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Drivers roar into Hall of Fame

They have had movies made about them, streets named for them, songs sung about them, millions cheer and revere them, and legends grow from the echoes of their thundering engines.

Richard Petty, nicknamed The King. Dale Earnhardt, known as The Intimidator. Junior Johnson, hailed as The Last American Hero.

Together, they will be the first drivers inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. There may have been some question about which other drivers should be among the first, but there was never any question that these three would be chosen.

What was it about them, what set them apart? Each had his own style of racing but they crossed all those finish lines first because they had this in common: They were born to race. From their first breaths, they were on a path to the little dirt tracks and the giant asphalt ovals where they would take the sport to heights few could have imagined.

Petty's dad, Lee, a national championship racer himself, literally helped deliver the baby who would be named Richard at the family's home. He watched the child race wagons and bicycles back in the hills around Level Cross. He bought the boy his first car, hired him to work in his pits and garage, let him drive some laps when Lee was testing his cars. He could see early that the kid had a gift.

Earnhardt's dad, Ralph, was a race driver, too, a national sportsman division champion. Ralph tried to steer his son away from the sport, but Dale wasn't listening. The genes were too strong.

He dropped out of school to go racing. His dad knew he had lost that debate but he didn't make it easy. He was a stern teacher, but he was laying the groundwork for his son to become the man many consider the best stock car driver ever.

Driving the back roads

Johnson came from a family that lived on the income from moonshine whiskey they made in Wilkes County and sold in towns around the state. His dad, Robert Glenn Johnson Sr., hauled carloads of whiskey, and when Junior was old enough, he did the same. That often involved outrunning revenue agents down dark, twisting rural roads, races you couldn't afford to lose.

Johnson did some time in jail when he was caught at the still, but the law never caught him delivering the goods. Too fast. Too good at the wheel.

Johnson left the moonshine business when an acquaintance who knew of his driving skills fetched him from behind a plow one day and hauled him off to drive in a stock car race. Junior had never seen a stock car race "but I wasn't scared," he said. Shoot, if you lost you didn't have to go to jail. He finished second and never looked back.

A recent story in Time magazine about how stock car racing has lost some corporate backing and isn't filling seats the way it was before the recession said: "NASCAR has managed to make auto racing a little boring," and quoted former star Darrell Waltrip as saying, "We're all so desperate to get this sport back to where it used to be."

That is the same magazine, by the way, that had Dale Earnhardt on its cover after he died in a wreck on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001.

It was never boring when Petty, Johnson and Earnhardt were in their primes.

Back then, the sport had an earthy essence, a salty taste, the smell of smoke and sweat and burned rubber, the fascination of danger that always hovered nearby.

People loved their street cars more because their heroes drove their brand on Sunday afternoons. They bought chunks of sheet metal knocked off a Petty or Earnhardt or Johnson race car and hung them as wall decorations in their homes. Their passion was boundless.

The face of racing

Richard Petty once said, "When you're looking at me, you're looking at NASCAR history." And he was right. He raced for 34 years on the big circuit now known as Sprint Cup, from 1958 until 1992. He won 200 races, 27 of them in one season, had 712 top-10 finishes and became the face of the sport, a face that flashed a brilliant smile beneath a black mustache and one of his many cowboy style hats. All of that made him one of the most recognizable figures in sports.

The greatest day in stock car racing history was July 4, 1984, when Petty won his 200th (and last) victory in the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway. President Ronald Reagan was there that day and he shared some fried chicken with Petty before the race.

Petty, the milestone 200th win, July Fourth, Daytona, Reagan and fried chicken. As some say down South, "It don't get no better than that."

The worst day in stock car racing history was the day Dale Earnhardt died in 2001. Between 1975 and 2001, he won 76 Sprint Cup races and tied Petty's record of seven seasonal championships and along the way established his reputation as one of the best, if not the best.

He wore black fire suits and his car was painted black, in keeping with his reputation as a man whom you didn't want to see in your rear view mirror. He would move you out of the way with his bumper (hence, The Intimidator), and if you did the same to him, you would never hear him complain. He would just shrug and smile and say, "That's racin.' "

His philosophy was, "Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose and sometimes you wreck."

To this day, you may occasionally see a decal of his car number, 3, on car windows or bumpers, or tattooed on an arm.

Win or wreck

Junior Johnson was, to many, the quintessential stock car driver for the time.

Fans appreciated his rural roots, didn't see much harm in his bootlegging history and saw in him a man who drove a car so hard it was like he was still running from the revenuers. There was nothing fancy about him, nothing uppity. He was country but he was smart. He won 50 races between 1953 and 1966 but also brought home a lot of his cars on a wrecker's hook.

"My worst habit as a racer was that I didn't give the car a chance," he said. "I drove it to death. I either broke it or drove it too hard. I either finished first or I didn't finish."

Famed writer Tom Wolfe wrote a long essay about Johnson for Esquire magazine. The article was made into a movie titled "The Last American Hero." (Jeff Bridges, who won an Academy Award as best actor this year in "Crazy Heart," played the role of Junior.) A stretch of U.S. 421 is named "Junior Johnson Highway." He has also endorsed a brand of legitimate moonshine whiskey.

Petty has been the subject of books, has appeared in several movies, has a color (Petty blue) named for him, as well as a museum and a street, has his own stretch of highway like Johnson's and was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President George H. W. Bush in 1992.

Earnhardt's name is also on a stretch of highway and he has a street in his hometown of Kannapolis named for him. The Kannapolis Intimidators baseball team was named for him and still flies a "3" flag at games. A novel named "St. Dale" was written about him by famed author Sharyn McCrumb and several songs have paid tribute to him.

They were born to race, they lived to race and one of them died racing.

Their time has passed. They are museum pieces now. But the sound of their cars still echoes around every track they ever ran.

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