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NASCAR’s new Hall of Fame needs members

MIKE HARRISthe associated press
AP file photo
AP | CHARLOTTE CENTER CITY PARTNERS

Now that we know where NASCAR’s much-ballyhooed Hall of Fame is going to be built, the bigger question remains: Who will be the building blocks of its legacy?It was announced this week that the $107.5 million hall, expected to lure hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, will open by 2009 in downtown Charlotte, the heartland of the stock car sport. It beat out Atlanta and Daytona Beach in the final showdown of big plans and big dollars.But no one knows how the first class of inductees will be picked, or by whom. Whatever the process, there is going to be a debate of enormous magnitude.After all, when the Baseball Hall of Fame opened its doors in 1936, not even Babe Ruth was a unanimous choice of the baseball writers.The Bambino wasn’t even the top vote-getter of the five players in that first class: Ty Cobb was on 222 of 226 ballots, while Ruth and Honus Wagner each appeared on 215 ballots. Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson also made it into the horsehide shrine in that first vote.

Of course, things could be easier for the NASCAR voters.I mean, how could any voter fail to mark an X by the name of William Henry Getty “Big Bill” France on that first ballot?Without Bill Sr., there would be no NASCAR.The somewhat redundantly named National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing was invented in 1947 in France’s fertile mind – a way of giving the competitors a fair shake on purses and pursuing standards for racetracks.The tough-minded, hands-on France oversaw construction of Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, the two tracks that personify the sport. His family continues to run NASCAR through a benevolent dictatorship that has seen the sport expand and flourish into a behemoth with an estimated 75 million fans.

So where do you go after picking a dictator?How about a king?Richard Petty is NASCAR’s Babe Ruth, a towering figure who dominated the sport for three decades. He won 200 races, seven championships and the undying loyalty of a majority of NASCAR’s early fans.”Stock car racing wasn’t exactly a part of everybody’s household back then, especially since it wasn’t on TV a whole lot early in his career,” said son Kyle Petty. “But, everywhere we went, people knew who he was. He was The King – and he still is.”It wouldn’t be much of a first class with only two members, though.How about adding the driver who surpassed even Petty in popularity?

Dale Earnhardt came from a hardscrabble, lunchpail life to become not only stock car racing’s biggest star, but also its best salesman in the 1980s and 1990s.The Intimidator was the first driver from the Southern-based sport to earn far more from souvenir and clothing sales than from winning on the racetrack. Before his tragic end in a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt had won 76 races and matched Petty’s seven season titles.And it would be hard to leave David Pearson out of the first group of inductees. “The Silver Fox” was Richard Petty’s nemesis. Pearson only won three championships, but his 105 race wins were second only to Petty and the debate about which was the better driver raged for years.If, like baseball, the first class of inductees numbers only five, the next pick is by far the toughest.How do you choose among longtime stars like Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Neil Bonnett, Davey Allison, Donnie Allison, Buddy Baker, Harry Gant and LeeRoy Yarbrough?

Then there are some of Earnhardt’s contemporaries, driving greats like Darrell Waltrip and Benny Parsons, both now TV commentators and ambassadors for the sport. Add to that Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Bill Elliott, Tim Richmond, Alan Kulwicki, Dale Jarrett and Terry Labonte, the sport’s all-time Iron Man.We can’t forget the pioneers, like Petty’s father, Lee, the winner of the first Daytona 500 and one of NASCAR’s first real stars. Then there are more early luminaries like Red Byron, Junior Johnson, Buck Baker, brothers Tim and Fonty Flock, Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, Fred Lorenzen, Ned Jarrett, Bill Rexford, Herb Thomas, Joe Weatherly, Curtis Turner, Rex White, Tiny Lund, Bobby Isaac and Wendell Scott.Even with all the names mentioned above, somebody is going to get mad because their favorite driver wasn’t included. Think about the ruckus when that same driver is left off the first ballot.In baseball, a veterans’ committee was formed in the second year of its hall to make sure deserving old-timers made it in. Such a group will probably be a must for NASCAR’s hall, as well. Memories are sometimes short.It’s too soon to put current stars like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the ballot, but we can’t forget the great team owners, crew chiefs, car builders and series officials from the first half-century-plus of NASCAR.Don’t envy those first voters.


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