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Hall of Fame inaugural class is inducted on Sunday

After a sparkling grand opening, after thousands of fans had already visited the 150,000-square-foot shrine to stock-car racing, the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Sunday officially became what it was intended to be -- an homage to the sport's greatest and most influential.

The inaugural class needed no introduction -- even to those with scant knowledge of the sport.

The five inductees: drivers Junior Johnson, Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR founder, the late Bill "Big Bill" France Sr., and his son, the late Bill France Jr., who took stock-car racing to TV, spreading its popularity exponentially.

Many of the more than 2,000 spectators agreed the five are the 62-year-old sport's greatest pioneering figures -- fueling it from birth, when moonshiners raced through back roads, to its explosion into a multi-billion-dollar business.

"The Mount Rushmore of NASCAR," former driver and current commentator Darrell Waltrip declared the five. "The selection committee could not have done a better job."

Sunday, Charlotte was clearly the backdrop -- a city that for years had snubbed the sport as it worked to create a glossy New South image, only to grab its rightful claim to NASCAR's roots and build the $200 million Hall of Fame on 5 acres of prime uptown commercial real estate on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

"When you walk into the Hall of Fame, you become a fan," said Rick Hendrick of Charlotte, who owns several stock car teams. "Even if you've been involved with it 25 years, you become a fan all over again."

Hendrick said the hall exceeded his expectations. Others told hall executive director Winston Kelley the same.

"It was a great day for the facility and for the job Charlotte has done," Kelley said

Dreams - and action

The event was full of raw emotion.

Longtime fans lined up early to greet and take photos of the inductees and other NASCAR celebrities as they entered along a blue carpet.

Robert and Sheila Fuller of Flagstaff, Ariz., started driving Friday for the Sunday event.

"NASCAR means the world to us," Robert Fuller said. "We met at a track. Our son was conceived at a track. We had to be here for the first induction."

The event was about four families that have spent their lives building a sport.

There've seen exhilarating wins. Yet two, the Pettys and Earnhardts, suffered terrible losses. Earnhardt died in a crash at the 2001 Daytona 500. A year earlier, Petty's grandson, Adam, was killed after a practice-run crash in New Hampshire.

It's a sport full of stories.

Bill France Sr. started NASCAR with a chest of tools and $25. Don Cassidy, NASCAR's first lawyer, first met the elder France when Cassidy was an assistant to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the mid-1960s. At the time, the Teamsters were giving NASCAR problems, and France had come to ask Kennedy for help. He assigned Cassidy.

France "was a dreamer who was a man of action," said Cassidy, who inducted France.

Several described France and son Bill Jr. as tough men -- but fair. The France family donated Bill Sr.'s Hall of Fame ring back to the hall.

Kyle Petty, inducting his father, told the gathered about his father's habit of taking long afternoon naps.

"He would lay down in the middle of the living room floor, sleep until 3 or 4 in the afternoon, get up and go back to work," said Kyle, himself a driver. "I never found that strange until you look at his career, and you think the man won 200 races, seven Daytona 500s, seven championships ... working half-days."

Earnhardt's inductors and family described his grit. He, like Petty, never forgot the fans.

Once, at the Talladega Superspeedway, drivers complained about him going too fast.

"He said, 'If you're afraid to go fast, stay the hell home,'" NASCAR team owner Richard Childress recalled.

"Drag kerosene around your ankles so the ants won't jump up and bite your candy a--. That was classic Dale Earnhardt."

Johnson builds a still

Winston Kelley, the Hall of Fame's executive director, had one of the best stories.

It was about Junior Johnson and his bootlegging reputation.

Exhibit designers from New York wanted a replica of a moonshine still to show the sport's rural beginnings. Kelley took them to see Johnson.

"He proceeded to build us a full-sized still, then he personally delivered it," Kelley said. As they tried to put it together, they called Johnson to walk them through the assembly.

"...Less than three hours later, Junior showed up to connect it himself. I mistakenly told people that this still doesn't work ... It's just not currently operational."