CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Rusty Wallace touched on his early days trying to make it as a professional race car driver, the lessons he learned from NASCAR's pioneers and his relentless push to drive for Roger Penske in an energetic acceptance into the Hall of Fame.
Then Wallace, winner of 55 races and the 1989 championship, called Friday night's induction "the biggest day of my driving career."
Wallace was the headliner of the fourth Hall of Fame class, which included innovative mechanic and crew chief Leonard Wood, former series champions Buck Baker and Herb Thomas and former car owner Cotton Owens. Wallace and Wood are the only two living members of this year's class.
"The thing I learned, and I said it the driver meeting in 2005 the day I retired and walked out, I said 'This is a privilege. This is a privilege to race in NASCAR. You don't have to do it, we're not making you do it. It's a privilege to race in NASCAR, and it's a blessing for me to be in this sport and do what I've done,'" Wallace said. "I just hope all the young drivers respect NASCAR as much as I respect it and go out there and say nice things about NASCAR and help build this sport."
Wallace has been a tireless ambassador for NASCAR, taking a hands-on role in promotion after winning his championship that continued into retirement. He's currently an analyst for ESPN.
"I feel so different, I feel so happy. I feel like my career has finally got a period on the end," Wallace said after the ceremony. "People are already acting different, they are acting kinder. They are calling me Mr. Wallace and treating me different."
Wood, who was inducted a year after his older brother, Glenn, made a point to thank Ford Motor Company. The famed No. 21 Wood Brothers entry has a long association with the blue oval.
"If it wasn't for Ford Motor Company and my brother, Glenn, I wouldn't be up here," said Wood, who also listed every racer who has driven the No. 21.
Wallace found a twist in being inducted with Leonard Wood, who was the first person to congratulate him following his first career Cup win at Bristol.
"He stuck his hand in the window and said 'Kid, congratulations,' and I could hear his voice over the engine," Wallace said. "Leonard was the first guy to congratulate me for winning at Bristol and I'm going into the Hall of Fame with you."
Baker was introduced by Jeff Gordon, one of five active drivers chosen to introduce the nominees. Gordon talked about being a proud graduate of Baker's driving school, a tale also touched on by the late Baker's wife, Susan.
She recalled getting a call from someone pushing for Gordon to be accepted into the driving school, and Baker later getting the same call. Baker listened as Gordon was described as the next great star of NASCAR, and said simply at the end: "I don't want you to bring some S.O.B down here and he tears all my cars up."
Baker was the first driver to win consecutive NASCAR premier series championships. His 1956 and 1957 titles came during a four-year span when he finished in the top two in points in all four seasons.
It was only fitting that Owens was inducted into the Hall by David Pearson, the driver who won him a championship and was a devoted friend long after their racing careers ended.
Pearson, a member of the second class for the Hall, inducted former driver and car owner Owens in Friday night's ceremony. Owens died at 88 in June, weeks after learning he had been voted into the Hall's fourth class.
His inclusion was pushed for by both Pearson and Bud Moore, a member of the inaugural class. The two were among Owens' closest friends and the three were nearly inseparable around Spartanburg, S.C.
"He was a good guy, and my friend, and one of the best friends I had," Pearson said. "Every Sunday after church I'd go pick him up, been that way for years. Everybody thought when we were split up we were mad at each other."
Pearson won 27 races driving for Owens, as well as the 1966 championship.
Owens won nine races as a driver, then transitioned into ownership. He finished second in points in 1959 to Hall of Famer Lee Petty, and won more than 100 races in NASCAR's modified division.
He was named one of NASCAR's 50 greatest drivers in 1998.
"In our family book, there was no better racer than Cotton Owens," grandson Kyle Davis said in accepting Owens' induction. "He took great pride in the fact he could build a car from the ground up. ... He was a wizard turning wrenches and behind the wheel."
Thomas was remembered as a hard worker who never forgot his farming roots during his induction.
Thomas, the first driver to win two NASCAR championships, died in 2000. A two-time champion at NASCAR's top level, he also finished second in points twice and ended the year in the top two in four consecutive seasons from 1951-54.
Thomas won 48 races and ranks 13th on the career wins list.
Joel Thomas said his father returned to working on the family tobacco farm in Olivia after his retirement.
"He was always kind and fair to everyone, and wasn't afraid of hard work," Joel Thomas said. "He operated his own saw mill and almost 50 years later was excited to teach me how to run it. When dad finally retired from racing in 1962, he worked on the farm with his family for many years. Those were wonderful years."