Motorsports Hall of Fame's Ron Watson remembered

Images by George Levy

Motorsports Hall of Fame's Ron Watson remembered

Vintage Motorsport / Historic

Motorsports Hall of Fame's Ron Watson remembered


How many of us, when all is said and done, will be able to say that during our life we had a big idea to which we committed ourselves totally, worked on selflessly and tirelessly, and, in so doing, left something of real value to the world?

My friend Ron Watson could. Over the course of 30-plus years, Ron founded and presided over the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America until his sudden passing in late October.

Ron Watson: A great man who lived to see his Big Idea come to spectacular fruition.

The dream began in the mid-1980s when Ron was a member of the town council in Novi, Michigan. He and other councilmembers were looking for ways to promote the sleepy Detroit suburb, which at the time had a population of about 25,000. They decided the town should own one of the remaining, namesake, supercharged Novi Special race cars that blazed a path of glory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from the ’40s to the ’60s. Once they had the car, they expanded their horizons.

The idea to form a motorsports hall of fame was both simple and audacious. A lifelong racing fan — at the time of his death, Ron still had the ticket from his first 500, the 1957 Sam Hanks win — Ron wondered why motorsports didn’t have a hall of fame. Every great sport, he reckoned, did.

The audacious part was believing that he and a handful of volunteers could start such an entity from scratch — and get the greatest names in racing to buy in. Ron wasn’t well-connected in the motorsports community. He didn’t have any Wall Street backers. And the town had no special connection to auto racing beyond a single, if legendary, car.

But what he did have was a vision and a passion, and vast reserves of warmth, intelligence and integrity to draw others to his cause.

When it came time to define the Hall of Fame and how it would conduct itself, Ron made several inspired decisions. The first was that the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America would span every branch of American motorsports. Categories for Sports Car racing, Stock Cars, Open Wheel, Motorcycles, Powerboats, Aviation and Drag Racing. There’s literally no other motorsports hall of fame in the world like it.

This ensured that even with the subsequent birth of institutions devoted to specific disciplines like the NASCAR Hall of Fame and International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America would remain the most exclusive. Only the best of the best would get in.

Today, after 30 years in existence, the MSHFA has 30 or so inductees max in each category. The International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, by contrast, has almost 300 drag racers. The AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame, more than 400 two-wheel standouts. Which is absolutely appropriate, for obvious reasons, but gives you an idea how special it is to be inducted into the MSHFA.

The other inspired decision was to make the induction process as authoritative and unbiased as possible, based solely on the votes of a panel of 200 voters, comprised of inductees, historians, journalists and other motorsports experts, overseen by an accounting firm. I have to tell you, it’s pretty humbling when you’re opening the envelopes on “vote count night” to look down and see, “So this is who Parnelli Jones thinks should be in the Hall of Fame. This is who nine-time AMA Grand National Champion Scott Parker thinks should be in the Hall of Fame…” And so on.

But the right idea and systems still only get you so far. Without question, the most important single ingredient in the Hall’s success was Ron himself — especially in the early years when, as the unknown head of an unknown organization, he was asking people like A.J. Foyt, Don Garlits, Richard Petty and others to come to Detroit to attend the black-tie induction ceremonies. Ron had the rare ability to connect with almost everyone he met, and people throughout the sport loved him for the kindness, warmth and good humor he brought to nearly every conversation.

“I called him the Cecil B. DeMille of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America,” says 2019 inductee Linda Vaughn, aka The First Lady of Motorsports, “and I meant it with all my heart because he was the best. I met him at his first event and I was impressed right off the bat in what he was trying to do. I could see it in his eyes, I could see his dreams.”

NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton valued Ron’s role as the keeper of the motorsports flame.

“Every industry needs a champion of causes, and custodians of the history of that industry,” says Helton. “And, in the motorsports industry — not just NASCAR, but the entirety of motorsports — Ron was our custodian and champion both for a long time.

Roger Penske admired Ron both for his personal qualities and the largeness of his vision.

“To me, what makes the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America so unique is its diversity,” says Penske. “The Hall of Fame recognizes and celebrates the best and the brightest across all forms of motorsports. From stock cars to open wheel, to motorcycles and powerboats, it really is the only racing Hall of Fame that puts all of the legends of motorsports on an equal playing field. Ron did a tremendous job turning that vision into reality.”

Ron and Donna with NASCAR star Kurt Busch.

In the recent past Ron selected 2009 inductee David Hobbs to be the emcee of the Hall’s induction ceremonies. If you’ve never been to one of our induction ceremonies, you should make a point to come to the next one. Hobbs’ comments alone are worth the price of admission and the remarks of the inductees themselves range from hilarious to deeply moving. You can watch a sampling from the 2019 induction here.

Hobbs came to consider Ron a great friend.

“Ron was a human dynamo,” says Hobbs, “whose life was centered on the Hall of Fame, and making sure that he was laying down the history of motorsports in all its disciplines and throughout its history for future generations to see and appreciate.”

Long after their formative years, when organizations are thriving and well-established, it’s easy to forget how precarious they often were in the beginning. Ron was a practicing attorney when he started the Hall of Fame, but gave that up a few years later to focus on the Hall full time, his family surviving for many years largely on his wife’s modest wages as a teacher in a nearby public school system. Ron never drew a large salary. There were years when, out of necessity, it was exceedingly small, especially for a man of his gifts and talents.

Even during the most difficult times, Ron never compromised the integrity of the Hall or deviated from his belief that every great sport has a great hall of fame. Ron felt in his soul that any sport that doesn’t honor its past has no future. One of the early ads for the Hall read: “Baseball has Cooperstown, Football has Canton, Motorsports has Novi, Michigan.”

About five years ago, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America opened a spectacular museum on the grounds of Daytona International Speedway, appropriately enough the “World Center of Racing.” Be sure to visit it the next time you’re in the area. For Ron, it was the culmination of a lifelong dream. I remember the look on his face the day it opened, like a man who had seen the promised land. A man who had seen his vision realized, for the good of everyone who loves the sounds of engines running at redline in pursuit of racing glory.

Perhaps 1990 inductee Mario Andretti put it best when he said, “I really admire people who choose a career and then dedicate themselves to being the best at it.

“Ron was truly passionate about the legacy of motorsports and dedicated his life to showcasing the excellence and individuals that contributed the most for the sport. He created a marvelous institution. I’m happy that our paths ran together for so many years and I really did consider him a friend. He will be missed.”

Former Autoweek editor George Levy co-authored Can-Am 50th Anniversary and F1 Mavericks with his late friend Pete Biro. Levy is the new president of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.

On the following page, Watson is remembered by many key figures in motorsports.