Wednesday, May 10, 2017

NASCAR in the South, Part Three: May 10, 2017--Hendrick Heritage Center and the Charlotte Superspeedway

The full program of our "NASCAR in the South" trip with the National Corvette Museum continued on a very hot Tuesday with a very short drive to the Hendrick Heritage Center.

Rick Hendrick is a very successful businessman who began as a mechanic and in 1976 became the youngest Chevrolet dealer in the United States with the acquisition of an under-performing dealership in South Carolina.  Things went on from there and the Hendrick Automotive Group is the sixth-largest dealership network in the country but the largest privately-owned one.  It boasts 98 dealerships across 13 states and over 10,000 employees, with 30,000 vehicles in inventory.  Revenues are over $5 billion annually so Mr. Hendrick, who has been heavily involved in NASCAR team ownership as well, can indulge his interests.  One of these is the Hendrick Heritage Center, his private car collection.  This is not open to the public but special arrangements can be made and the National Corvette Museum was able to give us the opportunity to see the treasure house.  Unfortunately photography is not allowed so I have had to glean some pictures from the Internet to give an idea of what this 21,000 square foot facility holds.

There are around 200 cars on display, with half of them being, sigh, Corvettes.  Mr. Hendrick has a particular fondness for 1967 Corvettes with the 427 motor and has one in every colour made--except for one, which they would not tell us.  I think the total for coupes and convertibles was around 24 cars.  There are many other Corvettes as he likes to buy the first and last of a production run.  And for his three grandchildren, he has salted away three Corvettes which actually came off the assembly line on each of their birthdays.

Rick Hendrick's first car (1932 Chevrolet), in front of a replica of his grandfather's store
The collection includes a lot of Camaros and then other cars which he has obtained through his dealership connections.  There was a very rare BMW that had some kind of weird paint finish (matte?) that meant it could not be washed like a normal car.  There are also structures inside the building, like a drive-in restaurant and an actual garage where work can be done on cars.

At one point, Mr. Hendrick had to sell a prized C2 Corvette to buy a dealership.  Decades later, he was able to hunt it down and buy it back and it was sitting in the lobby, restomodded with an LS3 engine.  The original engine was in poor condition--so it was turned into a huge glass-topped conference table we sat around!

1967 427 Corvette Roadster
The scale of the facility is astonishing but I (and, yes, I have some collector genes in me) found that it was not so much a collection as an accumulation possible through vast wealth.  It really had little meaning, except for things like the 1932 Chevrolet, his first car, which he hot-rodded with his father's help.  As a private collection, nothing is labelled to indicate why it is interesting or important except for a few things like the first C7 Z06.  Guides led us around in small groups so there was no wandering around on our own.  That said, it was nice that we were able to see it at all.

The Hendrick organization is very big in NASCAR and operates several teams.  We were able to walk over to the building housing the NASCAR racing car shop and look around (photography allowed!).  Lots of cars to look at and an enormous gift shop as well.

A portable pit cart for the team managers to watch the race
A very short distance away was our next destination: the Charlotte Motor Speedway.    We enjoyed an excellent buffet lunch in the Speedway Club Restaurant, a members-only place.  From the 6th floor we had an excellent view of the track, where so driving was taking place.  It is possible to get in a stock car or open-wheel racing car and do some laps and we watched some folks doing that.  But soon enough it was our turn to get on the track with our Corvettes.

Built in in 1959, the Speedway is a complex that includes not only the 2.4 km oval, which can be extended to a longer road course, but also a dragstrip and a dirt track. Seating capacity at the oval is 89,000.  After a safety briefing and getting all the cars in order, we left the pit area for the first four circuits.

The Baileys' beautiful C6 Convertible, written off a week after this trip when rear-ended on a highway exit
Surprise!  The first corner out of the pits has a 24 degree bank and entering it a bit too slowly one had the distinct impression the car was going to roll over to the left.  But once you are prepared for it, it is an easy matter to get the speed up and then slingshot off the top into the straightaway.  We were supposed to be driving at a parade speed of 60 mph, following a lead Camaro, but after coming back into the pits after our laps the track people said that we were all doing so well that we could go a bit faster.  Old retired people in Corvettes drive smoothly but also pretty quickly, we found!  It was great to let the Corvette open up and I quickly saw 100 mph/160 kmh come up on the long straight, still taking care to stay behind the car ahead.  I tended to shift later than I should have for maximum acceleration, being a neophyte to all this.

We ended up doing 10 more laps and I was really getting the hang of it, although my tire pressure warning light came up.  Driving on a track heats up the tires normally but it was an exceptionally hot day, around 100F/38C, so the air in the tires was expanding very quickly.  Things returned to normal after we had stopped for our group photo.

A memorable day, and the second time I had a chance to drive on a racetrack, following the Indianapolis Speedway in June 2016.  After our experience, which everyone really enjoyed, we headed back to the hotel 10 minutes away and dinner nearby.

Continue on to Part Four here...

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