NASCAR prepares for Sunday's Hall of Fame ceremony

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The movers and shakers in NASCAR gathered this week at a gala to honor the five inductees into the new Hall of Fame.

Richard Petty and Junior Johnson, the only two living members of the inaugural class, reminisced with old friends. Richard Childress shared tales of his good friend, the late Dale Earnhardt, while Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, stayed out of the spotlight but politely accepted congratulatory greetings.

The big moment came during the cocktail hour, when the family of Raymond Parks escorted the pioneer through the massive foyer. Two weeks shy of his 96th birthday, Parks is confined to a wheelchair and silently nodded to the frequent well-wishers who gathered to say hello to the top-hat clad owner of the car Red Byron drove to NASCAR's inaugural 1949 championship.

Nobody, including Parks, wants to miss this first celebration of NASCAR's rich and colorful history. The $195 million Hall of Fame opened May 11, and its first class will be inducted Sunday in what's expected to be an emotional event.

The first class comprises NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., his son, Bill France Jr., seven-time series champions Petty and Earnhardt, and moonshine runner-turned-racing pioneer Johnson.

"The five choices that the voting panel made, they could not have made a better choice of anyone," said team owner Childress, who will speak in Sunday's ceremony for Earnhardt.

That's not necessarily the unanimous decision, though.

The inaugural class was selected last October by a 50-member panel, which spent two-plus hours in what's been described as a spirited closed-door debate over the 25 nominees. With only five initial slots available to men considered pioneers for their contributions in establishing NASCAR and then transforming it from a Southern series and into a national sport, the voting members had to make difficult decisions.

There were some who felt that the two Frances must be included in the inaugural class. France Sr. for forming the National Association of Stock Car Racing in 1947, and France Jr., for the three decades he spent at the helm of America's top motorsports series.

Others felt the inclusion of France Jr. could hold off a year, and that the inaugural class would be better served without two administrators from the ruling family.

It made for a suspenseful announcement later that day, when current NASCAR chairman Brian France announced the inductees to a packed room at the Charlotte Convention Center. He received five envelopes from an independent accounting firm, and announced his grandfather as the first inductee.

Petty, NASCAR's all-time wins leader was the second name announced. The room then went silent in anticipation of the third selection, which went to France Jr.

Three-time champion David Pearson, whose 105 victories rank him second only to Petty on the all-time wins list, watched from the audience.

"When I seen the two Frances was in, I knew I didn't have a chance," Pearson said moments after the ceremony ended. "The same people don't like everybody."

The exclusion of the "Silver Fox" dumbfounded Petty, who was not in the room that day for the announcement. When he came in after the ceremony, he had to ask who the other four inductees were.

"Anybody that won 105 races and didn't make the cut — somebody ain't adding right," Petty said of his top rival, adding that Pearson would have been his first pick.

Because this is NASCAR's first foray into officially recognizing its pioneers, the list of qualified candidates is too long to get hung up on the omission of one driver in the first class.

"It's hard to argue the worthiness of the five men selected for the inaugural induction class," said Dustin Long, president of the National Motorsports Press Association and a member of the voting committee. "All made significant contributions to NASCAR. In my mind, there were six true candidates for the five spots. I chose David Pearson on my ballot because I felt the Hall of Fame was as much for the fans as anybody and that Pearson resonated with the fan."

The debate has abated somewhat over the last seven months, as attention has turned to the actual opening of the Hall and Sunday's ceremony. The opening's approach has been accompanied by an outpouring of tributes, including a touching "storytelling" session that highlighted Thursday night's gala.

Longtime industry veterans drew rousing laughter with tales that recounted Earnhardt's anger over once getting denied a hotel room, Petty taking his time to board a waiting plane so he could sign for every child chasing him for an autograph, France Jr. beginning the present-day practice of summoning out-of-line drivers to the NASCAR hauler, Johnson being asked for a favor from a local sheriff willing to overlook the truckload of moonshine he was hauling.

Petty and Johnson have been soaking up the adoration as they've participated in numerous events leading up to Sunday.

"I'm going from one thing to another," Johnson said. "I'm not (standing) still in everyday life and work I've got going on. NASCAR's Hall of Fame has been about all of my time. That's a good thing, not a bad thing. It's the greatest thing besides my family that's come along that I could ever have to happen.

"I'm going to ride it as long as I can and as long as it's here, I'm going to try to do my best to do what it needs. When it needs something, I'm going to give it to them."