Last week NASCAR announced the 25 nominees for its inaugural class of Hall of Fame inductees, who will be enshrined next year in Charlotte. The five-man class will be chosen by a panel of experts and a fan vote, and three are no-brainers: Bill France Sr., Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
France assembled more than two dozen racers and promoters in a smoke-filled hotel lounge in 1947 to create NASCAR. In a masterstroke he convinced the others that the organization would be best run as a de facto dictatorship with—you guessed it—himself as the dictator. It might seem Machiavellian, but Big Bill was just what the sport needed in its formative years: a forward-thinking man who recognized stock car racing's everyman appeal (his home number was listed in the phone book, even after the sport took off) while being strong enough to protect NASCAR's interests. ("I have a pistol, and I know how to use it," he said when Teamsters tried to unionize his drivers in the 1960s.)
Petty and Earnhardt won seven championships apiece, three more than anyone else. And though their personalities contrasted—Earnhardt tended to attract a more raffish element—each had a long run as NASCAR's most popular driver.
While not as visible as the King or the Intimidator, David Pearson was just as skilled. Preternaturally cool and calm (he occasionally smoked during races), the soft-spoken, camera-shy Pearson had 105 wins, trailing only Petty's 200. And the Silver Fox did it in fewer than half as many starts.
It's tempting to give the final spot to a pioneer (Lee Petty or Red Byron) or to someone high on the career victories list: Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison each won 84 races, and Cale Yarborough won three championships in a row. But a more deserving inductee is the man who prepared Yarborough's cars during his title streak, Junior Johnson.
A master rule bender, Johnson won six Cup championships as an owner after winning 50 races as a driver. Inducting Johnson would also give a nod to the sport's outlaw roots. He learned to drive at speed by running moonshine, and he missed racing in parts of three seasons after being arrested for bootlegging. In 1956 revenuers surprised him as he stirred the family still. They never could catch him in a car.
HEINZ KLUETMEIER (PETTY AND EARNHARDT)
FIRST CLASS Earnhardt and Petty (at left and in cars) are locks, while Johnson has much competition.
MIKE STALEY COLLECTION (JOHNSON)
[See capation above]
JOHN IACONO (CARS)