There are a lot of perks to writing for Frontstretch and one of the coolest is that you get the opportunity to attend events for free that regular fans just don’t have the chance to visit. This past weekend’s Hall of Fame Induction ceremony was one of those and it certainly lived up to the hype. NASCAR rolled out the blue carpet and the red carpet for all of the dignitaries that were in attendance, even if some of them chose not to take advantage of it.
As dignitaries arrived they stepped onto a blue carpet that led them to the front doors of the Hall of Fame. The carpet was lined on both sides with rows of adoring fans who were stretching and craning to get even a glimpse of their heroes as they walked in for the ceremony. The street in front of the Hall was blocked off from local traffic so that only the vehicles of the special invitees were allowed to drive up to the drop-off point. Once inside the Hall, the honored attendees and special guests were allowed to walk down a red carpet complete with light stanchions and support beams that had ample lighting in front of a long wall emblazoned with the Hall of Fame logo and topped by the names of the inductees for this year. Just like the Academy Awards or Emmys, the dignitaries could stop to satisfy picture requests. However, there weren’t very many people asking for pictures, and that was probably because the majority of the people who came down the red carpet were unrecognizable in the world of NASCAR.
From my position at the end of the red carpet I had hoped to get some quotes and interviews with the people as they were coming in. Unfortunately the media access that was promised was merely an opportunity with all of the other fans who were also lining the red carpet and the entrance hall. It is possible there was an area outside that I did not see but it didn’t appear as though there was a designated media area.
Another disappointment was the number of bigger names that chose to bypass the red carpet all together. From the end of the carpet I was party to the side entrance that many of the big names of the sport were using to avoid the red carpet. It was understandable Richard Petty took that route as he wheeled his wife in in a wheelchair. But Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, Richard Childress and Mark Martin all chose to use this side entrance. It was disappointing that they chose not to give the assembled masses the opportunity to at least snap a picture of them on the way in. I never did see Tony Stewart or Carl Edwards enter the ballroom so I have no idea if they came in before I arrived or took an even more secret path.
Once the hour of 1:00 neared everyone proceeded into the ballroom for the ceremony. It is a cavernous space with a huge stage that had a replica of the ribbon that is prominent on the outside of the Hall. It had large video screens on either side that afforded a great view of the proceedings in addition to seeing them live on the stage. There were television cameras all around the ballroom and the rows of chairs were each adorned by a program for the induction ceremony. The program was emceed by Mike Joy and had videos for every driver. Each inductee had an introduction prior to their video and then a person who officially inducted them into the Hall of Fame.
As they were inducted, each person was given a ring with a blue sapphire and diamonds to commemorate their induction into the Hall of Fame. There was also a spire on stage that has the likeness of the individual, their autograph, appropriate dates, a synopsis of accomplishments and then a relief of the person that will afford younger visitors to the Hall of opportunity to make a rub of their likeness they can take home with them. Those spires will forever be housed in the Hall of Honor which is located at the top of Glory Road in the main atrium of the Hall.
The ceremony itself held many very emotional moments that thankfully didn’t involve a single sponsor plug. As Darrell Waltrip introduced Junior Johnson’s video and his son Robert to induct him, it was refreshing to hear no mention of FOX, Budweiser, Mountain Dew or Digger. Dale Inman, the longtime crew chief for Petty and one of the roughest exterior gentlemen you’ll ever meet was nearly brought to tears as he spoke about Petty. The Earnhardt family, Teresa and all four of Dale’s children, finished off the ceremony with the induction of their father, the final of the five members being inducted. It was a truly emotional moment as each of them detailed the different aspect of their father’s life that was most intimately shared with them. From Dale Junior’s sharing of time at the track to Taylor Nicole’s days spent in the woods hunting, it was very touching to hear of the side of the man away from the track. It was hard for everyone to hold back the tears at that point.
After the ceremony was concluded, the people most intimately involved with the activities were paraded through the media room for interviews and the opportunity to share their opinions of what had just occurred. It was touching that Rick Hendrick and Childress shared the fact that they had both dealt with tragic loss in their lives and how it had affected their experience in the sport and the day of the induction ceremony. It is certainly hard to imagine how difficult it is for Childress on a daily basis. Every day he goes to work and every time he’s at the track or in the woods or fields hunting, he has to be constantly reminded of Dale Earnhardt. Their lives were so inextricably intertwined that there cannot possibly be a day that goes by when Richard isn’t reminded of the loss of his best friend. This was just another very vivid day for him and fortunately he was able to celebrate Dale’s achievements without having to dwell on his loss.
Petty and Junior Johnson came through together and spoke fondly of the old days. It is very enjoyable to listen to how things were when they were racing. At that time, racing did put money in the bank and food on the table, but it didn’t put the volumes of money in their pockets like it does for drivers and owners today. It made us all remember why we loved racing when we first started following it. Racing was about being better than the rest of the cars on the track. For one day, for one race, you made your car the best and drove it better than everyone else. You were able to beat them while racing within the rules, or at least the gray areas of the rules, and take home the trophy and kiss the trophy girl. You didn’t take home enough money to buy a posh house for winning, but you did make enough to pay the bills and buy some upgrades to your equipment or give the guys on the crew a little bonus for once. Racing was about racing and nothing else. You weren’t beholden to a sponsor and making sure you mentioned every last name on the car when you got to victory lane, you just smiled for the camera and then headed home to start working on the car for the next week, or a few nights later when the series was actually running multiple races each week.
It was also refreshing to hear Petty acknowledge that the media played a very important part in making the sport what it became. Back then there was no television, so the handful of reporters who followed the series around were the only people getting the word out to the fans. There were six or seven gentlemen who followed the races and put their articles out to whomever wanted to print them. If it weren’t for those loyal writers, the fans wouldn’t know what happened and the track and would never develop the loyalty to their favorite driver or the sport. Richard very adeptly knew that it was in his best interest to work with the media and allow them to tell the story properly so the fans were able to know what was happening after every race.
Once the media opportunities were done, it was time to head home. As I packed up I walked out into the hall and caught up with Junior Johnson and the Petty entourage and walked with them as they were heading out. I was lucky enough to walk down the red carpet with them; even though there wasn’t anyone lining the route, it was still a very special experience for me. We turned and headed through a door to the Hall of Fame and walked into the Hall of Honor. I was privileged to see the displays that have been covered since the Hall was opened. Bill France Jr.’s desk, Bill France Sr.’s racecar, Petty and Earnhardt’s most familiar paint schemed cars and one of Junior Johnson’s more famous rides. It was a special experience standing next to Richard and Junior as they admired the displays. I won’t bother mentioning that I was then escorted out of the Hall of Honor because, although I didn’t realize it, this time was for the inductees and their families and the area would be opened later for everyone else.
It was a very memorable day that will be etched in my mind until the day I die. Spending time reminiscing about the most important and influential men in the first 50 years of the sport. Actually spending time and talking to the two living members of the inaugural class who have been referred to as the Mt. Rushmore of the sport. There is no doubt the Hall of Fame is a fabulous place and has been a long time coming, and is going to be revered for years as the place where the best of the best are housed for eternity.
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