The primary purpose of my visit to Charlotte, North Carolina was to take in three Knights games at the outstanding BB&T BallPark, but with each of the three games taking place in the evenings, I had plenty of time to see and do other things — namely, I wanted to experience some of the city’s sports-focused attractions. The top item on my list was the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which is located about two blocks from the Hilton Charlotte Center City, where I stayed during this visit.
I’ve gone through phases of my life where I’ve been a huge NASCAR fan and other phases where I’ve been fairly indifferent to the sport. My interest in stock car racing has been climbing over the last year or so, partly because I’ve stopped watching the NFL, so I was eager to check out the hall. It opened in 2010, and I’ve seen several photos and videos of it online, all of which have looked thoroughly impressive. I expected it to offer a lot for even a casual fan, but I was blown away by how much fun I had visiting. I decided that the morning of my second day in town would be a perfect time to visit the hall for a few hours, and then I’d head over to the ballpark later in the day.
I made the short walk over to the hall just after 10 a.m., stopping to snap this photo of the plaza outside of the main entrance:
The giant glass wall on the left side of the building surrounds the hall’s crown jewel — the so-called “Glory Road,” which is a banked track that holds 18 cars from throughout the history of the sport. The track increases its banking up to 36 degrees, which is the same banking at Talladega Superspeedway — the fastest circuit on the NASCAR schedule. For each of the cars positioned around Glory Road, there’s a display that discusses the car in question and its role in NASCAR history. This is what it looks like inside from just inside the entrance:
I began by reading the displays on the left side, and then moving to the edge of the track to check out the cars. Here’s a 1964 Plymouth Belvedere that NASCAR legend Richard Petty drove to win his first of seven Cup championships:
And here’s Darrell Waltrip’s 1976 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, with a Gatorade paint scheme that the hall of famer used from 1976 to 1980, winning 25 races in the process:
Moving forward a few years, here’s the late Davey Allison’s 1987 Ford Thunderbird, a car in which he won rookie of the year honors that season:
Partway along the track, I stopped to grab this shot that shows me with the late Dale Earnhardt’s #3 Wrangler car, Jeff Gordon’s #24 DuPont car, Jimmie Johnson’s #48 Lowe’s car and Kyle Busch’s #18 M&M’s car:
It was interesting to watch the track’s banking increase the farther I walked. Want to know what 36 degrees looks like? Take a look at this next image:
Along the way, there were little openings that allowed you to stop up onto the track in an enclosed space. It’s no exaggeration to say that standing on anything above 30 degrees of banking is extremely difficult.
I enjoyed Glory Road enough that upon walking its entire length, I turned around, went back to the start and walked through it again. The crowd of visitors was extremely light during my visit, which gave me all the time I wanted to read the displays, snap photos and lean in to check out the different cars.
After my two trips through Glory Road, I went up to the Hall of Honor on the third floor of the building. This is the “hall” part of the hall of fame — a circular room with the plaques of the enshrinees positioned around the exterior. Below each plaque was a screen that played highlights specific to that person, and there was a biographical plaque below:
The next spot I visited, also on the third floor, was the Race Week Experience exhibit. It was highly interactive and would likely be the top attraction for any family visiting with children. There were cars, including this one in the foreground that was cut away to show the roll cage …
… as well as trailers, engines, and all sorts of things to see and touch. Want to experience what a race shop looks like? You might enjoy the following photo:
Or, maybe you’re curious about stepping foot in one of the race haulers? You can do that, too:
One of the interactive displays involved lifting a regulation gas can, which you’ll watch the crew members do with ease on TV. You might be surprised to know that when it’s full, it weighs 86 pounds. I may have been making a neutral facial expression in the following photo, but I was in a little duress — after all, I was holding the heavy gas can with one arm so that I could hold my camera with the other hand:
The coolest interactive display in the area, albeit one that wasn’t really photogenic, was getting to run a NASCAR engine. It was located behind thick Plexiglas, but you could throttle it up and hear it roar. Plexiglas aside, I could easily feel my body shaking as I stood a few feet away from it.
My next stop on my tour was the iRacing racing simulators — a definite thing to check out if you’re of the mindset that stock car racers “just turn left.” The experience began with a qualifying session on a small simulator. Every participant had a chance to get familiar with the controls while running a few laps, and it was roughly a gazillion times harder than I thought it would be. (I later learned that the simulations are the types that the drivers actually train on, so this wasn’t really like a conventional video game.)
If you’re wondering how I did qualifying, I’ll begrudgingly tell you that I didn’t complete a lap. I blew up my motor on my first attempt, and then spun out on attempts two and three. The blow-up part was especially embarrassing — a loud bang, followed by a lack of engine noise told me that I’d done something wrong.
“Um, I think I blew up my car,” I told the hall of fame employee who was overseeing the qualifying sessions. “I’m not sure how I did that.”
He had a theory that he offered: “Did you downshift while accelerating through a corner?”
“Yeah, I think so,” I replied. “Is that bad?”
With my fruitless qualifying session behind me, I made my way over to the “track.” This was an area with a handful of full-sized cars set up with simulators inside them. As I waited in line with about 10 other participants, we each got to choose which car we’d race as. I was eyeing up Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s #88 Nationwide car, and was able to claim it:
This is how the car looked a moment before I climbed in …
… but I’ll warn you that my race experience was about as successful as my qualifying experience. We were racing at Richmond International Raceway, because that’s where the NASCAR Cup series was racing the following weekend. It’s known as one of the toughest tracks on the circuit, and after spinning out during qualifying, I decided to take a gentler approach to the race. I was starting toward the back of the pack, and figured that when the green flag waved, everyone would accelerate so aggressively that they’d spin out in the first corner. I figured that if I was a little gentler with the throttle, I could cruise past them and build a commanding lead before eventually cruising to victory.
Feeling confident with this strategy, I dug into my seat, listened to the commands of my crew chief in my ear, and gripped the steering wheel. Nice and easy, nice and easy, I told myself.
When the green flag dropped, I got caught up in the moment and punched the gas pedal like a madman — and promptly spun out. As I was facing backward, I caught a glimpse of the pack in my rear-view mirror, quickly getting smaller and smaller until disappearing.
That inauspicious start was pretty much consistent with the entire race experience for me. I’d get straightened out, hammer the gas too hard, spin and watch cars lapping me. It was clear that “professional racer” isn’t going to be a qualification that I add to my resume anytime soon, but I can attest that the iRacing experience was an absolute blast — and definitely something that is worth checking out when you visit the hall of fame.
I wrapped up my visit with a lengthy browse through the fourth floor’s Heritage Speedway exhibit. It’s an enormous collection of artifacts from throughout the sport’s history. Trophies, helmets and all sorts of other displays were interesting to see, although not ideal for photographs because virtually everything was behind glass. Here’s one cool image, though — a multilevel display featuring drivers’ race-used fire suits and a handful of race trophies:
My favorite attraction in the Heritage Speedway section was seeing the actual car that Earnhardt, Jr. raced in the final Cup race of his career. Note the damage on the side and the front quarter panel:
This visit definitely helped to make my visit to Charlotte enjoyable, and I think it has also fueled my interest in following NASCAR a little more closely once again. If you’re visiting Charlotte for a baseball trip, but you’re looking for a fun way to spend a few hours during the daytime, I wholeheartedly recommend checking out the NASCAR Hall of Fame.