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NASCAR HOF Taking Shape Before May Debut

Source: Associated Press / SI.com  

July 23, 2009

The sun reflecting off the silver dome draws your eyes as you approach downtown Charlotte. Designed to look like sheet metal from a stock car but in the shape of an oval racetrack, it's the signature element of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

With the opening nearly 10 months away, you still have to dodge the machinery and scaffolding, hopscotch the sticky red clay and block out the constant noise of drilling as you visit the site. But the outer shell is complete and ready to house NASCAR's long-awaited celebration of its past.

"What's going to be inside is even better," said Tim Newman, CEO of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.

That's where the hall's director, Winston Kelley, gave a hard-hat tour last week. The banked "Glory Road" that will greet visitors as they enter the hall is almost ready for Richard Petty's famous No. 43 Plymouth. The theater next door that will provide fans with videos of the past is being constructed.

The oval ring of honor is nearly equipped to hang the high-tech monuments for the five-member class that will be inducted in May. The race day experience a floor higher is a large space that will let fans change a tire, go in a race simulator and see a full-sized transporter.

The heritage floor is carving out room to tell NASCAR's story from the early days on the beach courses at Daytona to explaining the Car of Tomorrow.

There will be plenty of space to eat and buy souvenirs, too, in the 130,000-square-foot facility that includes a 19-floor office tower, ballroom and television and radio studios.

"We want to make sure this is right, that's it's engaging and you want to come back," Kelley said, wearing a bright construction vest.

A longtime NASCAR broadcaster, Kelley was chosen to run the hall when NASCAR picked Charlotte as the site over Atlanta, Richmond, Va., Daytona Beach, Fla., and Kansas City, Kan.

Groundbreaking on the $154.5 million project was in January 2007. Paid for mostly by a 2 percent increase in the hotel and motel tax, the facility will be owned by the city, with NASCAR getting royalties and some revenues. The project is on schedule and on budget, with the scheduled opening May 11.

Yet with NASCAR struggling with smaller crowds and sponsorship pullouts, the timing isn't great. The local effect of the economic downturn is visible just outside the main entrance, where a stalled condominium tower a block away provides an eyesore.

"We still are hopeful that we'll have 800,000 people come through the first year," Newman said. "Based on what other halls have experienced, some of which have opened in very difficult, trying times, the product itself, priced right with the right experience, is going to be successful."

Kelley spent much of 2007 visiting different halls of fame to get ideas. NASCAR's shrine will have an introductory video like baseball's Hall of Fame. There will be a stock car racing timeline that will also include major events in history to provide context, as organizers did for a similar exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

But NASCAR also wants to take advantage of technological advances. Instead of the busts or plaques for the inductees, there will be an interactive display that includes not only a picture and statistics, but a video screen and audio. The bottom of the 7-foot monument will include an area where children can make a souvenir rubbing.

The hall has secured additional funding for more interactive exhibits, items Kelley said are essential. With Charlotte hosting three NASCAR races a year, Kelley is charged with keeping the Hall of Fame fresh to bring repeat visitors. He plans to routinely trade out exhibits and update displays.

"No matter how big the facility is, you're not going to be able to put everything in there and tell every story at once," Kelley said. "The blessing is, there is so much material that you can bring in and change. I don't think we're going to run out of stories."

The Hall of Fame will rely on donated and borrowed items and will not pay for cars or other artifacts. Petty began the process when he agreed to lend the car in which he won 36 races in 1966-67, including a record 10 straight on the way to his 1967 championship. It will be one of 18 cars on "Glory Road," where fans will walk up a simulated track with different banking to mimic tracks on the NASCAR circuit.

The May opening will coincide with the first Hall of Fame class, likely to include Petty, Dale Earnhardt and NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. The induction ceremony will be either the weekend of NASCAR's All-Star race at nearby Lowe's Motor Speedway on May 22-23 or the Coca-Cola 600 a week later at the same track.

"When I think about what's in here, I think of the stories," Kelley said. "I think about the Richard Pettys and the Bobby Allisons and the David Pearsons and the people I grew up looking up to.

"This is our history."