CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Five legends of stock car auto racing were enshrined into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C., Friday during the Induction Ceremony held in the Crown Ballroom of the Charlotte Convention.
Four were NASCAR pioneers, building the sport during its formative years; the other ushered it into modern times and its exploding popularity.
Combined, they make the fourth class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It’s a group with talents that run the gamut necessary for NASCAR excellence: Unparalleled driving skills; team unifying and talent evaluating ownership prowess; a brilliant mechanical mind.
The five new members bring the total number of Hall of Famers to 20.
Buck Baker – a two-time NASCAR premier series champion in 1956-57, the first to ever win back-to-back titles in NASCAR’s top level. Cotton Owens – a master of two crafts, that of driver and owner. Herb Thomas – the first driver to win multiple championships in NASCAR’s premier series. Rusty Wallace – the 1989 NASCAR premier series champion and a 55-time race winner. Leonard Wood – legendary engine builder, mechanic and crew chief for the Wood Brothers.
Baker, a 46-time winner, joined the ranks of NASCAR royalty after becoming the first driver to capture consecutive championships in NASCAR’s premier series. He earned his first championship driving cars for legendary owner Carl Kiekhaefer; he won his second driving his own cars. Baker passed his immense driving talent to his son Buddy, who himself won 19 times in the premier series. Buddy Baker inducted his father during tonight’s ceremony.
“Buck always made an impression on people, good or bad,” said widow Susan Baker, who accepted the induction on Baker’s behalf. Buck Baker passed away in 2002. “If you ever met him, you never forgot him. It was never boring being married to Buck, either. He could make me laugh like no one else could, and he had that same effect on others.”
Owens joins Junior Johnson as NASCAR Hall of Famers who excelled as both driver and owner. The Union, S.C., native won nine times as a driver in NASCAR’s premier series, and won more than 100 more races in NASCAR’s Modified division. The latter feat earned him the moniker of “King of the Modifieds.” He wore the crown in the NASCAR premier series as an owner in 1966, winning the championship with fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson.
“I know this is a biased opinion, but in our family’s book, there was no better racer than Cotton Owens,” said Kyle Davis, Owens’ grandson, who accepted the induction on his grandfather’s behalf. Owens passes away last year. “My grandfather was one of the most humble, most loyal and hardest working men I’ve ever met. He took great pride in the fact that he could build a race car from the ground up … engine, chassis, transmission, you name it … drive it to the race track and then drive it to Victory Lane. He was a wizard at both turning wrenches and behind the wheel.”
Herb Thomas was one of NASCAR’s first superstars thanks to his premier series championships in 1951 and 1953. Becoming the first driver to win multiple championships, Thomas laid the groundwork for a record-setting career. His 48 victories in 228 starts translates to a winning percentage of 21.05 percent, a NASCAR premier series record.
Thomas’ son Joel accepted the induction on his behalf.
“I truly believe this is the greatest honor a driver could receive,” Joel Thomas said. Herb Thomas passed away in 2000. “My father would have been very honored and humbled in receiving this recognition. … Thank you all for helping him reach his dreams. Thank you to all of his fans for cheering him on and keeping his memories alive.”
Ninth on the all-time premier series wins list, Rusty Wallace enjoyed one of the most successful careers in modern-day NASCAR. Wallace won the 1989 premier series championship a season after finishing second in the final points standings. For 16 consecutive seasons, from 1986-2001, Wallace scored at least one win per season. That’s tied for the third-longest streak in history.
“I look out in this crowd and I see some of the biggest stars in history,” said an emotional Wallace. “I am humbled that I’m standing up here, and I just can’t thank everybody enough for selecting me to be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.”
Leonard Wood again joins his brother Glen, this time in the NASCAR Hall of Fame (Glen was inducted last year). Leonard served as chief mechanic for the Wood Brothers his entire career, winning a total of 94 races with some of biggest names in NASCAR history including brother Glen, Marvin Panch, David Pearson and Cale Yarborough.
“It’s certainly a high honor to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, especially right behind my brother, Glen, and two of our former drivers, David [Pearson] and Cale [Yarborough],” Wood said. “Glen and I always did things together, we learned together and we won together.”
Each of the five inductees had an inductor who officially welcomed them into the hall. The inductors for the five inductees: Herb Thomas was inducted by NASCAR Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett; Cotton Owens was inducted by his former driver NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson; Leonard Wood was inducted by his nephew and Wood Brothers co-owner Eddie Wood; Buck Baker was inducted by his son Buddy Baker; Rusty Wallace was inducted by his son Greg Wallace.
Active drivers introduced each inductee video during tonight’s program. The list of drivers who participated: Carl Edwards for Herb Thomas; Mark Martin for Cotton Owens; Jeff Gordon for Buck Baker; Brad Keselowski for Rusty Wallace; and Trevor Bayne for Leonard Wood.