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Ingram: Thanks For The Memories, NASCAR

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 24 2010

Junior and The King were inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Sunday. (Photo by Chris Keane/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:

The NASCAR Hall of Fame is the sport’s first grand slam in a long time. Of all the changes wrought over the years in the sport, not many can claim to have met with universal acceptance. The Hall is the kind of project that can inspire all who have been touched by the sport as fans or participants.

One would have to go a long way back to find such a universally accepted arrival in the often fractious business of motor racing, where the clash of honor and passion are the fundamental elements. The sport’s all-star race, held Saturday in Charlotte, or the opening of Talladega Superspeedway, to cite two examples, were not exactly welcomed with open arms. Newfound stars like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart or Jimmy Johnson may have moved the sport forward like none others, but it’s the nature of driving stars to always promote divided feelings.

One of the inaugural inductees, Junior Johnson, may have been the Last American Hero in North Carolina, but the Georgia bootleggers and racing fans had other impressions. One of the first times I ever heard of another inductee, Richard Petty, it was on a CB radio in a “discussion” where David Pearson was considered the best driver.

Even NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. had many a competitor after launching the sanctioning body and not that many patting him on the back during the first decade of the 1950’s. The arrival of Bill France Jr. as the president of NASCAR and the successor to France Sr., was far more cussed than discussed at the time. Now both have been inducted into the inaugural class of the Hall of Fame. Yet, third generation leader Brian France’s arrival and his concept of the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship have hardly been greeted with open arms.

Even as the Winston brand revolutionized the marketing of NASCAR when Bill Jr. first took over in the early 1970’s, it was clear the dollars flowed because tobacco money was no longer welcome in the public forum of television.

There’s been plenty of dissension when it came to the first class honored at the Hall, too, inducted on Sunday. But nobody thought the whole shebang was a bad idea. You’d have to go back to the opening of the Daytona International Speedway to find another universally praised dawn of a new NASCAR era – and perhaps the only one. So it says a lot for a sport that can claim so many achievements to have added a new dimension that is so extraordinary like the Hall.

Although walking through during an advance preview during the NASCAR Media Tour, I have yet to visit the completed Hall, which officially opened May 10. But like others who visit there, personal memories will be sparked and revisited. Like all Halls, it will be a stream of consciousness. In the case of this large and modern interpretation of a sports Hall, the memories will be invoked by an interactive museum, a great memoribilia collection and a Major League used car lot.

It’s a time like these that I most miss ol’ Ironhead, Dale Earnhardt Sr., the fifth inaugural inductee and metaphorically the missing man in this formation. He’s the only one who died in his prime and arguably was the most complex. Due to an absolute refusal to compromise, which eventually cost him his life, perhaps he’s the greatest of them all.

It has been a privilege to work with all of the five inaugural inductees at one point or another in the pursuit of journalism. It might have been a dream as a boy to have known Babe Ruth or Walter Johnson or even the crustiest member of baseball’s inaugural class for its Hall of Fame, Ty Cobb. All these years later to have known these NASCAR five and many of those whose inductions are yet to come is an honor. Ultimately, the Hall will remind all visitors that they have known these great people, the cars, tracks and sport they built and introduce visitors to some new history and characters as well. And that’s a good thing.

As print journalists, the new Hall and its beautiful ribbon of speed will challenge us to continue to find the best feature stories and work even harder on stories of the day that comprise the front line of history. Naturally, I expect to find some disagreement when it comes to the history of events at the Hall and some parts that are missing. Some of the best stories, for example, are far too salty and irreverent for an attraction like the Hall of Fame. Or, as much as the city of Charlotte deserves to be the showcase setting for the Hall, the first strictly stock race didn’t take place there or under the aegis of NASCAR. And finally, there was a lot of cheating that went on, which to many is a part of the sport. (No disagreement here on that.) Then there was the favoritism and political high jinks by the sanctioning body.

Born, raised and educated in the South, I claim stock car racing, NASCAR and bootlegging as a cultural heritage. But stock car racing’s greatest claim concerns the indivisible fact that it’s an all-American sport, not an invention created by southern romanticism, gothic tales or bootleggers alone.

We take exception where appropriate, of course, because we care. But there’s no taking exception to yesterday’s inaugural introduction ceremony as presented on SpeedTV. The entire ceremony, the story telling, the lauding, the passion for memories, and the thank you’s presented NASCAR in a dimension that has never been seen before.

Lord knows, in trying times where the naysayers are storming the ramparts – from both sides – it’s sometimes good to have a Sunday off where everybody gets together to tell stories about how and what it is to go NASCAR racing.

Quote of the Week: Winston Kelly, the director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, on the moonshine still built and installed at the Hall by one of the five inaugural inductees, Junior Johnson. “I made a mistake and told people that it’s not a working still,” said Kelly. “Since then, I’ve learned that it is not currently operational.”

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 24 2010