By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Correspondent
MOORESVILLE, N.C. – The North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame inducted two more legends of the sport into its Hall of Fame in downtown Mooresville, Jerry Cook and Tony Stewart.
A part of the NCARHoF honor for Cook and Stewart will have individual sidewalk markers on Main Street in ‘Race City USA’s downtown, an imprint deserving of men who’s mark on the sport is still felt today.
The event, emceed by NCARHoF Board Chair, and recent Team Penske Hall of Fame inductee, Don Miller was attended by Bobby and Donnie Allison, Rex White, Elliott Forbes-Robinson and other legends.
Retired NASCAR Cup Series driver and current NASCAR on NBC Analyst Kyle Petty inducted Cook. Although Petty explained that growing up, he didn’t know what a Modified was, but he knew who Cook was.
Petty spoke highly of Cook, and joked about how he teased his father, Richard Petty about the Modified ace’s stats.
“I had no clue what a Modified was. We had cup cars and that’s all I grew up with was cup cars. But I knew Jerry Cook, I knew what he meant to Modifieds. I knew what he meant to NASCAR in the Northeast. Here’s the guy who won six championships, 340 some races, and I’d look at my dad and say, why can’t you do better?
“You know it was amazing. Any time you picked up the Speed Sport News or anything at the time you picked up any newspaper, it was Jerry Cook. Later in my life he brought a guy named Steve Hmiel to us, who ended up being the first race I ever ran.
“Steve looked after everything.Steve was a big part of my life teaching me to fabricate, helping me to become a race car driver and teaching me about racing. And so much of what Steve brought to us, he learned with Jerry.”
In 1998, Cook was named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers, and was one of just two modified drivers included on the list, Richie Evans was the other. The Rome, NY native earned six NASCAR Modified National Tour championships, including four straight (1971, 1972, 1974-1977).
Before Cook retired from competition in 1982, he earned 340 victories, second only to Evans. After he retired, he moved in NASCAR’s administration, becoming the Modified Tour’s competition director in 1985 when its’ modern era began. Cook was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2016.
Cook explained why the NCARHoF induction was important to him and unlike any other.
“Every hall of fame is important. That means a lot to me. This is unique. This is a North Carolina Auto Racing Walk of Fame on the sidewalk in the city that we have called home since 2002. All inductee represents some of the influential and well-known names in NASCAR, North Carolina, and motorsports.”
During Cook’s 20-year career behind the wheel, he raced without the aid of power steering and other advancements. One year, he competed in 96 races and eight races in six days.
For Cook, the 1969 Dogwood 500 stood out far more than others.
“The most memorable race win was in 1969 at the Dogwood 500, a 500-lap Modified race at Martinsville Speedway, 500 straight. With the cars that we had then, compared to what we got now, it’d be like running a pedal [car] against the Cadillacs.
“There was no power steering or none of the fancy stuff that you got today, but I won that race and that’s the longest hardest race ever. And I won quite a few of them that went there. I had the second-place car in front of me to lap him and I just stayed there. I was afraid if I tried to pass him, he might take me out.”
For Stewart, his accomplishments transcend multiple disciplines of motorsports. The co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing earned three NASCAR Cup Series championships (2002, 2005, and 2011) under three different points systems. In 2011, Stewart became the first driver-owner to win a championship since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.
Prior to the Columbus, IN native’s full-time foray into stock car racing, he earned the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Honors in 1996 and the Indy Racing League championship in 1997. Stewart was the first to win the USAC Triple Crown in 1995.
As John Dodson, the Vice President of Business Alliances & NASCAR at Universal Technical Institute said, “If you want to know more about Tony Stewart, you have to Google it.”
“There is so much stuff he has won and accomplished so much,” Dodson continued. “It was a nightmare to put this together. So, I may skip over some of this, but I encourage you to go Google ‘Tony Stewart’ and all this stuff.”
In total, Stewart earned 12 championships throughout his still active career. Like Cook, he has been a dedicated race, competing in 120 races in a single year across multiple disciplines of motorsports.
Stewart has been inducted into the USAC Hall of Fame, the Sonoma Raceway Walk of Fame, National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame, Hoosier Auto Racing Fans Hall of Fame, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame. He will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2020.
Stewart explained that receiving these accolades are difficult because he is still competing.
“This is probably the hardest thing for me because I’m still driving Sprint Cars. I’m going to run a hundred races this year. In ’95, I ran 120.”
Stewart credits his former team owner, Joe Gibbs, with much of his success as a team owner, a track owner, and even as a driver.
“We’ve (SHR) got great people and that’s something that I learned from a driving for Joe Gibbs for all these years is surround yourself with good people. Without Joe’s guidance, I don’t think I ever would have gone to Tony Stewart Racing in 2001, or Eldora Speedway or have the courage to leave Joe and join with Gene Haas, be a part of Stewart-Haas Racing.”
The feelings of those in attendance, from the inductees, NCARHoF’s board members and race fans, to the various business partners and figures from Mooresville, N.C., were likely echoed by Miller’s words.
“This is an incredible situation because we’ve been doing this for 25 years now, and I don’t know that we’ve ever inducted two people who are warriors of the sport like Tony and Jerry are. I think all of us can learn something from these two and it’s special that we appreciate them in this manner. We’re honored to have both of them in our Hall of Fame.”