View From The Seats: Emotional Ceremony Strikes The Perfect Tone

This is embarrassing to admit as someone who makes their living covering NASCAR, but the first race I ever saw was the 2004 Daytona 500.

My editor at the small newspaper where I worked in North Carolina had assigned me to cover the Rockingham race the following week, so I figured I had better study up by watching the Daytona 500 on TV.

I didn't have much of an idea what was going on, but figured it out fairly quickly by seeing the cars in action every week from that point on. But since I never paid any attention to NASCAR until I started covering it, I've been playing catch-up on the history of the sport ever since.

Ask me about anything in the Chase Era, and I'm confident I can give you a solid opinion. But before 2004? My knowledge is based on stats, a few books, occasional stories from old-timers and YouTube clips.

That's part of the reason why I eagerly anticipated the opening of the NASCAR Hall of Fame – and the induction ceremony for the inaugural class.

Inside the Hall's Crown Ballroom on Sunday afternoon, there was a tangible sense of history, pride and respect for the sport.

Whether it was the past and present drivers toward the front of the room or the fans who purchased seats in the back, the induction of the inaugural class turned into a celebration of the NASCAR community.

"Today, everybody was on the same team," Rick Hendrick said later. "Everybody was here celebrating our sport. ... We all won today."

There was laughter and tears and smiles and sobs. There were stories and tributes and touching moments that stirred emotions within everybody who witnessed the event, both at home and in person.

Tidbits such as the France family's debate over whether to build Talladega and Junior Johnson's hand in taking the NASCAR banquet to New York City educated relative newbies like me but also longtime followers of the sport as well.

"I've learned a lot in the last couple of days that I really didn't know when I watched the videos, listened to people tell stories," Hendrick said. "It's been like a history lesson for me."

And there were a noticeable lack of robotic sponsor mentions, replaced by real, heartfelt words. The videos and speeches highlighted the characters who built the sport and had longtime fans recalling why they grew to love NASCAR so much in the first place.

Even NASCAR chairman Brian France, who so often speaks the language of corporations and politicians, said he was surprised by the feelings in the room.

"Everybody didn't worry about the commercial side of things," he said afterward. "They worried about the achievements and the personalities. ... It was an emotional day, and I didn't anticipate that. This was different today."

Because those emotions were so real, so honest, it made for some truly memorable moments.

Kyle Petty offering a funny but heartfelt tribute to his father, The King. Hendrick delighting the crowd with stories about Bill France Jr. The "Last American Hero" Junior Johnson sharing a tender moment with his son, Robert.

And then there were the Earnhardts.

There was a nervous energy in the room just before it came time for Richard Childress to induct Dale Earnhardt into the Hall.

As The Intimidator's video was about to be shown on the screen, a man seated behind me dressed in 3 gear let out a Ric Flair-esque "WOOOOOO!!!!!!"

When it was over, the man was in tears and a couple fans seated a row behind him could be heard openly sobbing. Their eyeglasses were in one hand and tissues were in another, and they continued to cry even after each of the four Earnhardt children had finished their speeches to the crowd.

At the end, as all of the inductees and their families came onstage for one last tribute, flashbulbs popped and reflected off the ballroom stage.

People walked out of the room with smiles, knowing they'd been part of something special.

This may only be my seventh season covering NASCAR, but I knew it, too.

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