CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Brian France spent years on plans to build the NASCAR Hall of Fame and its first induction ceremony. It still didn't prepare the NASCAR chairman for the overflow of emotions on Sunday. Seeing his father and grandfather included in the first class hit close to home.
"It was an emotional day. I didn't anticipate that," said France, the third generation of NASCAR's only ruling family. "I do a lot of things that are within the sport. This was different. It was a big celebration I didn't expect."
They waited until the end to induct the late Dale Earnhardt, the working man's driver who received the customary "Wooooo" with three fingers raised from a fan in the crowd.
Junior Johnson, a driver and owner who has been referred to as the "last American hero," said it "couldn't have been a better day."
Richard Petty, honored for his 200 wins, wore his customary cowboy hat with feathers.
But this was about NASCAR as a whole, too. A sport that for years struggled with the stigma of being a regional sport reached another milestone.
"It kind of hit me that it's really, really a big deal because NASCAR's finally got their Hall of Fame, and I think it moved all of us up a notch," Petty said of the $195 million facility. "I think now we're as big-league as anybody."
Bill France Sr., who organized bootleggers such as Johnson in North Carolina and the beach-racing folks in Florida to create NASCAR, was the first inductee.
He was followed by his son Bill Jr., who helped expand the sport past its Southern roots.
"I always remember how people looked at us and quite honestly, made fun of us," said former driver Darrell Waltrip, who helped induct Johnson; "that we were a regional sport with a bunch of rednecks that wore ball caps and uniforms with patches all over them.
"When I look at what Bill France Sr. and Jr. and Brian … and everybody have done with this sport, to take it from that to where it is today, it makes me very proud."
John Cassidy, NASCAR's first legal counsel, gave Bill France Sr.'s induction speech.
"I prefer to call him a dreamer who was a man of action, someone who turns dreams into reality," he said.
Longtime car owner Rick Hendrick gave the induction speech for Bill Jr., who took over for his father in 1972 and ruled until retiring in 2003.
"I know our entire family is obviously very proud of our father and our grandfather," Brian France said. "But this was very much about three other great champions and the whole sport getting proper recognition for what's happened over the last six decades."