An outpouring of strong emotions accompanied Sunday's induction of five legends of stock car racing into the newly opened NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Suspense wasn't one of those emotions. The inaugural class had been well known and well publicized—and deservedly so. Included were NASCAR founder Bill France Sr.; NASCAR's second president and CEO, Bill France Jr.; seven-time Cup champions Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt; and 50-time race winner Junior Johnson, who also claimed six Cup titles as a car owner.
The ceremonies were alternately solemn and light-hearted but consistently genuine. In inducting his legendary father, Kyle Petty used the opportunity for some good-natured ribbing.
“When I was growing up, our house was right next door to the race shop,” Kyle Petty said of his father. “He would go to work in the morning, at 7 or 8. He would come home for lunch when I was young, have lunch, and then he would lay down in the middle of the living room floor, sleep till 3 or 4 in the afternoon, get up and go back to work.
“I never found that strange until you look at his career, and you think, 'The man won 200 races, seven Daytona 500s and seven championships working half days.' That may be the greatest statistic of all time to me.”
Richard Childress, Earnhardt's team owner and best friend, appeared with Earnhardt's wife, Teresa Earnhardt, sons Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kerry Earnhardt and daughters Kelley Earnhardt and Taylor Earnhardt to induct the driver known as the Intimidator.
No one was immune from Earnhardt's aggressive style, not even his son.
“We were in Japan racing,” Earnhardt Jr. recalled. “I was racing for the first time against the Cup competitors and my father. It was late in the race. I got some new tires—only had a few laps to make those tires work for me. I got up underneath him in Turns 3 and 4, and I just needed two inches to clear him.
“I didn't have him cleared. I slid across his nose, up to the wall. He carried me all the way down the front straightaway with my back tires in the air all the way into (Turn) 1. That was the day I met the Intimidator.”
Vice chairman of NASCAR, Jim France, inducted his father, Bill France Sr. NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France and International Speedway Corp. CEO Lesa France Kennedy did the honors for their father, Bill France Jr., after a stirring introduction from longtime friend Rick Hendrick. In a ceremony where the families of all five inductees played pivotal roles, Robert Johnson inducted his father, Junior Johnson.
“This Hall's a tribute to everybody—it leaves nobody out,” Hendrick said after the inductions. “And I'm just real thankful that they've done it as professionally as they have. And I believe it's going to stir a lot of emotion from all of the pioneers and the people today to try to make it even better and help to grow it.
“So this was a celebration to me of a lot of things—NASCAR, the history, these people, the fans.”
Perhaps Petty captured best the magnitude of the proceedings.
“It kind of hit me today that it's really, really a big deal,” Petty said after the ceremony, “because NASCAR's finally got their Hall of Fame, and I think it moved all of us up a notch. … I think now we're as big-league as anybody.”