Among those inducted was Richard Petty.
Now, given that Richard Petty has a car on exhibit at the Smithsonian, his place in American History is pretty well secure.
But Richard Petty is special because he, over most if not all professional athletes, exemplifies what we would like all role models to be.
I buy Charles Barkley’s statement that he’s a basketball player, not a role model, that parents should be and should select the role models for their children. I don’t believe that just because someone wins 200 races or sets a record for triple doubles or breaks a home run record he (or she) should automatically be called a role model.
I actually think that parents should be the ones to point at a public figure and tell their children that person is a good role model.
In that area, I am in agreement with Barkley.
But it is nice to be able to point to a professional athlete who has had a long, successful career and is worthy of being pointed to by a NASCAR Dad when he is seeking an example for his children.
Richard Petty is such a person.
The statistics speak for themselves. 200 wins, seven Winston Cup championships, success as a driver, a car owner and an ambassador for a sport which actually came to national prominence after his career was mostly over.
But what makes Petty special was that he understood that without fans in the seats, he might as well have won those 200 races on a Playstation video game.
My favorite Petty story came from former NBA standout Brad Daugherty some years ago in a conversation at the media center of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Daugherty had just held a press conference announcing that he was starting a team in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck series and, I had to ask him a question which was racially sensitive without turning into a big deal, if it wasn’t.
That question was, why does a black guy—who just happened to have a career in the NBA—get involved in NASCAR, a sport then dominated by predominately white, southern guys?
Turns out that, growing up in North Carolina his father took him to NASCAR races as a kid. And, one day, at the old North Wilkesboro speedway, he was standing at the fence when Richard Petty came by.
“I yelled ‘Hey Richard Petty,” said Daugherty. And then Petty turned around and spent 20 minutes talking to a nine year old black kid, signing autographs and answering questions.
“I was hooked,” Daugherty told me.
That, folks, in a nutshell, is a role model.
Petty’s son, Kyle, during the induction ceremony, said that the real secret is that Richard Petty, American Icon and King of stock car racing is actually a huge fan of the sport.
In a day when you can run 25th every week and make more than a nice living, that’s, frankly, not the norm. Big money changes everything.
Many of the people at the racetrack every week could not be remotely classified as fans. They are there for the money. Same for the NBA, the NFL and Major League Baseball.
That doesn’t make them bad athletes. Or unworthy of rooting for. Or even unworthy of being enshrined in halls of fame.
But, as Barkley so famously once said, it doesn’t make them role models.
Richard Petty, on the other hand, not only deserves his enshrinement in a hall of fame but every bit of the title role model.
One title you earn by athletic accomplishment. The title of role model you earn by being a good citizen and worrying about your accomplishments off the playing field.
We can only hope that somebody in every field of endeavor who becomes a public figure looks at the career of Richard Petty and decides it is worth emulating.