CHARLOTTE _ On Sunday, the pageantry and formal wear of the red carpet was mixed with the t-shirts and hats of race fans as the NASCAR Hall of Fame prepared to formally induct its first class of honorees – Bill France Sr., Richard Petty, Bill France Jr., Junior Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Sr.
These were the men that built and grew the sport from a hodgepodge of local racers to an international multi-billion dollar industry. They gave the sport character and provided the fans a hero to cheer for or a villain to root against.
The induction ceremony took just over two hours and 40 minutes with video tributes, touching stories of each inductee and in the case of Petty and Johnson personal reflections of the sport that shaped their lives and their lives that shaped the sport.
This event was not about who ran well last weekend, it was not about thanking the many corporate sponsors that dominate events such as the season ending awards banquet. Sunday’s induction ceremony provided the opportunity to reflect on the accomplishments of these five men, what they meant to the sport and what they meant to their family and friends. In a sport that sees corporate obligations run rampant, Sunday was a day for raw emotion.
In getting the ceremony underway, Mike Joy said, "Today’s NASCAR’s Hall of Fame inaugural class will stand for all times as the Mount Rushmore of our sport".
NASCAR president Mike Helton reflected on what the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and this first class in general, meant to the sport.
“One of our guideposts, the way we do business at NASCAR, is that while we’re always looking toward the future, we’re also very mindful and proud of our past,” Helton said. “You see we like the old adage that says, ‘You can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.’
“We now have this tremendous facility that houses our heritage and memorializes those who blazed the trails on our behalf.”
As each member of the inaugural class was introduced, touching stories showed the emotion these men brought out in their competitors, their peers and their fans.
Former NASCAR attorney and personal friend of ‘Big’ Bill France, John Cassidy, told how their relationship sprang from a visit to Washington D.C. by France and a trip to the office of the Attorney General, then Robert Kennedy.
Sitting in his office, Cassidy explained how Kennedy phoned him to warn France was headed his way looking for a solution to a problem. Teamsters head Jimmy Hoffa was giving the sport a problem and France expected Cassidy to nip that problem in the bud.
“Shortly after Kennedy’s call, the door to my office opened up, and there stood one of the biggest men I had ever seen,” Cassidy said. “He literally filled the doorway. I’m looking up at him, and he looks at me, and his very first words were, Son, we have a problem, and Mr. Kennedy says you have the answer.”
Accepting the induction on his father’s behalf, Jim France explained the family would donate the 14 carat white gold ring honoring Bill France Sr. back to the Hall of Fame to display for all the visitors.
“If Dad were here today, he would be proud, as well, but in a different way,” France said. “He would be proud mostly for NASCAR. He would be proud of this Hall of Fame, a commitment made to honor our past and to recognize the individuals who are responsible for making NASCAR what it is today, for their great accomplishments.
“The NASCAR Hall of Fame in many ways is the ultimate tribute to my father, the hopes and dreams that he had for our sport.”
For Richard Petty, the emotions flowed from his cousin and long-time crew chief Dale Inman. In introducing the video highlighting Petty’s career, Inman appeared choked up, saying, “Richard, with this new Hall of Fame here in Charlotte, it will make sure that you’re always remembered. Thank you so much.”
Kyle Petty gave the crowd a couple of laughs in his remarks inducting his famous father. Kyle told of how he would work in the family shop, come home for lunch and then sleep for a few hours on the living room floor and then head back to work in the shop.
“I never found that strange until you look at his career and you think the man won 200 races, seven Daytona 500s, seven championships working half days, okay? I just want you to think about that,” the third generation Petty said. “That may be the greatest statistic of all time to me.”
Rick Hendrick told how Bill France Jr. would chew you out, cuss you up and down the room and then ask about an upcoming fishing trip as if nothing had happened. Telling a story of an incident after Jeff Gordon won at Indianapolis, Hendrick said France demanded he and Gordon show up in Daytona the following morning at 9 a.m.
Hendrick told of France saying, “’You have that little blank, blank, blank Jeff Gordon down here in my office in the morning at 9:00. If you can’t make it and he can’t make it, don’t you even think about carrying your car to Watkins Glen, you’re done.’ He said, ‘But, it doesn’t affect your fishing trip.’”
The always charismatic Darrell Waltrip did what he does best, telling stories reflecting on his career with Junior Johnson, but joked that his initial stock of stories was thrown out the window after his former car owner reminded him he has the last word.
“I’d be a little remiss if I didn’t tell a few Junior stories,” Waltrip said as he took the stage. “I had some really good ones. I spoke to Junior a little bit ago. He said, ‘Darrell, don’t forget I get the last word.’ So with that, thought I might ought to get rid of those and basically just tell you about the man that I have admired, respected, and truly was my childhood hero.”
In inducting his father, 16-year-old Robert Johnson simply said, “I would just like to finish by saying that although my father may be going into the NASCAR Hall of Fame today, he’s always been a Hall of Fame dad in my heart.”
When it was Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s time in the spotlight, his four children and late-wife Teresa each took turns remembering their father in their own way.
“We were in Japan racing,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. recalled. “I was racing for the first time against the Cup competitors and my father. It was late in the race. I got some new tires. Only had a few laps to make those work for me. I got up underneath him on turn three and four, I just needed two inches to clear him. I didn’t have him cleared. I slid across his nose, up to the wall. He carried me all the way down the front straightaway with my back tires in the air all the way off into one. That was the day I met The Intimidator.”
“I thought it was great how all four of us just got out there and talked, got to kind of hear different sides of dad from the four of us,” Dale’s youngest daughter Taylor said. “It’s not something that happens all at one time. So I thought it was special that we got to tell everybody about it and it’s definitely an honor for all of us.”
“I think any time you get up and talk about anything that’s personal to you, you’re going to have a lot of emotions,” said Kelley Earnhardt. “And definitely the stories that were told today from everyone, the room was full of emotion, and it’s no different for us when you talk about someone you miss and left us too soon. We all have very strong emotions about that. Good and fond memories about it.”
In a sport that is chock full of sponsor plugs, corporate obligations and big money, Sunday’s event was a refreshing experience for all involved. The video clips and thoughts of those that took the stage brought back memories of the glory days of NASCAR and a reminder of how personal the sport truly is. This day will go down as one of those events that shifted the tide in NASCAR history and for it to be full of great stories and pure emotion made it that much more special.
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