Commentary

The human side of the Hall of Famers

Updated: May 20, 2010, 3:28 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

I knew them. Every one of them.

And so when I look at the list of the five inaugural inductees into NASCAR's Hall of Fame, I don't think so much of their resumes -- their achievements are well-documented -- but of the real human beings.

Here are some recollections, up close and personal.

The Intimidator

It was on an April morning in 1987 that I learned what Dale Earnhardt was all about. He was driving a station wagon, and I was his only passenger, somewhere in North Carolina.

He had just hit his prime. He'd just won five of the previous seven races, including the previous three in a row, and would win a fourth straight that coming Sunday.

Trouble was, he was leaving the competition wrecked and steaming in his path -- he'd just taken out Sterling Marlin to win Bristol -- and everyone in NASCAR was furious at him.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaDale Earnhardt paid a steep price to climb to the pinnacle of his sport.

"They're all cryin'," he said, driving with his head laid back against the headrest, as if he might fall asleep any second. "They ain't ever seen the kind of rough racing I've had to do in my life, just to survive."

He thought back to 1975, when daughter Kelley was a toddler and son Dale Jr. was an infant, and "I was borrowing $500 at a time on 90-day notes from the bank, just to race.

"I had it so damn tough that year. We didn't have money to buy groceries. We should have been on welfare."

His second wife, Brenda, would stand on the steps crying when he would back out of the driveway with his dirt car on a trailer.

"My wife wanted security. We didn't have it. You can't blame a woman for wanting some security.

"And everybody I knew was saying, 'Boy, you better git you a regular job.'"

He gazed through the windshield, and for a second you could almost see mist in those cobalt eyes.

"Maybe I should have got a regular job. I might have saved a family. Racing cost me my second marriage, because of the things I took away from my family."

At one dirt race, third place paid enough money for groceries the next week, but fourth place didn't. Gene "Stick" Elliott held the third position Earnhardt needed badly.

"So going into the last lap, I got right up on old Stick's bumper and caught hold of him just right, and spun him around just as pretty as you'll ever see.

"After the race I was getting out of my car when somebody came running, and told me [a crewman] was coming with a pistol. So I ran out of the racetrack, jumped over the wall, and took off.

"The next Friday night, at [the] drivers' meeting, here comes Stick with his boys, and I think, 'Oh, hell.' Stick walks and stands beside me. He folds his arms, grins at me and says, 'You know, son, you just might make a driver yet.'"

Till the day he died in 2001, I always knew exactly where Dale Earnhardt was coming from.

Big Bill

The battleship-size Pontiac Bonneville was an apparition, flying out of nowhere into the garage area of Daytona International Speedway, screeching to a halt just outside the inspection station.

Out stepped "The Tall Man," as we called Bill France Sr. back then. He left the passenger car's engine idling and the door open, as if this was only going to take a minute.

It was 1976. NASCAR had just thrown A.J. Foyt off the Daytona 500 pole for cheating, and he was furious. For a while he'd had his arm draped around the neck of Big Bill's son, NASCAR president Bill France Jr., and there were moments I thought Foyt might throw a punch.

But now Foyt had disappeared inside the inspection station, and here came the old man, at 6-foot-5 towering over everybody else, an intimidating presence even at age 66. I'll never know why, but I'll always recall distinctly that he had a referee's whistle around his neck.

[+] EnlargeBill France, Sr and Bill France, Jr
ISC Archives/Getty ImagesFounder Bill France Sr. handed over the keys to NASCAR to son Bill France Jr. in 1972, and "Little Bill" enjoyed a nearly three-decade run.

Two years into covering NASCAR, all I'd known of the NASCAR founder was the genial side, the diplomatic side. He'd cut back his schedule in recent years, and he had time to educate a kid reporter about what he and his organization were about, giving me extensive interviews in his office.

Now I was about to see the tough side.

Technically he was retired from NASCAR, but when the going got rough, he had a way of appearing like this.

This was the biggest cheating bust to that time in NASCAR, and it remains the most explosive and notorious. Outside pole sitter Darrell Waltrip had also been nailed for cheating, and inspectors would soon toss the time of third-place Dave Marcis.

Today such a matter would draw a sea of camera crews and reporters. But that day, best I recall, there were only two sportswriters in the garage: Fred Seeley of the Jacksonville, Fla., newspaper, and me.

"Where you goin', Big Bill?" Seeley shouted as The Tall Man marched toward the door of the inspection station.

Big Bill turned and shouted, "Wallace told me to make sure these sonsabitches are legal by the time he gets here, and I'm gonna go do that." Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a friend and ally of Big Bill, was to be the grand marshal that year.

Big Bill walked into the inspection station and closed the door behind him. Within minutes, he came out with his arm around Foyt's shoulders, walking him along, with Foyt muttering, "Yessir ... yessir ... yessir," like a whipped puppy.

The crisis was over, NASCAR prevailed, and the three offenders had to requalify.

It took decades to get Foyt to tell me what had been said inside. The conversation turned out to have been very simple.

"He said, 'A.J., are you illegal?'

"I said, 'Nossir, but they are [pointing at Waltrip's car].'

"He said, 'A.J., I think you're illegal.'

"I said, 'Nossir.'"

"He said, 'A.J., I still think you're disqualified.'

"I said, 'Yessir.'"

How in the world, I asked Foyt all those years later, had Big Bill been able to stop him in his tracks where Bill France Jr. couldn't?

"Well," said Foyt, "because he was a good man."

The Leader to the Promised Land

The silver SUV came to a sudden stop as I took a jaywalking step out into the street. I was leaving the Daytona credentials office in a hurry, distracted.

The driver leaned out. It was Bill France Jr.

"A year ago," he said, "I'd have run over your ass."

That was the sign that all was well again between Billy France and me ... again.

We'd had our conflicts over the years, but we'd always recovered, made peace.

The worst time had been the year before, in 2001, when I'd written extensively about driver deaths from basilar skull fracture, and intensified the reporting after Dale Earnhardt became the fourth NASCAR fatality of that syndrome in a nine-month period.

During that time, France would refer to me as "that goddamned Hinton," one of his closest lieutenants told me.

And yet I took it as a sort of term of endearment. Our relationship was naturally adversarial because of the jobs we had to do, and yet we somehow always kept it cordial.

He delighted in keeping his publicists guessing about how he wanted me treated. One Sunday at a track he would invite me into his office and shoo the PR people away, saying, "We'll be all right," meaning he trusted me in an interview. Another Sunday he would chew out the same PR guy for not buffering our conversation at the back of the hauler.

Once, in the Martinsville press box, which is located in Turns 1 and 2 of the track so that you get sort of an end-zone view, he and I were talking, early in the race.

Suddenly, in Turn 4 and down the frontstretch, a car spun. Then another, and another. Still another, and still no caution.

NASCAR had been under fire from the media lately for throwing too many cautions, and now the officials -- apparently sensitive to our criticism -- weren't throwing one when needed.

"Why don't they throw the caution?" I asked France. "There's got to be oil down there in 4."

"Hinton, I imagine they've got a lot better view up there than you have," France said, meaning from the officials' tower directly above the start/finish line.

"But Bill," I persisted, "if you and I can see cars spinning from way over here, then surely to God they can see them from the tower!"

Checkmated, he bellowed over at a PR man to "come get this sonofabitch off of me!"

Still, nearly every race day morning, he would stand outside the NASCAR hauler as if waiting for me and/or a handful of other hardball reporters and pundits. He could growl and grouse all he wanted, but we knew he enjoyed the jousts with us.

Once, when I worked at Sports Illustrated, France led a NASCAR entourage to meet with the highest editors. I stayed home, leaving them to battle it out over how much coverage NASCAR would get in the magazine.

Later, an editor told me that as the meeting broke up, he walked out of the room with France and asked, "What do you really think of Hinton?"

France paused and said, "I think he calls 'em like he sees 'em." As he walked through the door he turned and said over his shoulder, "Even when he's wrong, I think he calls 'em like he sees 'em."

And that was the highest compliment I have ever received as a NASCAR journalist.

The Last American Hero

At a joint in Florence, S.C., near Darlington, over fried seafood and pitchers of beer in 1979, Junior Johnson leaned back and thought for a minute.

"Tell you who the next great drivers are," said the car owner for Cale Yarborough, who had just won three straight championships. "Waltrip and Earnhardt."

Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt were up and coming, for sure. But why, our gaggle of sportswriters wondered, would Junior predict greatness for them?

"Because," he said, "they're both first-class a-------."

[+] EnlargeJunior Johnson
AP PhotoJunior Johnson's moonshine-running roots make him a bit of a cult hero among the NASCAR faithful.

We laughed, but the next morning, I thought it might make a nice story to get Junior to rate the best upcoming drivers -- in language fit for the general public, of course.

In the Darlington garage area, we found Junior lying on his belly in the bed of a pickup truck.

"I was thinking of what you said about Waltrip and Earnhardt," I began. "Could you talk about them in language we can get into newspapers?"

Junior pondered. "Well ..." And he pondered some more.

"It's just, ... it's just that they both think their s--- don't stink," he said, and now you could see that tiny, mischievous smile Johnson always wore when he was pulling your leg. Steadfastly, he refused to put it in polite language.

That was, and is, Junior: plainspoken, no matter what.

And no matter who he was speaking to.

Pete Souza is now the official White House photographer for the Obama family. But I'll bet he has never been as dumbstruck at the sight of that mansion as he was at the mansion I drove him to in 1996 -- Junior's house.

North Wilkesboro Speedway would be forsaken by NASCAR after that season, and my editors at Sports Illustrated wanted a major story about NASCAR abandoning its roots.

The key figure was of course Junior Johnson, who had single-handedly built Wilkesboro's renown since driving his first race there -- barefooted -- in 1947. And Junior the old moonshine runner embodied NASCAR's very foundations.

The editors commissioned the best portrait photographer in the country, Souza, to shoot Junior.

But when we drove through the gates toward the Georgian mansion that towered over rolling pastures rife with cattle, Souza's eyes widened and his face -- well -- wilted.

I glanced at him, saw how deflated he was.

"What did you expect?" I asked. "Some guy sitting barefooted on the porch of a log cabin?"

"Well ... yeah," he said sadly.

Johnson was a millionaire many times over, but he met us wearing a denim railroad jumper and engineer's cap. He'd been doing farm work.

I introduced the two, and Junior could see that Souza was perplexed.

"C'mon," Junior said. "Y'all get in the truck."

His pickup was loaded with cattle feed, and off up into the mountain pastures we went, to feed the distant herds. On a mountaintop, overlooking Ingle Hollow where he was born and raised to make and run 'shine, Junior began tapping the truck's horn and hollering out the window: "Soooook! Soooook cows!"

The herd of red Santa Gertrudis cattle came thundering, on the dead run, straight for the truck.

Junior looked at Souza, winked, and said, "Don't you wish yo' young'uns would come runnin' like that, ever'time you called 'em?'"

Souza laughed. They were friends. But Souza never got his portrait of a barefoot hillbilly at a log cabin.

The King

By that spring Saturday in 1989, Richard Petty's career was in free fall. The 200 wins and seven championships were faded memories.

It was raining hard on Bristol, Tenn., washing out the last round of qualifying, wiping out Petty's last chance to make the field. This would be the second race he'd missed out of his last three.

[+] EnlargeRichard Petty
AP Photo/Mary Ann ChastainWith 200 wins and seven championships, Richard Petty is in a class by himself.

I found him sitting alone in a station wagon parked off to itself. You couldn't see his face. It was covered by his cowboy hat because his head was bowed.

I tapped on the window. His raised his head slowly. The sunglasses were off. He rolled down the window.

"Hate to bother you," I said.

"Then why ARE you?" he said.

But he knew I had to. Nobody in NASCAR ever understood the media's job better than Richard Petty.

"Git in," he said.

I got in, but didn't ask questions. Didn't have to. At times like these it's best to listen.

The radio was playing softly. Sports news. The big story was Pete Rose's gambling scandal.

"Pete's in a lot of trouble," Petty said. He was staring through the fogged windshield, at nothing.

The radio report concluded and Petty was silent for a long time. Finally he said, "A gambler can't quit. Can't quit when he's winning, can't quit when he's losing. ... Sort of like me."

He grinned weakly.

Another long silence. His head bowed again. He closed his eyes.

And then there came a tapping at his window. He raised his head.

Outside, drenched in the downpour, stood three little boys, maybe 10 or 11 years old, all grinning. One held a felt-tip pen that was dripping black ink in the rain. Another held some soggy pieces of paper.

Now came the transformation: The sunglasses went on, the huge and famous grin lit up, and there, in full, was the Richard Petty the public loved.

"How 'bout it, boys?" he said to them.

They stood there speechless, grinning. Finally one blurted, "Can we have your autograph?"

He glanced at their wet pen and paper, then gestured for me to let him borrow my pen and notebook. He turned to blank pages, and signed -- that flourishing, swirling signature that is like no other in all of sports. He signed three pages, tore them off, and handed one to each boy.

They were mesmerized. The bold one finally summoned something to say.

"Where'd you qualify?" he asked.

And I thought: Ouch. What's "The King" going to say?

He grinned that Petty grin, and he said, "Well -- we're workin' on it."

The delighted boys disappeared into the downpour. Richard Petty sank again into his seat, bowed his head, covered his eyes with a big hand.

The King was almost finished. But his greatness never wavered.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.