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Don't Mandate Unanimity

by Sean Wrona

Last Wednesday, NASCAR announced its 2024 Hall of Fame class with Jimmie Johnson getting inducted in his first year of eligibility with 93% of the vote alongside his longtime crew chief Chad Knaus on the Modern Era ballot. They were joined by Donnie Allison on the Pioneer ballot while Janet Guthrie won the Landmark Award. The Johnson and Knaus inductions were obviously predictable and I predicted them from the moment the nominees were announced, although I personally would have waited on Knaus given the precedent of how the Hall has treated other crew chiefs. Even though I am the kind of person who you would correctly expect to obsess over this stuff, I never felt like writing about Hall of Fame proceedings before, but I felt compelled to for one main reason.

Ever since the inductions were announced, people were outraged - incensed even - that Johnson did not get 100% of the vote to a degree that seems extremely unhealthy and downright creepy to me, and almost no one else has called this out. The NASCAR media are usually divided on many things but it seemed like every major auto racing pundit not only believed that Johnson should have been unanimous but also believed that anyone who declined to vote for him deserved to lose their vote. Pete Pistone, who ran the RacingOne site whose message board I used to post on twenty years ago, wrote, "Look forward to some new blood on the NASCAR Hall of Fame voting committee to replace those that didn’t vote for Jimmie Johnson". Toby Christie wrote, "It seems to me four people chose that time to make a point, and the only point they made was that they don't deserve to be part of the Hall voting process anymore". Jeff Gluck said to "kick them off the voting panel". BlackFlagMatter wrote "Whoever ruined Jimmie Johnson being a unanimous HOF ballot needs to be removed from voting immediately." Even Denny Hamlin joined in the fun, bloviating "Make it public who said no and remove them from the voting panel" and Conor Daly agreed with him.

If these were the reactions from the public figures, you can correvtly imagine that the reaction from the fans was even worse. Casey Young of WhiskeyRiff wrote, "I think those 4 voters should be publicly identified, shamed, and kicked out of NASCAR forever." One of Bob Pockrass's reply guys wrote, "Put those 4 in jail" and unsurprisingly given the nature of Twitter - excuse me, X - got more likes than any of the other people who replied to Pockrass's tweet. One person said "society is crumbling", another threatened to beat up the non-voters, and so on. Numerous people called out for the names of the four voters to be leaked and this sort of Twitter mob reminds me very much of the people who want to cancel celebrities for doing something immoral. I assume all of these people are joking because they grew up using the sort of edgelord Internet rhetoric that I've always found distasteful, but the sheer level of venom people have at the people who didn't vote "correctly" is appalling. What's even more maddening is that Johnson himself doesn't care that he wasn't voted in unanimously. He's happy enough to get in. I hope the names of the people who didn't vote for him are never released because at this point I am genuinely concerned for their safety. Over a freaking Hall of Fame vote. People, get over yourselves.

I realize it has become trendy to shame people for voting incorrectly in a way it wasn't several decades ago. Antisocial media has polarized us and antagonized us and made us generally fear and hate the other even in a time when society is generally safer than it was a few decades ago. Liberals want to bully and shame people further to their left into voting for mainstream Democrats and I am certain the same dynamic exists on the right as well although those voters tend to be less online. I can understand to some extent if you want to bully or shame voters if you think you're trying to stop the spread of fascism or communism or whatever, even though I tend to find all these online screechings to be hyperbolic and I also think shame does not usually work to build a consensus and usually entrenches the people you are trying to convert even further into their already-held positions.

But there are no real stakes in a Hall of Fame vote! Sports are supposed to be fun - a source of entertainment, a diversion. When you are starting to adapt the same sort of bullying tactics that Twitter people use to guilt people into voting for people they don't want to about something that really has no real influence on people's lives, that is reprehensible. I don't really like these tactics in online political debates either but if you genuinely believe you are voting for a life-or-death issue, I get it. But whether Johnson gets 93% or 100% or even 75% of the vote has no real bearing on anyone's life and to act like it's some grave injustice may be a sign that you don't really recognize what real injustice looks like. I realize fewer and fewer Americans even pretend to believe in the democratic ideals they were taught because everyone is more aware than they were a few decades ago about the ways that America fails to live up to its ideals, but it is an ideal and something to strive for and you shouldn't bully someone for voting the wrong way. ESPECIALLY when it is something that is of minimal real-world consequence. I can't believe this actually needs to be said.

For the record, if I had a ballot, I would have indeed voted for Johnson myself regardless. I do think relative to the other people on the ballot he is an automatic selection, but I don't blame someone for not voting for him if they had other priorities. Did anyone who was on that voting panel believe Johnson wasn't worthy? I'm sure that was unanimous. Because everyone knew he would get in regardless, I assume the four voters decided to opt for somebody else who had been waiting a long time and needed the help. I saw a lot of commenters saying things along the lines of "You should vote for the most qualified candidates, period" and arguing that the choices of Johnson and Knaus were so obvious that even thinking about voting for someone else was an error, even though many of these people have been on the ballot for many years. But I'm not sure everyone was certain who would get the second vote and I suspect the four non-voters might have chosen two other candidates to try to help some of the people who had been waiting longer like Harry Gant to get the second vote to make sure they honor him while he is still alive.

If anything, for all the people who were talking about voting against Johnson as if it was a sign of ignorance, I kind of think it's the other way around. It seems like most of the people who want to shame the voting body are people who became involved in the sport either as a driver or media member in the 2000s and they lack historical perspective about a lot of the people who predated them. These people probably didn't watch most of the races from the '70s, '80s, and '90s to properly understand the contributions of some of the other members on the ballot. Was Johnson more deserving than them? Yes. But everyone else on the Modern Era ballot was also deserving to some extent and many of them have been waiting for a long time. I suspect the people who did not vote for Johnson were older voters who more fully understood the history of NASCAR and don't act like Johnson was patient zero. I'm sure even those four voters would admit that he was the most deserving person on the ballot but in a year where he was such an obvious selection, somebody needed to make the case for the other names that everyone else is ignoring. Having said that, I would have voted for Johnson myself but the bullying tactics need to be called out and condemned and it seems like sadly, Kyle Petty has been the only person in a position of prominence to do so.

Furthermore, it is a fact throughout the history of every Hall of Fame that nobody is ever voted unanimously. Almost every Hall of Fame ballot is full of lots of worthy candidates and as opposed to the many people who sneer at the "Hall of Very Good", I've always been a big hall guy who likes to see a lot of people recognized (I feel like my threshold for induction is a lot lower than people who actually think drivers like Carl Edwards and Harry Gant and Ernie Irvan are debatable.) The people who voted for Johnson were still voting for worthy candidates because there weren't any unworthy candidates on the ballot! If somebody like Clint Bowyer was the on the ballot or something and somebody voted for Bowyer over Johnson, shame away I guess. But don't shame somebody for voting for an older candidate who's been waiting longer if they know Johnson is going to get in anyway. I admit this strategy can backfire. I know a lot of people expected that Radiohead would be a first-ballot inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and I suspect a lot of people just neglected to vote for them the first year assuming they would get in and they did not until the next year. But sports are different than music because they can be quantifiable. Why must you force unanimity when we are supposed to believe in democracy? And why does seemingly everyone in the paid racing media seem to agree on this and want to bully the voices of reason who disagree? Be happy Johnson got in. Don't be angry that other people had other priorities.

If there was an injustice on the ballot, it wasn't Johnson not getting in unanimously. I knew instantly when I saw the ballot that Johnson and Knaus would get in together, but honestly I think Knaus could have waited. The entire history of the NASCAR HoF clearly treats crew chiefs as less important than drivers and I would agree with that. Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt were both inducted the first year in 2010 while their crew chiefs Dale Inman and Kirk Shelmerdine weren't inducted until 2012 and 2023 respectively. Herb Thomas was inducted into the HoF in 2013 but his crew chief Smokey Yunick hasn't even been nominated yet, and there are a lot of people who consider Yunick to be a more legendary figure than Knaus even. People say the raw number of championships should make it obvious, but Inman actually has more championships than Richard Petty does because he was also Terry Labonte's crew chief in his 1984 title season. Plenty of crew chiefs that are on the same level as drivers who are inducted have either not been inducted or even nominated yet (Yunick, Jake Elder, Harry Hyde, Buddy Parrott, Herb Nab, Jeff Hammond, Todd Parrott, Jimmy Fennig, Andy Petree, etc...) Is Knaus clearly more deserving than all of these people. I don't know, maybe? I think at the very least he should have waited for Yunick because he was such a pioneer and Harry Hyde because he was literally the foundation of Hendrick Motorsports and thereby the bedrock of what Knaus later built. But there are a lot of people who could have deserved the second vote and I would have gone for Gant personally.

Probably the actual biggest injustice on the ballot and one that belies a lot of what the fans are saying was Donnie Allison's induction. Most fans argued that Johnson and Knaus were automatically the most deserving inductions solely on the basis of their championships. In Johnson's case I agree; in Knaus's I'm not as sure. However, Allison was in my opinion the least deserving of the five people included on the Pioneer ballot as Ralph Moody won half as many races as a driver as Allison himself did before winning over 90 races as co-owner of the Holman-Moody team along with multiple championships and Daytona 500s as a car owner, Banjo Matthews designed the chassis for over 200 NASCAR race wins, and I would say Sam Ard's at least 82 (and probably many more) Sportsman/Busch wins trump Allison's ten Cup wins as well. I suppose you can debate whether Allison or A.J. Foyt has the more deserving NASCAR career as Allison did win more races, but neither of them ever competed full-time so I would go by winning percentages and Foyt certainly had a higher winning percentage than Allison. While Moody and Matthews were absolutely the two most deserving names, it is telling also that Foyt made the original 50 Greatest Drivers list and Ard was one of the 25 drivers added to the 75 Greatest Drivers list but Allison was included on neither version of that list. I will admit that he was better than some of the drivers who did make the original version of the list (Ralph Earnhardt, Glen Wood, and maybe Tiny Lund) but he would have been a marginal selection even on those lists, and a lot of drivers on the original 50 Greatest Drivers list still have not been included yet. I think if anything was an injustice, it was the least deserving of the five Pioneer nominees getting inducted, but least deserving does not necessarily mean undeserving either and I understand putting him in because he was a linchpin for NASCAR's growth thanks to the 1979 Daytona 500 finish and the fight afterward, but this was I think a much worse decision than Johnson not being unanimous. Do I think any of the voters should be shamed for it? Of course not. It's clear they wanted to recognize him while he was still alive while the three people who were by far the most deserving (Moody, Matthews, and Ard; I would say in that order) have died. It did surprise me they went for Allison instead of Foyt though considering just how much more weight the Foyt name carries in racing history, especially since he is even older and seemingly less healthy. I would have voted for Moody but I expected Foyt.

Even though Allison was the least deserving of the five Pioneers and I think Knaus could have waited, I still don't think this was that dreadful a result as people are acting like it was. I'd be hard-pressed to say that they've inducted many people in the main categories who weren't deserving yet even though I can list a lot of people who have not been inducted who are more deserving than Allison in my opinion. Because they have now reduced the number of inductees from five a year to three, it's hard to imagine that there won't be a lot of worthy candidates and snubs as long as the HoF exists. However, honestly that might be part of the problem. If they had continued to induct five a year, I suspect a driver like Carl Edwards probably would have made it by now but he certainly wasn't going to make it up against Johnson when there were only two people selected from the modern era. Edwards's future snub is going to continue to keep drivers with fewer wins like Gant, Irvan, and Tim Richmond out for years to come probably and that means there will likely always be some extremely high-quality names on the ballot who older voters will not want to see left behind. The fewer inductions you make, the more snubs you have, and the less likely you are to get a unanimous result. In fact, I think that might be the reason why Johnson ended up getting a lower percentage of the votes than Gordon did before when there were five inductees a year. So if you're really pissed about this blame NASCAR for wanting to make it really exclusive to the point that some drivers who probably should have been in years ago are still sitting on the back-burner so older voters don't want to see them lost to history when they know that the more obvious current drivers will get in anyway. Don't blame the voters.

Sean Wrona is the Managing Editor of racermetrics.com, the Webmaster of race-database.com, the winner of the 2010 Ultimate Typing Championship at the SXSW Interactive Conference in Austin, and the ratings compiler and statistician for the Mensa Scrabble-by-Mail SIG. He earned a master's in applied statistics from Cornell University in 2008 and previously digitized several seasons of NBA box scores on basketball-reference.com. He is the author of the upcoming Nerds Per Minute: A History of Competitive Typing. You may contact him at sean@racermetrics.com.