NASCAR honors the best with a new Hall of Fame
By M.B. Roberts
Football has Canton. Baseball has Cooperstown. And even Rock and Roll has Cleveland. Now, with the opening of the new NASCAR Hall of Fame in May, racing has Charlotte.
Fans have great expectations for the 150,000 square foot, $160 million facility with more than 40,000 square feet of exhibits and artifacts. Everything from the ’67 Plymouth that Richard Petty drove to more wins and championships than any car in history to Davey Allison’s boots, hat and bow and arrow will be displayed.
But the real buzz surrounds the May 23 induction ceremony, when the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s inaugural class — Dale Earnhardt, Sr.; Bill France, Sr.; Bill France, Jr.; Junior Johnson and Petty — will be enshrined.
The two living inductees, Johnson, 78, and Petty, 71, seem genuinely humble to be among the first NASCAR Hall of Famers.
“This is something I cherish,” says Johnson. “It’s just unbelievable that I went in with Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty and the two Frances!”
As Petty points out, there was no Hall of Fame when he started racing so neither he nor Johnson had their eye on that particular prize as drivers. But like Johnson, he is thrilled to be included.
“It feels good,” Petty told reporters after the results were announced. “If you’re in a race — and I felt like this was a race — then you feel good about finishing first, second, third, fourth or fifth!”
No one denies the merit of each of the five inductees; two are founders of the sport and three are its biggest stars. Still, the combination fan-industry vote sparked a lively debate regarding who else might have been named and who might be named next time around.
“When I first saw the list (of nominees) I sat down and made a list of my own,” says Petty. “David Pearson was my number one pick. Look at all he accomplished. He came up in the early ’60s, as I did. He drove a bunch of cars that weren’t near as good or as safe as some of the cars the later guys drove in.”
Petty also gave a nod to his father, NASCAR pioneer Lee Petty.
“Without Lee Petty there wouldn’t have been Richard Petty,” he says. “He won more races than most other guys. He was his own mechanic. He drove the car, owned the car, and was his own crew chief. He was the whole package.”
Pioneers of NASCAR
Petty and Johnson may look to the earliest days of their 61-year-old sport for their history lesson, but the opening of the Hall of Fame gives fans a chance to reflect on the changes these champions have seen in racing.
“Richard Petty and Junior Johnson were around when drivers raced convertibles with no seat belts!” says John Roberts, host of NASCAR RaceDay and NASCAR Victory Lane on cable TV’s Speed Channel. “Now you have shoulder harnesses and roll cages. Drivers wear fire suits today. They’ve got the Hans device. But back then, they wore T-shirts and little half helmets.”
Junior Johnson started racing in 1953 when the Daytona race was still run on the beach (literally) and the first asphalt track, Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, was still a new phenomenon.
Richard Petty made his driving debut in 1958, the year before the opening of Daytona International Speedway and decades before the standardized Car of Tomorrow or the Race for the Chase points system.
As drivers and later as team owners, both men watched their sport expand as TV contracts were signed and winnings became exponentially larger. Of course, both had a hand in NASCAR’s exploding popularity, due to their broad appeal and keen marketing minds. Petty was the first driver to trademark his name. Johnson is credited with convincing RJR Reynolds to sponsor the series, which became the Winston Cup.
Today, both Petty and Johnson are officially retired. But Petty, with his trademark sunglasses and Charlie 1 Horse hat, is still a constant presence at every race, signing autographs and warmly greeting fans.
Johnson is busy with his Hamptonville, N.C., farm and business interests including Junior Johnson’s Country Hams and his legal moonshine, Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon. He no longer attends every race, but like Petty this NASCAR giant would never dream of missing the Hall of Fame induction ceremony honoring the sport he helped define.
True to form, Johnson has a surefire game plan for the events on the big day: “I’m going to let Richard do all the talking,” he says.
NASCAR Hall of Fame
400 East Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Charlotte, N.C. 28202
Tickets: (877) 231-2010
May 11, 2010: Grand Opening
May 23, 2010: Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony
The Class of 2010
A voting panel of NASCAR industry leaders, manufacturers representatives, former competitors, the media and fans chose these five men as the first Hall of Fame inductees.
Bill France, Sr. (1909-1992): NASCAR’s founder and first president (from 1948-1972).
Richard Petty (1937- ): “The King” notched 200 wins and seven NASCAR Sprint Cup Championships.
Bill France, Jr. (1933-2007): NASCAR president and CEO (from 1972-2003).
Dale Earnhardt (1951-2001): “The Intimidator” won seven NASCAR Sprint Cup Championships.
Junior Johnson (1931- ): 50 wins as a driver, 132 wins and six championships as an owner. Credited with many innovations, including drafting.