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Case made for NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte

Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch  

August 18, 2005

If it had been crammed with firesuits and sponsor logos instead of collared shirts and ties, the luncheon at the Charlotte Convention Center could have been mistaken for a drivers meeting.

Nextel Cup team principals Rick Hendrick, Robert Yates, Ray Evernham and J.D. Gibbs were in attendance. So were drivers Jeremy Mayfield, Joe Nemechek, Scott Riggs and crew chief Chad Knaus.

Even Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were trotted out via videotape.

They were there to present a united front in a one-day blitz to land the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and the party line was this:

Charlotte deserves to house the heart of history and heritage in stock-car racing because the city already owns the sport's soul.

"Racing was built here, racing belongs here," said Gordon, a four-time Nextel Cup champion, forcefully spelling out the slogan that covered placards, signposts and billboards yesterday as NASCAR's hub city entertained officials who will choose the winner of the shrine.

Among the cities bidding for the hall -- Richmond, Va., Atlanta, Kansas City, Kan., and Daytona Beach, Fla. -- none is more intertwined with the day-to-day dealings of NASCAR than Charlotte.

Home to more than 80 percent of the teams in the Craftsman Truck, Busch and Cup series, the Queen City and its surrounding counties enjoy an estimated $4 billion economic impact from NASCAR. The industry has brought around 20,000 jobs, many highly skilled and technical positions with crews, to the area.

"This is the hub of everything this sport does," said O. Bruton Smith, whose Speedway Motorsports Inc. owns six Cup tracks including Lowe's Motor Speedway.

Charlotte has dubbed itself "NASCAR Valley" and stamped the catchphrase on yellow T-shirts worn in droves around downtown yesterday.

Touring the Center City area around the proposed site, which would be located directly behind the convention center, the charter bus carrying the NASCAR delegation passed seven rallies staged by TV and radio stations along the 20-block route. Horns honked and news helicopters buzzed overhead as boosters waved green flags and signs reading, "We Eat, Sleep and Breathe Racing."

NASCAR COO George Pyne called Charlotte's presentation "a championship effort" and singled out the city's passion as a plus and not a liability. One of NASCAR's goals for the hall is attracting new fans to its claimed base of 75 million. That caused insiders to speculate if the criteria negatively would affect an already established racing hotbed such as Charlotte.

"Just because the location might end up in a Southeastern city doesn't mean we can't build new fans," said Mark Dyer, who is spearheading the hall search and who has an office in Charlotte as NASCAR's vice president of licensing.

The Charlotte committee was ready for questions about drawing new fans. Jim Newman, chairman of the regional visitors authority, said the city already has large annual attendance with its convention center (500,000), NFL stadium (700,000) and arena (a million), creating "a lot of opportunities to bring people in who aren't race fans."

Hendrick isn't buying the argument that stock-car saturation hurts Charlotte's bid. During race weeks at Lowe's, Hendrick Motorsports puts up tents to handle overflow crowds of 2,000 at the team museum. When he flew back from Watkins Glen on Sunday, Hendrick said 25 fans were waiting in the hangar and hoping for an autograph from Gordon or Jimmie Johnson.

"How much can you grow the fan base with a hall of fame anywhere?" Hendrick said. "All the fans come here. It's the racing capital. If you had all the NFL teams located in Charlotte, would this be where the NFL Hall of Fame should be? You don't build a McDonald's in the middle of nowhere, you build where the people are, and this is where the teams are."

It's also where the banks are, and the second-largest financial center in the U.S. had the chairman of Wachovia and the CEO of MBNA lobbying NASCAR alongside the sport's stars yesterday.

"In 29 years, I've never seen an effort that's had more substance and support not only from leaders of the community but the banks, the commissioners, the mayors in the region, the governor," Hendrick said. "This has been a statewide effort. We feel it was born here. We've got a lot invested here. We're committed to make it work.

"I don't think anyone can stay on the same lap with Charlotte."