CHARLOTTE — NASCAR founder Bill
France Sr. headlined the five inductees into the first Hall of Fame
class, a group that drew mixed reactions to the inclusion of France's
son instead of driver David Pearson.
France, who formed the National Association of
Stock Car Racing in 1947, was the first inductee announced Wednesday in
a ceremony that followed a lengthy voting session at the Charlotte
Richard Petty, the seven-time Cup champion and
NASCAR's all-time wins leader, was the second inductee revealed by
current NASCAR chairman Brian France, who received the five envelopes
one at a time from an independent accounting firm.
Next up was Bill France Jr., son of the NASCAR
founder who spent nearly 30 years at the helm of America's top
motor sports series.
"When I seen the two Frances was in, I knew I didn't have a chance," Pearson said moments after the ceremony ended.
The final two nods instead went to Dale
Earnhardt, NASCAR's other seven-time champion, and Junior Johnson, a
former driver and car owner whose early days of running moonshine
through backroads of North Carolina stands as a symbol of NASCAR's
Pearson's exclusion surprised many, including Petty.
Ushered into the ballroom moments after the
inductees were announced, the King had to be told who had been selected
with him for next May's induction ceremony.
"That wouldn't have been my pick," he said.
Decided upon by a panel of 50 NASCAR
executives, journalists, former participants and one combined fan vote
from NASCAR's official Web site, the voters had a list of 25 nominees
to consider. Petty, who was not on the panel, said he made his own list
and had Pearson as his top pick.
"Anybody that won 105 races and didn't make the cut — somebody ain't adding right," Petty said of Pearson.
Known as the "Silver Fox," Pearson ranked
second only to Petty's 200 victories on NASCAR's all-time win list. The
three-time Cup champion had a winning percentage of 18.2 percent in a
career that spanned 27 years — but never a complete season.
Had he ever run a full schedule, many believed he could have challenged Petty's marks.
It was hard to tell if Pearson felt snubbed.
He spoke for less than a minute after the ceremony, citing the need to
get fellow nominee Cotton Owens home to his ailing wife.
"The same people don't like everybody,"
Pearson said. "So there got to be some people voting for other people.
If they don't like me, they're going to vote for somebody else anyway,
so that's all right. I'm happy."
The differing opinions created a strange
dynamic through the convention center, where the voters gathered
earlier Wednesday to debate the nominees before a secret ballot. As
many of NASCAR's pioneers discussed the selections, six women clad in
black dresses, dark sunglasses and fake Earnhardt-like mustaches
distributed invitations to a celebratory reception hosted by
Earnhardt's widow, Teresa.
Some of the voters lingered and described an
emotional two-plus-hour meeting that was moderated by NASCAR spokesman
Jim Hunter. A presentation was made for each of the 25 nominees, and
then the floor was opened for discussion.
"It was a meeting like I've never been in in
racing, because I think everybody wanted to do the right thing and I
think NASCAR was really nervous about the two Frances getting in," said
voter Humpy Wheeler, longtime motor sports executive.
"There was definitely a division there of
people who felt 'Hey, lets get the guys in that started this thing
first, and then we'll move on from there.' That was argued about."
France Sr., widely known as "Big Bill," began
as a promoter of beach racing in Daytona Beach, Fla., until he gathered
several principals at the Streamline Hotel to form a governing body
that became NASCAR.
Regarded as one of the most influential
figures in the history of American motor sports, he ruled with an iron
first from NASCAR's first race in 1949 until his 1972 retirement, when
he handed control over to his son, Bill Jr.
"Billy" France led NASCAR through a period of
extreme growth and was at the helm as the sport began to push past its
Southern roots to become a national series. He held the top role until
2000, when he handed control to current president Mike Helton as he
But France Jr. stayed on top of the family
business as chairman of a newly created board of directors, a position
he held until turning leadership over to his son, Brian, in 2003.
"There was a lot of discussion about having
two France family members in the same year," Brian France admitted
after, "so I was surprised, but very, very proud. Look, all the
inductees easily could have made first ballot, but I also know how hard
my father and grandfather worked. They poured their whole heart into
this sport. It's a proud day for the France family."
NASCAR did not release the voting totals and
said the order in which they were announced did not reflect the
results. NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said Pearson, Cale Yarborough
and Bobby Allison were the next three highest vote getters but did not
reveal in what order.
Still, there was a sense that the final slot
was a close vote between France Jr. and Pearson, and that the pre-vote
meeting definitely factored into the selections.
"The mood of the room clearly shifted a
couple times," said Landmark Newspapers reporter Dustin Long, the
president of the National Motorsports Press Association. "It was very
dramatic shifts, and it dealt with the France family."
There was still some celebrating.
Teresa Earnhardt made a rare public
appearance, and invited almost everyone in attendance to a reception to
celebrate her husband, who was killed in an accident on the last lap of
the 2001 Daytona 500.
"Everyone who knew him respected him," she
said. "I can't imagine how difficult it was to choose five. It's such
an honor to narrow it down and include him."
Earnhardt's children did not attend the
announcement but released a statement later that included reaction from
Earnhardt's mother, brother, sister, and two of his four children.
"He was the man, plain and simple," said Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Johnson, meanwhile, didn't attend the
announcement after serving on the voter panel. Winner of 50 races as a
driver, and another 132 and six championships as a car owner, he said
in a statement his inclusion left him speechless.
"I'll tell you, this is a big, big deal to me," he said. "It's the greatest thing that's happened to me in this sport."
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