CHARLOTTE _ One week before the official grand opening, I had the chance to take a sneak peek at the long-awaited NASCAR Hall of Fame located in the heart of Charlotte. After years of anticipation, planning and construction, the final pieces are now in place and ready for the public.

The first stop along the journey in the hall is the High Octane Theater. Before heading into the theater to see the film, visitors register their ‘Hard Card’ in the computer. This allows them to interact with various exhibits, test their NASCAR knowledge and track their progress each time they visit. Inside the theater fans will enjoy a movie that takes you through the history of the sport. The sides of the room feature pictures that make you feel as if you are sitting in Turns 1 and 2 at Dover.

Once the film is over fans will then make their way to Glory Road.

Featuring some of the sport’s most historic cars, fans have the chance to see the vehicles that made NASCAR history and learn about their significance. Walking up the ramp, the banking increases with markers to indicate what NASCAR tracks are banked at that particular level. Visitors can even walk up the banking at two points to feel the different degrees of banking.

Next up is the Hall of Honor. This is where the Hall of Fame inductees will be featured for generations to come.

Each inductee has his own area in the circular room, which will include a car – or in the case of Bill France Jr. another type of item (yet to be revealed). There will be a display case with other items that showcase the personality of the inductee, not just their contributions to the sport. In addition, each inductee will have a nearly seven-foot spire that will have a likeness of their face, their autograph and other information that will be placed along the wall for years to come. At the bottom of each spire there will be another likeness of the person so kids and fans can put paper up to it and do a rubbing of the image.
Once you make your way through Glory Road and the Hall of Honor, the real fun begins. The third level of the facility is a virtual lesson in all things NASCAR. Fans learn what teams do each week at the shop to break down from one race while preparing for the next, they can walk through a full-size hauler, test their skills at changing tires, refueling and jacking up a car.

The third level also includes a kid zone which include items such as Kyle Petty’s pine wood derby car and trophy, Jeff Gordon’s leather jacket and helmet, Jimmie Johnson’s motocross shirt and gloves, and a shirt and helmet worn by a young Mark Martin.

Fans are also able to learn about the inspection process teams are put through each weekend by NASCAR, call their own race as a broadcaster or pit reporter and even test their skills in an iRacing simulator – do not be fooled, this is not as easy as it looks.

On the fourth floor fans walk through a treasure trove of NASCAR history in the Heritage Speedway. One of the highlights of the exhibit is a fully functioning moonshine still built by NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Junior Johnson.

“We asked him to build a replica, he built a full-size still,” NASCAR Hall of Fame executive director Winston Kelley said. “Then when we trying to install it and the exhibit fabricators and designers were trying to figure out how to connect it, Buz [McKim, historian] calls him and says, ‘Can you talk me through this?’ Junior says, ‘Well, it might be a little bit easier if I just came down there and did it.’ So Junior gets in his car, drives down here, gets the hard hat and safety paraphernalia. He’s got a pipe wrench and a pair of Channellocks, that were very well worn. He didn’t just go down to Lowe’s and pick those up. They’ve been around the block a time or two. He steps into the exhibit and starts connecting it and telling people what to do. We were smart enough to get the media group to come over here and video it. I was sitting there thinking, this is like Babe Ruth designing, building and installing one of the first exhibits in Cooperstown. That’s history. Forty years from now people are going to come in and say one of the inaugural inductees installed this exhibit.”

Over the past few years, teams have been scouring the country digging up some of the most unique and rare items to tell the story of NASCAR’s past. Walking through the Heritage Speedway, fans will be able to see items such as old pit boards, the legendary Smokey Yunick’s grease-covered hat, Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s infamous black sunglasses, a letter from NASCAR issuing a suspension to Maurice Petty for fighting in the pits, the list goes on and on and on.

The fourth level also includes exhibits that tell NASCAR’s story through the decades, highlights the France, Allison, Earnhardt and Petty families, celebrates champions, diversity and there is even a section for NASCAR media.

One item that stood out in my mind was a letter from 1978 in which drivers banded together to find information on a thief. Apparently someone stole equipment from teams in the garage area and to show support the drivers offered personal rewards for the information. Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty and Junior Johnson signed their names and offered $250. A young Mark Martin agreed to throw in $50, while Darrell Waltrip signed his name and wrote, “Depends on who it is.”

The walk through the facility ends with a section dedicated to the safety innovations brought about since the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 2001. A current Sprint Cup Series car is cut to show the inner workings of the CoT, including the safety foam that runs along the doors of the cars. Around the exhibit visitors learn what has made the car safer than previous versions of the Cup car. There is even a section of the SAFER barrier from Texas Motor Speedway that Michael McDowell hit during his vicious wreck in qualifying in 2008.

Along with the Hall and exhibits, there is also a full gift shop with all your racing needs – T-shirts, hats, die-cast cars, even DVDs of old races. Attached to the facility is also a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant for visitors to enjoy before or after their trip through NASCAR history.

There are still a few kinks the Hall of Fame has to work out before the grand opening on May 11. A number of the electronic exhibits in the Hall of Honor were not complete and workers were still smoothing the rough edges of some exhibits. While waiting for the opening movie to begin at the High Octane Theater, there is not a lot to do or see and we stood for nearly ten minutes as we waited. Also, in a section dedicated to honoring those who have passed in the sport a video plays showing pictures, but no names or information. While the seasoned NASCAR fan may know the majority of people being honored, the casual or new fan would have no idea who these figures were, what they contributed and when they passed.

In all, it took me about three and a half hours to walk through the entire facility. That being said, there was much more that I could have seen and read while I was there. The overall experience far exceeded my expectations and even sent a chill up my spine at various points. The NASCAR Hall of Fame is long overdue, but the wait was well worth it and is something fans of all ages will enjoy for years to come.

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