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Holding a Pretty Wheel: NASCAR Hall of Fame Highlights the Sport’s Heart & Soul – Its Roots

It’s a good week to be a NASCAR fan. It began on Saturday night with the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (misnamed though it may be; the Southern 500 was never meant to be run in May), and it will culminate on Tuesday with the grand opening of the new NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte. The Hall was a long time coming, but after stopping by for a behind-the-scenes look last week I’m confident it will be an important part of the sport’s history for a long time to come.

The new Hall has a little something for everyone, from every era of stock car racing. Fans are welcomed with a short film, and if it doesn’t do anything for you, you’re probably in the wrong place to begin with. You come out of the theater, wide-eyed from the light and face-to-face with a contrast, the first of many. In the case on your left are four vintage trophies. In the case on your right, four brand new Sprint Cups.

In a minute, after your eyes have adjusted to the light, you begin the walk up Glory Road… and what a journey it is. On the “racetrack” to your left are an incredible display of racecars – and the tracks they raced on. The track begins as the flat surface found on the road courses and slowly rises, until it’s banked at 33 degrees, the degree of banking found in the corners at Talladega. The cars change as well, from the coupe, 1930s vintage, to the Car of Tomorrow, circa 2009. You can read about each as you climb, and the tracks featured aren’t just the ones the cars roar over today, but some of the sport’s best venues from the past, like the circular (really!) miler at Langhorne, Pa. And here’s the best part; you can touch the current track surfaces. The stairs to the bit of Talladega’s banks aren’t as steep as the piece of racetrack. The most abrasive to the touch wasn’t Darlington, long known for being hard on tires, but the hardly threatening Auto Club Speedway. Nashville’s concrete is grooved for grip, but still slippery in comparison. You can even walk on the banking at a couple of points.

On the way up those stairs, the racecars change as well, from the Fabulous Hudson Hornet to Richie Evans’s modified to a race truck. Frozen in time, Jeff Gordon’s car and Dale Earnhardt’s appear to be racing one last time for the same piece of real estate. Bringing up the rear, in an ironic twist that still somehow seems OK, is the Impala of Jimmie Johnson.

As the track fades into the checkers, on the right is the heart of the Hall, where those deemed worthy will someday be inducted, their name and accomplishments permanently etched on a silver spire, their cars, silent now, at the center of the room. Those won’t be uncovered until after Induction Day on May 23. You feel… quiet here, reverent. It’s a different feel from the rest of the massive display.

The interactive displays on the next floor are interesting: you can hold car parts, feel their weight and the weight of their importance. You can play NASCAR inspector, and find changes to parts nearly impossible to see with the naked eye. You learn how teams have tried – only sometimes successfully – to bend the rules for that all-important advantage. Honesty here is measured in fractions of inches, and reminds you of the age old racers’ adage: if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’ hard enough. You can try to qualify a car on a simulator (I crashed on all three attempts. The over-sympathetic attendant told me it was OK; I’m not any worse than Sam Hornish Jr. I am not making this up.) All the while, you accrue points. After seeing and trying everything, you can add them up to receive your “team assignment.” I got driver, which was almost at the bottom of the barrel (My Hornish-esque laps either didn’t matter or killed me, depending on what side of the fence you sit.) I can’t decide whether to be insulted… it seems to subtly say, “the only way you wouldn’t be a hazard to everyone on pit road is to not be there, so just go drive.”

That part was a lot of fun, and fans are sure to learn a lot about the preparation that teams put into racing today. Pit crew members are given their due with small plaques outlining their accomplishments.

Then you go upstairs, and you enter the pinnacle of the Hall, both literally and figuratively. Here are artifacts that show the real roots of the sport and the lifeblood that keeps it alive today, sometimes against the odds. The first thing you see is a film about NASCAR’s beginnings, and next to the screen is a moonshine still assembled by Junior Johnson’s own hands. Here, at least, NASCAR recognizes its rough and tumble roots without the hint of shame you sometimes sense elsewhere. As you progress through the displays here – and do give yourself plenty of time; done right, this is a whole day endeavor and too little time is unsatisfying – you will see bits and pieces of the events and people (mostly the people) which have made NASCAR, bit by bit, into the sport it is today. Sit on racecar seats from the past; the bench of the early days that were often cut in half, the passenger side removed to reduce weight, and jury-rigged with aircraft harness and other straps and buckles to restrain the driver. You end with the form-fitting carbon fiber custom seat of today, with its head restraints and mandated six-point harness.

Along the way, there are small plaques, paying tribute to many of the people in NASCAR, drivers, mechanics, media are all included. Ricky Craven’s Tide ride that he drove to a .002-second victory over Kurt Busch at Darlington is there, and you can watch some of the most exciting finishes in history on video. It’s a bit bittersweet to see them, because there are a good half-dozen from Darlington and Rockingham, but none from Fontana or Phoenix. Davey Allison had one ugly pair of cowboy boots, and they sit next to his father’s childhood marching band uniform. There’s a letter of reprimand, sort of anyway, that NASCAR once sent to Lee Petty – that’s an absolute must-see, as is the piece of SAFER barrier that Michael McDowell hit in his horrific crash at Texas, a wreck that McDowell walked away from unscathed. A jacket donated by Fireball Roberts’s fiancée revealed other surprises; nobody had looked in the pockets for more than 40 years, and the items found are displayed with the jacket. Gordon’s original application for a NASCAR license is there, even as Gordon prepares to tie Cale Yarborough for fifth on the all-time wins list.

All of these exhibits; small things, really, in the grand scheme of it all, add up to what really made NASCAR the popular sport it is today. From the cornfields of the South and the beach at Daytona to today’s national phenomenon, just as every bolt and bar is important on a racecar, every piece of history is a part of the whole. And the small pieces of that story, more than the names of the best drivers ever, more than how to make a perfect qualifying lap on the simulator, is what fans should learn while they visit the Hall of Fame. It’s truly what NASCAR is made of.

Every fan who passes through the door should pay attention to the things they see, to the people and things that have shaped the sport for 60 years and more. This narrative is vital to the sport’s future; NASCAR cannot move forward without an understanding of its past, and the Hall recognizes that. Fans, even casual fans, should come to learn, not just to see what they want of their favorites, but to really learn what the heart and soul of stock car competition is about. While the racing has left most of these people and things behind, the Hall celebrates them for what they were – NASCAR’s lifeblood. It’s what every fan should go to learn; their stories, coupled with the races you see every Sunday, is NASCAR. It’s the root and the heart of the sport we love so much.

It’s what’s real.

And another thing…

  • I love the drive to Darlington more than any other trip on the circuit. It’s beautiful and painful at once, small town America still reeling from the loss of the mills and factories that once brought prosperity, but proud and strong.
  • While I understand completely the desire of a driver to finish a race, staying out for endless laps with a known problem isn’t smart. AJ Allmendinger knew on Saturday night that his brakes were bad to the point of being nearly nonexistent for 40 or 50 laps, and yet stayed on the racetrack until he wrecked, destroying his car along with Johnson’s. In doing so, Allmendinger forgot racing’s cardinal rule: to finish first, first you must finish. Had Allmendinger and his team brought the car in for repairs, he might have finished the race. Instead, he put his safety, and that of the other drivers, at stake. If I were a car owner, I’d rather see my car finish in one piece, laps down from repair, than the way Allmendinger’s race ended.
  • Another thing I don’t understand and absolutely cannot stand is the way some fans cheer a crash before they know if the driver is unhurt or not. You don’t have to like a guy, but cheering while his wife and crew ask frantically on the radio if he’s OK shows a complete lack of sportsmanship and understanding of the sport. Spend the energy cheering for your guy instead.
  • Finally, as NASCAR looks to realign the schedule for 2011 and beyond, those at the top need to remember that calling a race the Southern 500 doesn’t make it so. The Southern 500 was run at Darlington on Labor Day Weekend, not in May. And it would be so easy to bring back what was once the sport’s oldest tradition, as well as one of its most prestigious. Come on NASCAR, Kentucky in May sounds OK….

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