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Nate Ryan, USA Today


NASCAR HALL TAPS EARNHARDT, FRANCES, PETTY, JUNIOR JOHNSON

CHARLOTTE – There might not be a unanimous choice for NASCAR's inaugural Hall of Fame, which seems appropriate because the only member who might have been unanimous didn't agree with his selection.

"I just felt the whole deal ought to been a little more on the older side, even though I'm old, more on the guys who were in on the building the foundation," said seven-time champion Richard Petty, one of five men inducted into the new stock-car shrine, which will open in May 2010 with its first induction ceremony. "There was bunch of guys. .. if they hadn't went and sacrificed, then Richard Petty would never have been able to accomplish what he accomplished because there wouldn't have been nothing there."

The first group, which was determined by a 50-member voting committee of NASCAR officials, drivers, industry executives and media along with an online fan vote, did salute two of the sport's late pioneers: Bill France, who founded NASCAR and ruled from 1948 to 1971; and Bill France Jr., who took over from his father as president from 1972 to 2003.

Other selections were Dale Earnhardt and Junior Johnson, who won 50 races as a driver and six championship as a car owner but is perhaps best known for a 1965 Esquire story, "The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson” by Tom Wolfe.

"This is a big, big deal to me," Johnson said. "It's the greatest thing that's happened to me in this sport. I'm almost speechless to say that I am going into the Hall of Fame. You just don't know how it feels to be one of the five people selected to go into this first class. It's so big; it's so honorable."

Said Teresa Earnhardt, widow of the seven-time champion killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500: "It's the achievement of a lifetime, as much as we're proud, he would be as well. He would have taken it to heart very much, especially the fans. He appreciated the fans so much."

NASCAR didn't release vote totals, but an informal survey of voters revealed the Frances, Johnson and Earnhardt were missing from at least one ballot. During a closed-door discussion before a secret ballot, some voters didn't want to include more than one France. Chairman Brian France was surprised both were selected, "but I also know how hard my father and grandfather worked. They poured their whole heart into this sport. It's a proud day for the France family."

During the earlier meeting, France admitted Bill France Jr. would have preferred a driver be elected instead of him, saying "the guiding principle of my father was the actors on the stage are what's important." France paused and smiled, adding, "If there were a hot dog hall of fame, he'd get all five votes."

Petty said David Pearson (three championships and 105 wins, second all time to Petty's 200) was his first choice. "Anybody who won 105 races and didn't make the cut, somebody ain't adding right," said Petty, who also would have voted for the Frances, his father, Lee Petty, and a fifth driver ahead of himself.

Pearson, a South Carolina native known as "The Silver Fox," said he wasn't disappointed to attend without being honored at the announcement, which was held in a ballroom of the Charlotte convention center adjacent to the new (and still under construction) hall of fame.

"If they don't like me, they're going to vote for somebody else anyway, so that's all right," he said. "I always heard that they wanted Junior. Of course, you know that Earnhardt and Petty are going, no doubt. When I seen the two Frances went in, I knew I didn't have a chance."

NASCAR executive vice president of corporate communications Jim Hunter said NASCAR considered creating separate classes for drivers, car owners, crew chiefs and track officials but decided the voting process should be "under one umbrella" to be more reflective of its history.

"It's very difficult when you have 25 nominees who are all deserving and it comes down to picking five, it's not easy," said Hunter, a South Carolina native who admitted Pearson ("he won the only three years he ran for the championship. Pretty astounding.") would have been on his list. "This is a very representative class."

The top three vote-getters who didn't make the top five were three drivers: Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison. The top five in fan voting (in no particular order) were Allison, Earnhardt, France, Petty and Yarborough.

H.A. “Humpy Wheeler,” a longtime track promoter and now a racing consultant, said he changed his vote as a result of the spirited morning discussion, which centered on whether inductees should be considered by their achievements or their contributions.

"The controversial deal was both Frances getting in," said Wheeler, who voted for the four inductees, along with Pearson instead of France Jr. "There's a lot of sentiment both for and against that. I think it was a fair vote. I think NASCAR really did a good job of saying 'we want this done in a good, upright way.'"

The choice was difficult even for voters, such as Toyota Racing Development president Lee White, who correctly selected the five.

"I would bet everyone's vote probably changed two or three times this morning," White said. "At one point, I was wavering and thinking it'd be great for Bill France Jr. to have his own class next year. Then it was like, 'Sorry, I can't go there.' No one can make an argument that none of us would be here if not for Bill France Sr. and certainly none of us would be doing what we're doing today on a global basis if not for Bill France Jr. I wouldn't be here.

"It's going to make this quite interesting over the next four or five years to see if we go back to dip into the founders, or more toward the big picture. This is a good sampling of the complete history and biggest achievers in the sport."

Next year's panel again will select five from a list of 25 nominees, and the 20 who from this year's ballot who weren't selected won't be automatic choices. A nominating panel will select a new list of 25.

During the panel discussion, several names — including crew chief Dale Inman, Darlington founder Harold Brasington, broadcaster Ken Squier and more crew chiefs — were tossed out for consideration.

That would have pleased Richard Petty, who isn't a voter.

"Brasington built Darlington in 1950 when they hadn't run but 10 or 12 Cup races," Petty said. "You think he didn't gamble on that? Without him, we might not have had superspeedways today. Those are the people I think maybe should have been looked at a little bit harder.

"Some of us that made it have been in the limelight 15 to 20 years. What about those guys in the limelight 50 to 60 years ago (who) really made it all happen?

"I hope in the future that they don't just consider drivers. I hope they consider some of the guys who really made it happen for the drivers who did get in."

The Hall of Fame is scheduled to open May 11, 2010. The five inaugural members will be officially inducted May 23, 2010.