Commentary

First Hall induction delivered goods

Updated: November 16, 2010, 2:39 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A fan wearing a camouflage cap with a No. 3 on the front and a white and blue shirt with a huge No. 3 on the front stood outside the ballroom where Sunday's inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony had just concluded.

He debated buying a ticket for the event, realizing it would last several hours and he was going to be tired from a late night attending the All-Star race at nearby Charlotte Motor Speedway.

"I just told my wife I'm so glad we spent the money," the fan said.

The media didn't have to buy a ticket, but this reporter had some of the same reservations as the fan. After what seemed like two years of news conferences and events leading up to this moment, then a very late night at the track, the ceremony seemed anticlimactic. A part of this body didn't want to get out of bed to come.

Like the Dale Earnhardt fan, it was more than worth the effort.

It was an emotional day, one filled with great stories, great memories and special moments as Bill France Sr., Bill France Jr., Earnhardt, Richard Petty and Junior Johnson became what was called the sport's "Mt. Rushmore." There was no talk about when Dale Earnhardt Jr. would win a race, no woe-is-me about the economy and no bombardment of sponsors as most NASCAR events turn into.

It was raw.

It was unexpected.

Dale Inman, whose eight championships as a crew chief -- seven with Petty -- could get him into the second Hall class, summed it up best afterward.

"It was kind of like being in a church play when you was young or a high school play," said the man who helped introduced Petty. "You didn't know what was going on because it's been going on for a couple of weeks, you know? And then finally when they put it all together, it was great.

[+] EnlargeJunior Johnson
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonJunior Johnson, left, and his son, Robert Glenn Johnson III, shared a genuinely touching moment during the NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

"It kept my attention a lot more than I thought."

He wasn't alone.

Some of us came expecting the type of scripted event seen each year at the season-ending banquet, where presenters read from teleprompters and sound less than genuine.

Instead we got touching moments, such as when 16-year-old Robert Glenn Johnson III called his father a "Hall of Fame dad" and then when Junior Johnson returned the HOF ring he was presented back to his son.

We got uncensored moments, such as when team owner Richard Childress told what Earnhardt Sr. once said when somebody complained that the speeds were too fast at Talladega.

"He said, 'If you're afraid to go fast, stay the hell home. Don't come here and grumble about going too fast. Dip rags in kerosene around your ankles so the ants won't jump up and bite your candy ass,'" Childress said. "That was a classic Dale Earnhardt."

We got funny moments, such as when Kyle Petty told how his father came home at lunch most days and slept on the living room floor for three or so hours before going back to work. "I never found that strange until you look at his career and you think the man won 200 races and seven Daytona 500s, seven championship working half days, OK?" Kyle said.

We got spontaneous moments, such as when the fan shouted "WHOOOO" as NASCAR president Mike Helton said Earnhardt as a "working man's hero."

We got unforgettable moments, such as when Teresa Earnhardt took the stage with daughter Taylor and stepchildren Dale Jr., Kelley and Kerry, and when each told what their father meant to them.

You don't see that every day.

You don't see much of everything we saw on most days around a sport that has become as much or more about the almighty dollar as winning.

"Everybody didn't worry about the commercial side of things," said Brian France, who was here to honor his father and grandfather instead of being the current chairman of the sport. "They worried about the achievements and the personalities."

More importantly, they didn't worry at all. They simply spoke from the heart.

"The difference between this and the banquet is at the banquet you've got one person that won the championship and you've got a lot of people sitting there wanting to win the championship," said team owner Rick Hendrick, who introduced France Jr. "So you've got one happy champion and everybody else is motivated to go whip him.

[+] EnlargeRichard Petty
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeRichard Petty said he finally realized getting in the Hall is a big deal.

"Today, everybody was on the same team. Everybody was here celebrating our sport and recognizing everybody was on the same team. There was nobody disappointed they weren't winning or getting the championship trophy. We all won today."

NASCAR won on this day. It has a home for its history just like other major sports. As Richard Petty said, "Now we're as big league as anybody."

Petty didn't expect this day to be what it became, either. As Kyle said last week, "The King" was in PR mode when it came to the Hall. The emotion of being one of the original five didn't seem like a big deal.

"It hit me today, it's really, really a big deal," Richard said.

Sunday was a big deal. It made people with heavy eyelids and sore feet from a long week get lost in the history of the sport, how far it has come since the moonshining days of Johnson.

It touched Darrell Waltrip to the point he questioned all the times he's been critical about the sport and the governing body, which Brian France didn't let go by without asking for a tape for future reference.

"Today was a humbling experience," Waltrip said. "Today brought it all too clear to me … that it's all about us. It's not about one of us. It's about Rick, Richard, any of the five that got in today. It's all of us that have helped NASCAR build something as big as this is.

"And this is big."

And there were a lot of big moments, but maybe none much bigger than "The King" closing his speech by saying, "I guess I'm going to do like Gomer Pyle. I'm just going to say, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you.'"

No, thank you.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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