By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The distinguished NASCAR Hall of Fame class of 2018 includes a formidable array of eclectic talent: NASCAR’s first champion, arguably the sport’s most innovative crew chief, racing’s most recognizable voice, the Camping World Truck Series’ all-time leading winner and a revered engine-builder-turned car owner.
The first member of the 2018 class inducted on Friday night at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Red Byron, was a man of many “firsts.” He won NASCAR’s first sanctioned race on the Daytona Beach Road Course in 1948. That same year, he claimed NASCAR’s first season-long championship – in the NASCAR Modified Division.
A year later, Byron won the inaugural championship in NASCAR’s Strictly Stock Division, which later would evolve into the current Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. In his title season, Byron drove for team owner Raymond Parks, a fellow NASCAR Hall of Fame member.
Byron competed for the last time in NASCAR racing in 1951, and though he died in 1960, he left an indelible impression as the sport’s first champion.
As 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. put it during his introduction of Byron, “He set the foundation for the rare few who capture the most coveted prize in motorsports, a championship at NASCAR’s highest level.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr, who is about to embark on a broadcasting career with NBC Sports, introduced the second inductee, Ken Squier, the 1970 co-founder of the Motor Racing Network. It was Squier who called the watershed 1979 Daytona 500 – the race that put NASCAR on the map – for CBS television.
“He made watching a race an introspective portrait of our own journey,” Earnhardt said of the legendary broadcaster. “And tonight, fittingly, the NASCAR Hall of Fame becomes part of his journey.”
In fact, it was also Squier who coined the nickname “Great American Race” for NASCAR’s most prestigious event, a moniker that has endured.
“This is always a thank-you time speech,” Squier said with his usual wry humor. “Some of us are inconceivably lucky to call these folks friends. I think we all call them heroes. And I’m feeling like an odd duck in a fancy flock of geese, let me tell you.
Kevin Harvick, who spent his formative days in NASCAR racing sleeping on Ron Hornaday Jr.’s couch, introduced his mentor and friend as the third new member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
A competitor in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series since its inception in 1995, Hornaday posted a remarkable record, winning a series-best 51 races and an unparalleled four series championships.
Former NASCAR Camping World Truck Series director Wayne Auton provided a touching tribute to Hornaday in his induction speech.
“More than being in a Hall of Fame, you really need to be in a Hall of Fame of people because of the way you care for everybody,” Auton said to Hornaday. “You let people sleep on your couch that you didn’t even know, and look where they’re at today, and now you are in the Hall of Fame.
“Instead of Ron Hornaday, champion, you’re now Ron Hornaday, NASCAR Hall of Famer. And it’s been an honor to get to see all those records you’ve broken, but it’s more of an honor to call you a friend.”
Hornaday exulted in the moment.
“This is for every short track racer that ever had a dream, ever had a heart, ever believed in anything that you can believe in – this is it,” Hornaday said. “Hall of Fame, and what a class I’m in with.”
The induction of three-time champion crew chief Ray Evernham was the proud duty of Evernham’s son Ray J Evernham and four-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon.
As a testament to Evernham’s work ethic, Gordon spoke of his first championship and the lackluster final race of that 1995 season.
“We didn’t perform very well,” Gordon said of the finale in Atlanta. “But we did win the championship. And to tell you what kind of person Ray Evernham was, I think he enjoyed that championship for maybe a split second before he started thinking about what was wrong with that race car.
“And he showed up at the shop the next morning, the day after we won that championship, to figure out what was wrong with that race car. And he found it.”
Evernham, who revolutionized the sport’s approach to pit crew performance, credited Gordon with a large part of his Hall of Fame resume. But Gordon wasn’t the only one.
“I think that’s when you look back at your career you realize there’s so many people that helped you, whether they taught you something or gave you a few bucks, a pat on the back or a vote of confidence,” said Evernham, who teamed with Gordon to win 47 Cup races.
The most emotional moment of the evening accompanied the posthumous induction of team owner and engine builder Robert Yates, who, stricken with cancer, wrote a message for the special occasion before his death on Oct. 2.
Dale Jarrett, who claimed the 1999 championship driving for Yates, read and recorded the message Yates left for the NASCAR community to hear. Edsel B. Ford II, a member of the board of directors for Ford Motor Company inducted the champion car owner.
“When I started in racing, this was not the goal,” Yates said through Jarrett. “All I wanted to do throughout my career was win races. I would always say, ‘I don’t race for the money, I race to win.’ For me, that’s what it’s always been about, but to be part of this year’s induction class is a true honor. There are a lot of other people I want to thank because this isn’t really about me; it’s about those who gave me the opportunity to do something I love.”
NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France and International Speedway Corporation CEO Lesa France Kennedy accepted the Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR on behalf of their uncle, James C. “Jim” France.
Chairman of the Board of ISC, Jim France most recently spearheaded the $400-million Daytona Rising project that transformed Daytona International Speedway into the world’s first motorsports stadium.
“The Landmark Award was designed to recognize people behind the scenes who you may not see often but make a big difference, and that’s exactly what my uncle has done through my whole career,” Brian France said.
“And the most important thing he’s done that I would tell you tonight is make sure our family stays going in one direction helping grow NASCAR in a good, smart way, and I have the utmost respect. So it’s really proud for me and my sister and the rest of his family to recognize my Uncle Jim for the Landmark Award tonight.”
At the NASCAR Hall of Fame dinner that preceded the induction ceremonies, veteran motorsports writer Norma “Dusty” Brandel was honored with the Squier-Hall Award for Media Excellence. Brandel, from Glendale, California, was the first female reporter to cover the sport.
Asked if she thought in 1972 that she would ever be the recipient of NASCAR’s most distinguished media award, Brandel said, “No. Never. I think I’m going to cry.”