Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Building The Mount Rushmore of NASCAR

Besides the obvious story of who was named to the inaugural class of NASCAR Hall of Fame, one of the day’s hottest topics was the two-and-a-half hour long discussion amongst the 50-person Voting Panel that took place earlier in the day. With so many of NASCAR’s biggest names gathered in one place to determine the inaugural class of inductees, the discussion was in a word “passionate.”

The Voting Panel that gathered Wednesday morning consisted of Kenny Bruce, NASCAR Scene; Dustin Long, Landmark Newspapers/NMPA President; Nate Ryan, USA Today; Jim Pedley,; Duane Cross,; Ernie Saxton, Eastern Motorsports Press Association President; Dusty Brandel, American Auto Racing Writers & Broadcasters Association President; Ken Squire; Mike Joy, FOX; Jerry Punch, ESPN; Barney Hall, MRN; Doug Rice, PRN; Rick Allen, Speed; Ed Pepper, Chevrolet Vice President/GM North America; Edsel B. Ford III, Ford Board of Directors; Mike Accavitti, former Director of Dodge Brand Global Marketing, Motorsports; Lee White, President/General Manager, Toyota Racing Development USA; Ricky Rudd; Harry Gant; Ned Jarrett; Bud Moore; Cotton Owens; Junior Johnson; Barry Dodson; Waddell Wilson; Buddy Parrott; H.A. Humpy Wheeler; former journalist Tom Higgins and retired Associated Press writer Mike Harris.

Prior to the formal announcement that Bill France Sr., Richard Petty, Bill France Jr., Dale Earnhardt and Junior Johnson will be the first class inducted, the panel met to discuss the twenty-five nominees and voice their opinions on who should have been included and who should have to wait.

Former champion crew chief Barry Dodson likened Wednesday’s discussions to the Health Care debate raging in Congress right now. One of three crew chiefs on the panel, Dodson explained he was surprised at how many people spoke their opinions in an attempt to plead their case for who they felt belonged among this initial class.

NASCAR Hall of Fame Director Winston Kelley said that from the start the fifty people in the room knew they were about to make history. “We were selecting, somebody put it, the Mount Rushmore of NASCAR,” Kelley explained. “There was incredible passion, incredible professionalism and just appreciation and recognition of what we were about.”

“The atmosphere was fantastic,” Buz McKim, Historian of the Hall of Fame added. “We had a two-and-a-half hour discussion time between 10 and 12:30 and we got to thinking, ‘Hmm, how are we going to fill up that time?’ Man, it was awesome. Everybody that was on the Voting Panel was so diligent about their job, they took it so seriously. Everybody had great ideas and great suggestions.”

Former President of Lowe’s Motor Speedway Humpy Wheeler described the gathering had the feel of the initial founding of the sport more than sixty years ago. “It was a very historic feeling. I think a lot of people remarked it was like being at the Streamline Hotel when NASCAR was founded – without all the unfiltered Camel cigarettes and probably whiskey bottles, although we could have used a few of them.”

Wheeler went on to say once the conversation got underway the atmosphere was full of concern and consisted of very frank discussions about who belonged in this all-important first class. “I hadn’t totally decided who I was going to vote for before I went in there,” Wheeler admitted, saying he knew Bill France Sr. and Junior Johnson were among his shoe-in votes. “But when you’ve got to narrow it down to five and you’ve got all these people that did so much it’s really tough.”

With so much passion and importance placed on the responsibility of the panel some indicated the room was a bit nervous at the outset. There to calm the nerves and get the conversation started was NASCAR Vice President of Communications Jim Hunter. “I said, ‘Look, we want you to speak out. We want you to express your opinions, this is an open forum. No one in here will take it personally, including me.’”

A number of those on the panel explained the day’s discussions had swayed their vote and changed their minds. Lee White, who represented Toyota on Wednesday’s panel, called the debate “amazing,” saying that it was a complete surprise. He also believed that everyone’s vote changed four or five times due to the discussions taking place. McKim noted one panel member changed his mind four times before making his selection and signing his name and submitting his ballot. However, both McKim and Kelley had their choices made long ago.

“Buz McKim and I have probably spent more time thinking about this than most people in there because we eat, sleep and breathe this 24/7 for the past three years,” Kelley explained. “There weren’t many perspectives that I hadn’t thought of and many of them had come up to me at some point and time we have had those discussions. Some of the people it’s not their full-time job like it is mine. I thought about all of those perspectives, I listened to them and decided at the end there wasn’t anything that changed my perspective.”

“I considered a lot that was spoken a lot today, but it didn’t change my mind,” McKim added, “I still voted for the five I wanted to originally.”

Wednesday’s announcement was not full of the glitz and glamour that many expected. The event was short and to the point, with NASCAR Chairman/CEO Brian France opening the five individual envelopes that contained the names of the first class. A short video clip was played for each inductee, but Dale Earnhardt’s video was lacking sound and had to be played twice. Reports are that David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison were the sixth, seventh and eighth choices of the panel.

Much like the four faces on Mount Rushmore, these five individuals characterize the sport of NASCAR in different ways. Each left their own mark on the sport and forever changed the game. Each year following this one, another five names will be selected, but these five will forever be known as the first five. A true honor that each deserves.

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