CHARLOTTE _ Before NASCAR’s first Hall of Fame class was announced Wednesday, a two-and-a-half hour long discussion involving the 50-member *voting panel occurred earlier in the day. With so many of NASCAR’s biggest names gathered in one place to determine the inaugural class of inductees, the discussion was, in a word, “passionate.”

Prior to the formal announcement that Bill France Sr., Richard Petty, Bill France Jr., Dale Earnhardt and Junior Johnson will be the first class inducted, the panel discussed the 25 nominees and voiced opinions on who to include.

Former champion crew chief Barry Dodson likened the discussion to the health care debate raging in Congress right now. One of three crew chiefs on the panel, Dodson said he was surprised at how many people shared their opinions in an attempt to plead their cases for individuals they felt belonged in the initial class.

NASCAR Hall of Fame director Winston Kelley said that from the start the 50 people in the room knew they were about to make history. “We were selecting, somebody put it, the Mount Rushmore of NASCAR,” Kelley explained. “There was incredible passion, incredible professionalism and just appreciation and recognition of what we were about.”

“The atmosphere was fantastic,” said Hall of Fame historian Buz McKim. “We had a two-and-a-half hour discussion time between 10 and 12:30 and we got to thinking, ‘Hmm, how are we going to fill up that time?’ Man, it was awesome. Everybody that was on the voting panel was so diligent about their job, they took it so seriously. Everybody had great ideas and great suggestions.”

And there were some not-so-great suggestions as well.
Former Lowe’s Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler said the gathering had the feel of the founding of the sport more than 60 years ago. “It was a very historic feeling. I think a lot of people remarked it was like being at the Streamline Hotel when NASCAR was founded – without all the unfiltered Camel cigarettes and probably whiskey bottles, although we could have used a few of them.”

Wheeler said that once the conversation got underway the atmosphere was full of concern and consisted of very frank discussions about who belonged in the all-important first class. “I hadn’t totally decided who I was going to vote for before I went in there,” Wheeler said, adding that he knew Bill France Sr. and Junior Johnson were among his shoo-in votes. “But when you’ve got to narrow it down to five and you’ve got all these people that did so much it’s really tough.”

With so much importance placed on the decision, some indicated the room was a bit nervous at the outset. There to calm the nerves and get the conversation started was NASCAR vice president of communications Jim Hunter. “I said, ‘Look, we want you to speak out. We want you to express your opinions. This is an open forum. No one in here will take it personally, including me.’”

A number of those on the panel said the discussion swayed their votes. Lee White, who represented Toyota, called the debate “amazing,” saying that it was a complete surprise. He also believed that everyone’s vote changed four or five times. McKim said one panel member changed his mind four times before making his selection and signing his name and submitting his ballot. McKim and Kelley said they made their choices long ago.

A lot of voters made this choice long ago.
Wednesday’s announcement was not full of the glitz and glamour many expected. The event was short and to the point, with NASCAR chairman Brian France opening five individual envelopes that contained the names of the first class. A short video clip was played for each inductee. Dale Earnhardt’s video lacked sound and had to be played twice. Reports are that David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison were the sixth, seventh and eighth choices of the panel.

Much like the four faces on Mount Rushmore, the first five characterize the sport of NASCAR in different ways. Each left his own mark and forever changed the game. Each year following this one, another five names will be selected, but these five will forever be known as the first five. It is a true honor that each deserves.

*The Voting Panel that gathered Wednesday morning consisted of Kenny Bruce, NASCAR Scene; Dustin Long, Landmark Newspapers/NMPA president; Nate Ryan, USA Today; Jim Pedley,; Duane Cross,; Ernie Saxton, Eastern Motorsports Press Association president; Dusty Brandel, American Auto Racing Writers & Broadcasters Association president; Ken Squire; Mike Joy, FOX; Jerry Punch, ESPN; Barney Hall, MRN; Doug Rice, PRN; Rick Allen, SPEED; Ed Pepper, Chevrolet VP/GM North America; Edsel B. Ford III, Ford board of directors; Mike Accavitti, former director of Dodge brand global marketing, motorsports; Lee White, president/gm, Toyota Racing Development USA; Ricky Rudd; Harry Gant; Ned Jarrett; Bud Moore; Cotton Owens; Junior Johnson; Barry Dodson; Waddell Wilson; Buddy Parrott; H.A. Humpy Wheeler; former journalist Tom Higgins and retired Associated Press writer Mike Harris.

All photos by Jay W. Pennell

Related link:
Current drivers who will be in the Hall of Fame