Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Walking In The Shadows Of History

What a day. Wednesday marked a special day in NASCAR history and a special day for anyone – competitor, media or fan – involved in the sport that has so many of us enthralled. Finally, after years of waiting and months of wondering, the first class of five inductees was announced at the Charlotte Convention Center in Uptown Charlotte. When all was said and done, the first class of inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame will be William H.G. France, Richard Petty, Bill France Jr., Dale Earnhardt and Junior Johnson. On a cold and rainy evening in Uptown Charlotte history was made and I could not have been more proud to have a small part in it.

Pulling up to the event, the first view I got of the new facility was the parking deck. Unsure of where I was to go, I ventured into the lobby of the new 19-story NASCAR Plaza. A wonderful entrance to the building, one thing I noticed was the lack of motorsports…well, anything. The lobby could have been the entrance to any high-rise building in Charlotte and was very unassuming to this first time guest. After a little help from a NASCAR employee – and the legendary H.A. Humpy Wheeler – I made my way down to the Charlotte Convention Center, where the event was being held.

After checking in at the media table my first stop was the NASCAR Hall of Fame car sitting in front of the ballroom doors. The Sam Bass designed car was a sharp and poignant welcoming piece for all the guests gathering for the announcement.

Once in the room I chatted with other members of the media about who would be in the first class and who would be left out. Each had their opinion and each offered their reason for why their choices deserved to be inducted. With Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip, Kyle Petty and Ken Squire behind us bringing the event to all the fans across the nation, people began filing in and taking their seats. In attendance was David Pearson, Waddell Wilson, Ned Jarrett, Bruton Smith, Ricky Rudd and others. Watching the former competitors and future Hall of Famers mill around and laugh with each other was definitely quite the sight.

The much anticipated ceremony was nothing to write home about. The typically flashy NASCAR opted to do things in a classier fashion – short and to the point. A representative from Ernst & Young handed NASCAR Chairman & CEO Brian France the five envelopes one at a time. After each name was announced, a short video clip played about their career – however, Dale Earnhardt’s video lacked sound on the first go round and had to be played again.

From there it was on to the media frenzy of interviewing some of those involved in the voting process – including Humpy Wheeler, Lee White of Toyota and Winston Kelley, Director of the Hall of Fame – and then to the makeshift media room assembled in the Charlotte Convention Center.

Making a rare appearance was Teresa Earnhardt, Dale’s widow. All smiles after the announcement of his inclusion in the first five, Teresa made her way out to the NASCAR Hall of Fame car in the lobby where five girls stood in black dresses, black ‘Intimidator’ sun glasses and the iconic mustache Earnhardt sported for most of his career.

Media members and other guests were then invited by Teresa Earnhardt to a champagne toast in honor of late husband at the Ritz Carlton in Uptown Charlotte. The girls with the iconic Dale look again greeted guests who were given champagne and talked amongst themselves. Winston Kelley introduced Teresa before she thanked everyone for coming and said a few heartfelt words in honor of her late husband before showing a few new commercial spots promoting the Dale Earnhardt Foundation.

Standing in a room full of strangers, I kept out of the way and conversed with fellow media members Jeff Gluck of the NASCAR Scene, Jim Pedley of and Brant James of the St. Petersburg Times. Eventually Teresa made her way over and kindly spoke with us about the day. For someone who draws so much attention and contempt from so many people, she was very friendly and cordial.

After receiving my own signature Earnhardt glasses and mustache, I walked back to the Hall of Fame through the cold misty rain. Thinking of the day’s events along the way I could not help but think how lucky I was to be a small part of one of the most historic days in NASCAR history. Sure, I was not on the Voting Panel – however, I did cast my vote online – and in no way was I anything more than another body in the room, but the important thing was that I can say I was there. Sitting amongst legends such as Cotton Owens, Bud Moore, Tom Higgins, Barry Dodson and others was truly an honor. Add to that the chance to meet Teresa Earnhardt in such an intimate setting and Wednesday was something I will remember for years to come.

As I came back to the parking deck I could not help but stop and look up into the dark sky at the curved architecture of the Hall of Fame and the towering NASCAR Plaza behind it. All of my life I have been dreaming of being a part of this sport and somehow that dream has come true. While I have yet to make my mark on this sport, I am honored to walk in the shadows of NASCAR’s storied history.

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