at Thomas for the title.

Phillips and others...
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