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Race to NASCAR Hall of Fame Nearing Finish

Source: Ron Green, Charlotte Observer  

October 11, 2009

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, Junior Johnson and 49 other voters will gather in uptown Charlotte with a simple but complex charge – determine the first five inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

This isn't like other racing halls of fame, which are scattered like freckles across the country, well intended but lacking the gravity and emotional horsepower of the sport's official shrine that sits on the corner of Stonewall and Brevard streets.

This will be NASCAR's version of Cooperstown (N.Y.), the almost mythical home of the Baseball Hall of Fame - a place where the faithful can come to visit, to remember and, even on quiet days, to feel a little of the thunder that echoes across more than 50 years. This is NASCAR, all grown up.

"We've had halls of fame, but some of them were in a motel," said Johnson, who went from running moonshine on N.C. backroads to one of the sport's most successful drivers and team owners.

When the new facility opens May11, 2010 - there's a countdown clock on the Hall of Fame's Web site - it will include a splashy museum filled with race cars. But it's called the Hall of Fame for a reason - five reasons to start.

Who are the five who will be inducted in the inaugural class?

Richard Petty? Dale Earnhardt? Bill France Sr.?

They're the favorites to get in on the first ballot, but that still leaves two spots to fill.

Some would argue five inductees aren't enough for the first class.

But that's what baseball did, and it's hard to argue with starting a Hall of Fame with Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson.

"Some say put more in, some say put less in," said Winston Kelley, the Hall's executive director and one of the 50 voters.

"Five is a hard number. It's easy for me to say, but I'd rather highlight five than have the 15th person that first year be something of an afterthought."

The 50 voters who will select the inaugural class are a combination of NASCAR officials, track owners, media members, former car owners, drivers, crew chiefs and others who have been around the sport for years. A 51st vote also will be included based on an online fans vote that has not been released.

A committee narrowed the list of potential inductees to 25. It's slanted toward the past more than the present – which means Raymond Parks, who helped Bill France Sr. start the sport, is on the list and Jeff Gordon isn't. Red Byron, who won the first NASCAR-sanctioned race in 1948, is on the list and Rusty Wallace isn't.

"The initial Halls of Fame deals are all the same," said Humpy Wheeler, former president of Lowe's Motor Speedway and a voter. "You have a lot of people who know about the current people but don't know the past. They tend to nominate those they know.

"To do it properly, you need to look at the past and at the people who got us here."

Each voter received a packet of information detailing the careers of the 25 nominees. There will be a presentation Wednesday reviewing the nominees, followed by a time for open discussion when anyone in the room can speak on behalf of someone they believe should be inducted.

After a lunch break, the voters will gather. They will be given a ballot and asked to list their five selections. Three voting members – Johnson, Ned Jarrett and Bud Moore – are among the 25 nominees.

A representative of the accounting firm of Ernst & Young will collect and tabulate the vote. If there is a tie for the final spot, there will be another among the tied nominees until the tie is broken.

At 4 p.m. Wednesday, Brian France, the NASCAR president and CEO, will announce the five inductees, two of whom could be his grandfather, Bill Sr., and his father, Bill Jr.

"The first-time vote, I've been struggling with that," retired driver and voter Ricky Rudd said. "There are so many great names. How do you choose? So many big names and so few spaces.

"I started to lose a little sleep, then said there's no reason to fret. There's no right or wrong answer."

There are some intriguing story lines.

Let's start with the France family. Bill Sr. started the sport and without him, there wouldn't be a NASCAR and, therefore, no Hall of Fame.

The question of Bill Jr., his son and successor, adds a different wrinkle. Although Bill Sr. started the sport, taking it from the beaches to tracks across the country, it was Bill Jr. who oversaw the sport's mushrooming success.

"You got two on the get-go – the two Frances," said retired driver and voter Harry Gant.

Between them, Bill Sr. and Bill Jr. oversaw NASCAR through its first 50 years, turning a family enterprise into a major American sport.

"If you go back and look at Bill France Sr. and study what he's done and what he had to do to get where he was, it is so unbelievable. He's going to be the first person in there," Johnson said.

"I think they will (both get in). I say it because there was so much difference in what they did for the sport. What Billy Jr. did was opposite from Billy Sr.

"(Bill Jr.) brought the sport from the trash can to the table. Bill Sr. created the sport. It's two different careers."

But how would it look if 40 percent of the first class came from one family?

It's no secret that NASCAR, owned by the France family, has been viewed skeptically at times for the way it has managed things. If two Frances get in, cynics might raise their eyebrows.

"I think NASCAR is very, very cognizant that of anything they've ever done, this needs to be done right and there can be no taint of 'this is the way we want it, not the way the voters want it.' I haven't had the first person lobby me from NASCAR," Wheeler said.

"It will be very fair."

Then there's the Petty angle. Who goes in first, Richard or Lee?

Richard, one of two drivers to win seven championships (Earnhardt is the other) has said several times he should not be included in the first class. That honor, he said, belongs to the people who built the sport from its backroads beginnings, people like his father.

Lee Petty won 54 races over 16 years, the first Daytona 500 and three NASCAR championships – and didn't start racing until he was 35.

It was his son, though, who became – and to many people, remains – the face of stock car racing. His 200 victories likely will never be matched.

Think of it this way – what would the reaction be on ESPN's "SportsCenter" on Wednesday night if the first Hall of Fame class didn't include Richard Petty?

"The way I look at it is pretty simple. Go back to who started NASCAR, the owners and the drivers. Lee Petty should go in before Richard Petty," said Gant, who added that he already knows the five he will vote for.

It might not happen that way, however.

"I think common knowledge will tell you that Bill Sr., Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt are likely to be near unanimous selections," said Dustin Long, a voter who writes for Landmark newspapers and is the current president of the National Motorsports Press Association.

Beyond that, it gets more difficult.

Tops among the remaining drivers could be David Pearson and Junior Johnson.

Pearson remains stock car racing's second-winningest driver with 105 victories. He was Richard Petty's fiercest rival for years.

Johnson, whose moonshine legend got a mention in a Bruce Springsteen song, won 50 races as a driver. After he retired from driving in 1966, he owned six championship teams at NASCAR's top level.

"It would be a 'wow' factor to have a Petty, Earnhardt, France and possibly Pearson and Johnson in the first class," Long said.

"Some feel NASCAR has lost some soul, but Johnson, Petty and Pearson represent that."

Someone deserving, more than one, will be left out. They likely will go in with the second class or the third. Five new members will be elected each year.

"Halls of fame are notoriously emotional," Wheeler said. "There will be great gnashing of teeth after the results are announced among relatives and friends of people who thought they should have gotten in."

That's when the lobbying will begin, Wheeler said.

This moment has been years in the building, decades in the making.

For a sport that started small, expanded across the Southeast and eventually went big time, the Hall of Fame will honor the men who made it happen.

Johnson remembers small halls in motels. This week, some voters will stay at the new Ritz-Carlton uptown.

What does getting into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot mean?

Let Junior Johnson explain it:

"If I went in, it would be the greatest thing ever happened to me in racing. If I'm in that first class, you'll be able to hear me holler from miles away."