Jeff Gordon celebrates a win at Kansas Speedway in May 2014. Photo by HHP/Harold Hinson for Chevrolet.
What do “Lil’ John” Buttera, Carl G. Fisher, Jeff Gordon, Howard Hughes, “Flyin’ Fred” Merkel, U.E. “Pat” Patrick, and Bob Tullius have in common? Today, the answer is “not much,” although all can claim ties to racing or motorsports. On March 13, these seven will form the class of 2018 at the 30th-annual Motorsports Hall of Fame of America (MSHFA) induction ceremony, taking place at The Shores Resort & Spa in Daytona Beach, Florida.
The seven honorees come from six different disciplines, prompting MSHFA president Ron Watson to remark, “Howard Hughes and Jeff Gordon in the same class–that is probably the best example we’ve ever had to illustrate the breadth of our inductee roll.”
To drag racing fans, race car constructor John Buttera (better known as “Lil’ John” Buttera to his followers) needs no introduction. His dragsters, funny cars, and pro stockers were raced with great success by the likes of Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen, Danny Ongaias, and Don Schumacher. He built street rods and motorcycles, too, and later in his career designed parts for Edelbrock, Harley-Davidson, Bonspeed, and others. Buttera died of cancer in March 2008, and was posthumously inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2010.
Carl G. Fisher in 1909. Image in public domain.
Carl G. Fisher may not be a household name, but his legacy, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, certainly is. An early promoter of the automobile, Fisher quickly learned that racing was a great way to boost car sales. After promoting a 24-hour race at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in 1905, Fisher got the idea to build a palace of speed, with long straights and banked corners, that could be used for both racing and automotive development. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation was formed on February 9, 1909, by Fisher and partners Jim Allison, Arthur Newby, and Frank Wheeler, and on Memorial Day 1911, the track held its first 500-mile race. Before his death in July 1939, Fisher also helped to develop the Lincoln Highway, the Dixie Highway, and the city of Miami Beach, Florida. He was inducted into the Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1952, and the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1971.
Jeff Gordon began his racing career in quarter midgets at the age of five, amassing 35 victories in his first year as a driver. After championships in the USAC National Midget Series and the USAC Silver Crown Series, Gordon raced in the Busch Series from 1990-’92 before signing a contract to race for Hendrick Motorsports in the NASCAR Cup Series in 1993. The California native brought a new look–and a new attitude–to stock car racing, quickly amassing fans from coast to coast. He was the Winston Cup Champion in 1995, 1997, 1998, and 2001, and at the time of his 2016 retirement was the third most successful driver in Cup Series history with 93 wins, bested only by David Pearson (105) and Richard Petty (200). Gordon was named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998, and was inducted into the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2009.
Howard Hughes in 1938. Public domain image.
Best known for his status as a billionaire in a time when even being a millionaire was newsworthy, Howard Hughes established numerous records as a pilot, including a 1935 speed record of 352 mph, set in his Hughes H-1 Racer. Two years later, he’d achieve a new record by flying from Los Angeles to New York in 7:28:25, and in 1938 shattered Wiley Post’s 1933 record for solo flight around the world, shaving nearly four days from Post’s time. Hughes won the Harmon Trophy, awarded to an “outstanding aviator” in 1936 and 1938, the Collier Trophy for “the greatest achievement in aeronautics” in 1938, the Bibesco Cup from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, also in 1938, and the Octave Chanute Award for engineering innovations in 1940. In 1939, Hughes was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for his achievements in advancing aviation, but reportedly failed to show for the ceremony; the medal was later mailed to him. Hughes was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1973, and died of kidney failure in April 1976.
“Flyin’ Fred” Merkel began his motorcycle racing career on dirt, but soon became known for his ability to race on pavement. In 1983 he took his first win in the AMA Superbike Series, and would ultimately go on to win 20 races and three consecutive AMA Superbike Championships, from 1984-’86. In 1988, Merkel joined the FIM’s new Superbike World Championships, taking the title in his debut year and backing it up with a second championship in his sophomore year. Merkel stayed with the international series through 1993 before returning home to race in the U.S. in 1994. A crash at the end of the 1995 season prompted his retirement from racing, and Merkel was inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in 2001.
Ueal Eugene “Pat” Patrick made his fortune in oil before turning to Indy Car racing as a sponsor in 1967. Three years later, Patrick was a co-owner, and three years after this, in 1973, Patrick Racing won its first Indy 500 with driver Gordon Johncock. Patrick Racing would repeat as Indy 500 champions in 1982 (again with Johncock behind the wheel) and in 1989, with driver Emerson Fittipaldi. Johncock would take a series championship for the team in 1976, and Fittipaldi would repeat this honor in 1989. In 1978, Patrick backed the formation of Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) as the sport’s governing body, and was elected its first president. Sensing the need for an Indy Car feeder series, Patrick helped to start the Indy Lights series, which began racing in 1986 and carries on today. He was inducted into the Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 2016.
Bob Tullius, sports car racer and owner of the legendary Group 44 team, blended manufacturer support, title sponsorship, faultless preparation and consistent branding–from uniforms to transporters–to create the contemporary model for sports car racing success. Tullius himself earned two Trans Am Championships and four SCCA National Championships, and his Group 44 team would capture over 300 victories, 14 series titles and three Trans Am championships, often playing David to the Goliath of big-money, factory-backed teams. Tullius was inducted into the SCCA Hall of Fame in 2014.
Mario Andretti, a 1990 MSHFA inductee, will serve as honorary chairman for this year’s induction ceremony, which will be preceded on March 12 by a “Heroes of Horsepower” reception and dinner, taking place at the MSHFA Museum, located in the Daytona International Speedway Ticket and Tours building. For additional details, or to purchase tickets, visit MSHF.com.