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10 Who Made an Impact without a Helmet

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Josh Mull

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By Jared Turner

Here are 10 individuals who had a major impact on the business of NASCAR without trading paint on the race track:

“Big Bill” France: Without the entrepreneurial vision of William H.G. “Big Bill” France, NASCAR in all likelihood wouldn’t exist today. It was France, who formally established the sport in February 1948 after a now-famous meeting on Dec. 14, 1947, at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida, with a group of racers who agreed to work together to form what would become America’s premier sanctioning body for stock-car auto racing.

Along with being credited as the founder of NASCAR, France oversaw the building of two iconic race tracks – Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. France passed away in 1992 – 18 years before being posthumously enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of its inaugural five-member class.

Bill France Jr.: The son of NASCAR’s founder, Bill France Jr. took the reins of the sport from his father in 1972 by becoming NASCAR’s president – a title he held for nearly 30 years. “Bill Jr.,” as NASCAR’s second-generation leader was known, later spent time as NASCAR’s chairman, and then as its vice chairman, prior to his 2007 death and 2010 NASCAR Hall of Fame induction.

It was under Bill Jr.’s watch that NASCAR morphed into a national, and to some degree, international sport with race tracks all over the U.S. and drivers from various regions of the country. It was also under France’s guidance that NASCAR signed its original multi-billion dollar media rights deal with current broadcast partners FOX Sports and NBC.

Bruton Smith: Arguably NASCAR’s most prolific track owner and promoter, Bruton Smith was the founder and CEO of Speedway Motorsports – the parent company of more than 10 modern-day race tracks, including Charlotte Motor Speedway, which Smith designed and built in 1959 with help from business partner and NASCAR pioneer Curtis Turner.

Since overseeing the construction of CMS, Smith’s company has expanded its portfolio to include Texas Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway, Sonoma Raceway and various other venues both old and new to the Cup Series schedule. Smith, who died in June 2022 at age 95, also founded Speedway Children’s Charities – a nonprofit organization that supports children in need. 

Rick Hendrick: Winner of a record 14 NASCAR Cup Series championships and nearly 300 Cup Series races as a team owner, Rick Hendrick is the gold standard for chief executives of racing teams that compete in NASCAR. The list of drivers who’ve raced for Hendrick Motorsports over the past almost-40 years include the likes of seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time champion Jeff Gordon, 2020 champion Chase Elliott, 2021 champ Kyle Larson and 15-time National Motorsports Press Association Most Popular Driver Award winner Dale Earnhardt Jr.

A leukemia survivor, Hendrick created the Hendrick Marrow Program, which has raised more than $12 million since 1997 to help those fighting cancer.

Leonard Wood: A world-class innovator, mechanic, engine builder and crew chief who is widely credited as the inventor and mastermind of the modern-day pit stop, Leonard Wood will forever be remembered as one NASCAR’s foremost revolutionaries.

The brother of Wood Brothers Racing founder and 2012 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Glen Wood, Leonard Wood entered the NHoF in 2013 and remains active today at age 88. Thanks in large part to his contributions, Wood Brothers Racing is one of the most successful teams in NASCAR history, with 99 wins in NASCAR’s premier series. It has fielded cars for some of the sport’s most legendary drivers – including Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Junior Johnson, Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt.

Dale Inman: The only crew chief in NASCAR history with eight championships at the sport’s highest level, Dale Inman became famous while working with his cousin – Richard Petty – who won all of his record-tying seven Cup Series championships with Inman at his side. Inman’s other championship came in 1984 with Terry Labonte and team owner Billy Hagan’s team, but Inman reunited with Petty in 1986 after a nearly five-year absence.

Inman, a 2012 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee who worked his final race as a crew chief in 1988 with Petty – may be most remembered for the incredible 1967 season in which he and Petty earned a record-setting 27 wins, including 10 in a row.

H. Clay Earles: Before there was NASCAR, there was Martinsville Speedway – which hosted its first race in September 1947 thanks to the vision and efforts of its founder and longtime owner, motorsports pioneer H. Clay Earles. Although Earles passed away in 1999, his legacy lives on through his grandson — current-day Martinsville Speedway president Clay Campbell — and the fact that Martinsville is the only track from NASCAR’s inaugural Cup Series season of 1949 that still holds a pair of series points races.

Originally a dirt track, Martinsville may be best known for its signature hot dogs and the iconic grandfather clock that it awards to all race winners at the long-since-paved .526-mile, paperclip-shaped oval. The grandfather clock tradition began in 1964 – at Earles’ request.

Roger Penske: A three-time NASCAR Cup Series championship team owner who fielded his first Cup Series entry in 1972 with Donnie Allison, Roger Penske has been to Victory Lane 135 times over an amazing run that goes back nearly four decades in NASCAR.

Penske, whose nickname is “The Captain,” captured his first victory as a Cup Series team owner in 1973 with Mark Donohue, and other well-known drivers who’ve wheeled his Cup Series cars include Donnie’s brother, Bobby Allison, along with Rusty Wallace, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski and newly crowned 2022 Cup Series champion Joey Logano, who’s delivered two Cup Series titles for Penske in the last five years.

Ken Squier: With an unmistakable voice that routinely filled the homes of untold millions of NASCAR race viewers for nearly 30 years, Ken Squier is rightfully nicknamed “The Voice of NASCAR.”

After co-founding the Motor Racing Network (MRN Radio) in 1970, Squier took his broadcasting talents to television with CBS’ coverage of the 1979 Daytona 500 — the first NASCAR race aired on live TV from start to finish. The race turned out to be one of the most consequential events in NASCAR history when brothers Donnie and Bobby Allison teamed up to engage Cale Yarborough in a post-race fisticuffs after Donnie crashed along with Yarborough on the final lap, opening the door for Richard Petty to score an unlikely win. “And there’s a fight – between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison,” Squier exclaimed from the CBS broadcast booth. “The tempers, overflowing.”

Chad Knaus: Easily the most successful crew chief of NASCAR’s “modern era” that began in 1972, Chad Knaus was atop Jimmie Johnson’s pit box for 81 of Johnson’s 83 victories as driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (Knaus was serving a suspension when Johnson won his other two).

More notably, Knaus guided Johnson to his seven Cup Series championships that tied the all-time record for most titles previously set by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt. Since moving away from a crew chief role at the end of 2020, the second of two seasons he spent with Hendrick driver William Byron, Knaus has stepped into an executive role with the company as vice president of competition.

Honorable Mention

Jim Hunter, T. Wayne Robertson, H.A “Humpy” Wheeler, Robert Yates and Raymond Parks.

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