CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The rumble from a pair of motors interrupted the opening ceremony at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Nobody seemed to mind, though, when Richard Petty pulled his 1974 Dodge Charger onto the ceremonial plaza, with Junior Johnson trailing in a 1940 Ford. The two members of NASCAR’s inaugural Hall of Fame class climbed from the cars they are most associated with to a rousing ovation.
“This is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me,” Johnson said of being part of the first induction class.
Started in 1948, the National Association of Stock Car Racing finally opened its Hall of Fame on Tuesday with a star-studded ceremony.
North Carolina governor Beverly Perdue joined Charlotte area dignitaries and representatives of NASCAR’s past and present on a stage outside the Hall for the hour-long opening ceremony. After Johnson and Petty’s arrival — Petty in a replica of his No. 43 STP Dodge, and Johnson in a No. 3 Ford that read “Carolina Moonshine” — several past champions scanned their entrance cards to officially open the doors.
“If you’re going to be a top-five sports league in this country, you need to have a world-class Hall of Fame,” said NASCAR chairman Brian France. “It’s going to be a place where our fans can come and celebrate and look back at the history of the sport. We haven’t really had that in a formal way all these years, and this is going to change that overnight.”
The city spent $195 million on the project and is touting it as the biggest and most technologically advanced Hall of Fame in professional sports. The 150,000-square-foot building is a shrine of memorabilia, exhibits that recreate old-time NASCAR lore, 154 video screens, racing simulators and interactive activities.
NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick, who helped the city of Charlotte with its winning bid for the rights to the Hall of Fame in 2006, spoke at Tuesday’s ceremony and was one of the first visitors to tour the facility after the doors opened.
“I just think if you don’t hold on to history in anything, that it doesn’t mean much,” Hendrick said. “he fact that we can showcase our history in such a great setting is going to pay us huge dividends down the road because new fans ought to know about Junior Johnson and they ought to know Buck Baker and those kind of guys. And they ought to be able to see the old cars.
“I think a fan walks away knowing we care about our past and our history.To me, that’s what’s important — that our history, our roots and our heritage is important. It’s not all just about today.”
The inaugural class, elected by 50 voters last year, is: NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., longtime chairman Bill France Jr., seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, Johnson and Petty. The induction ceremony is May 23.
Petty believes the timing is perfect for NASCAR to start its Hall of Fame.
“You’ve got to figure to have a Hall of Fame, you’ve got to have some history,” he said. “NASCAR is just 60 years old, so it took them a while to accomplish history. If they had one 25 years ago, they wouldn’t have had a lot of stuff to put in it.”
Several active NASCAR drivers participated in the opening ceremony, while others toured it later Tuesday on their own.
“I like the history of it, because I don’t know a ton of history about the sport,” said Kasey Kahne, who was born in 1980 and came through sprint car ranks into NASCAR. “You can gather that information pretty quick in there. It’s pretty neat from the old cars, to the old suits, the write-ups, the videos. It’s neat for the fans, too, because they get to see things that they only see on TV.
“I just think it’s awesome. They did a great job.”
NASCAR had several of its champions on stage during the ceremony, but noticeably absent were four-time champions Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and two-time champion Tony Stewart.
Also missing was Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose father is in the first class. His stepmother, Teresa, was on stage during the opening ceremony.
Stewart was testing today in Virginia, his spokesman said, while representatives for Earnhardt Jr., Gordon and Johnson said the drivers had previous commitments and planned to attend inauguration week activities.
Hendrick, the car owner for Gordon, Johnson and Earnhardt, said his organization was surprised by the fanfare of Tuesday’s opening.
“To be honest, we thought this was going to be a loose kind of thing,” Hendrick said. “If we had known it was going to be this big, I would have asked them all to be here.”
Petty felt the present day stars should have been in attendance.
“The museum is for the has-beens, the people that made things happen,” Petty said. “You gotta figure, without these guys, there wouldn’t be a Jimmie Johnson or a Jeff Gordon. Some of the guys came out today, and they recognize that they are in between and they were interested in coming out to see what was going on.
“I feel good that they came, but when we look at Jimmie and Jeff — yeah, they should be here. Eventually they be in the Hall of Fame and they should be here for the inaugural deal to see what it’s all about and to see why they are the heroes today and see that Junior Johnson, Fireball Roberts and Lee Petty made all this happen for them.”