Luminaries from NASCAR's past and present converged upon downtown Charlotte to honor a new class of immortals.
They celebrated the career of David Pearson, the Silver Fox, who won 105 races and three Cup titles. They paid tribute to the late Lee Petty, the first Daytona 500 winner and the first three-time Cup champion, and to Bobby Allison, whose 84 wins are tied for third-most all-time and who, at 50, is the oldest winner of the Great American Race. They saluted Ned Jarrett, a two-time champ and veteran broadcaster, as well as Bud Moore, who won titles as a crew chief and owner and was one of the pillars of NASCAR's early years.
Their accomplishments and places in the sport's pantheon are undeniable. Each is, without question, deserving of a spot in NASCAR's Hall of Fame. But with this hall, the debate isn't about worthiness, it's all about the timing.
"I can give you a list probably of 40 people that are going to get in and it's just a matter of when and which class are they going to go in on," said Ed Clark, Atlanta Motor Speedway's track president and general manager, who is part of the HOFs 21-member nominating committee and also a voter. "I think probably the biggest amount of discussion had to do with what parameters under which to vote for people."
While the inaugural class was akin to producing NASCAR's Mount Rushmore, with the selections of Dale Earnhardt, Bill France, Bill France Jr., Junior Johnson and Richard Petty, deciding future classes will be more daunting.
The Class of 2011 is heavy on the sport's distant past -- four of its selections haven't competed in the last 20 years -- and is without two big-name drivers that many had believed were shoo-ins. Darrell Waltrip has 84 wins and three titles to his credit and Cale Yarborough was the first driver to win three consecutive titles. But despite their achievements, neither made it in; in fact, Waltrip was on less than half of the 53 ballots.
As Clark says, it's not as simple as stacking resumes against each other when deciding who will make up the next round of honorees.
"A lot of people have different ideas [on how to vote]," he said. "Richard Petty many times said that he thinks the original pioneers should go in first. Other people, in their opinion, it's based solely on accomplishment. Other people had the belief it's the overall contribution, not only to motorsports, but their accomplishments in and out of the sport.
"We've managed to do that without a formal acknowledgment of that's what we're going to do, but my concern is that as time goes by, some of these guys that had pretty good driving records back in the day, but so many people on the voting panel never saw them race and weren't aware of their records. As each year goes by it may be tougher for those people to be considered when you've got other people retiring that we've watched race or we are a little more acquainted with. But I do agree with the mindset that we need to be cognizant of the pioneers and their contributions for establishing NASCAR in the early days and making sure there was even a NASCAR for all these guys racing today to have, and they need to be recognized for that."
NASCAR's voting pool in itself is unique. While other sports are heavy on the media's involvement, NASCAR's HOF utilizes a group that stretches across the sport's landscape. It includes representatives from the sports' governing body, the HOF, track owners and car manufacturers, as well as former competitors, media members and fans. The system, which next class will include 55 ballots (fans can cast their vote here) gives as much power to Chevy, Dodge and Ford as it does to former drivers, crew chiefs, owners and the media.
"I think you get the perspective from different areas of the industry," Clark said. "If it were just media people voting, I think the tendency there would be to steer more toward the athletes themselves who drive the cars because that's largely who the media cover and spend time with. And some other people, like promoters and such as that, may not be in the forefront like with the system we have now."
But it would also seem to bring with it a wide array of voting interests. That may explain why four of this year's inductees (Allison, Jarrett, Moore and Petty) received less than two-thirds of the vote and why Pearson wasn't a unanimous pick, appearing on 94 percent of the ballots.
It may also offer some small explanation as to why one of NASCAR's true trailblazers has been an afterthought up to this point. Wendell Scott, the first black driver to win a Cup race, and whom NASCAR has honored on multiple occasions, has yet to even appear as one of the 25 nominees for induction.
"[Scott's exclusion has] actually been somewhat of a surprise to me, but the process is each nominating member nominates his or her list of people and that's how the 25 is determined," Clark said. "But yeah, I've been a bit surprised by that personally."
For Waltrip and Yarborough, their time could come as early as June 14, when the Class of 2012 is unveiled. The general consensus is the two drivers who have more wins and more titles than any other eligible drivers can't be left out much longer. But there are no guarantees when it comes to bestowing immortality, especially with a hall of fame that is still in its infancy stages.
"It probably does have some people scratching their heads with some of the people that have gotten in before others, but it's all been done by the system," Clark said. "I think that's going to happen again. I wouldn't be surprised."
The process of filling the yearly five-member classes is only going to get more difficult. As the selection and voting committees continue to debate key figures of the sport's early days, soon they will face the added task of today's drivers becoming eligible for induction.
"It would be one thing if we could get 10 or 12, but when you cut it down to five, it's always going to be a challenge," Clark said. "When you get to the point a few years down the road when you have Jeff Gordon and people like that retiring and you continue to have these people that it continues to get longer ago they participated, it's going to continue to be an interesting process."