On a chilly, rainy night in Charlotte, the devotion of NASCAR fans was on display in full force. Amazing fans, dressed in ponchos and racing gear, lined Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. downtown, swapping racing stories and waiting for the morning to get their wristbands for autograph sessions with their favorite drivers.
EVERYONE was there over weekend, too. If you’re a fan of the sport, or even just a casual sports fan, Charlotte was the place to be. And in true North Carolina style, there was a monster truck rally in town, too, at the Time Warner Arena.
The 2012 NASCAR Hall of Fame class features the late Richie Evans, Dale Inman, Darrell Waltrip, Glen Wood and Cale Yarborough. Evans was killed in an accident in Martinsville in 1985. He was 44, and was represented by his wife Lynn, and former crew chief Billy Nacewicz.
The induction speeches were classy, which describes all of the men standing on stage thanking their family, fans, friends, peers, and, of course, the Lord. After all it is the south. Of course, it wasn’t all quiet and reserved.
When Waltrip took the stage, that’s when the craziness started, although he was certainly more reserved than the brash Kentucky youngster who burst onto the then Winston Cup Series scene May 7, 1972.
However, he always steals the show on FOX’s NASCAR coverage, and he stole the show Friday night, too. The man was once nicknamed “Jaws” by fellow Hall of Famer Yarborough, because Waltrip had an outspoken demeanor during his career, especially during the early days. The theme of the night, from video interviews from 2011 Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart, to the introduction by fellow television analyst and friend Jeff Hammond was clear about Waltrip. “He never shuts up!,” Hammond said. “He truly was our sport’s version of Muhammad Ali.”
The three-time NASCAR premier series champion (1981-82, ’85) made 809 career starts, winning 84 times and capturing 59 poles. All three of his championships came driving for fellow Hall of Fame drive and car owner Junior Johnson.
In true Waltrip fashion, he closed his speech, which was actually shorter than most expected the loquacious driver and broadcaster to give, he had this to say, drawing laughs from everyone.
“I’m probably running a little bit long but I’ve got to tell you a quick story. Just one more story, I promise,” Waltrip said.
Waltrip talking about wearing his 1982 championship ring every day since he received it, but he took it off on this night.
“I’ve worn it every day since I got it, but tonight I’m taking it off and I’m putting on the Hall of Fame ring because this is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me,” Waltrip said, squeaking out his final words with emotions nearly overtaking him. “Thank you very much.”
It wasn’t all laughs and giggles, though. After his speech, little brother Michael Waltrip came up and gave him a big hug in one of the most emotional parts of the evening.
What’s funny about Waltrip, and the rest of the inductees, for that matter, is their likeability. They are down-home, regular guys. They are the working man’s hero, racing for a living, loving life, but most importantly, loving their family. And it’s not to say professional athletes in other sports aren’t family men, but it is just different, especially for the old guard of NASCAR who hale primarily from the south.
Say what you want about the south. Make fun of the funny drawl, addiction to cars, barbeque and such, if you will, but nowhere in the country will you find kinder, nicer people with manners you want your son or daughter to grow up with.
Waltrip mentioned family several times throughout his speech. Yarborough made mention of his first job making $1.25 cents an hour, struggling to make ends meet with his wife Betty Jo while living in Charlotte.
“We were flat broke when we got here. We had to keep a count of everything we bought so we could pay for it when we got to the checkout counter (at the grocery store),” Yarborough recalled. “Well, we were coming down the last aisle heading toward the checkout counter and happened to come upon a pallet of cans of black eyed peas that were on sale for 10 cents a can. A big can, too. So we talked about it, and she agreed. We went back and put all the stuff we bought back everywhere it was supposed to be, went back to that black eyed peas pallet and bought every can of black eyed peas that we could afford to buy. We had black eyed peas for breakfast, we had black eyed peas for dinner, we had black eyed peas for supper, a long time.” His recollection drew the most laughs from the crowd.
These guys are just so likeable, and you can’t help but be happy for them, reaching the Hall of Fame in their sport, in just the third class of a growing fraternity. There are now 15 members enshrined in NASCAR’s growing hall.
The hearing isn’t so good anymore for Yarborough, or new member Glen Wood. They repeatedly asked to have the questions repeated.
“I’ve been around them engines all my life and I can’t hear so good anymore,” Yarborough apologized to a media member.
It’s OK, Cale. Slow down, it isn’t a race tonight.
Over the past 12 years, Daniel Dobish has written for CBSSports.com, OPENSports.com, RotoExperts.com and several other prestigious sports and fantasy sports websites and magazines. Originally from Cleveland, Dan now lives in the Raleigh, N.C. area with his wife and two sons. You may contact Dan @ [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @danieledobish