Why don’t the guys who make the critical race-winning calls ever get the calls to the shrine that validates their race-winning careers?
That’s the question that the NASCAR Hall of Fame awkwardly is facing yet again with the nomination process for its 11th class.
Kirk Shelmerdine, the team-building genius who guided Dale Earnhardt’s No. 3 Chevrolet to four championships before mysteriously disappearing from the NASCAR limelight, inexplicably has fallen off the nominees list for the 2020 induction ceremony.
It was only last year that Shelmerdine had appeared on the ballot for the first time.
Now he’s gone, and it’s reasonable to ask if he ever will return for consideration given some of the names that have supplanted him.
There was never any doubt about three-time champion Tony Stewart being ushered directly into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
But there undeniably are greater questions about the other five new nominees — Sam Ard, Neil Bonnett, Marvin Panch, Jim Paschal and Red Vogt. They all are deserving of consideration … but are they more deserving than Shelmerdine?
Shelmerdine has nearly twice as many wins (46) as a crew chief in NASCAR’s premier Cup series as any of those candidates.
He changed front tires and led the famous Flying Aces pit crew that was the best in NASCAR for several seasons.
He was a key cog during many of the greatest years ever posted by seven-time champion and inaugural Hall of Fame inductee Dale Earnhardt.
Shelmerdine is a living and breathing integral connection to the legacy of “The Intimidator,” which makes it even more indefensible that his candidacy has been suspended without explanation.
It’s patently ridiculous, and it’s a disturbing pattern that has emerged over the years since the inception of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Crew chiefs get no respect when it comes to being considered for legendary status, never mind actually being enshrined.
Of the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s 50 inductees, there are only four who have at least 50 races as Cup crew chiefs (Dale Inman, Glen Wood, Bud Moore and Ray Evernham). And of that group, only Inman and Evernham could be considered true crew chiefs.
Between Inman, Moore, Evernham, Leonard Wood, Robert Yates and Maurice Petty, the representative list of crew chiefs, engine builders and mechanics in the NASCAR Hall of Fame is painfully short, and the number of slights is unfortunately long.
–Dale Inman was elected to the third class of the Hall of Fame with 78% of the vote … two years after he inexplicably was left off the ballot for the inaugural class – a 25-person list with no crew chiefs.
–Ray Evernham, who was voted the greatest crew chief of all time 13 years ago, didn’t appear on the ballot until the 2016 class and wasn’t elected until 2018.
–Smokey Yunick and Banjo Matthews, two icons generally regarded among the finest mechanics of their generation, have yet to be recognized.
In the case of Yunick, the larger-than-life personality whose “Best Damn Garage in Town” is the stuff of Daytona Beach legend and Hollywood lore, there is a realistic fear he never will be nominated because of his endless wars with NASCAR executives and officials over the rulebook.
There were some other curious omissions on the 2020 ballot in the Landmark Award category, where racing pioneer Janet Guthrie and late Motor Racing Network legend Barney Hall got booted.
As Associated Press writer Jenna Fryer noted, the optics are poor to have Guthrie suddenly excluded with so much cultural focus on female equality and particularly given NASCAR’s persistent efforts to promote diversity (and rising stars such as Hailie Deegan).
The process for building the nomination list, though, isn’t necessarily wrong.
According to those involved in culling the nominees, the NASCAR Hall of Fame actually has been more proactive in pushing for a broader spectrum of nominees by providing more information for prospective candidates in several categories.
Much like the Hall of Fame vote, the nomination discussion is held in confidence, and the voting is done by secret ballot and tabulated by an accounting firm. As Winston Kelley explained Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR, it wasn’t as if someone were advocating for the exclusion of Guthrie, Hall and Shelmerdine.
The names disappeared from consideration through an honestly conducted winnowing. Another process might produce the same results.
The question that must be answered is why the results keep being returned with crew chiefs, engine builders and mechanics being snubbed.
If the argument is that they somehow aren’t personalities, that’s absurd, too.
Yunick’s autobiography probably could be optioned as a screenplay. Evernham has transitioned into a post-crew chief/team owner career as a highly successful TV analyst. Inman still is often at Richard Petty’s side weekly in the Cup garage, cracking hilarious stories about yesteryear.
Shelmerdine has one of the greatest backstories in NASCAR.
How many people can say they competed in The Great American Race first as a crew chief and then as a driver (Shelmerdine finished 20th in the 2006 Daytona 500)?
At the top of his game as Earnhardt’s crew chief, a 34-year-old Shelmerdine walked away from Richard Childress Racing after the 1992 season to start a driving career, which he toiled through for 15 years with limited success racing his own team in ARCA, trucks, Xfinity and Cup.
Though Shelmerdine was a straight-talking Delaware native with an iconoclastic streak that made him a great in calling and managing races, the move still stunned NASCAR. Team owner Richard Childress said Shelmerdine simply was “burned out.”
Robin Pemberton, a rival crew chief before his run as NASCAR executive, once said Shelmerdine was “a pretty sharp fella who got out of the sport a little too early. He still had a lot to offer. It was a big shock. I think everyone was confused as to the reasons he left. I’m not so sure anybody knows.”
When asked by the Richmond Times-Dispatch 16 years ago (while trying to make the 2003 Daytona 500 with Junie Donlavey) why he quit, Shelmerdine said, “It gets to the point that you don’t care about winning, you just can’t stand to see the other (expletives) win.” The reporter who asked the question was so taken aback by the answer, he couldn’t even muster a proper follow-up.
Maybe the rest of Shelmerdine’s story finally might be told during a NASCAR Hall of Fame induction speech that’s long overdue.
Too bad we’ll have to wait at least another year to hear it.