CHARLOTTE, N.C. • "I can see Dale Sr.'s car!" • Excited NASCAR fans get their first glimpse of racing history as they walk across the plaza leading to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. • At the 150,000-square-foot facility, which opened in May, high windows showcase the spiraling Glory Road, a collection of the sport's iconic cars. There's Herb Thomas' No. 92 Hudson Hornet, made famous all over again by the Pixar movie Cars with Paul Newman's crusty Doc Hudson. There's the robin's egg blue and red No. 43 Plymouth run by the King, all-time wins leader Richard Petty. • "I see Jimmie Johnson's car!" • "I see Kurt Busch's old car!" • Fans — almost to a person wearing their favorite driver's gear — peer through the windows and have their pictures taken with the cars behind them before even lining up to buy their tickets. Mostly diehards (though often with less enthusiastic friends along for the ride), few leave disappointed, because there's something for everyone inside. • "Everybody has their own things they look for," hall executive director Winston Kelley says. "So if I said there's something you can't miss, someone else might not think it's interesting."
Curators have seamlessly blended the historic memorabilia with this year's video, adding plenty of detailed content about all aspects of racing as well as loads of hands-on activities to keep kids and adults enthralled for hours.
Want to see Junior Johnson's moonshine still? (Johnson got his start racing by outrunning the cops on moonshine delivery runs.) The cooker, boiler, dry barrel, copper pipe dispenser and jugs are on display on the fourth floor.
More interested in learning about how NASCAR checks for cheating? On level three there's a whole section on technical specifications, along with tools and computer games (although some had glitches) to test your knowledge.
Into the glitter? Jimmie Johnson has provided his four championship trophies to the museum, where they're prominently displayed in the Great Hall on the first floor.
Kelley says the collection includes more than he originally expected, with drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Petty offering for display pretty much anything they had. Some things were hard to come by — Mike Klapak's 1950 National Champion Sportsman Class trophy, for one, as well as personal items from the founding France family — but digging and diligence turned up plenty.
"We've got more material than space," Kelley said. "We can keep trading things out."
Feel the roar of racing
One thing Kelley — as well as all the smiling, friendly docents — recommends for certain is to begin with a trip to the museum's High Octane Theater for a 12-minute racing video in bone-rumbling surround sound. It's not quite the blast you get standing next to the fence at Daytona as the Sprint cars zoom by, but it's close. The body-conforming seats are way comfortable, too.
"It's the best way to set the tone for the day," a greeter tells everyone who enters.
From there, the museum layout charts a course for you, from first floor to fourth and out through — no surprises here — a well-stocked gift shop with special collectible cars, T-shirts, hats and other memorabilia you can't get anywhere else. (We picked the Hall of Fame lanyard and the 1:64 car celebrating Richard Petty's induction into the hall.)
Right outside the theater is the beginning of Glory Road. Along with the cars, it has photos, videos and samples of different track surfaces cut from places such as Martinsville and Pocono. The road itself gives fans a sense of what it's like to be on the track. It's banked, from flat to 33 degrees of slope, and you can walk on it to feel what that means.
The noisy excitement gives way to a reverent hush as you enter the Hall of Honor on the second floor. Visitors whisper in awe over the displays for first-year inductees Dale Earnhardt Sr., Richard Petty, Junior Johnson, Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr.
Outside, it's back to the frenetic interactive displays. Here's where the "hard card" that you get at the front entrance comes into play. Be sure to register it early at one of the stations inside — you get to choose a video tour guide. (Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. seemed to be the top picks.) By doing this sooner, you can access many of the games and track your points more easily. Among the top draws: a $5, five-minute racing simulator run.
Fourteen people get to go at once, but not to worry. In the game, based on the iracing.com game website, you're qualifying against the clock, not competing against others. Can you imagine all the crashing that would take place?
"You've got to go slow to go fast," our instructor tells us during the driver's meeting before the race. You have to anticipate the turns and start braking early, he says.
Easier said than done.
We pick the Denny Hamlin FedEx 11 for our excursion. Hamlin wins races. We complete one lap in 41 seconds, with all the rest spun out. And that was better than most. Others laugh about how they couldn't get their car around the track one time.
Maybe we should have practiced on the free walkup version in the room next door before paying up for the in-car. So on to something easier. Ha.
The line grew long for the attempt to pit a car: Put together your team to jack the car up, change a tire and fill the gas tank.
But did you know the tire weighs 25 pounds and the gas can 86 pounds? And don't forget to turn the jack handle to the left to let it back down; otherwise, it just sits there as time speeds by.
Real pit crews get four-tire stops done in 12 to 15 seconds. Most visitors we saw needed at least 20 seconds — most more — for the one-tire change on the demonstration Jimmie Johnson No. 48. And that was with them moving at breakneck speed. It gives you new respect for pit crews, that's for sure.
Our 6-year-old was so enthralled with the game that he spent nearly 30 minutes perfecting his tire-changing technique on the kid version after getting his chance at the big one. He'd grab his impact gun, hit start and go to work on those lug nuts. We cheered mightily when he got his time below seven seconds.
There's much more, too. You get to check an engine for its horsepower, scan barcodes on different car parts and learn them on a display screen, try to figure out the crazy points system that determines NASCAR champions. Our son was so excited by the choices that he bounced from exhibit to exhibit like a pinball, eager to try them all. It was so much fun he barely registered that he was learning tons about racing, yet he walked away spewing details like a NASCAR historian.
Not all was perfect. One of the pit crew challenge cars didn't work, for instance, making the line longer. But the friendly hall workers kept things moving smoothly, and the fans didn't seem to care much, just as long as they got their chance to play.
Other fun stuff included the chance to "call" a recorded race for radio or television, to wave the race flags for a picture and to see what sitting in a race car feels like.
This is a place made with fans in mind, with plenty to touch and do, no restrictions on cameras or other recorders, and detailed trivia for buffs, such as Jeff Burton's race weekend schedule, right next to games for kids.
And there is plenty of history to check out, particularly in the fourth floor Heritage Speedway and Honoring Our Legacy sections. The cars from the Allison-Yarbrough 1979 Daytona 500 crash that put NASCAR firmly in the public view are there. So is the racing jacket Fireball Roberts wore in 1963 just days before his death, plus trophies and flags and sponsor memorabilia galore.
The only letdown here was M&M's Most Colorful Fan of NASCAR room. Set off by a long walkway, it beckoned as an area to celebrate fans. It was a single photo of one contest winner.
After that, it was downstairs to the shop and then out to lunch. (The museum has only some vending machines — no food allowed in exhibits — a small cafe on the second floor and one attached restaurant, Buffalo Wild Wings.) We were hungry after four hours inside.
That's right: four hours. The time flew by, although at the end we all felt that we had so much fun and yet hadn't seen everything we wanted to see.
And we were still curious about what the museum has in storage for future displays. That means, of course, another trip to the Hall of Fame. Can't wait.
Jeffrey S. Solochek travels to Charlotte and other racing cities with his son's quarter midget racing team throughout the year. He can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614.