History comes into focus as stock-car racing shrine opens doors
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One of the happiest people at the NASCAR Hall of Fame grand opening was someone who hadn't yet been through the doors.
Daniel Caudill, 14, made the trip to Charlotte from his family's home in Wilkes County, N.C., at least an hour's drive away. With him were dad, Chris, mom, Diane and sister, Ashley. All were smiling despite getting pelted by a persistent rain shower, but it was Daniel whose grin shone brightest. This is the fan on which NASCAR's foundation is built, the youngster with a lifetime of fervor for the sport ahead of him.
"I have seriously watched it from nothing to this. It's so exciting."
--Toni Clune, NASCAR Hall of Fame attendee
On his T-shirt were a number of autographs from the stars of the show who happened to pass by. A freshman at Wilkes Early College High School in Wilkesboro, N.C., the young man has even put together a blog featuring extensive driver biographies. Others might very well have been just this side of miserable standing there in the rain, soaking wet, with no umbrella.
Not Daniel Caudill. Not on this day. Not here. Not at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
"I love the family aspect of it and the environment when you go to places like this," Daniel said. In his zeal, there was no doubt he wasn't just trying to score points with mom and dad. "I'm planning on going into NASCAR."
Be careful, Daniel, what you ask for. He's not quite mapped out his particular career path yet, whether it be in NASCAR as a journalist, official or some other capacity. Whatever the case might be, he was looking forward to making it through the doors.
"I'm looking forward to the historic aspect of it, being able to learn more about the drivers and the history to add on to my knowledge of the sport," Daniel said.
In Daniel's expectations is the root of what the NASCAR Hall of Fame is all about. This is a place about history, about how NASCAR rose out of the dirt back roads and pastures of the Southeast. It's about Bill France Sr. and Red Byron, Junior Johnson, RIchard Petty and Curtis Turner. It's about Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.
It's about an unequaled passion for a sport and its heroes.
Those who visited the NASCAR Hall of Fame came from all walks of life. There were newer fans like Daniel and older ones like Pawley's Island, S.C.'s Mike Morris, who has been in love with the sport since attending his first race at a local dirt track in 1957.
"Drivers didn't have any fear," Morris said. "They just had a leather belt on, holding them in. They would go over the wall, sparks flying and they'd climb to the top of the hill and start waving their hand that they were alright."
His first favorite driver was Fireball Roberts. When he really wants "to put on the dog with racing," Morris will sport a Fireball Roberts T-shirt when he goes to the track. After Roberts lost his life due to injuries he sustained in a 1964 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Morris became a Cale Yarborough fan. After that hard-as-nails driver retired, it was on to another one, Dale Earnhardt.
Now ... now Morris isn't so sure which direction to turn.
"I want to go with Dale Jr., but Dale Jr.'s kind of slow," Morris said. "I mean, I like him. I still pull for him. I still pull for him because I keep wanting something to happen good."
With Morris were his wife, Frieda, and first cousin, Toni Clune. Although she grew up near Darlington, Frieda Morris never had been to a race until last year.
But Morris married her anyway. Clune lives and works in Charlotte, and has seen first-hand the growth of what is now the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
"I have watched this facility go up from the day of the groundbreaking until [Tuesday]," Clune said. "For 32 years, I worked at Wachovia Bank right there. My parking space is in that deck, and every day, I'd come down Martin Luther King Drive, and I have seriously watched it from nothing to this. It's so exciting."
Joel Deese, of Belmont, N.C., close to Charlotte, stood near Earnhardt's Goodwrench Chevrolet on the Hall of Fame's Glory Road exhibit. He wore an Earnhardt jacket, cap and T-shirt with unabashed pride and it took little or no prodding to get him talking about the late, great "Intimidator."
Morris and Deese weren't alone. By an overwhelming margin, Earnhardt fans came out for the grand opening. There were a few T-shirts and caps of other drivers, but not many.
"To me, he embodied a lot of the ways I grew up," began Deese, now a retired salesman for Howard Steel Inc. "I grew up in the country. We didn't have much, he didn't have much. He embodied the working man. When he got to where he was before he died, he didn't forget where he came from. Everybody looked up to and respected him for that.
"He was really a good heart. He epitomized the American dream. We all joke about rednecks, but I'm proud to be a redneck, personally. I grew up on a little farm. We all worked hard ... and he worked hard, so we all have the work ethic in common. It's just a way of life."
Richard Childress, the car owner for six of Earnhardt's seven Cup championships, hadn't yet made it into the actual NASCAR Hall of Fame when he met with a group of reporters. One of 25 nominees for the first class of inductees, Childress was asked what Earnhardt would've thought of the day's proceedings.
He thought for a second before answering.
"I think he would've been very humbled by being the first inductee into it," Childress said. "He would be very proud because I'm sure there's going to be some stuff of his dad, Ralph, in there. His son, Dale Jr., will be in there someday. He'd be very proud of everything that's going on [Tuesday].