By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
Four legendary drivers and one titan of a track owner are the latest additions to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
On Saturday afternoon at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C., O. Bruton Smith, executive chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc., entered the Hall with “Iceman” Terry Labonte, six-time NASCAR Modified champion Jerry Cook, 1970 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Bobby Isaac and flamboyant Curtis Turner, who was instrumental in raising the profile of stock car racing during NASCAR’s early days.
Introduced by current NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Ryan Newman, Isaac was first to be inducted during a ceremony delayed for one day by winter storm Jonas. Son Randy Isaac performed the honors, with wife Patsy accepting on behalf of her late husband.
“Bobby Isaac is a true American rages-to-riches story,” Patsy Isaac said. “He was born into a poor family in Catawba County in 1932. He was the second youngest of nine children and was on his own by the age of 12.
“One fateful night, Bobby attended a race at Hickory Speedway. Not having enough money to purchase a ticket, he watched the race from a tree outside the track. He was inspired to believe that racing was his opportunity for a better life.
“He loved to win, but he hated to lose, and he used this passion to drive his success.”
Isaac passed away in 1977, seven years after winning his championship in NASCAR’s premier division, and those who weren’t fortunate enough to have seen him on the track missed one of the fiercest competitors in the history of NASCAR racing.
In 308 starts, Isaac won 37 races and 49 poles, 10th most all-time in the latter category. Remarkably, he converted 20 of those poles into race wins. Thirty-six of his victories came during a prolific period from 1968 through 1972, when Isaac was driving the No. 71 K&K Insurance Dodge owned by Nord Krauskopf.
During his championship season, Isaac visited Victory Lane 11 times in 47 starts, a year after winning an extraordinary 17 times in 50 races and finishing sixth in the series standings. Isaac still holds the record for poles in a single season (19 in 1969).
Cook, part of a remarkable era in NASCAR Modified racing, was the second member of the class of 2016 to enter the Hall. During a 15-year span, Cook and Richie Evans, a nine-time champion and a 2012 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, kept the Modified trophy in Rome, N.Y., where they both lived.
It’s a tribute to Cook’s talent and tenacity that he was able to win six titles, including four straight from 1974 through 1977, going head-to-head against the foremost Modified driver in the history of the sport.
Cook’s contribution, however, isn’t limited to his on-track performance. As a long-time NASCAR executive, Cook has been instrumental in the streamlining, development and promotion of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour.
Three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart introduced Cook with the words “Today one of my favorite drivers takes his rightful place among the immortals in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.”
An emotional Cook humbly accepted the honor, which was conferred on him by old friend and former NASCAR senior vice president of competition Robin Pemberton.
“I have been very fortunate to make a living doing something that I really love, and I would not trade it for anything,” Cook said during his induction speech. “When I first started racing, I wondered how long I could do this before I had to get a real job, but somehow, I always had money in my pocket, so I just kept racing.
“In fact, my Mother never thought that I had a real job until I went to work for NASCAR … NASCAR’s a family, and this is our house. Thanks for bringing me to our house.”
Always larger than life, and sometimes controversial, Turner earned the well-deserved nickname “Babe Ruth of stock car racing” for his hard-charging aggressiveness on the race track and his equally full-throttle lifestyle off the dirt and pavement.
A 17-time winner at NASCAR’s highest level, Turner collected most of his victories on short asphalt and dirt ovals, but he also triumphed in the 1956 Southern 500 at Darlington and the 1965 American 500 at Rockingham, driving a No. 41 Ford fielded by the Wood Brothers in the inaugural Cup race at the one-mile track.
Turner is the only driver in the history of NASCAR’s top division to have won from the pole while leading every lap in two consecutive races, a feat he accomplished at Rochester, N.Y., and Charlotte in 1950.
“Curtis was recognized nationally as THE race driver,” said fellow inductee Bruton Smith, who joined forces with Turner in spearheading the construction of Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Turner, who also won 38 races in 78 starts in NASCAR’s Convertible Series was introduced by 2014 Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick and inducted by Hall of Fame member Leonard Wood. Turner’s daughter, Margaret Sue Turner Wright, accepted the honor.
“Curtis Turner was really many things to many people,” Wright said. “He was a star to some people, a great race car driver to many people, a track president, track promoter and an owner—and entrepreneur. But we just called him ‘Dad’ or ‘Daddy.’
“…If there was anything he ever wanted to do—a project or a new business—he never let doubt get in the way. He just went full speed ahead into his dreams, and that’s inspiring.”
Smith, the fourth inductee from the 2016 class, set a new standard of opulence in NASCAR facilities. Many consider Bristol Motor Speedway his most visionary contribution to the sport. There, he took a half-mile short track in rural Tennessee and transformed it into a 160,000-seat racing coliseum.
Charlotte Motor Speedway, however, was the foundation of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which has grown to include eight race tracks that host a combined total of 12 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points races, as well as the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race.
Introduced by 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski, Smith, the top vote-getter in the 2016 class, was ushered into the Hall by three-time Cup champion and Hall of fame member Darrell Waltrip.
“I want to thank all the people that voted for me,” the effervescent Smith said. “That was wonderful. You took a chance, but you know how it is. When you got married, you took a chance. I’m glad you voted for me—and I’m here!”
Smith said originally he wanted to be a race car driver and bought a car for $700.
“But my mom had a problem with it, and she said, ‘I wish you wouldn’t do that.’” Smith said. “I heard that a dozen times, I guess, and my mother was a very religious person. My mom started praying I would quit.
“I knew then, when she did that, it was time for me to quit, because I was not going to compete with that. So that’s when I quit and went over to the other side, and I started promoting races.”
Known as “Iceman” for his cool demeanor and “Iron Man” for his streak of 655 straight starts in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (fifth most all-time), Labonte was the fifth and final inductee of the evening.
Labonte won championships in NASCAR’s top series 12 years apart, the first for owner Billy Hagan in 1984 and the second for Hendrick Motorsports in 1996. Labonte’s primary competition for the second title was teammate Jeff Gordon, who finished second in the standings during a run of three championships in four years.
“He battled Jeff Gordon for the championship when Jeff Gordon was in his prime—and beat him,” team owner Rick Hendrick said during a question-and-session with reporters on the recent Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour. “He’s one of the toughest people I’ve ever met, but he’s a team player, and such a good person.”
Labonte was introduced by reigning Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch and inducted by daughter Kristy Garrett. Labonte then gave a nod to the corps of drivers who had preceded him into the Hall.
“I might be in the Hall of Fame today with you guys, but you guys will still always be my heroes, and I appreciate everything that you guys did for our sport,” he said.
In his acceptance speech, the typically reticent champion couldn’t resist a joke at the expense of his wife Kim.
“We were riding down the road the other day, and Kim looked at me and said, ‘Hey, have you even thought about a speech for the Hall of Fame?’
“And I looked at her and said, ‘That’s news to me. Nobody’s told me anything about a speech for the Hall of Fame’ … I thought right there, you know I’ve got the perfect wife. We’ve been married 37 years, and she still believes everything I tell her.”
Labonte got uncharacteristically emotional, however, in address brother Bobby Labonte, who won the Cup championship in 2000.
“It’s not everybody who gets to do this and race in this series, much less do it with your brother,” Labonte said. “And I’ll tell you what, we had some great years that we raced together. We have some memories that will last a lifetime. And I love you, too, buddy.”
Also honored on Saturday were Darlington Raceway developer Harold Brasington, who was named Landmark Award Winner for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR, and popular Fox Sports broadcaster Steve Byrnes, who earned the Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR Media Excellence.
Beloved by colleagues, competitors and fans alike, Byrnes passed away in April after a long, courageous and inspirational battle against cancer.
Image: Streeter Lecka/NASCAR via Getty Images