February 15, 2011
Prof. Peter Krentz
A Skeptic’s Visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame
On the second floor of the gargantuan three-story NASCAR Hall of Fame, I watched an informational video about NASCAR on a screen that took up almost the entire wall. The big-screen viewing area appeared modest and almost forgotten within the Hall of Fame’s overwhelming array of activities and displays, each more extravagant than the next.
The video described the loyalty of NASCAR’s fans, who have made stock car races some of the most highly attended sporting events in the country. According to the video, this loyalty is not a coincidence. NASCAR fans can check out their favorite drivers’ cars sitting in the garage on race days. Fans can use headphones to listen to the communication between drivers and crew chiefs, experiencing the race’s drama as the participants do. Richard Petty, a Hall of Fame inductee, even used to stay on the track for hours after a race ended, signing autographs for everyone who asked. The video claimed that NASCAR gives back to its fans more than any other sport, allowing them unprecedented access to the sport they love. Looking around me at the Hall of Fame, I believed every word. I also believed that NASCAR was on its way to converting a new fan.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame continues the sport’s tradition of fan participation by allowing visitors to learn about every aspect of the sport. Interactive displays exist to explain even the most technical and confusing concepts. Even someone like me, who lacks pretty much any knowledge of mechanics, could understand the basics after inspecting the differences between a regular stock car engine, a legal NASCAR engine, and an illegally modified NASCAR engine. Now I even understand the physics behind “drafting,” when a car follows closely behind another to create a vacuum behind the lead car and eventually make both cars go faster. However, the true fans around me (recognizable by their NASCAR-themed T-shirts) already possessed a level of expertise in these areas that astounded me. Some people stereotype NASCAR fans as dumb rednecks; the Hall of Fame taught me that a true appreciation of the sport requires knowledge of physics, mechanics, and aerodynamics that my 9th grade physics class never gave me. My supposedly dumb fellow Hall of Fame attendees breezed past the technical explanations they already knew well and headed straight for the games.
Interactive activities cover almost every inch of the Hall of Fame. Visitors can drive in video-game-like simulations of famous courses, try their hands at changing tires like a pit crew, look around a full-size replica of a NASCAR transporter, and take a ride in a racing simulator to experience what a NASCAR team and driver go through on race day. Fans have the option of checking into these virtual activities by using the “Hard Card” provided with their tickets. If they check in, fans can choose any Hall of Fame inductee (currently, only Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Junior Johnson, Bill France, Sr., and Bill France, Jr.) to virtually guide them through the Hall. The Hard Card also allows visitors to set up a personal profile, which will keep track of the points they earn through participating in various activities. Video screens display scoreboards, allowing everyone to see which visitors have the highest scores for the day. The scoreboard feature turns the Hall of Fame from an entertaining museum into an opportunity for the competition and fun that NASCAR fans thrive on.
However, the Hall of Fame offers more than just educational displays and entertaining games. Gallery after gallery showcases the history of NASCAR in exhaustive detail, telling its story from the barely regulated early days to the present day’s well-run moneymaking machine. The “NASCAR Vault” relates this history through artifacts like trophies, rulebooks from different periods of the sport’s history (they get progressively thicker), uniforms of track officials, a piece of the racetrack that drivers crossed in historic finishes, and race suits (accurate down to the underwear). Other galleries, collectively known as the “Heritage Speedway,” tell the story of NASCAR’s history through pictures, videos, and text. One gallery showcases family dynasties, like the Earnhardt, Petty, Allison, and France families; another display dedicated to diversity showcases a few women, Hispanic, and African American drivers. The galleries do not ignore officials, pit crew members, team owners, and other important participants in NASCAR’s history who are often overshadowed by the drivers. The information the Hall provides through activities, games, videos, artifacts, text, and almost every other kind of media, in occasionally overwhelming detail, truly leaves visitors with a real sense of the history of the sport.
In all the historic galleries, the biggest crowds gathered at the moonshine still and the video presentation of NASCAR’s most exciting finishes. The moonshine still resides in a room dedicated to NASCAR’s early ties to bootlegging, ties that current NASCAR officials prefer to gloss over but the Hall of Fame does not. In this room a video takes the viewers to Appalachia, where young boys developed nerve and speed by driving illegal loads of moonshine through the mountains. These qualities later served them well in careers as stock car drivers. Junior Johnson, one of the last and most famous of these drivers and former bootleggers, built the moonshine still in the glass display case. However, though interesting, the moonshine video paled in comparison to the video presentation of finishes. The latter engrossed both lifelong NASCAR fans, who relived races they once attended or watched live on TV, and newcomers like myself, who got caught up in the excitement and stayed to watch every finish. I even found myself starting to daydream about the once laughable prospect of attending a race.
According to its website, the NASCAR Hall of Fame is “an interactive, entertainment attraction honoring the history and heritage of NASCAR…designed to educate and entertain race fans and non-fans alike.” I, a true example of a non-fan, did not have high hopes for my trip to the Hall of Fame. I doubted that what amounted to a glorified museum could find a way to entertain either real fans, who are used to the overpowering excitement of races, or non-fans like myself, who knew far too little about the sport to care about its history. The Hall of Fame proved me wrong. Judging by the amount of gleeful visitors around me sporting T-shirts advertising their famous drivers, competing in every interactive activity, and arguing about the minutiae of NASCAR history, true NASCAR fans really are greatly entertained by the Hall of Fame. More surprisingly, even I, who previously had little interest in NASCAR and had never even watched a race on TV, greatly enjoyed it too and now look forward to attending a race. No matter where you range on this spectrum of NASCAR fandom, I recommend a trip to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The Hall will leave you entertained, informed, and with a new appreciation for every aspect of a complex and often overlooked sport that truly loves its fans.Tweet