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Welcome to Charlotte, you're now a NASCAR fan

Source: Ryan McGee, ESPN.com  

January 08, 2010

On a wintry Thursday evening in downtown Charlotte, the people came to learn.

The elderly woman from Ohio. The extended family from Wisconsin. A mother, father and child from Brazil. An African-American couple, the wife adorned in a beautifully-crafted head wrap. They each braved the cold and came to the Levine Museum of the New South, thirsty for knowledge.

The night's keynote speaker took the stage, cleared his throat, looked at the standing room-only audience and asked one simple question.

"Do you know what the Sprint Cup is?"

No, they did not. Okay, the one guy in the black No. 3 Earnhardt ball cap did, but everyone else? No. Nor did they know that racecars are built from scratch (they are "stock cars" after all) or that pit crews change four tires and put in two cans of fuel in 13.5 seconds. But on Thursday night an invitation was sent out to recently-arrived Charlotteans to learn about lug nuts, North Wilkesboro and Richard Petty. And to their credit, they showed up.

The event was part of the museum's "New South For The New Southerner" lecture series, a program designed to teach North Carolina transplants about aspects of southern culture, from food to local industry to, yes, NASCAR.

The man charged with dropping the knowledge on these NASCAR newbies was Winston Kelley, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It was an MRN pit reporter talking to an NPR crowd.

They loved it.

"We've been doing this series for a while now," explained Dr. Tom Hanchett, staff historian for the Museum of the New South. "We've had local political leaders and business executives explain the inner workings of the city, our local film critic talks about the movie industry here in Charlotte, I talk about the history of the area, that type of thing. You never know what kind of a crowd you're going to have, especially when the topic is sort of off the beaten path. But tonight we're packed."

Californians, New Yorkers and even a couple from Thailand dined on fried chicken, homemade mac and cheese and sweet tea as Kelley addressed them from the small stage. They literally gasped when he threw out the 13.5-second pit stop stat and did it again when he explained that the new Hall of Fame is expected to have a $60 million annual economic impact on the city.

"As you can see, this sport is not just a bunch of rednecks going around in circles," then he paused. "Okay, yeah it is. But I say that proudly because I am one. And I am proud of it because of everything that this sport has meant to this city that we all now call home."

Of the 120-plus in attendance, nearly all had recently migrated to North Carolina from somewhere else. Since 2000, Charlotte's population has grown by nearly 20 percent and the vast majority of those newcomers have flowed in from the Midwest and the sometimes hard-to-crack NASCAR market of the northeast.

"They come down and one of the first things they like to poke fun at is NASCAR because of some of the old southern stereotypes that come with it," Kelley admits. "But when they see the numbers and hear the facts and meet the people that work in the sport, they usually change their tune pretty quickly."

On Thursday, Kelley changed their tunes every time he turned the page of his slide presentation. The audience, some of whom had once vehemently opposed construction of the Hall, were left slack-jawed when they learned that the motorsport industry has an estimated $5.9 billion economic impact on the state of North Carolina ("That's billion with a 'B'," Kelley clarified). And as they filed out they eagerly snatched up brochures on the Hall of Fame's May 11 grand opening, curious to see the real-life versions of the architectural drawings shown on the screen -- the interactive exhibits, HD theatres and convention spaces inside the gleaming chrome structure rising on the southern side of downtown.

"Yes," he said to a room of shocked faces, "We will host weddings. Hey, people get married in Victory Lane at different racetracks all the time. I told you, these race fans are serious about their sports."

If Kelley wasn't enough to win them over, they received a surprise talk from Lee Holman, son of John Holman, co-founder of the legendary race team Holman Moody, which is still based in Charlotte. He had the attendees laughing with stories of his father, cantankerous partner Ralph Moody and some of their drivers, including Fast Freddy Lorenzen and A.J. Foyt.

"I had no idea," admitted one attendee who'd just moved to Charlotte from Syracuse. "You drive by that giant Hall of Fame building everyday and it's hard to believe people will be coming in from all over the country to see it. They already come from all over the country, all over the world really, to visit race shops like Holman Moody. Even if you don't care a thing about automobile racing, you have to respect that. I'm a believer."

Kelley, Hall of Fame historian Buz McKim and external relations manager Kimberly Meesters are out pounding the pavement, converting skeptics into believers. From civic clubs to chambers of commerce to scout troops, they are on an endless lecture circuit, eager to get the city up to speed on both the Hall and the sport it honors.

And if they can win over a crowd like the one they had Thursday night, then, in the words of Mr. Syracuse guy, I too am a believer.