The Hall of Fame induction ceremony was a star-studded, emotional event that capped a month-long buildup to the inaugural class’s enshrinement. No one knew what to expect from this first foray into the process of honoring the heroes of the sport, but when it was all said and done the personal side won out. There weren’t sponsor plugs and canned speeches; there weren’t any strategically placed sponsor logos or products. The entire event was about the men and their impact to the fledgling sport that is NASCAR.
The one thing evident throughout the entire day was that these inductees were more than just exceptional at their craft; they were the foundation of the sport. Their contributions were the cornerstones that formed the base for which the sport as we know it today was constructed. The Frances and their leadership style have permeated throughout the sport since its very first days back in the late 1940s. Richard Petty, beyond his record-breaking numbers, established exactly how the drivers were to interact with the fans and the media. Junior Johnson epitomized ingenuity, and is probably responsible for 1/3 of the rulebook that the competitors follow today. And Dale Earnhardt figured out how to capitalize on his popularity, revolutionizing merchandising as a way to share himself with his legion of fans.
On top of these characteristics was the undeniable influence that these men had on most everyone who has followed them into the sport of stock car racing. Crew chiefs, owners, drivers and pit crew members all have these legends to thank for the sport and how they are involved in it today. The Pettys exemplified racing as a family sport. Lee was the patriarch, and Richard and Maurice were the sons who chose to work in their father’s industry. Dale Inman, Richard’s cousin, built more race-winning cars than anyone in the history of NASCAR. Johnson was more of a renegade when it came to family in racing, which was typical since he was a renegade in most everything he did. When asked about having family involved in his race team, he was very direct: “I never hired any family members to work on my race team. I could never control them before I went racing, I was sure I couldn’t control them racing.”
Andy Petree spent three seasons as Earnhardt’s crew chief, and he made no bones about the influence Dale had on his life. “Dale made my career,” he said. “He opened a lot of doors for me. We really clicked as a team, and those three years are the highlight of my racing career.” Petty and Earnhardt both were extremely influential in the garage area, but they dispensed their influence in very different ways. Petty is notorious for the use of his index finger. Darrell Waltrip has always maintained that Petty has the longest index finger in the world, and he would use it to get his point across. If Richard was unhappy with you, he’d come find you, poke you in the chest, and tell you what you did wrong and what you should do. In comparison, Earnhardt was not much for confrontation in the garage; he would do his speaking on the racetrack. When drivers got near him, Dale would let them know if he was happy or not with his car. He pretty much lived by the creed, “you were in my way, you weren’t going fast enough, I moved you out of the way. Get over it.” Many drivers didn’t appreciate it, but they all respected it.
Johnson made his mark in the sport by being an innovator. He is universally regarded as the man who discovered the draft. He went to Daytona with a car that was not as fast as the top drivers of the day, but noticed that when he tucked in right behind one of them when they passed him during practice that he was able to keep up with them without even having to run his car wide open. He ultimately used that knowledge to win the Great American Race. When Waltrip went to his shop to interview for a driving position, he noticed a multitude of different machines in the small race shop that he had never seen anything like before. When he asked Jeff Hammond, who had developed all of the different machines, Hammond acknowledged that they all were created by Junior. While touring the shop, Waltrip noticed a man plowing a field with a single-blade plow and a mule when he had a perfectly good new tractor sitting next to the shop. That was Johnson. He was a simple man of simple means, but he was a genius when it came to making a racecar go quickly.
The Frances, Bill Sr. and Bill Jr. both ruled NASCAR with an iron fist. All of the people who spoke of their interactions with the men recounted the famous speech that the sport was bigger than the individuals, and that it was going to be around long after the current participants were gone. Rick Hendrick recounted the real-life restaurant scene that was recreated for the Days of Thunder movie. At the time, Geoff Bodine and Earnhardt were tearing up a bunch of racecars on a weekly basis. Bill Jr. called Hendrick and told him that he and Bodine would be in Daytona at 5:00 p.m. for dinner. When Hendrick tried to make an excuse that he already had an appointment, France told him to change it. The men gathered in Bill’s office and he told Hendrick that he could go back to selling used cars, Childress could go back to doing whatever it is he did, Earnhardt could go back to working in the mill in Kannapolis, and Bodine could go back to New York and do whatever it was that he had been doing before he came down, Bill didn’t care what it was.
The bottom line was that the on-track stuff was going to stop and stop now, or they were all going to be done participating in the sport. He then said they were going to go to dinner. Earnhardt said he had an appointment and could not go. France pointed to the phone and told him to change his appointment. Then Childress and Hendrick rode to dinner with France while Earnhardt and Bodine rode together. After that meeting, there was plenty of room to run another car between the two combatants whenever they got near each other on the track.
The bottom line, this Mt. Rushmore of NASCAR that was inducted into the Hall of Fame this past weekend has had a tremendous influence on every person who has come through the sport over its 62-year history. That is why they are the first five to get inducted into the Hall, and everyone who comes after them will owe a debt of gratitude to what they did for the sport.