CHARLOTTE, N.C.—The architect of some of NASCAR’s most impressive facilities joined four of the sport’s most tenacious racers in comprising the 2016 NASCAR Hall of Fame Class, selected Wednesday by the Hall of Fame Voting Panel.
Two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Terry Labonte headlines a quartet of drivers that includes six-time NASCAR modified champion Jerry Cook, 1970 Cup titleholder Bobby Isaac and 17-time premier series race winner Curtis Turner, one of the most flamboyant figures who ever sat behind the wheel of a stock car.
Joining the four men who made their reputations on the track was a man who has spent his life building some of the most prestigious venues in the sport, Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman O. Bruton Smith.
Another pioneer in the realm of race track construction, Darlington Raceway founder Harold Brasington, receives the Landmark Award for outstanding contributions to NASCAR, announced Wednesday along with the 2016 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees.
Known as “Texas Terry,” Labonte also earned the nickname “Iron Man” for his 655 consecutive starts in NASCAR’s foremost series. He won his championships 12 years apart, driving for two different owners—Billy Hagan in 1984 and Rick Hendrick in 1996.
Labonte, who won 22 Cup races and 27 poles in a career that spanned 37 years, was in a hotel room with son Justin Labonte when he realized he had been elected to the Hall.
“My phone started blowing up, and I said, ‘Oh, wow, I just got selected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame,’” Labonte said in a conference call with reporters. “(Justin) said, ‘Oh, cool, is it on TV?’ and we started flipping channels looking for it…
“It was very exciting. It’s quite an honor to be in that group of people that are in the Hall of Fame—all these people I looked up to. I never really thought about being part of the Hall of Fame, because there’s so many great people that are in it.”
Isaac, who died in 1977, raced for the first time at NASCAR’s highest level in 1961, but the most productive stretch of his career was compressed into two seasons, 1969 and 1970. In 1969, the Catawba, N.C., driver won 19 poles in 50 attempts, still a high-water mark for a single season of Cup racing.
All told, Isaac won 37 races and 49 poles, ranking him 10th all-time in the latter category. Isaac’s conversion rate of poles to wins also was phenomenal; 19 of his 37 victories came from the top starting spot.
Known as the “Babe Ruth of Stock Car Racing,” Turner, who died in 1970, competed in NASCAR’s first Strictly Stock event in Charlotte in 1949. Three starts later, he recorded the first of his 17 victories in NASCAR’s premier division at Langhorne (Pa.) Speedway.
Known for his prowess on the dirt tracks, Turner nevertheless won the Southern 500 in 1956 and the first American 500 at Rockingham Speedway in 1965. Turner, who also won 38 races in 79 starts in NASCAR’s Convertible Division, is the only driver to win two consecutive races from the pole, leading every lap, a feat he accomplished in back-to-back starts at Monroe County Fairgrounds in Rochester, N.Y. and Charlotte (N.C.) Speedway in 1950.
Renowned for his intense battles with NASCAR Hall of Famer and fellow Rome, N.Y., driver Richie Evans, Cook won more than 300 races in the NASCAR Modified division to go with his six titles, four of which were consecutive (1974 through 1977).
Cook helped shape the NASCAR Whelan Modified Tour and served as series director before continuing his career with the sanctioning body as competition administrator.
“This is like winning all the championships at one time,” said Cook, the only inductee present at the announcement.
Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc. operates eight tracks which collectively host 12 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races. It was Smith’s vision, for example, that transformed Bristol Motor Speedway from a half-mile short track to a vast coliseum with seating for more than 150,000 fans.
“When I found out that I was nominated, I realized how much this meant to my family and the 15,000 employees that work for my companies,” Smith said in a statement released after the results of the voting were announced. “Now I realize how much it means to me. It will truly be an honor to be remembered at the Hall of Fame along with people like Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Glen Wood, Junior Johnson, Darrell Waltrip and so many others who helped build this sport.
“That’s what I’ve tried to do my entire life. I’m a frustrated builder who had a knack for promoting races, and it’s been fun to always try to push the sport to greater heights for the fans. From the first World 600, I’ve always wanted the fans to leave with something spectacular to remember about their experience.”
Smith was the leading vote-getter in the 2016 class, being named on 68 percent of ballots. Labonte (61 percent) was second, followed by Turner (60 percent), Cook (47 percent) and Isaac (44 percent).
The induction ceremonies for the 2016 class are scheduled for Jan. 22.
Reid Spencer – NASCAR Wire Service
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