“It’s bigger than you. It’s bigger than me.”
These words, or words nearly like them were delivered by Bill France Jr. to many a racer who had, in one way or another, raised his ire; and now, six decades into the sport that France’s father, Bill Sr., conceived in Daytona Beach, his words are still truth. The sport is bigger than Bill France Sr. would have ever imagined, bigger even than Bill Jr. envisioned when he enticed Winston to sign on to sponsor the top series. And for any person who is a piece of that “bigger thing” now, that something more is a lucky person indeed.
We all got a reminder of that on Sunday.
NASCAR’s new Hall of Fame inducted its first five members: Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr., Richard Petty, Junior Johnson and Dale Earnhardt. Appropriately, all five will be remembered for their accomplishments in the sport, but more importantly for what they gave back to it. The induction ceremony brought back into focus five men who were heroes, family men, and, at the crux of it all, racers.
Ask any racer – driver, car owner, crewman how they want most to be remembered by and it’s that one word – racer – spoken by their peers that means the most. And on Sunday, the Hall inducted five racers:
Bill France Sr. moved his family to Daytona Beach, Fla. with little more than a wing and a prayer, and what he saw there, and throughout the South, stayed with him. There were racetracks, each playing by a different set of rules, and often with unscrupulous promoters who would take the money and run, literally, so that the racers went home empty-handed, often with a crumpled car (often IN that crumpled car) to show for their efforts. So “Big Bill” France set out to change that, to make a sport that would do right by its competitors: a sport with one set of rules, prizes that didn’t disappear with the shady promoter and perhaps most importantly, safety standards.
And it wasn’t just the drivers; Bill France did right by the fans, too. He oversaw the construction of tracks with grandstands that afforded a view of the entire race. He encouraged the accessibility that would still set the sport apart decades later. Keeping the fans happy kept them coming, and keeping the fans coming meant he could offer more attractive purses to bring in the best drivers to put on a better show, a full-circle boost of momentum that benefited everyone. It was that cycle of mutual benefit, coupled with an iron-fisted rule that allowed for no argument that carried the sport forward to a point where it was poised to become everything he had envisioned during those early days at the Streamline Hotel. Without that vision, American motorsports would not be the same. This once-young man correctly foresaw a way to make racing into a business at the right time – and to do right by people in the process.
Petty drove onto the scene of a young sport looking for a hero, and installed himself in that role. It wasn’t just the driving, it wasn’t the record numbers of wins and championships that piled up everywhere: it was Petty himself, with that beguiling grin and unfailing devotion to the fans. He was often known to be the last person to leave the racetrack, even if his race ended early, because he wanted the fans to go home happy. As his son Kyle pointed out as he inducted his father, Richard Petty was a race fan. No matter how successful he became, he remained a fan, and as a result became the greatest ambassador of the sport even as he also became its greatest driver.
Bill France Jr. took the reins in 1972 and ushered the sport into a sustainable modern era. His work brought NASCAR to the masses without alienating the first loyal fans who have come to watch the races his father had laid out. Like his father, he ruled with absolute control, his word law. He commanded the respect of the entire garage, and because of his bold moves, the sport grew to the height of its popularity – still while remembering where it had grown from in the first place. Through the art of television genius and small changes that always seemed to work, he made a regional sport national, casual fans lifelong loyalists, and competitors his friends as long as they played by his rules – a personality trait embedded within him by his father.
Johnson epitomizes NASCAR’s roots: a sport born of desperation – desperation to outrun the law, desperation to prove oneself, and desperation to feed one’s family all in the same thought. He ran races and he ran ‘shine, too. Dubbed “the last American Hero,” Johnson lived up to that name. A bulldog on the track, he was a genius off of it, creatively engineering cars that pushed every limit of probability – and the rules. Engines and racecars built under Johnson’s hand lasted longer and went faster than should have been possible. He never would commit to a full season as a driver, but his 50 wins stand as the benchmark for greatness in the sport to this day, and few measure up. As a car owner, he won races and championships with Cale Yarborough (whose record of three titles in a row was long considered untouchable) and Darrell Waltrip, who established himself as one of the greatest drivers the sport has seen under Johnson’s tutelage. At 79, he’s still building cars today for his son Robert to race.
Earnhardt sometimes seemed larger than life. He was a polarizing figure; fans loved him or they hated him, and there was no middle ground. There was no middle ground for Earnhardt on the track, either: if you were in his way, you either got out of it or he got you out of it. Early in his career, his strategy was to aim for the front, and then go there as fast as possible. Later on, that changed; he’d pick off competitors one by one looking like some kind of big cat – cold and methodical. But if you stood between that black No. 3 and the finish line, you had better hang on for the ride. He hounded the competition, intimidating them in the way that lent him his most famous nickname, and never apologized. Yet despite that on-track persona, he remembered his fans, especially children. He sat up all night with a homesick friend of daughter Taylor’s on a boating trip. When his son went to victory lane for the first time, the man once nicknamed the Intimidator melted as he told Dale Jr. he loved him. Earnhardt became legend because he was the piece of every man that most men wouldn’t ever be lucky enough to be. He never pretended to be someone he wasn’t; and what he was reverberates in the sport 10 years after his untimely death.
Sunday’s induction ceremony served as a reminder of where NASCAR came from and the competitors who made it. The room was charged with a kind of emotional electricity as each inductee was introduced by friends and by video. Family members accepted the rings of the honorees who didn’t live to see the Hall of Fame come to fruition as a place where dreams aren’t made, but rather remembered and remade. It was a shining moment for NASCAR – the feeling in the room swelled and grew with each memory and each spire that was unveiled. It was a day for the ages, a day about the ages.
The festivities also included some of the brightest stars in racing today, and that was appropriate as well. For one day some of these men, like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, will be talked about in the same reverent tones as they receive their rings and their place among the sport’s immortals. In a way, the ceremony was about the sport’s future as well as its past – the lessons of the past serving as a reminder of how NASCAR rose above all expectations because of the men and women intimately involved at its core. It was a sport for the masses, one that embraced all and invited anyone and everyone along for the ride; the more the merrier, and the new didn’t outweigh the old. The lessons learned from the five men inducted into the Hall Sunday gave a feeling of not only nostalgia, but of promise – for years from now, we’ll still be honoring the greats of a sport for the ages.
It’s bigger than any one man. It’s bigger than us all.
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