On Tuesday, a day many had marked on their calendars for years finally became a reality. Before a gathered crowd of racing legends, politicians, dignitaries, and fans, executive director Winston Kelley declared the NASCAR Hall of Fame open to the public.
After years of planning, construction and anticipation, the nearly $195 million facility welcomed its first guests, some of which had the honor of walking through with soon-to-be Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Junior Johnson.
Once inside, the state of the art facility is simply awe inspiring. From the historic cars on Glory Road, to the Hall of Honor – which will come to life on May 23, 2010 – to the race week experience to the Heritage Speedway, each section of the NASCAR Hall of Fame will teach fans young and old the story that is NASCAR.
“I think if you’re going to be a top-five sport in this country, you need to have a Hall of Fame,” NASCAR Chairman Brian France said. “This is going to help obviously accomplish that. The sport is plenty credible now, this is not about that. It really is about a place fans can come, just like they do in Canton (Ohio, home of the NFL Hall of Fame) or any other place to celebrate and look back at the history of the sport. That’s important. For us not to have that, in a formal way, for all these years was not really the best approach. This is going to change that overnight, and so we’re really excited.”
Many have talked about the importance of teaching new fans and younger fans the history of NASCAR through the artifacts and stories told within these walls. Over the last three decades, NASCAR has grown from a regional sport to a billion-dollar industry, leading the way in terms of fan experience, fan involvement and business partnerships. By expanding to markets such as Los Angeles, Chicago and Las Vegas with a landmark television deal bringing coverage to every part of the country and even parts of the world, a wave of new fans have joined NASCAR nation in recent years. The Hall of Fame allows them and the fans yet to come a place to learn the history firsthand.
“I think there’s so many young fans and new fans, we have 75 million fans out there today and a lot of them are new over the past eight, 10 years that don’t realize the pioneers and where this sport came from and all the history that put the sport where it is today,” said team owner Richard Childress. “That’s the neatest thing. The NASCAR Hall of Fame here is for the fans and for the fans to understand how we got the sport today where it is.”
While new fans have the chance to learn about NASCAR through the Hall of Fame, those longtime fans that have been with the sport through it all will also fall in love with the Hall. With that influx of new fans and a concerted effort on NASCAR’s part to reach out to newer and different groups of people than they had in the past, many felt abandoned and even turned away from the sport. Some have felt the racing is not what it used to be and others believed NASCAR was rejecting its roots. But with Tuesday’s grand opening, those fans now have a place they can call home and relive the glory days of the sport.
“I think this jogs your memory,” Petty said. “The old fans, they come back and say, ‘I told you we don’t like it the way (NASCAR) is today. We wish it was like this, this or this.’ It also gives the new fans the chance to say, ‘This is where it was and this is where it’s at and we like this better than we like that.’ Everybody has their own little opinion.”
Regardless of how long you have been following NASCAR or whether you consider yourself a hardcore fan or simply a casual fan, the NASCAR Hall of Fame leaves a lasting impression. This is even true for the competitors that walked through the doors on Tuesday.
“I’m thrilled to see the guys that built the sport,” team owner and NFL Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs said. “You see so many people here that really were a major part of bringing the sport to where it is. A lot of those guys started out in the early days not giving one thought to a Hall of Fame or how good the racing was going to be. To be a part of that and see Richard up there and to get the chance to see the guys that brought the sport to where it is today, I can’t imagine what goes through their mind, I know it’s a real thrill for me.”
“I know the sport is so busy, we’re racing so much, to sit down and have that time to think about putting this all together is a real tough deal,” 1989 Cup Series champion Rusty Wallace said. “You listen to the speakers and there was a lot of behind the scenes things that went on that I had no idea was going on and a lot of the other drivers didn’t know was going on, but thank gosh it was. It’s real special. I have not been down here at all. I have not tried to sneak in or see what’s in there. I wanted to get the wow factor when I walked in, and the little I did see was wow.”
Wallace hit the nail on the head when he mentions the “wow factor” the NASCAR Hall of Fame produces. One of the most technologically advanced museums in the nation, the Hall allows fans to interact with displays using a “hard card” which serves as their ticket. They can change tires, jack up a car and attempt to add gas (minus the actual gas). Visitors can call their own race as a broadcaster or pit reporter. They can even experience how difficult it is to drive a Cup Series car by climbing behind the wheel of an iRacing.com simulator.
Whether you want to see how you could hang in the series or simply want a walk down memory lane, there truly is something for everyone within the NASCAR Hall of Fame.