CHARLOTTE _ After years of planning and preparation, the doors have finally opened at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. On an overcast and cool morning, fans, dignitaries, and some of the motorsport’s biggest names gathered to commemorate the top-of-the-line $195 million facility.

The pomp and circumstance of Tuesday’s event saw NASCAR Hall of Fame executives thank their partners, allowed politicians to press the economic impact on the area and offered fans a brief glimpse at some of the their favorite drivers.

Tim Newman, CEO of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Association told his gathered supporters the facility is already paying dividends in the hospitality industry with the upcoming NRA convention and two such city wide conventions planned each year. North Carolina governor Beverly Perdue cited the 27,000 jobs and $6 billion industry NASCAR provides the state of North Carolina, while Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx pointed out the Hall of Fame would bring nearly $60 million a year in economic activity to the city of Charlotte. Former city mayor Pat McCrory told how Charlotte was searching for its brand to attract vacation goers and with the opening of the Hall, that brand has finally been found.

While the politicians and executives spoke, the true stars of the day – the series champions sitting behind them – simply sat and listened. Team owner Rick Hendrick had his turn at the microphone as honorary chairman of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, but for the fans looking for some thoughts or insight from men such as 1960 Cup Series champion Rex White or legendary car owner Bud Moore or one of the number of other racing legends, they were simply out of luck. Noticeably absent from Tuesday’s event where former Cup Series champions Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart, along with the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 

Once the doors opened, fans headed inside for the first look at the state of the art museum and hall. Visitors stopped to read the placards, use the interactive stations and pose for pictures next to some of the most historic cars in NASCAR.

Perusing along with the fans were NASCAR stars such as Ernie Irvan, Rusty Wallace, Donnie Allison, Bobby Labonte, Darrell Waltrip, the list goes on and on. Showing their true love of the fans, nearly every driver stopped to sign an autograph or pose for a picture with fans new and old.

Walking through the facility, the interactive displays and various artifacts impressed many of the visitors, both competitors and fans alike.

“I wanted to get the ‘wow’ factor when I walked in,” 1989 Cup Series champion Rusty Wallace said. “When I walked in this morning, the little bit I did see was wow. I didn’t know they had one of my 27 cars down there. Had no idea it would have its own display area front and center. That felt really cool to see that.”

Even fellow historian Thomas Hanchett of the Museum of the New South (also located in Charlotte) was impressed by this brand new facility.

“It’s absolutely first-rate,” Hanchett said. “The exhibits are eye-catching. They tear at your heart. I love the amount of artifacts that are there. There’s a whole bunch of cool old stuff.

“The thing I thought that was really smart in a curatorial decision was the family groupings,” Hanchett added. “That is one of the things that is really strong in the south. Family is so important here and even as the sport has grown outside the south, that emphasis on family and family tradition is really important among the drivers, the team owners and among the fans. I thought that was a smart thing making that visible.”

Made for fans new and old, the NASCAR Hall of Fame offers something for every generation of NASCAR’s fan base. The interactive displays and artifacts both teach newer fans of the sport, while providing those long-time fans a trip down memory lane. At a time when some of those long-time fans have felt disconnected from the sport that has grown exponentially over the past two decades, Tuesday’s grand opening is a chance to bring those fans back to the sport they grew up loving.

“I think this jogs your memory,” Richard Petty said. “From the old fans, they come back and say, ‘I told you we don’t like it the way (NASCAR) is today. We wish it was like this, this or this.’ It also gives the new fans the chance to say, ‘This is where it was and this is where it’s at and we like this better than we like that.’ Everybody has their own little opinion.”

“It lets us, I’m putting myself in that, I don’t feel like I’ve been disconnected, it lets us relive the history of the sport,” Winston Kelley added. “When I first saw Glory Road with the cars unveiled and I sat in our skybox area and overlooked it, I literally came to tears. We have had a number of fans like that, as they come through, they see something they remember. It might be different for each one, whether they’re a Fireball Roberts fan or a Jack Smith fan or somebody from the earlier days. It’s not just the cars, it’s the artifacts in there. Some of the video we’ve got of the historic races is just incredible. The opening video that takes us from literally 1948 to today and to this year’s emotional Daytona 500, if you don’t get emotional watching that video and you don’t have a little bit of emotion, you need to go to the doctor and get your pulse checked. It took me to about the sixth or seventh time watching that video before I could watch it without coming to tears.”

The trip through the NASCAR Hall of Fame is truly an emotional experience, regardless of how long you have been following the sport. With its doors now open to the public, fans can take a walk through one of the most technologically advanced and historically stimulating Halls of Fame in the country for just under $20 (adult tickets cost $19.95, military and senior tickets $17.95 and children tickets are only $12.95).

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