When NASCAR opted to keep its inaugural hall of fame class to five people, it put voters in a difficult position — vote for pioneers of the sport, organisers of the sport or the best performers in the sport.
The 51-member voting panel consisting of NASCAR executives, journalists and former participants (as well as one ballot featuring a combined fan vote) opted Wednesday for the two men who led the sport for more than 50 years (Bill France and Bill France Jr.), the two men who won the most championships (Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt) and a legendary moonshiner who won races as an owner and driver (Junior Johnson).
“We wanted to make it a small enough group where it was special,” said NASCAR chairman Brian France, son of Bill Jr. “There were 25 that were nominated. The fans got a vote in this. It is a great day for the sport.”
Just missing the cut were some of NASCAR's greatest drives, including David Pearson, who had 105 wins in 574 starts and who many consider the sport's greatest driver. Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison were the top three vote getters who weren't in the top five.
“You had eight or ten people that very much should have been in the first go-around,” Petty said. “I just looked at some of us later stars, if it hadn't been for the Frances and a bunch of people that helped them, there wouldn't have been a hall of fame, a Richard Petty, a Dale Earnhardt. As far as I was concerned, when I saw the list of the deal, I sat down and made a list of my own.
“Pearson would have been my #1 pick. Look at all he accomplished.”
When asked if he was disappointed, Pearson said, “Not really.”
“I told them before that I always heard that they wanted Junior in there, of course you know that Earnhardt and Petty are going to be in there, no doubt about it,” Pearson said. “When I seen the two Frances went in, I knew I didn't have a chance.”
The induction ceremony is scheduled to be May 23, 2010, the Sunday after the Sprint All-Star Race and about two weeks after the hall opens in Charlotte.
Petty won seven Cup championships but is perhaps best known as an ambassador for the sport. He was and is a fan favourite, both during his winning days and now as a team co-owner.
“It feels good,” Petty said. “I felt like this was a race, then you feel good finishing … in the front five.”
Earnhardt also won seven Cup championships, the first in only his second full season of NASCAR competition. His passionate driving style made him a polarizing figure for fans. Earnhardt died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.