Is Wally Dallenbach Hall of Fame Worthy?

Whenever you hear the phrase “Hall of Fame”, you immediately take notice. It conjures up images of the best of the very best. Every sport has a Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, politics usually come into play when considering an inductee with each Hall.

Sportswriters have a huge say into who gets in and who is left out. An individual that had a cantankerous relationship with the press during their career, will have a much harder time getting in than someone who was media friendly. Those in the media will say otherwise.

Baseball seems to have the most exclusive Hall of Fame. Some years, no one is admitted. Pro Football is a little more open. It seems each year they are letting five to seven people in. Regardless of the sport, there’s an old saying “It’s the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of the Very Good”. It seems that you need to sustain greatness for several years and be considered one of the all-time greats. Peyton Manning was practically automatic, when he became eligible (five years after his last season). Others take longer, like the late Claude Humphrey who finished his playing career in 1981, but was not inducted until 2014.

You assume that when someone is inducted into a Hall of Fame, that they had a dominant and long career and that they were the best of the best.

A couple of weeks ago, the IMS Hall of Fame announced their latest inductees into their Hall of Fame – Danny Sullivan and Wally Dallenbach. They will both be inducted on May 26 in downtown Indianapolis. At first glance, I agreed that Sullivan should be in. After all, he was an Indianapolis 500 winner and he was one of two participants in one of The Speedway’s most iconic moments – the Spin and Win.

This will anger some people, but is Wally Dallenbach’s career at IMS really Hall of Fame worthy? I remember when Dallenbach was a rookie at Indianapolis in 1967, because to an eight year-old kid – he had a unique name. The following year, he was memorable to me because his pit was across from our seats in Stand A and his car kept catching fire on every pit stop. They’d put it out and send him back out.

As a kid, Dallenbach was one of those drivers like Arnie Knepper, Bud Tingelstad and Sammy Sessions – names you heard a lot, but you could never name anything significant they had done.

The press release that came directly from the IMS Museum says “Dallenbach, the 1973 Ontario 500 winner, came close to winning the 1975 Indianapolis 500, where he led 91 of the first 161 laps, at which point he was forced out with a burned piston. Less than 15 minutes later, the race was halted permanently by a heavy rainstorm.”

If they are basing his Hall of Fame induction on his driving accomplishments at IMS, things don’t appear all that exclusive. At Indianapolis, he finished ninth in that 1975 rain-shortened race. He then followed that up with two fourth-place finishes and a fifth. Those four races in a row were his only Top-Ten finishes in thirteen starts. Other than qualifying in the middle of the front-row in 1974, Dallenbach’s best starting position was seventh three times – in 1976, 1978 and 1979. Away from Indianapolis, Dallenbach won five races between 1965 and his retirement after the 1979 season.

Based on race results, these stats would be worthy of the Hall of Above Average, but not what I would normally consider Hall of Fame worthy. So I took a closer look.

If you go to the Hall of Fame’s website and their list of inductees, you will see what they are looking for. The very first sentence says “The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame was established to perpetuate the names and memories of prominent personalities for their outstanding contributions to the sport of racing and to the development of the entire automotive industry.”

It was then that I could see where they are going with this. Dallenbach served as Chief Steward for all CART events from 1981 until 2004. Those not old enough to remember Dallenbach’s driving career, probably remember his days as CART’s Chief Steward. The sight of Dallenbach in his trademark cowboy hat was a fixture at CART races. He had no jurisdiction at Indianapolis because those races were always sanctioned by USAC, but at every other event – Dallenbach was the final word for any dispute.

But unlike some that we’ve seen in that position in more recent years, Dallenbach did not rule with an iron fist. He was respected throughout the paddock, because of his longevity in the cockpit. He made all of his decisions in a fair and equitable fashion. Dallenbach also insisted on many safety innovations, including the beginnings of what became the CART Safety Team and ultimately the AMR Safety Team we see at tracks today.

For twenty-three seasons, Dallenbach served as the Chief Steward for CART. There was a lot of change in that time frame. CART had just broken off from USAC and built the popular series that we enjoyed in the early nineties He then stayed with CART in the years of The Split, until CART was purchased out of bankruptcy court in 2004 and became Champ Car. I’m assuming that Dallenbach saw that as a good time to call it a career.

So is Wally Dallenbach Hall of Fame worthy? If you look only at his driving career, the answer is no. But if you look at a long driving career, plus his contributions to the sport after he crawled out of the cockpit – I would say the answer is a definite yes.

Wally Dallenbach is now 85 years-old. Congratulations to him and his family for this honor.

George Phillips

6 Responses to “Is Wally Dallenbach Hall of Fame Worthy?”

  1. It would be wrong of me to comment on Dallenbach having only followed US open wheel really since Mansell joined Newman Haas. I would however say that for a while now I have been questioning Halls of Fame as the motivation seems to be to propose always rather than keep it exclusive and for the best. Rather the same as some values on 40 / 60 year old cars which were average when contemporary but now revered by some.

    • billytheskink Says:

      You are not wrong… but it is important to remember that Halls of Fame are generally funded by patronage – banquet/gala tickets, and especially by donations much more so than sales of museum tickets and merchandise. As such, they’re often influenced in their selections by these patrons, choosing to honor folks they believe their patrons want to see honored. This is especially true of HOFs that are not tied to one of this country’s big four sports, but even those Halls have their borderline choices of well-liked guys… see Dave Bing, Lynn Swann, or Craig Biggio.

      Dallenbach fits that bill, well-liked and not unaccomplished (he contended for the championship three times), with a long post-driving career in racing to push him over the top. I had the great privilege of being driven around the downtown Houston street course in a pace car by Mr. Dallenbach in 1999, which was a real thrill!

      • As the person who nominated Wally Dallenbach to be put on the Hall of Fame ballot I can tell you that banquet tickets, merchandise and things of that nature had absolutely ZERO to do with my nomination. None.

        • billytheskink Says:

          I apologize if I came across as arguing that Mr. Dallenbach was undeserving of his honor. I certainly believe he is deserving and knowing you were the one who nominated him only strengthens his case. I have a great respect for your opinion on all things Indy.

          My comment probably came across quite cynically, and I should have chosen my words a bit differently. Frankly, a point I did not try hard enough to make, burying it under sharper words, was that a not insignificant part of what makes a driver or athlete deserving of inclusion in a Hall of Fame is that fans and patrons WANT to celebrate them… and that folks typically want to celebrate them because of their accomplishments in the sport.

  2. northeastvista Says:

    Wally’s even-handed handling of the Stewardship position at CART is worthy of induction into the HOF alone! Having been an IndyCar race fan for 67 years Wally is still the best Steward to have ever served racing.

  3. billytheskink is so right.
    a driver can buy a ride,
    and others buy other things.

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