NASCAR Hall inducts first, best crew chief
Friday, Jan. 20, 2012
The great crew chiefs make consistently good calls. On Friday night, NASCAR made one, too.
NASCAR inducted its third Hall of Fame class, and its first crew chief.
Dale Inman, who won seven championships with Richard Petty and one with Terry Labonte, was the first of his kind. Drivers had crews, of course. But they didn't have coaches or managers. They didn't have a man in the pits telling them what to do.
Inman "was a strategist before there was such a thing as strategy," says former driver Kyle Petty, and son of Richard.
Inman, clean cut with silver hair and wearing his blue Hall of Fame jacket, grew up with Richard Petty in Level Cross. They're always described as cousins; Petty says they might be second cousins on their mothers' side. What they were was inseparable as kids. When Richard's father, Hall of Fame driver Lee Petty, began racing, Richard and Inman became part of his crew.
"We started out 75 years ago," Petty says during the speech in which he inducts Inman. At least "Dale did," he says with a little country sarcasm.
Inman, coincidentally, is 75. When he climbs the stage at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Petty puts his arm around him and hands Inman his official Hall of Fame ring.
"I'm kind of familiar with this ring," Inman says. "For the last two or three years Richard has put it in my face a bunch."
It's tough to envision a driver without a crew chief. Who would drivers scream at over the radio?
Great ones such as Ray Evernham (formerly with Jeff Gordon) and Chad Knaus (Jimmie Johnson) are as important to their drivers as an offensive line is to a quarterback and a point guard is to a big man.
And Inman, who was part of 193 victories, is not only the first, but he's considered the best.
"Where Dale was so good, he was good with people," Petty says behind large black glasses and beneath a black hat with a big feather. "Somebody (would) just drive up in the driveway and want a job. We ... worked them, and he was able to take talent and know how far he could go with that talent, know how far this guy could really come along in the company, what he could do, whether he could change tires or work on the engine or rear end."
Adds Petty: Dale "was one of the first ones to come in and take a car in and completely disassemble it from one race to another instead of waiting until something broke ... And in doing that, that made those cars almost bulletproof. That's the reason we won a lot of races."
There were other reasons.
Leonard Wood, crew chief for another Friday inductee, Glen Wood, remembers Inman coming by the pit before the race. They made small talk, one pro to another, one rival to another. Inman might ask what gear Wood planned to run, and Wood, being a courteous fellow, would tell him.
And Wood would ask, "Well what are you running?"
Wood wouldn't get an answer.
"He's gone," Wood says.
Inman remembers his first race with Richard Petty. Drivers had to be 21 and in 1958, 10 days after Petty turned 21, he and Inman brought a convertible to a Columbia track.
"Eight miles of dirt, slick track," says Inman. "We get down there and Richard had never driven. We didn't know whether he could last or not. Joe Willy (a veteran driver) was down there without a car, so we talked to Joe and said if Richard needs help, will you help him? He said, 'Well, sure.'
"And of course this was before radios, so we had to communicate with black boards, and the signal for a driver (to request relief) was to go to your head (with your hands). Of course, the drivers today with radios use some gestures, but they're pretty expensive.
"But Richard went to his head two or three times and I'd go get Joe and Joe would come along and put his helmet on, his little golfing gloves."
Petty, however, refused to come out.
Says Inman: "Going home I said, 'Richard, what was you doing, (you) was wanting relief and you wouldn't come in.'
"(Richard) said, 'Oh, my head was itching.' "
Inman competed 20 years and won eight championships. He's still a consultant for Petty's team.
Says Inman: "When I look back over all this, the wins, the Daytona wins, the championships and all that, I think over the years the people I've met, the places I've seen, the friends I've made, both in and out of racing, that sticks out big. Now maybe years ago it wouldn't have. But I know some of us older people respect that."
Inman isn't the storyteller Petty is. Drivers are accustomed to the stage. Crew chiefs are accustomed to hoods and tires and grease and, until Friday, an absence of attention.