Tuesday, May 9, 2017

NASCAR in the South, Part Two: May 9, 2017--The NASCAR Hall of Fame and Racing Shops

After breakfast, we gradually all assembled in the parking lot of the hotel as the "NASCAR in the South" tour was to officially begin.  Our first day would see us drive to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, where we would leave our cars in the parking garage in a set-aside spot for the entire day.  After touring the Hall of Fame, we would then go on a tour by bus of some of the NASCAR racing workshops found in the region.

Setting the GPS on our destination but hoping just to follow everyone else--we were being guided by locals from the Charlotte Corvette club--we found ourselves on I-85 during the rush hour into Charlotte.  Clearly there is a great deal of NASCAR influence in the region as the drivers who surrounded us in their pickups and muscle cars clearly thought they were on some kind of race track or (shudder) a demolition derby.  Changing across four lanes without signalling, entering into merging traffic at high speed, etc., and all in very heavy traffic.  It was with some relief that our 40 minute trip ended with no Corvettes destroyed and I was very happy to park in the great big empty floor reserved for us at the Hall of Fame.

NASCAR is a significant contributor to the region's economy and when a Hall of Fame was planned Charlotte was a leading contender, along with Atlanta and Daytona Beach.  The city was selected in 2006 and the $160 million building, owned by the City of Charlotte, was opened in May 2011.  It covers 150,000 square feet, with 40,000 square feet of exhibition space, and receives 170,000 visitors each year.

Our  visit began with an orientation session in the theatre, where we watched a film about NASCAR, its origins and current situation, and heard from our highly entertaining tour guide, Jimmy Kowalski, who would be taking us after our tour of the Hall of Fame in a bus to visit several racing team workshops in the area.

The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) is an American auto racing sanctioning and operating company privately owned and headquartered in Daytona Beach, Florida.  It was founded by Bill France, Sr., in 1948 at a meeting at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona in an attempt to bring order into the chaotic world of stock car racing.  NASCAR sanctions over 1,500 races at 100 tracks in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Japan and Europe.  Attendance and television viewership have been in decline since their high water marks in 2008 but still ranks highly in American sports entertainment.

1959 Oldsmobile, replica of the car raced by Lee Petty in winning the 1959 Daytona 500 race

Customized Mustang developed by Richard Petty
Stepping into the Hall of Fame proper, you being the tour in the Great Hall, the central area of the building, which features changing exhibits.  We were there when an exhibit devoted to the Petty family was on display.  Around the interior edge of the structure is greeted with Glory Road, an impressive banked ramp housing 18 cars from different NASCAR eras.  The banking is 33 degrees, similar to that of the Talladega Superspeedway.

Petty family racing gear

Richard Petty's 1964 Plymouth Belvedere, winner of the 1964 Daytona 500, marking the introduction of the Chrysler 426 Hemi engine into stock car racing

1999 Chevrolet Monte Carlo raced by Dale Earnhardt in the Winston Cup

E.Glenn "Fireball" Roberts' 1957 Ford.  Roberts won the Daytona 500 in 1962 and is considered one of NASCAR's Top 50 drivers

1982 Oldsmobile Omega raced by Sam Ard, who took 22 victories in 3 seasons

Richie Evans' 1939 Chevrolet Coupe  Modified Class racing car: Evans scored 475 wins in an estimated 1,300 starts and raced almost every night of the week

1990 Ford Thunderbird driven by Neil Bonnett

1952 Hudson Hornet, driven to victory at Daytona Beach by Marshall Teague
The upper floors of the Hall of Fame include not only the plaques for the inductees themselves but also a lot more on the history of NASCAR.  Its origins go back to folk myths about moonshiners outrunning government agents in their hotrodded cars and there is even an actual still on display.  Apparently Junior Johnson, a NASCAR driver of some renown. was present when the exhibit was inaugurated and offered to produce some whiskey with it!

The 3rd floor of the building has a number of interactive displays, including one devoted to Race Week, where you have to make decisions regarding your car's set-up as appropriate to the particular track, as well as a huge  simulator area where visitors can race against each other.  There is a display where you can be timed doing a NASCAR pit stop as you change a tire and refuel a car.  I liked the trailer exhibit, where you can walk through one of the mammoth race trailers which serve as a garage for several cars above and a workshop/office/lounge below.

Simulator area

The Heritage Speedway is featured on the 4th floor and includes trophies, racing suits and paraphernalia from nearly seven decades of NASCAR racing. 

After a simple lunch at the Hall of Fame, we boarded our bus and headed out of town to visit the racing shops.  The first establishment was Richard Petty Motorsports in Welcome, NC.  Richard Petty is one of stock car racing's most famous drivers, having competed in 1,184 races over three decades, and remains the most winningest with 200 victories.  The shop was a bit smaller than I had expected and Petty Racing, unlike the larger teams, was only fielding one driver,  That driver required multiple cars since there are so many NASCAR events and damage is very common as drivers battle at close quarters "trading paint."  The current Petty driver (using the iconic "43" number is Darrell "Bubba" Wallace, Jr.--an excellent name for a NASCAR driver!

While photos were allowed in the lobby (and gift shop, a feature of all the places we visited), they were not permitted in the workshop itself.  I am not sure why this was as NASCAR racing cars, which were in various states of assembly, are not anything like high technology.  There is a stout steel tube frame and over this sheet metal is formed to have the general appearance of the "stock" car portrayed.  In Petty Motorsports' case it was supposed to be the Ford Fusion but the only part from Ford directly is the front clip.  The headlights are simply stickers and there are no doors or other features you would find on a real road car--a long way from Fireball Roberts' 1957 Ford!

A short drive away from the Petty shop was that of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., JR Motorsports, a much larger facility.  Earnhardt is the son of one of NASCAR's most beloved stars.  Earnhardt Sr. was nicknamed "the Intimidator" and enjoyed an amazing string of victories until his death at the Daytona 500 in 2001 (the last death of a NASCAR driver in a race).  Dale Jr. recently retired from racing after a very successful career, including two Daytona 500 wins.  Although he did race for his father's team at one point, most of Dale Jr's career was spent with the Rick Hendricks racing organization.

No. 3 Chevrolet Impala raced by Dale Earnhardt Sr., and then Dale Jr. in a tribute to his father in 2010.  It was taken from the track and put on display with all the dust of the event still there.
Up to this point everything had seemed on a fairly modest scale, although huge amounts of money are involved.  Charlotte is the major centre of US auto racing and 75% of NASCAR teams are based in the area.  Our next stop showed where the real money was: Team Penske.

Roger Penske, after a brief racing career, founded Roger Penske Racing in 1965 and is the team owner with the most Indianapolis 500 wins (17) to his name.  A billionaire entrepreneur, his companies include car dealerships, truck rentals, and, through Team Penske, numerous racing teams in NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA events, among others.  We visited the shop that does the NASCAR series.  No restrictions on photography here but the shop was breathtaking.  Huge and hyper-clean, it was a very professional organization.

A serious gift shop for NASCAR fans

Penske Racing's 1972 Harvester International Fleetstar, used for car transport from 1972-1982.  Nicknamed "the Blue Hilton," it underwent an 8,000 man hour restoration and was prepared in time for Roger Penske's 80th birthday.  It transported the No. 66 Mclaren that Mark Donohue drove to victory in the 1972 Indianapolis 500.
Our final stop on the tour was in Huntersville at Joe Gibbs Racing, founded by the former coach of the Washington Redskins football team in 1991.  Instead of the pseudo-Fords of Petty or Penske, or the pseudo-Chevrolets of JR Motorsports, Gibbs Racing fields pseudo-Toyotas and has done so quite successfully, which must be a bit disturbing to die-hard American patriot NASCAR fans.  The organization runs cars in three different NASCAR series, using eight different drivers.  The building we visited was constructed in 1998 and, like all the shops, was spotlessly clean.  It was the end of the working day so things were winding down but we still had the chance to look at the cars in preparation from a nice viewing gallery.

As neophytes to the NASCAR universe, we learned a great deal on our tour.  We returned to the Hall of Fame, said goodbye to Mr. Kowalski, and found an excellent restaurant in downtown Charlotte for some fine food and craft beer before driving back to Concord and our hotel.

Continue to Part Three here...

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