CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The inaugural five members of NASCAR's new Hall of Fame were inducted Sunday in a ceremony that both honored auto racing's pioneers and celebrated the entire industry.
NASCAR founder Bill France was lauded for his vision of turning unregulated beach racing into America's premiere motorsports series. His son, Bill France Jr., was remembered as tough taskmaster who poured his soul into NASCAR.
Richard Petty, the seven-time champion, was credited as the sport's first superstar, while Junior Johnson was celebrated as the symbol of the sport's roots.
And then there was Dale Earnhardt, the "champion's champion" who epitomized the blue collar spirit at the heart of NASCAR.
The final inductee in Sunday's ceremony, Earnhardt was represented on stage by his widow, Teresa, and four children, who each took a moment to share their memories of "The Intimidator." It was a rare picture of unity for a family that's been largely depicted as fractured since Earnhardt's 2001 death in the Daytona 500.
"Dale Earnhardt was definitely a hero to his family — no one can say more about that than his children," Teresa Earnhardt said. "Through them, his friends and fans, through this Hall of Fame, through you, Dale Earnhardt, the legend, lives on."
The Earnhardt's closed a ceremony that was rich on family ties but short on individual celebration. Since only two members of this inaugural class are still living, inductions and acceptances fell to family members and close friends who shared stories that drew laughter and an occasional tear.
France Sr. was accepted into the Hall by his son, Jim, who said the promoter-turned-NASCAR founder would have been thrilled to see the racing series had far exceeded his visions of creating a national sport.
"If Dad were here today ... he would be proud mostly for NASCAR," Jim France said. "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."
France Jr., who took the reigns from his father and guided NASCAR through a 30-year period of extreme growth, was represented by his children, Brian and Lesa.
"He loved this sport. He was passionate about it. He built it literally from the ground up," France Kennedy said. "When I say 'the ground up,' I'm talking about a backhoe at Daytona International Speedway.'
Petty was inducted by his son, Kyle, who called NASCAR's all-time wins leader "the biggest fan of the sport that ever lived."
"I think that's what made him a great racecar driver," Kyle Petty said. "He loves the sport. He carries a passion for this sport. He loves to drive. He loves to work on it. He loves the guys he raced against. He loved the fans. He loved everything about the sport."
The King, clad in his trademark cowboy hat and dark sunglasses, deflected attention to his accomplishments in his speech, preferring to praise his parents, his family, the Frances, his team, media and fans.
"I never did anything by myself," said Petty, NASCAR's all-time winningest driver with 200 victories, who closed with "I guess I'm going to be like Gomer Pyle. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."
Johnson, the one-time moonshine runner turned champion driver and car owner, was inducted by his 16-year-old son, Robert, who nervously called his father to the stage.
"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," he said. "Please join me in welcoming our next inductee, my father, Junior Johnson. I love you, Dad."
Earnhardt's induction was the most anticipated — proven when a No. 3-clad fan in the back of the room cheered and raised three fingers in salute. Unlike the other inductees, whose choices for introduction and acceptance speeches were well-known, Earnhardt's representatives had more fluid and the crowd was not certain who would speak.
Teresa Earnhardt, uncomfortable with public speaking, has been somewhat reclusive in the nine years since her husband's death. Her relationship with stepson Dale Earnhardt Jr. is strained, at best, and its rare to see all four children in public together.
But the family attended Thursday night's gala together, and the occasion of Earnhardt's induction had marked a somewhat coming-out-party for his youngest daughter, Taylor. Once frequently spotted alongside her father at the race track, she'd been largely out of the public eye since her father's death.
The 21-year-old represented the family at several events this weekend, and was poised on stage during the ceremony.
"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, 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."