A racecar driver needs a fast car, precise pit stops and the right chain of decisions from the pit box to win. All that rests in the hands of the crew chief.
So why are there so few crew chiefs in the NASCAR Hall of Fame?
The Stats on Crew Chiefs
The NASCAR Hall of Fame (HoF) inducted its first class in 2010. I’m including the 2020 class because they’ve been announced, even though they won’t be inducted until next year. There are 55 people in the HoF, which the HoF categorizes into classes.
- Crew Chief
- Engine Builder
- Engine Builder & Crew Chief
- Engine Builder & Mechanic
- Owner, Builder, Race Official
- Owner, Engine Builder
We can argue about how people should be assigned, but I’m using the NASCAR HoF labels because that’s how they view these people. It makes sense to me that Tony Stewart will be inducted as a driver, even though he’s now an owner. He made his name (so far) driving. And, although Richard Childress drove, his impact was as an owner.
So here’s the breakdown for the NASCAR HoF membership through 2020.
I’ve pulled out the crew chief and other ‘tech’ position slices and colored them various shades of green. A couple things should jump out at you.
- Drivers comprise 62% of the HOF members (34 people) – 69% if you include those honored as driver/owners.
- The next largest contingent are Owners at 13%
- Those honored as Crew Chiefs* or Engine Builders# form 11% (6 people)
- Dale Inman* (2012)
- Leonard Wood*# (2013)
- Maurice Petty# (2014)
- Robert Yates# (2018)
- Ray Evernham*(2018)
- Waddell Wilson*# (2020)
As I said, we can argue about designations. Bud Moore was inducted as an owner, but he crew chiefed 566 races, had 49 wins and 1 championship as a crew chief. But he’s the exception – and even adding him in as an owner/Crew Chief doesn’t change the statistics much.
Only two of the people in the HoF are straight-up crew chiefs.
You Can’t Vote For ‘Em If They’re Not on The Ballot
The 2020 nominating class featured four people (20%) in technical positions and only one of them was a straight-up crew chief. 65% of the people nominated this year were drivers.
- Ray Fox (Owner, Builder, Race Official)
- Harry Hyde (Crew Chief)
- Red Vogt (Engine Builder, Mechanic)
- Waddell Wilson (Crew Chief, Engine Builder)
I tallied up the total nominations for all 11 years thus far and they break down like this:
- They pretty much mirror the composition of the HoF. The drivers make up 63% of the nominations
- The technical classes comprise about 13% of the nominations, but even that is a little misleading because
- The Owner/Builder/Race Official is Ray Fox who has been on the nominee list since 2013. That 3.7% is one person. He is the only person from the class of 2013 not in the HoF.
- Dale Inman wasn’t chosen the first time he was nominated.
- Harry Hyde has been on the nominee list since 2016 and has not been chosen
- No straight-up crew chiefs were nominated from 2013-2015
The Elusive Crew Chief
Why aren’t crew chiefs more recognized?
- Crew chiefs work behind the scenes. Most of their work time is at the shop, but they’re often squirreled away in the hauler at the track.
- A crew chief’s work is, by necessity, secret. They don’t do interviews bragging about their genius ideas because they don’t want the competition to know.
- Crew chiefs don’t get (and some don’t want) the attention a driver gets. Crew chiefs (with few exceptions) rarely do PR, meet-and-greets or other media duties.
- A crew chief shares a lot of responsibility with the driver, but few get the same perks – like salary. Being a crew chief is tough. The driver may have a rough weekend at the track, but the crew chief is pretty much on the job all the time. It’s a draining situation that’s hard on the crew chief and his family. Consequently, many crew chiefs spend a few years doing the job, then step into another role that requires less travel and allows them to enjoy other aspects of life.
- Crew chiefs float from driver to driver. Until they become champions, they have little control over who they work with. When things aren’t going right, the crew chief will almost always be fired before the driver.
- It may be hard for outsiders to appreciate the ingenuity a crew chief brings to his job.
So Let’s Fix It
The cumulative wins graph neatly shows the trajectory of a driver’s career. The steeper the curve (up and to the right), the better the driver is doing. A flat curve means the driver isn’t winning.
There are variations, of course, but most drivers follow the pattern shown above. The driver takes a little while to get going, then has a very productive phase, then (depending on when they retire) stops winning. When you’re in the plateau, you know it’s time to go.
So why now apply this to crew chiefs? Can we analyze crew chiefs’ careers the same way we evaluate drivers?
Let’s start answering that question by looking at the top crew chief of all time (and first crew chief in the HoF): Dale Inman.
Sure looks a lot like a protoypical driver’s graph. His stats are, in my opinion, even more impressive than Petty’s. Not only did Inman help Petty with 7 championships, he came back and won a championship with another driver.
This is the problem with only admitting five people at a time. Inman and Petty should’ve gone in together because they were a true team.
I know he’s not eligible yet, but I want to include him here, because Chad Knaus ought to be a first-ballot HoF inductee. His career trajectory graph looks (so far) a lot like Jimmie Johnson’s.
Knaus, with 81 wins over 652 races, will never reach Inman’s total win record of 181. The most impressive thing I think Knaus could do is winning a championship with Byron (or another driver) before retiring. That helps prove that the crew chief wasn’t dependent on the driver for wins.
Knaus is one of the few celebrity crew chiefs and his work commentating on Fox has reinforced my belief that the television broadcasters need a gear head in the booth during races.
Evernham is the only other straight up crew chief in the HoF, but with a much more typical situation: He was one Jeff Gordon’s multiple crew chiefs. Gordon’s performance correlates strongly to his crew chief.
Although Gordon was successful throughout his career, he was most successful with Ray Evernham. But Evernham’s trajectory is an example of how a crew chief’s record of wins and championships may not tell the entire story. After three championships in four years, a poor 1999 led to Evernham leaving the team — and crew chiefing — in October.
But over six full seasons and most of a seventh, Evernham/Gordon won 47 races and three championships. If he were a driver, that would put him 15th on the career wins chart. In addition, Evernham advanced the sport by leading the second revolution in pit stops and led Dodge back to NASCAR.
Waddell Wilson of this year’s class is another example of how depending on statistics might mislead you. Wilson had only 19 wins in 246 starts and no championships as a crew chief; however, his engines contributed to 109 wins, 123 poles and three championships.
For Your Consideration
Here’s a graph showing total races and wins for a number of names mostly still to make the nominees list, much less the HoF itself.
Harry Hyde, the inspiration for the Harry Hogg character on Days of Thunder, has been a nominee for the HoF since 2016, but has not yet been inducted.
Hyde has 55 wins in 631 starts and one championship with Bobby Isaac. He was responsible for giving a lot of drivers their first wins (see: Dave Marcis, Neil Bonnett, Geoff Bodine)
The year before the championship with Isaac, the duo won 17 races of the 50-race season. Scaling that to a 36-race season, that would be like winning 12 races in a season. They also won 19 poles that season.
I mostly knew Tim Brewer as the ‘gear guy’ on ESPN. His crew chiefing career ended in 2004, but his record is quite impressive.
Over a 30-year career, Brewer became one of a very few crew chiefs to win championships with more than one driver: in 1978 with Cale Yarborough and in 1981 with Darrell Waltrip.
But here’s another test for a crew chief: Between 1981 and 1992, Brewer worked with eight different drivers and won races with seven of them. The one driver with whom he didn’t win was Davey Allison, for whom he crew chiefed one Talladega race in 1986.
You’ve seen Kirk Shelmerdine on the pit box, working pit road, and driving. He started as a crew chief for James Hylton, moved on to Richard Childress and Ricky Rudd. His career took off when he took charge of the RCR #3.
In 1992, after winning four championships with Dale Earnhardt, Shelmerdine left crew chiefing and later tried his hand at driving. If you want to consider only the part of his career with Dale Earnhardt, we’re talking 44 wins in 261 starts or a 16.85% win ratio.
As Nate Ryan pointed out recently, Shelmerdine was nominated in 2019, but disappeared from the nominations list in 2020. Nate points out that Shelmerdine has nearly twice as many wins in Cup than the five new nominees: Sam Ard, Neil Bonnett, Marvin Panch, Jim Paschal and Red Vogt.
Again, another person I initially knew only from the SPEED Channel. Hammond’s last race on the pit box was in 2000 and his last win in 1992.
But in the span between 1982 and 1992, Hammond crew chiefed his way to 2 Cup championships and 43 race wins in 308 starts, for a 14% win ratio.
Zipadelli quietly worked magic with Tony Stewart at JGR. So quietly that he’s often overlooked.
Zipadelli has 34 wins and two championships. The last part of his crew chiefing career was with Joey Logano at Joe Gibbs Racing. During those three years, they won only one race.
I limited myself to those with 30 or more wins, but there are drivers in the HoF with many fewer wins than that. Here are a couple more gearheads who ought to at least be considered for nomination.
Doug Richert has been crew chiefing for 30 years. Over 677 total races between the three series (588 of those were at the Cup level), he has 26 wins, one Cup championship and one Truck championship (with Ron Hornaday, Jr.). Countless crew chiefs, mechanics and engineers have learned from this man.
Andy Petree has 25 wins in 392 starts, and two championships. He’s worked in broadcasting and is currently VP of Competition at RCR. He’s got driver, owner and crew chief pages at racing-reference.info: Something not many people can claim.
Robin Pemberton has 26 wins over 529 races and has to be remembered as one of the most inventive crew chiefs ever. He started as a fabricator and After his crew chief career ended, he worked with NASCAR as VP for Competition and coined the phrase ‘Have at it Boys’.
I’ve focused on crew chiefs here and haven’t addressed the engine builders, car builders and master mechanics here. They deserve their own post. So do the really-really-behind-the-scenes people responsible for developing safe cars, safe tracks and driver safety equipment. While these topics are covered in the HoF in displays, there really ought to be some way to honor the individuals who make racing as safe as it can be. Tom Gideon, Dean Sicking, Robert Hubbard, Steve Peterson and many more have contributed their skills and knowledge, not for entertainment or sport, but to save lives.
But We’re Getting There…
To bring this all together, let’s consider the list of top race wins of all time and include the crew chiefs I mentioned in this article. It’s a little busy, so bear with me.
Here’s the key:
- The blue bars represent people already in the HoF.
- The blue cross-hatch bar represent active drivers
- The green asterisks represent crew chiefs
- The orange bars represent people NOT in the HoF, but eligible.
- The orange cross-hatch bar is Matt Kenseth, who will be eligible next year.
The point I’m making is that, aside from those not yet eligible for the HoF, the only people on this chart who aren’t in the HoF are crew chiefs.
Drivers Drive The Sport
As Chocolate Meyers would say “I get it”. The NASCAR HoF needs to attract fans and most fans want to see drivers. That was a good argument as the hall was being established. Not so much anymore.
I’ve plotted the nominations as a function of year and role. Again, a busy graph, but the important thing to highlight are the driver nominations, which are shown in blue and have the number above them.
Drivers were 70-75% of the nominations in the first years of the HoF and went down over the subsequent years. But they’re creeping up again.
As NASCAR re-evaluates the HoF criteria, now would be a good time to think about how to remedy these oversights. Perhaps it’s time to enlarge the number of people coming in with an ‘up to x number’ type arrangement: You wouldn’t have to induct seven people but you could if the nominees were there.
The NASCAR HoF includes the current NASCAR champion among the voting group. Why not extend that courtesy to the current NASCAR champion crew chief, too?
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