Terry Labonte among five inductees at NASCAR Hall of Fame
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Bruton Smith, the colorful chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc., delighted the audience with an off-the-cuff speech Saturday while accepting his place in NASCAR's Hall of Fame, touching on everything from his building of Charlotte Motor Speedway to his unwavering support of Coca-Cola.
Smith, who owns eight tracks that host 12 Sprint Cup Series events, had steadfastly maintained he didn't care about making NASCAR's Hall of Fame as he repeatedly failed to make the ballot of nominees. Once he was finally elected, the octogenarian who recently completed treatment for cancer entertained the audience at the Charlotte Convention Center for almost 16 minutes.
Smith discussed the difficulty in financing the building of a race track, only to see it completed and not have enough money to keep it open. He offered Pepsi Cola a 50-year deal as the exclusive soda supplier at Charlotte, but the company declined. It led to a partnership with Coca-Cola that has spanned decades and helped turn the annual Coca-Cola 600 into one of most prestigious races in NASCAR.
''We have sold millions and millions of cans of Coca-Cola. As a matter of fact, if we had all the money we took in from selling Coca-Cola, we would have plenty of money and I could give y'all some money tonight,'' Smith joked.
His son, Marcus, twice tried to nudge his father along with his speech, but Smith joked that Rick Hendrick had offered him money if he talked for at least 12 minutes.
Smith was introduced by 2012 NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski and inducted by Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip.
''Few know how to connect with fans better than the founder of Speedway Motorsports Inc., who today, 70 years after promoting his first stock car race, still strives to create the best fan experience possible at the eight NASCAR tracks he owns,'' Keselowski said. ''He's a true visionary.''
The ceremony originally scheduled for Friday night was delayed until Saturday afternoon because of the snowstorm pounding the East Coast. Smith was inducted along with two-time champion Terry Labonte, modified great Jerry Cook, Bobby Isaac and Curtis Turner.
Labonte had the unenviable task of following Smith in the ceremony. The driver known as ''The Iceman'' for his composure had to choke back tears several times after he was introduced by reigning NASCAR champion Kyle Busch, who replaced Labonte at Hendrick Motorsports when he retired, and inducted by his daughter, Kristi.
''Before, I'd be introduced as a two-time champion,'' Labonte said. ''Now I'll be introduced as a NASCAR Hall of Famer. And I think that's a whole lot cooler.''
Cook, who won six championships, called his induction ''the greatest honor in NASCAR.''
''To have a place in our sport's house is the ultimate achievement,'' Cook said.
Cook was introduced by three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart and inducted by former NASCAR executive Robin Pemberton.
''Any day, anytime, anywhere, and against anyone, that was the attitude that possessed (Cook),'' Stewart said. ''His competitive spirit knew no end, and combined with ferocious talent landed him six modified championships, and today one of my favorite drivers takes his rightful place among the immortals in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.''
Cook won four consecutive titles from 1974-77 while battling Hall of Famer Richie Evans for supremacy in modifieds. He retired in 1982 and went to work for NASCAR, where he helped shape the series known today as the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour.
Ryan Newman introduced the induction of Isaac, who died in 1977. Isaac's son, Randy, accepted the induction and his widow, Patsy, spoke.
''Bobby's life is a true American rags-to-riches story,'' she said. ''He was born into a poor family in Catawba County in 1932. He was the second youngest of nine children, and was on his own by the age of 12. One fateful night, Bobby attended a race at Hickory Speedway. Not having enough money to purchase a ticket, he watched the race from a tree outside the track. He was inspired to believe that racing was his opportunity for a better life.''
Isaac was the 1970 champion who set his mark in qualifying, with 49 career poles. His 19 poles in 1969 remains the single-season record.
Turner was among the fastest and most colorful competitors in the early years of NASCAR's premier series racing. The first of his 17 career victories came in only his fourth start, at Langhorne (Pennsylvania) Speedway in 1949.
Turner, who was introduced by 2014 champion Kevin Harvick, also won the 1956 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway and the first American 500 at Rockingham Speedway in 1965.
His induction was done by Hall of Famer Leonard Wood, and his acceptance was given by daughter Margaret Sue Turner Wright.
''This pioneer entertained NASCAR's earliest fans with not only his ability to whip a car around the track but also with his colorful personality away from the wheel,'' Harvick said. ''More than 45 years since his final race, this sultan of speed remains the only driver to win two consecutive races from the pole leading every lap.''