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NASCAR shrine welcomes five more

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A man in the Great Hall of NASCAR's shrine asked before Friday night's induction ceremony who the silver-haired man on stage telling stories was.

"David Pearson," I said.

The man wasn't familiar.

"One word," he told me with a straight face. "Danica Patrick."

Almost speechless, I told him Pearson arguably was the best driver in NASCAR history. I then asked why he was so enamored with Patrick, who has yet to drive in her first Sprint Cup race.

"She's real pretty," he said.

This is why NASCAR needs a Hall of Fame, why ceremonies such as this one -- in which the 2012 class of Richie Evans, Cale Yarborough, Glen Wood, Darrell Waltrip and Dale Inman was inducted -- are so important.

The sport needs this place to educate the new fans on the history that made the sport what it has become. It needs fans to appreciate the Pettys, Yarboroughs and Waltrips, who made it possible for today's drivers -- Patrick included -- to have the opportunities they do.

Before the world knew anything about crew chief Chad Knaus and his five straight Cup titles with Jimmie Johnson, there was Inman on the pit box with his record eight championships -- seven with Richard Petty and one with Terry Labonte.

Before there were Johnson's five consecutive titles, there was Yarborough, the only other driver to win three consecutive (1976-78).

Before there were great team owners such as Rick Hendrick and Jack Roush, there was Wood and the famous Wood Brothers.

Before there were great dirt-track drivers such as Tony Stewart, there was nine-time champion Richie Evans tearing up the modified series.

Before there were colorful drivers such as Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, there was Waltrip, fittingly nicknamed "Jaws" by Yarborough.

"I'm just finding out how big this is," Wood said after being inducted.

Many may question the expense it took to build the NASCAR Hall, the financial shortcomings it has dealt with in a tough economy, but there's no debating how big this is for the sport.

This is a place where those who follow stock car racing today can learn about those who struggled through tough times to make it a national sport. This is a place where the heroes of yesteryear can be remembered just like those in baseball, football and other sports do at their respective halls.

It is a big deal to be selected. If it wasn't, Inman wouldn't have been so happy to have his HOF ring to put in the face of Petty as payback for all the playful times Petty put his ring in his cousin's face.

If it wasn't, Yarborough wouldn't have displayed one of the proudest smiles of his career when he accepted his ring and given up his frugal ways to allow his wife to purchase an expensive dress for the night. He wouldn't have compared his career to climbing a ladder, concluding with, "I feel like tonight I'm finally standing on the top step."

If it wasn't such a big deal, Waltrip wouldn't have been so disappointed when he was bypassed for the second class and so overjoyed at being selected for the third that he spoke almost 24 minutes, when the allotted time was seven.

If it wasn't such a big deal, Waltrip's daughter, Sarah, wouldn't have flown 25 hours from a mission trip in the Philippines to surprise him.

To the man in the Great Hall, he can only hope that Patrick one day has an iota of the great stories he heard during the induction ceremony.

Hopefully he learned that Evans was "the greatest wheelman I ever saw" -- as Waltrip described -- to ever drive a race car even though he never drove in NASCAR's top series. Hopefully he learned that Wood is one of the most humble men the sport has seen, as well as one of the greatest owners.

Hopefully the man learned that racers such as Inman, who turned the wrenches, are as important as racers who turn the wheel. Hopefully he learned that Yarborough literally lived on 10 cent cans of black-eyed peas at times to follow his passion.

Hopefully he learned that Waltrip talked all the time even before he became a television analyst.

When we talk about how colorful racers are today, they are like a small box of crayons compared to the 2012 HOF class -- a glorious rainbow stretching to the heavens.
The only thing bigger than their accomplishments are the stories. And not all are about things that happened on the track, such as Yarborough's legendary fight with the Allison brothers following the 1979 Daytona 500 that put NASCAR on the map.

Yarborough talked about the hard times he faced as a poor farmer from South Carolina. He talked about one trip in particular through the grocery store and how it contrasted with his wife's recent trip to buy an expensive dress for Friday's ceremony.

"We had our grocery cart filled with everything we thought we could afford," 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 of the stuff that we bought back everywhere it was supposed to be and bought every can of black-eyed peas we could afford."

The crowd laughed. It laughed louder when Yarborough added, "We had black-eyed peas for breakfast, we had black-eyed peas for dinner, we had black-eyed peas for supper -- a long time."

Then you felt how much it meant to Yarborough to be inducted.

"Well, honey," he said as he looked into the audience at his wife, Betty Jo. "I'm glad you went and bought that outfit because you look good in it, and I'm glad we could afford it.

"But needless to say, this coming week we're going to be looking for another black-eyed peas sale."

Wonder how often Patrick looks for a sale on black-eyed peas? Wonder if she or the man in the Great Hall is aware that in 1972, when Waltrip entered the top series, women weren't allowed in the pits?

Waltrip literally had to make his wife the owner and a crew member to get her in.

And when you talk about great stories, no one tells them better than Waltrip.

He told so many on this night that you wondered if he'd still be talking when the 2013 ceremony began. From his first Daytona 500 -- when his wife gave him a ham and cheese sandwich during a green-flag pit stop because she thought he was hungry -- to the journey his daughter made to share this night, he didn't stop talking for 23 minutes and 39 seconds.

The only thing Waltrip didn't talk about in his speech was what it meant to learn he had been selected to the Hall. He did that later.

"Every week you try to win the race, every year you try to win a championship, every year you have to climb that mountain," Waltrip said. "This is the last mountain you have to climb. You're at the pinnacle.

"As far as I know, they won't kick you out. You don't have to go through any inspection or anything."

These things the man in the Great Hall needs to know.

These things are why NASCAR needs the Hall of Fame.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.