Starting Five

First ballot lock. Getty Images

Two or three times a week, I drive by the construction site where the NASCAR Hall of Fame and the adjoining NASCAR office tower inch their way up from red clay beneath downtown Charlotte.

And every day my wife shouts at me to stop staring and pay attention to the road.

But I can't help staring. It's just so cool.

For any racing junky, especially one obsessed with old school stock car racing like I am, the magic taking place in the southeastern corner of the Queen City is one of the most exciting ideas in recent memory. Back when I worked for the league, I was one of the first people allowed to pore over the architectural plans and did so to the point that they had to be taken away from me. The museum is going to be cutting edge. The office tower is going to be top notch. Even the convention and banquet facilities will be off the chain.

But in the end, the sparkling silver show palace won't be built on bedrock, mud, steel or even the many millions that have been pledged to fund it all.

The foundation on which the Hall is built will be five names. That is precisely why the inaugural class of inductees must be chosen quickly, carefully and without the decaying and destructive influence of politics or emotion.

In 1936, the newly-founded National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York didn't yet have a building, but already understood fully the importance of the statement that would be made when its first class was announced.

The Baseball Writers Association of America voted five men into that first class, and their credentials were, and still are, indisputable. Ty Cobb was the greatest hitter who'd ever played. Christy Matthewson was the winningest pitcher in National League history. Honus Wagner was the greatest infielder. Walter Johnson was the most feared pitcher. And Babe Ruth was the greatest home-run hitter and greatest box office draw of all-time.

Nearly 200 players have been voted in since, but the "First Five," as they are known in Cooperstown, have their plaques separated from the rest, greeting visitors to the church-like gallery as if to say "Welcome to OUR Hall of Fame." Even the Baseball Hall of Fame's logo pays tribute to the First Five with five white stars against a field of blue separating the words "National" and "Baseball".

That's big time, folks.

Of course, there were people who had their feelings hurt. Cy Young and his 511 wins were left out of the first group, as were Nap Lajoie (not Randy), Rogers Hornsby and the great manager John McGraw.

Eventually all of the snubbed were enshrined, some after their death. Even now, there are still arguments about who was left out. But looking back, the first class was exactly who it should have been. Ty, Big Six, Honus, Big Train and The Babe.

And that's why NASCAR's version of the First Five is just as important.

As the NASCAR Hall of Fame forms its selection committee (it has chosen to go with a Pro Football Hall of Fame-ish mix of racers, executives and media types instead of leaving it up to the loosely-organized band of NASCAR writers), the debate has already begun over a class that won't be inducted for at least another year.

Some say the class should be larger so that no one is left out or so there will be a heartier display during the first year that the Hall is open to the public.

Others claim that special consideration should be given to those who are of very advanced ages or ill health, people that are in danger of passing away before they are enshrined in future classes. This argument has grown louder ever since pioneer owner Raymond Parks made an appearance at the Atlanta Motor Speedway two weeks ago to hand over his collection of trophies and awards from the 1940's, including the inaugural NASCAR championship trophy of 1949. Parks is so old that 71-year-old Richard Petty calls him "Mr. Parks." But as much as it pains me to say it, while Mr. Parks is a no-brainer for future induction to the Hall, he's not worthy of the First Five.

And neither is NASCAR founder Bill France Senior. There will be plenty of Big Bill on display in the adjacent museum for visiting fans to appreciate his importance to the sport. But executives, car owners, mechanics and media members should be elected by their own committees during selected years, just as owners, umpires, 19th century ballplayers, Negro Leaguers and the like get their due separately in Cooperstown, some during specified years.

NASCAR's First Five should be all about drivers. No one ever bought a ticket to watch a crew chief, a tire changer or track promoter. They come to see the stars, and that's what NASCAR's inaugural Hall of Fame class should be about.

All of the above is why I believe that our First Five are a no-brainers.

Lee Petty, Junior Johnson, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty. The sport's first superstar, the Last American Hero, The Silver Fox, The Intimidator and The King.

It is a class that begins with the very first NASCAR Strictly Stock race in 1949, where Lee Petty finished 17th at the Charlotte Fairgrounds, and runs clear through to the race we'll run this weekend at Bristol, where Richard Petty's famous 43 will be driven by wunderkind Reed Sorenson.

It includes the most prolific winners of each of NASCAR's first five full decades and totals nearly 500 race wins. It also represents 11 Daytona 500 victories, 20 Cup Series titles (26 if you include Johnson's Cups as a team owner), the greatest rivalry in the history of the sport (Richard Petty vs. David Pearson) and the two most popular drivers in the history of American motorsports (Petty and Earnhardt).

It even includes a couple of moonshine-running bootleggers.

Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Red Byron, Fireball Roberts, Ned Jarrett and, yes, the France family, will each have their day in the sun. But they are all merely legends, not icons. The First Five should be about icons.

Sure, it will hurt some feelings and take a chunk out of some egos, just as it did for Cy Young in '36. But that's not what this is about. It's about those first five plaques hanging on that first wall in the Great Hall, greeting fans that come in search of the true foundation of the sport.

Welcome to OUR Hall of Fame.