Let’s face it. There are museums, and then there are museums. And then there are a handful of sites that are so much more than museums that they are actually their own little universe, focused on a particular subject, event, or sport.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame ain’t no stinkin’ museum; it’s a virtual way of life.
Take a wild guess. Where would you expect a NASCAR Hall of Fame to be located?
New York City? Nah, too many museums there already.
Las Vegas? Nope. Wayne Newton’s got that one sewn up.
St. Louis? Negative. Too much Clydesdale poop.
Boise? Are you kidding? (Sorry, Idahoans…)
OK, you guessed it. Charlotte. Not even Mooresville. Beautiful downtown Charlotte. Smack dab in the middle of the NASCAR universe, just as you’d expect.
Opened in 2010, the NASCAR Hall of Fame is much more than a museum. Practically speaking, it’s really like ten museums rolled into one. In all, the facility spans more than 150,000 square feet, which is approximately the size of the entire infield at the Bristol, TN track. The Hall of Fame is strategically located right next to the Charlotte Convention Center, which provides great synergy for both venues. The Hall of Fame is a terrific diversion for folks attending various conventions and conferences next door. And having the convention center adjoining the Hall of Fame provides nearly unlimited room for expansion or overflow if a large function is being held at the Hall.
Taken all at once, the NASCAR experience could be overwhelming. But the NASCAR Hall of Fame is structured as a series of sub-museums, more than a half-dozen of them, each an attraction in its own right, plus shopping, dining, and meeting areas.
Collectively, the various areas represent all the key aspects of NASCAR racing – the cars, the drivers, the tracks, plus all of the rich history of stock car racing, which traces its roots to the moonshine-runners of the 1930s. Much of the facility is interactive, and all of it is family-friendly, in the true NASCAR tradition. And, in addition to the permanent displays, there are constantly-changing special exhibits, based on specific themes, that keep the tour fresh and interesting, for first-timers as well as repeat visitors.
A First Impression is a Lasting One
Your first view of the Hall is sure to impress. Sweeping architecture provides an immediate impression of motion and speed, and leaves no question but that you are about to have an experience that will leave you with the feeling that 20W-50 racing oil is coursing through your veins.
The Ceremonial Plaza that greets you was cleverly designed using special brick pavers that lend an immediate impression of “The Brickyard” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which, by the way, continues to feature brick paving at the start/finish line, even though the rest of the track itself, of course, is paved with much more appropriate asphalt. But the pavers in front of the Hall immediately set the tone for the experience soon to follow.
The Plaza is often used for various functions and ceremonial events, made all the more favorable by the usually-warm and comfortable Carolina climate.
But First, Some Background
You’ll want to start your tour and experience with the proper perspective, so your first stop will be the Belk High Octane Theater, sponsored by the large southern chain of Belk Department Stores, a company with a long history of community involvement. In this 275-seat theater you’ll view a film that will properly position NASCAR’s history and posture for the tour to follow. It provides an important perspective, so you’ll have an appreciation for the checkered history behind the current NASCAR phenomenon.
The film is both fun and informative, and the surround sound makes you feel like you’re in the driver’s seat of the cars spanning NASCAR’s history, from the original beaches of Daytona to the current cars and circuits on the NASCAR schedule.
On to the Great Hall
Once inside the Great Hall, you’ll find race cars and much, much more. The cars, presented in as-raced condition, span all the glory years of NASCAR, and some of the most special are displayed on Glory Road, a simulated banked oval spiraling upward toward heaven . The priceless cars in this particular display area, featured older to newer, include a Richard Petty Plymouth and Pontiac, David Pearson’s famous Purolator Mercury, and cars raced by the late Dale Earnhardt and current racer Jeff Gordon.
In addition to the Glory Road display, other race cars adorn the Great Hall, some on permanent display, and some rotate in and out of the Great Hall.
For instance, currently finishing up is a special display titled, “Wrecks! Dramatic Crashes of NASCAR,” which features as-raced and as-wrecked cars from some of NASCAR’s most spectacular crashes. Included are two particularly noteworthy cars that each flipped a record-holding nine times. Michael McDowell’s car flipped nine times at Texas, and Phil Parsons’ Pontiac went over nine times at Talladega. Neither driver was seriously injured. Other specially-themed exhibits appear throughout the year, including race viewing parties, open to the public, where you can experience races in real time in the Belk High Octane Theater.
But the Great Hall holds much more for visitors. There are countless items of memorabilia, including drivers’ suits and helmets, engines and car parts, trophies, and even the actual moonshine still that led Junior Johnson to his career in racing.
In the Great Hall, you don’t just see, you also “do.” The designers have done an extraordinary job of making much of the facility interactive, for “kids” of all ages. You can try your hand at driving on a true-to-life simulator, or see if you’ve got what it takes to speed your way through a 14-second pit stop. You can also walk through a real-life race team hauler to see the kind of spares, tools, and equipment it takes to support a high-end race effort.
All Hail, the Hall of Honor…
Since the Hall of Fame is really a Hall of Fame, a top priority is to honor those whose efforts have made NASCAR what it is today. To that end, each year since the NASCAR Hall of Fame was founded in 2010, five honorees are inducted. While mostly chosen from the ranks of successful and noteworthy drivers, as you would expect, nominees and inductees come from the ranks of crew chiefs, team owners, businessmen, and others who have contributed to the growth and success of the sport.
Of course, members of the Hall of Fame include the noteworthy drivers you’d expect, like Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, and Junior Johnson. But also included are Bill France, Sr. and Bill France, Jr., both instrumental in developing the whole concept and posture of NASCAR. Other inductees include Glen and Leonard Wood of the famed Wood Brothers, who pioneered innovations in engine building and pit road strategies that form the basis today of virtually all successful NASCAR teams.
Each year’s class includes just five inductees, making this a very exclusive club indeed. Selection is done by several groups of electors that include NASCAR industry leaders, manufacturer representatives, former competitors, the media and fans, who can vote on-line for the superstar of their choice. Other electors include media representatives, car manufacturer representatives, retired drivers, retired owners, retired crew chiefs, and other industry leaders.
Just twenty-five nominees are considered each year. Nominees must meet certain criteria, including years of participation in NASCAR racing.
Your Own Private Race Week
You’ll want to be sure to take in the Race Week area of the facility, as this affords a terrific look behind the scenes, depicting all the activity that goes into preparing for a NASCAR race. Just as a concert is the culmination of many practice sessions and dress rehearsals, so is the running of a NASCAR race. As in any endeavor, success in motorsports depends on thorough preparation, and Race Week provides a surprisingly realistic depiction of the work that’s done during the week prior to a race. It gives you a taste of what teams must do to pass NASCAR’s rigorous technical inspection, including body panel templates to assure that the size and shape of each car conforms to precise standards.
History buffs as well as anyone curious about the evolution of motorsports in general and NASCAR racing in particular can immerse themselves in archival materials of every description in the Heritage Speedway. Cars, parts, suits, helmets, literature, promotional materials, race track programs, and much more are available for close inspection. Most folks will marvel at the crudeness of early cars and safety equipment of the day. But remember that all such items are viewed through the prism of today’s standards — those that allow for drivers to walk away from horrendous crashes. It’s precisely this perspective that makes the NASCAR Hall of Fame so fascinating to all those who love motorsports, and even to many who don’t share the love…
Track your visit with a “Hard Card.” Your admission to the NASCAR Hall of Fame includes a NASCAR Hard Card, which is your ticket to all areas of the facility, and also allows you to record and track your progress through the facility and your success in driving racing simulators, participation in pit stops, and other interactive exhibits.
And when you’ve finally explored all the nooks and crannies of the vast hall, you can enjoy well-deserved rest and refreshment in the Pit Stop Café, and shop for souvenirs for yourself and others in the Gear Shop.
Whether you’re intrigued by the personalities of the drivers, fascinated by the technology (or lack thereof…) in stock car racers over the years, or just interested in learning more about how NASCAR racing has become the powerhouse of competition and entertainment that it is, the NASCAR Hall of Fame belongs on your “must-do” list.
by Glen Quagmire
(all photos courtesy NASCAR Hall of Fame)