CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Rusty Wallace touched on his early days trying to make it as a professional race car driver, the lessons he learned from NASCAR’s pioneers and his relentless push to drive for Roger Penske in an energetic acceptance into the Hall of Fame.
Then Wallace, winner of 55 races and the 1989 championship, called Friday night’s induction the biggest day of my driving career.
Wallace was the headliner of the fourth Hall of Fame class, which included innovative mechanic and crew chief Leonard Wood, former series champions Buck Baker and Herb Thomas and former car owner Cotton Owens. Wallace and Wood are the only two living members of this year’s class.
The thing I learned, and I said it the driver meeting in 2005 the day I retired and walked out, I said `This is a privilege. This is a privilege to race in NASCAR. You don’t have to do it, we’re not making you do it. It’s a privilege to race in NASCAR, and it’s a blessing for me to be in this sport and do what I’ve done,’ Wallace said. I just hope all the young drivers respect NASCAR as much as I respect it and go out there and say nice things about NASCAR and help build this sport.
Wood, who was inducted a year after his older brother, Glenn, made a point to thank Ford Motor Company. The famed No. 21 Wood Brothers entry has a long association with the blue oval.
If it wasn’t for Ford Motor Company and my brother, Glenn, I wouldn’t be up here, said Wood, who also listed every racer who has driven the No. 21.
Baker was introduced by Jeff Gordon, one of five active drivers chosen to introduce the nominees. Gordon talked about being a proud graduate of Baker’s driving school.
Baker was the first driver to win consecutive NASCAR premier series championships. His 1956 and 1957 titles came during a four-year span when he finished in the top two in points in all four seasons.
It was only fitting that Owens was inducted into the Hall by David Pearson, the driver who won him a championship and was a devoted friend long after their racing careers ended.
Pearson, a member of the second class for the Hall, inducted former driver and car owner Owens in Friday night’s ceremony. Owens died at 88 in June, weeks after learning he had been voted into the Hall’s fourth class.
Owens won nine races as a driver, then transitioned into ownership. He finished second in points in 1959 to Hall of Famer Lee Petty, and won more than 100 races in NASCAR’s modified division.
He was named one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers in 1998.
Thomas, the first driver to win two NASCAR championships, won 48 races and ranks 13th on the career wins list.