At long last, NASCAR officially has its first Hall of Fame class signed, sealed and delivered.
Bill France Sr., Bill France Jr., Junior Johnson, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt all were inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Uptown Charlotte Sunday afternoon. The induction ceremony was televised live on SPEED and will be rebroadcast tonight at 11 p.m. ET.
The historic induction capped a busy month of activities in Charlotte, with more yet to come. By all measures, the event was a huge success. “It was way more than I ever dreamed it could be,” team owner Rick Hendrick said in describing the day.
In many ways, the event represented the best NASCAR has to offer. In stark contrast to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards Banquet, which often seems like nothing more than 10 drivers reciting the same speech, the Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony was filled with emotion and drama, despite its length.
“It was an emotional day, and I didn't anticipate that,” said NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France. “This was different today. This was about everybody in this sport.”
“It hit me today that this is a really, really big deal,” said Petty of being one of the five members of the first class.
Car owner Richard Childress fought back tears, as he talked about his former driver and best friend. And he laughed, too, retelling the famous story about other drivers complaining about the speeds being too high at Talladega. “He told ‘em that if they’re scared they should tie kerosene rags around their ankles so the ants don’t crawl up their legs and chew their candy asses off,” Childress said of Earnhardt.
Each of Earnhardt’s four children — Kerry, Kelley, Dale Jr. and Taylor — spoke eloquently and passionately about the different facets of their father that they saw growing up. “We all look like him,” said Taylor. “We all act like him, too - stubborn as a fence post.”
Teresa Earnhardt, in a rare public appearance, recalled observations many others made about her late husband. “There’s Earnhardt and there’s everybody else,” Teresa quoted car owner Bud Moore as saying.
Later, she added, “It’s great to continue Dale’s legend this way.”
“It came from the heart from all of us,” said Kerry.
And one of the most emotional moments of the day was the simplest. It came when 16-year-old Robert Johnson concluded his induction of his father, Junior Johnson, with a simple “I love you, Dad.”
Junior, the former moonshiner and one of NASCAR’s most colorful personalities, recalled a breakfast meeting with NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., who wanted Johnson to commit to running every race instead of a part-time schedule.
Johnson said he pointed to his bacon-and-egg breakfast and said, “The hen that laid these eggs is involved, but the hog that gave up the bacon is committed.”
Darrell Waltrip inducted Johnson, his former boss, and the two exchanged some good natured barbs about the old days. Johnson recalled when Waltrip started his own NASCAR Sprint Cup team. “Well, he’ll finally have a driver who’s as smart as his owner,” Johnson said of Waltrip.
Jim France, son of the late NASCAR founder Big Bill France, said his father would have approved of the day.
“If Dad were here today, he would be proud, as well, but in a different way,” Jim 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.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEEDtv.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.