Honoring the Greats

by Monte Dutton

CHARLOTTE, NC — In future years, the NASCAR Hall of Fame will choose five inductees a year, guaranteeing that its shrine will always be exclusive.

There is, however, only one inaugural’class… and only one inaugural induction.

“You get to focus on five people every year, and they get their due,” said executive director Winston Kelley. “It could’ve been four, and it could’ve been six. Some people said, ‘You need a bunch of people in there,’ but I didn’t like that concept and gave my feedback to NASCAR.”

The first induction class consisted of two men, father and son, instrumental in the organization and growth of NASCAR. It included the driver with the most wins, the two with the most championships and one whose fame stretches from driving race cars to building and owning them.

Richard Petty won 200 races at NASCAR’s top level, now known as Sprint Cup. He and Dale Earnhardt each won a record seven championships. Junior Johnson may be the most legendary figure of them all. William HG (Big Bill) France founded NASCAR, and his son, William C. (Bill Jr.) France, took stock-car racing into the American sporting mainstream.

Only Petty and Johnson lived to see the induction, which took place on May 23.

Even at the dawn of NASCAR — an organizational meeting on Dec. 14, 1947 in a Daytona

Beach, Fla., hotel — no one but Big Bill France saw stock-car racing’s possibilities.

Bill France Jr. was underestimated when he took over NASCAR from his father, but how could he have avoided it? He had a father who was larger than life. Though he lacked his father’s vision, he inherited toughness and ambition.

A record 200 victories do not account completely for Richard Petty’s legacy. His personality is central to the sport. One other man equaled the King’s record seven championships, but no one is going to eclipse the 200 victories, or, for that matter, the 27 races he won in a single season (1967).

No race driver was ever tougher than Dale Earnhardt. No one was ever better at closing a deal or doing what it took to win. The presence of Earnhardt’s No. 3 was enough to make most drivers make mistakes, hence the apt nickname the Intimidator. Like Petty, he won seven titles.

Junior Johnson is a living, breathing embodiment of NASCAR’s history. He migrated from the highways, where he “ran moonshine,” to the dirt tracks and then the superspeedways. He was among the greatest as driver, mechanic and owner.

Monte Dutton has covered motorsports for The Gaston (NC) Gazette since 1993. He was named writer of the year by the National Motorsports Press Association in 2008. His blog NASCAR This Week ( features all of his reporting on racing, roots music and life on the road. E-mail Monte at nascar_thisweek@yahoo. com. ‘ 2010 King Features Syndicate

Living legends Richard Petty, left, and Junior Johnson were inducted into the first NASCAR Hall of Fame, along with the late William H.G. France, William C. France and Dale Earnhart. (John Clark/NASCAR This Week photo)