Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Who Should Be In The First Five?

Tomorrow, NASCAR history will be made when the first five inductees into the new NASCAR Hall of Fame will be announced. Twenty-five former drivers, owners, mechanics and NASCAR personalities have been nominated, but only five will have the honor of being named to the first class.

Among the nominees there seems to be a few shoe-ins for the first class, including NASCAR founder and long-time president Bill France Sr. and the 'King' Richard Petty. Many also consider Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Bill France Jr. likely picks for the inaugural class, but with so much talent to choose from the final five may surprise some out there.

Now, you may be wondering who selects the five men that will forever be enshrined in NASCAR history. The answer is simple; NASCAR set up a 50 member Voting Panel which includes 14 members of the media, four representatives from the manufacturers, nine retired NASCAR competitors - three drivers, three owners and three crew chiefs - and two recognized industry leaders. The 51st vote will come from fans.

Without a vote on the panel, I made my voice heard by being a part of the fan vote online. Like many, my first choices were Bill France Sr. and Richard Petty, but from there I decided to take my time to think over who truly deserved to be among the most historic names in the sport.

With names like Bill France Jr., Dale Earnhardt Sr., David Pearson, Buck Baker, Lee Petty, Red Byron, Raymond Parks and others on the list, the decision was not going to be easy. To narrow down my choices I chose to focus on those individuals that truly shaped the sport of NASCAR and brought it to the next level. Obviously Bill France Sr. and Richard Petty had done that, but who else had made the most impact on the sport of NASCAR and deserved the honor of being among the first to enter the Hall of Fame?

For me, Bill France Jr. was a no-brainer. Working closely with his father as the sport grew out of the sands of Daytona and the clay tracks of Georgia, Bill Jr. assumed control of the family business when his father stepped down in 1972. At the helm of the company, Bill France Jr. took the sport to the next level by bringing national attention in the form of new fans and lucrative sponsors such as Winston.

With only two more choices I looked towards the Intimidator. There is no question Dale Earnhardt Sr. left his mark on the sport of NASCAR. An everyday hero from the mill town of Kannapolis, N.C., Earnhardt was a hard-nosed driver that refused to be pushed around. His toughness on the track made him one of the sport's most popular drivers and led to seven championship titles and 76 Cup Series victories. In addition to his success on track, Earnhardt's legacy continues to this day after tragically losing his life on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Through his death, NASCAR has taken numerous steps to ensure the competitors are as safe as can be and another tragedy like the loss of the sport's biggest name never happens again.

Twenty-one names left to choose from and so many greats, this was going to be tough. Should the honor go to Lee Petty, who paved the way for the Petty family and won the first Daytona 500? What about the first consecutive champion Buck Baker or the first NASCAR champion and war veteran Red Byron? Then there was the legendary Junior Johnson, who bridged the sport's history of bootlegging to the modernization of the sport in the early 1990s.

My last vote, while a tough one, was a clear choice - the legendary car owner Raymond Parks. Growing up in Atlanta, Parks' family ran moonshine, tuned cars and when stock car racing began in the Southeast Parks' cars were always among the front runners. One of the earliest car owners, Parks employed some of the stock car racing's earliest stars in Llyod Seay and Roy Hall and had legendary wrenchman Red Vogt. Tormenting drivers such as Bill France Sr., Parks' teams were among the toughest to beat on the beach course in Daytona and on the clay tracks speckled the South. When NASCAR was created, Parks played a crucial part in the process of legitimizing the sport. Once NASCAR was founded, Parks' driver Red Byron went on to win the first series championship. During his tenure in NASCAR after its founding, Parks' cars won only two races, but his impact on the earliest days of the sport earned my final vote for the Hall of Fame.

The NASCAR Nation and its hordes of fans will learn on Wednesday which five men will forever be known as the first class of inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. One of the greatest days in the history of the sport, Wednesday's announcement will be sure to raise some eyebrows and get the sport talking for years to come. That being said, who would you like to see among the Hall's first class? Send your emails or leave comments letting me know who you would choose to be among the inaugural class.

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