After 60 years of racing, months of speculation and a final, spirited discussion among voters, the five men named Wednesday as the first inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame – Bill France Sr., Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Bill France Jr. and Junior Johnson – came as no surprise.
The sport's founding father and his son (the Frances), the sport's all-time winningest driver and seven-time champion (Petty), another seven-time champion (Earnhardt) and one of the most successful driver/owners ever (Johnson) will be inducted into the new uptown Hall of Fame on May23, 2010.
If there was a surprise, it was that Spartanburg's David Pearson, the sport's second-winningest driver, missed out on making the inaugural class.
However, with 25 nominees being considered for five spots, it was clear from the beginning not every potential first-class inductee would be voted into the Hall.
"This is a good sampling of the whole history of the sport," said Lee White, president of Toyota Racing, one of the 50 voters. "You couldn't lose this year. There were so many great nominees."
NASCAR did not release the official vote totals but did list the top eight nominees receiving votes, though in no particular order. Pearson, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough came the closest to election.
One vote – cast online by fans this year – had Allison first followed by Earnhardt, France Sr., Petty and Yarborough.
The 20 nominees who were not elected will not automatically be re-nominated next year. A nominating committee again will offer a list of 25 candidates to be inducted in 2011.
NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France announced the five inductees, including his grandfather and father. France said he did not know the outcome of the vote (compiled by accounting firm Ernst & Young) until he was handed individual envelopes with each inductee's name inside.
Voters began their day at 10a.m. at the Charlotte Convention Center, reviewing the candidates. When the floor was opened for discussion during the session, much of it centered on whether both Frances should go into the Hall in the same class.
"It was a pretty good discussion," said retired Observer motorsports writer Tom Higgins, a voter. "It didn't get heated. It centered on whether both Frances should go in.
"Some people stood up and said if Bill Jr. were here, he would insist on drivers, crew chiefs and competitors going in before he did. The opinion of a lot of people was that Bill Jr. would prefer to go in on his own as a member of the second class."
Ned Jarrett, a Hall of Fame nominee and one of the voters, liked the discussion.
"It was a tough deal," Jarrett said. "I was glad to see there were a lot of people talking about what should be the conditions for getting in."
Another point of discussion was whether the vote should be based more on who founded and built the sport or those who achieved the most on the track.
White, the Toyota executive, said Brian France, Lesa France Kennedy (CEO of International Speedway Corporation) and Jim France (vice chairman of NASCAR) remained quiet through the discussion about their relatives.
"There was a lot of discussion about two France family members in the same year so I was surprised but very, very proud," Brian France said.
The election of Petty (200 career wins) and Earnhardt was not surprising.
"It is the achievement of a lifetime," said Teresa Earnhardt, the driver's widow.
Petty, who did not have a vote, said his personal list had Pearson No.1.
"Anybody who won 105 races and didn't make the cut, somebody ain't adding right," Petty said of Pearson.
Leaving the Convention Center after the vote was announced, Pearson said he wasn't disappointed.
"I (said) before Junior's going to be in there … of course, Petty and Earnhardt is going to be in there. When I seen the two Frances went in, I knew I didn't have a chance," Pearson said.
Junior Johnson was in the room when his name was the last called as an inductee.
"I'll tell you, this is a big, big deal to me," Johnson said. "It's the greatest thing that's happened to me in this sport. You just don't know how it feels to be one of the five people selected to go into this first class."
The building that will house the hall is owned by the city of Charlotte and operated by the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.
The $195 million hall will feature a theater, NASCAR memorabilia and interactive exhibits. The city is paying for most of the building construction through a hotel/motel tax. The rest of the funding comes from bank loans backed by sponsorships and sales of commemorative bricks.
It is scheduled to open in May.