CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- At 9:25 a.m. on Sunday, the polished gold elevator doors on the second floor of the Ritz-Carlton Charlotte slide open accompanied by a small electronic chime.
During this, the morning of the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony, the mood in the hotel is more than a little uptight. Workers talk in whispers as classical music plays softly throughout the halls. Breakfast hasn't even started and already the suits and ties, minute-by-minute itineraries and general air of formality are threatening to suck the life out of a potentially magic stock car day.
All of that vanishes with a clomp -- the sound of a single black cowboy boot as it steps out of the elevator and hits the painstakingly buffed marble floor.
"How we doing guys? Big day! Big day!"
Richard Petty, dressed in a suede jacket, jeans, boots and his trademark cowboy hat and sunglasses, glides out of the elevator and into the main hallway of the Ritz-Carlton's meeting room floor. This is as formal as the King of Stock Car Racing ever gets. "Hey," he points out, fingering the left cuff of his white dress shirt, where the initials RLP are embroidered. "I do have on a button-down shirt." Then he smiles and scratches his exposed chest, "I even left some of the buttons down."
Here, during a morning that Petty openly admits is, "one of the biggest, if not the biggest, of my racing career," The King allowed us to ride along through the day of his NASCAR Hall of Fame induction. Behind closed doors and open ones, on small stages and big ones.
Even during breakfast.
9:30 a.m., Ballroom Breakfast
In the Ritz-Carlton's grand ballroom there are tables stretching from one end to the other, adorned in flowers and fine china. At one table sits the Alabama Gang, the Allisons, chatting with racer-turned-ESPN-analyst Ricky Craven. At another are NASCAR president Mike Helton and his fellow league executives, not too far from where members of the Earnhardt kids eat and laugh together.
The Pettys are seated at the front of the room (of course) and The King is playing the role of The Waiter.
Lynda, his wife of 51 years, has been battling lymphoma over the past year and is seated at the table in a wheelchair, though it must be noted that she arrived for breakfast walking. They have had a big weekend already, attending the Hall of Fame banquet on Thursday night, driving to Richmond, Va., on Friday for their granddaughter's Saturday morning high school graduation and then returning Saturday night so that Richard could serve as grand marshal for the NASCAR All-Star Race at Lowe's Motor Speedway. On Monday morning, Lynda will be back at the doctor's office to continue her treatments.
Petty has put everyone on notice that his wife's well-being, not his Hall of Fame moment, is the highest priority this weekend. "If she taps me on the shoulder and says, 'We have to go,' we go," he tells me. "I'll wave to everyone and say, 'See ya later.'"
For now, the priority is breakfast. "They've got everything you could want up there," he says of the buffet.
Looking at his plate, apparently everything he wants is bacon and watermelon.
10:02 a.m., Jacket Ceremony
After breakfast, the inductees and their families cross the hallway into Great Room I for a small, private ceremony that many will later admit is just as emotional and memorable as the official induction ceremony later.
On a tiny riser, five dark blue blazers hang from coat racks that have been fashioned from car parts. The bases are steering wheels and the pole from which each blue jacket hangs is an extended chrome piston. The blazers were made by Oxford Clothing, maker of the Masters Jacket. As it did with Masters Green, Oxford has retired the official color of NASCAR Hall of Fame Blue and will not use it in any other clothing that it makes.
On the left side of the stage hang the three jackets of the day's deceased inductees -- Dale Earnhardt, Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr. To the right are the jackets for Junior Johnson and, according to the engraving on the maple hanger, Richard "The King" Petty.
Behind closed doors and in front of a couple of dozen family members, Helton says, "It feels like a big day because it is a big day." He reminds them that the whole world will be watching, that "there will never be a class inducted into the Hall -- or any Hall -- as great as this one" and then finally asks Petty to "step up and I'll slide you into yours." In a moment, the brown suede jacket is replaced by the Hall of Fame Blue blazer.
10:12 a.m., Official Photos
The inductees cross the hallway yet again, this time to a room appropriately titled The Studio, where a makeshift photo studio has been set up to take the official NASCAR Hall of Fame photographs. The combinations are endless -- Junior with Richard, Junior with his family, Richard with his family, Richard and Junior with Helton, the Earnhardts and Frances with Richard and Junior …
During photo combos that don't require him, The King stands against the wall and out of the way. "Uh oh," he says with a wink. "Looks like we got an autograph line forming."
He's right. And it's quite a line. Rick Hendrick, NASCAR Hall of Fame executive director Winston Kelley and a few NASCAR execs are handing over their tickets for the day's ceremony and asking Petty to sign them.
In a room filled with racing royalty, there is still only one King.
Referring back to Hendrick's rough night in the All-Star Race, Petty says, "I'm surprised you're here after wrecking three of your four cars." Hendrick responds by referring to a deal that nearly came together between the two back in 1983, which would have had Petty and STP riding in a Hendrick-owned race car: "How many more championships you think you would've won if we had gotten together like we tried?"
Petty responds: "Four or five."
After Petty signs the ticket, Hendrick, who owns more NASCAR championships than any team owner in the sport's 62-year history, confides to me, "The first time I got Richard's autograph it was at Martinsville [Speedway]. I was 12 years old. I'm going to take this autograph and put it next to that one."
Kelley, not knowing what Hendrick has told me, gets Petty's signature as his wife snaps a photo, and then leans in to tell me, "I first got Richard's autograph when I was 8 years old. I'm going to put this one next to that one."
10:25 a.m., Putting on The Ritz
Photo session over, Petty turns to manager and son-in-law Brian Moffitt. "Where we gotta go now, bud?"
"To the room."
"To the room!"
Petty says he had to laugh when he walked into his suite at the Ritz-Carlton. He instantly thought back to being on the road as a teenager, working as a mechanic for his father, three-time NASCAR champion and future Hall of Famer Lee Petty. "I'd ride in the race car on top of a tow truck. Sometimes I'd just sleep up there and they'd sleep in the truck. Later it was a motel if we were lucky. A lot of times it would be an old cabin we'd rent. If we found something with a swimming pool for the kids it was like the biggest deal ever."
The Ritz-Carlton doesn't just have a pool. It has an "Aqua Lounge."
11:44 a.m., The Blue Carpet
Eight blocks away, a crowd has lined the red carpet at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, watching the black limos pull up and unload their legendary passengers. Only the carpet isn't red. It's blue. "If they'd lighten that shade up just a bit it'd be perfect," Petty jokes, referring to the trademark family race car paint hue known as Petty Blue.
The King emerges from his Chrysler Town Car (I'm told it's a coincidence, but he did win six of seven championships in Chrysler products) and acknowledges a huge round of applause with a wave. Then he goes to work, pulling Lynda's wheelchair from the trunk and getting her situated.
They walk the carpet together. He promises the fans and the media that he'll "come back and take care of you guys" after he gets his beloved wife situated. Once inside, he wheels her to the mostly empty Legends Room, located right off the Great Hall of the Hall of Fame. As his grandkids walk up to the Glory Road exhibit to admire their granddaddy's 1967 Plymouth Belvedere, a car that won 27 races in 1967, including 10 in a row, he keeps his promise and returns outside to sign autographs and do interviews.
I tell him that his greatest rival, David Pearson, has just arrived. Many, including Richard, were stunned when the Silver Fox wasn't voted in to this first Hall of Fame class back in October. He smiles. "I'm glad he's here. Maybe I'll pull him up there on stage with me today and go, 'What were y'all thinking?'"
12:22 p.m., Legends Room
After seemingly endless autographs and photo ops, Petty is finally convinced to take a break before the induction begins. He returns to the Legends Room, which by now is packed. The fans outside have paid 75 bucks to be in the big room for the day's ceremony. But to be in this room right now, they would sell their car.
The space is filled with casually chatting racing legends. Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin, barely 12 hours after competing in the All-Star Race, have all stopped by to say hello. Dale Inman, Petty's cousin and longtime crew chief, chats with driver-turned-car-owner Cotton Owens and his fellow member of the Hall of Fame voting committee, World War II hero-turned-racer Bud Moore.
Petty sits and talks with Pearson. He tells his old friend and rival that "this was all just a dress rehearsal for him getting in next year" and reveals to the Silver Fox that during this October's voting session Petty and Junior Johnson will be casting ballots as members of the Hall. "So there's two you'll get at least."
They sit and swap stories with Helton, NASCAR VP Jim Hunter, Richard Childress, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip. Waltrip, who trails only Petty and Pearson on the all-time wins list and is tied with Allison at 84 victories (Allison says he has 85), confesses, "I feel like I'm a rookie all over again coming in here. I feel like I should be getting a tongue-lashing from these guys like they used to give me when I showed up back in the 1970s."
"We used to call him an idiot, stuff like that," Petty says a few minutes later, back on the red carpet signing autographs next to Waltrip. Then he speaks a little louder, smiling and making sure DW can hear him. "We still call him that, just not to his face, you know."
2:02 p.m., Hall of Famer Richard Petty
Introduced by Inman and son Kyle, the King of Stock Car Racing finally takes to the stage just after 2 o'clock, and is greeted with the day's first standing ovation.
He thanks his parents and his wife. He asks his kids and grandkids to stand up. He thanks the France family, the fans and even the media. During the course of a four-minute, 48-second speech he uses the words "I" and "me" only in sentences that start "I want to thank …" or in the context of "I've never done anything. We as a group did a lot."
He leaves the stage to another standing ovation.
3:40 p.m., It's Official
As the ceremony ends, The King is called to the stage once again to stand with his fellow Hall of Famers and dignitaries, and to once again meet with the media. The fans who patiently sat in the back of the ballroom for nearly four hours now push to the front for photos and autographs. TV crews jump onto the stage while press photographers jockey for the best position.
In the middle of it all, Petty looks down into the crowd and locates his family, who are still in the room, smiling, all but Lynda, who wisely asked to be wheeled away by son Kyle before the crowd pushed in.
The King, in his NASCAR Hall of Fame jacket, standing next to his NASCAR Hall of Fame spire and wearing his NASCAR Hall of Fame ring, sees me in the mob below, points, and gives me the thumb-and-pinky "hang loose" sign.
"Hall of Famer! I guess its official now, huh?"
Yes sir, it is.