We're excited to have Racegirl back this week with another exciting post! She was lucky enough to attend the NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony and she's here to share her thoughts.
The Inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony was held Sunday, May 23 at 1 p.m. in the Charlotte Convention Center Crown Ballroom. I was excited that I got to attend the ceremony and be there for the induction of the very first class. A great historical moment for a sport we all love!
First Up - Bill France Sr.
Bill France Sr., who organized bootleggers like Junior Johnson in North Carolina and the beach racing folks in Florida to create NASCAR, was the first Hall of Fame inductee. Memories were overflowing as John Cassidy, NASCAR's first legal counsel, gave Bill France Sr.'s induction speech to open the ceremony. A lifelong relationship between he and Big Bill began at the White House and continued all the way through to this historical day of induction into the Nascar Hall of Fame. Cassidy spoke about France's many accomplishments, how he built NASCAR from the beaches of Daytona on up -- including overseeing construction of the first super speedways in Daytona Beach and Talladega. He ended with saying "I prefer to call him a dreamer who was a man of action, someone who turns dreams into reality.”
The King Takes the Stage
Next up to be inducted was driver Richard Petty. Dale Inman, his cousin and former crew chief, spoke first about the man known as The King and nearly got choked up before handing it off to Kyle Petty -- Richard's son, television personality and apparent stand-up comedian. Kyle Petty immediately livened up the crowd and lightened the mood with a funny story about his famous father:
"When I was growing up, our house was right next door to the race shop," Kyle explained. "Dad would go to work early in the morning at like 7 or 8 o'clock. He was a fabricator -- and back then, everyone worked on the car including the driver. He would come home for lunch when I was young. Then he would lie down in the middle of the living room floor and sleep until 3 or 4 in the afternoon before getting up and going back to work.”
"I never found that strange until you look at his career and you think the man won 200 races, seven Daytona 500s, seven championships -- while working half-days. I just want you to think about that. That may be the greatest statistic of all time."
Kyle closed by adding: "He feeds off the fans because he is a fan. ... That's who he is for the sport. That's what he's meant for the sport. But for me and for my sisters Sharon, Lisa and Rebecca, he's our father. He's always been our father. We love him more than anything in the world."
Richard Petty kept it relatively short, and definitely sweet, in his own comments before closing by saying, "I guess I'm going to do like Gomer Pyle. I'm just going to say, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you.'" As I listened to Richard’s closing words, I knew one of the many reasons I love this sport – most speak straight from the heart and leave the acting to those who live out in Hollywood.
A Moment of Truth
Bill France Jr. was the third to be inducted. Bill Jr. took over for his father in 1972 and ruled with absolute authority until retiring in 2003. Team owner Rick Hendrick gave the induction speech for the younger France. He did an excellent job of telling stories that illustrated how Bill Jr. was a tough guy with a soft human side.
Rick Hendrick talked about how Big Bill had made his son earn his keep from an early age, having him "sell snow-cones" and escort people out of tracks when they were caught sneaking in without paying. Bill Jr. even ran bulldozers and other heavy equipment during construction of the tracks in Daytona and Talladega.
I didn’t quite understand the inside joke of one story he shared until reading about it in the newspaper the next morning. Apparently, Jeff Gordon was having a ‘dispute’ with one of his sponsors prior to racing at Indianapolis. Jeff won that race and when he got out of his car in Victory Lane, he ‘accidently’ knocked sponsor drinks off the roof. Hendrick shared with us a private phone call he received from Bill Jr. as he stood next to Jeff in Victory Lane:
"You have that little blank, blank, blank Jeff Gordon down here in my office in the morning at 9. 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." But before Bill Jr. hung up, he had one other message: "but it doesn't affect our fishing trip."
Hendrick also joked that Bill Jr. knew how to stretch a buck. Pointing at the man's 7-foot-tall Hall of Fame spire that was to occupy its proper place in the Hall of Honor, Hendrick noted: "I know Bill was not alive when this was designed. He would have made it so you had to put a quarter in it."
The Last American Hero
Fourth amongst the inductees was former driver and championship car owner Junior Johnson, once described by author Thomas Wolfe as The Last American Hero.
Darrell Waltrip was given the honor of giving the induction speech for Junior Johnson. But before he started with his stories, he looked around the room and made a worthwhile observation. "This room is full of NASCAR royalty," he said. "This [Hall of Fame] truly has become and will become the Mount Rushmore of our sport."
Waltrip also reminisced about when he left Johnson's team to begin driving for Hendrick and told the media, "Shucks, it's like getting off a mule and getting on a thoroughbred." When word of that disparaging comment made its inevitable way back to Johnson, Junior simply replied: "I don't know nothin' about that. But I had a jackass up here and I ran him off."
Robert Johnson, Junior's 16-year-old son did the formal induction presentation for his father. He called Junior a "Hall of Fame dad," and adding an aside "to all of you racers out there who have raced for or with my dad, you know there are two rules to follow when around him. Rule number one, he's always right. Rule number two, if he's ever wrong, refer back to rule number one."
#3 Legend Lives On
Last, but certainly not least, to officially be entered into the Hall of Fame on Sunday -- as if there is any way on earth to rank these inductees anyway -- was Dale Earnhardt.
Richard Childress spoke first about his former driver, making it through several stories before it appeared he might break down. As I looked around during this time of the ceremony, I saw several fans in the audience openly weeping at the memory of Dale Earnhardt.
Childress recalled one time at Talladega when other drivers were complaining that the speed of the cars on the track was unsafe. Earnhardt, he said, did not want to hear it. He said, 'If you're afraid to go fast, stay the hell home. Don't come here and grumble about going too fast. Drag kerosene-soaked rags around your ankles so the ants won't jump up and bite your candy asses’.
Then Childress grinned at the memory of his own story, adding: "That was a classic Dale Earnhardt."
Next, Teresa Earnhardt and the four Earnhardt children took the stage -- including Dale Jr., Kerry, Kelley and Taylor. This was the most touching part of the ceremony. As I listened to each family member speak with such raw emotion about Dale the husband, Dale the dad and Dale the legend, I knew this was a historical moment in NASCAR history.
Teresa Earnhardt talked about how her husband "could see the wind" when he was driving, and Dale Jr. offered a funny story about racing against his father once during an exhibition in Japan:
"I was racing for the first time against Cup competitors and my father," Earnhardt Jr. recalled. "It was late in the race. I got some new tires, and only had a few laps to make those work for me. I got up underneath him going through turns 3 and 4. I just needed 2 inches to clear him, but I didn't clear him. I slid across his nose and up into the wall. He carried me all the way down the front straightaway with my back tires up in the air -- all the way off into turn 1.
"That was the day I met the Intimidator."Taylor, Earnhardt’s 21-year-old daughter, seemed to sum it up about her father. "Everyone always tells us that we all look a little bit like Dad," she said. "I think we all act like him, too. We're determined, driven, and stubborn as a fence post. But Dad gave all four of us something. He gave all his fans something. I think that's what makes him a true champion in everybody's eyes."
D.W. Sums It Up
"I always remember how people looked at us and, quite honestly, made fun of us," said former driver and TV analyst Darrell Waltrip, who helped induct Junior Johnson. "That we were a regional sport with a bunch of rednecks that wore ball caps and uniforms with patches all over them.”
"When I look at what Bill France Sr. and Jr. and Brian and Lesa and everybody have done with this sport, to take it from that to where it is today, it makes me very proud."
Junior Johnson said it "couldn't have been a better day," a significant statement from a driver and owner who has been referred to as the "last American hero."
It was a stupendous day that uniformly surpassed my expectations. I lingered for a long while afterward, hoping to get autographs or simply just basking in the moment, knowing history had just been made and that somehow I had been a part of it. As I watched others leave the room where the best of the best of NASCAR had just been, a few who had begun crying during the Earnhardt presentation, continued to mop up tears before moving on.
Brian France commented later to the media, "It was an emotional day, and I didn't anticipate that. I do a lot of things associated with the sport, but this was different," he said. "Obviously the focus was on the five inductees, but it was about more than that. It was a celebration for everybody on a scope that maybe I didn't expect."
Kerry Earnhardt, who looks and sounds so much like his late father that it's almost eerie at times, added that it was refreshing to be open with a roomful of mostly friends and family. "I think it was more personal for the fans and for the folks out there watching on TV," he said. "It came from the heart from all of us. When you're sitting there reading a script, it's someone else's words put in your mouth. It can't mean the same as what it is when it comes from the heart."
And with that, each of the spires of the NASCAR Hall of Fame's inaugural class now sit on display in their rightful places in the Hall of Honor. The memories and stories attached to each will be shared with generations of racing fans to come.
Come back next week to see more NASCAR artifacts and treasures showcased on the vast walls of the Hall of Fame. I’ll give you an up-close look at the Hall and share some of the highlights from my tour.