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Thompson in Turn 5: The Hall of Fame Votes Are In & The Committee Got It (Just About) Right

Now with 60 years of NASCAR history to draw on, the sport has selected its first five inductees to the soon-to-be completed Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C. A 50-member blue ribbon panel representing a broad spectrum of the sport voted from a list of 25 that the 21-member Nominating Committee had previously chosen, coming up with the final cut for the inaugural Class of 2010.

With the votes in and counted, the first five members to be enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame are:

Dale Earnhardt (4-29-1951 to 2-18-2001) – Given the nickname “The Intimidator” for his hard-charging and aggressive driving style, Earnhardt won 76 Cup races in his 677 races over a span of 27 years. His win total ranks sixth on NASCAR’s all-time wins list for a career, while “The Intimidator” is tied for the most Cup championships in the history of the sport with seven.

Both Earnhardt’s career and life were cut short when he was involved in a wreck on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. The untimely death of the most successful driver in the “modern era” of NASCAR Cup racing was mourned not only by those within the sport, but nationally, as well.

Bill France Sr. (9-26-1909 to 6-7-1992) – Bill France was the founding father of NASCAR, ruling the sport with a firm hand through its formative years following its humble beginnings in the Ebony Bar at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, Fla. in 1948.

France’s vision and pioneering spirit is simply the reason for the existence of NASCAR racing. Big Bill served as Chairman and CEO of NASCAR until 1972, when he entrusted the future of the sport to his son. Big Bill also formed the International Speedway Corporation, building numerous tracks along the way – including Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.

Bill Clifton France (4-4-1933 to 6-4-2007) – Known as Bill Jr., he took over the reins of NASCAR from his father in 1972 and ushered in what is considered the “modern era” of NASCAR. Boosted with a lucrative sponsorship deal from RJ Reynolds during his first year, the Grand National Series became the Winston Cup, beginning an era of unparalleled growth in the sport. Prize money and the level of competition improved significantly during the ensuing years under Bill Jr.’s. leadership while NASCAR evolved from a regional curiosity into a full-blown national phenomenon.

In 1979, France brokered a deal with CBS to have the sport’s biggest race, the Daytona 500, televised live and flag-to-flag. Television ratings for the broadcast were impressive, enabling NASCAR to begin showcasing most of its events live to a national audience. Partnerships with ESPN, TBS and other networks soon followed, with increasingly more lucrative contracts agreed to by NASCAR and numerous broadcasters culminating in the billion-dollar TV deals of 2001 and 2007.

Richard Petty (7-2-1937 to present) – Richard “The King” Petty holds claim to the most impressive numbers of any driver in the history of NASCAR. Petty is credited with the most wins (200) in the history of the sport, along with a record-tying seven championships and 10 consecutive races won.

The second-generation driver competed in 1,185 Cup events between 1958 and 1992. Still involved to this day as a partner in Richard Petty Motorsports, Petty is still a fan favorite and perhaps the greatest ambassador for NASCAR of all time.

Junior Johnson (6-28-1931 to present) – Born Robert Glenn Johnson Jr. he is known simply as Junior by generations of NASCAR fans. Johnson’s driving career began in 1953 and earned him 50 wins in 313 starts before retiring as a driver in 1966. Perhaps even more impressive than his driving accomplishments, though, was the success that the former moonshine runner had as a NASCAR team owner.

Drivers Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip each won three Cup Championships driving Junior Johnson-owned racecars. In all, Johnson is credited with 132 wins as a car owner, with drivers running his equipment reading like a Hall of Fame roster in itself: Lee Roy Yarbrough, Neil Bonnett, Terry Labonte, Geoffrey Bodine, Bill Elliott and AJ Foyt, among others.

The nomination and voting process that NASCAR adopted for selecting the first five Hall of Fame inductees was a laborious one, to be sure, and one that appears to have succeeded in arriving at five well-deserving honorees. The Nomination Committees consisted of 21 members from the sport that included the Director and Historian of the HoF, eight NASCAR present and former executives and 11 track owners/managers of venues presently on the Sprint Cup Series or nationally recognized short tracks.

Following the Nomination Committee’s compilation of 25 finalists in July, the Voting Committee (consisting of the 21 individuals of the Nomination Committee, along with another 29 people from a diverse range of the sport) were assembled to vote for the five inaugural inductees. Included in this committee were eight members representing the print media, six television broadcasters, and one executive from each of the four manufacturers participating in the Sprint Cup Series.

From the garage, former crew chiefs Barry Dodson, Waddell Wilson and Buddy Parrott were part of the Voting Committee, while former owners Bud Moore, Cotton Owens and Junior Johnson participated in the election process. Rounding out the Voting Committee were three longtime NASCAR Cup drivers: Ricky Rudd, Harry Gant and Ned Jarrett.

There were a total of 51 votes: 50 from the Voting Committee, as well as the fan vote.

In the end, there could not have been five more deserving individuals voted in to the inaugural class of inductees into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame. The selection process left little room for criticism, as it was truly comprised of a broad cross-section of folks with varying perspectives and knowledge of the sport.

Surprises? Possibly, depending on one’s own perspective.

Certainly, there were arguments that could have been made, especially for other drivers. Those are, of course, the stars of the sport, and some may believe that their accomplishments overshadow that of an executive.

Where does one rate, say the great David Pearson, with his 105 wins and enviable winning percentage, if not in the top five? And how about Yarborough with his three championships back-to-back-to-back? Or two-time champion Jarrett who contributed so much to the sport, even after his driving days had long ended?

The truth is, they all deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. And they will be.

But two extraordinarily effective executives, one that founded the organization and one that took it to unbelievable heights, is a good start. Two seven-time champions that captured the hearts of untold millions of fans are certainly deserving. Likewise, there certainly is room in the Hall for one of the toughest and most talented drivers in the sport’s formative years, one that also stayed on to become one of the most successful team owners of all time.

So the Voting Committee probably got it right; and if not, they didn’t miss by much. Congratulations to the France family, the Earnhardt family, Richard Petty and Junior Johnson for adding yet another accomplishment to the sport’s great and glorious history!

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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