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A Visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame

October 24, 2014 Think THF

The magnificent Great Hall, which welcomes visitors to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Maybe it creates a sense of legitimacy, maybe it’s a shrine to honor past heroes, or maybe it just provides a place for fans to congregate in the off-season. For whatever reason, every sport seeks to create its own Hall of Fame. Baseball devotees have Cooperstown, football followers have Canton, and, for NASCAR fans, there is Charlotte.

As Halls go, NASCAR’s is young. The building opened (and inducted its first honorees) in 2010 after a four-year site-selection and design process. While Daytona Beach and Atlanta were both considered, North Carolina – with its deep stock car racing roots and status as home to much of the present industry – was the clear favorite. I recently had a chance to visit the establishment.

While some museums save their most dramatic exhibits for the end, the NASCAR Hall of Fame grabs you right from the start. “Glory Road,” a sprawling, spiraling timeline of 18 historic stock cars from 1952 to 2013, greets you just past the ticket counter. As visitors climb the ramp, they’ll notice that the “track” on which the cars sit gets ever more steeply banked. From a flat surface at the start, the display track gradually tilts to 33 degrees, like the curves at Talladega, near the end. It’s a dramatic presentation of the engineering that safely accommodates 200 mile-per-hour cars. (Better yet, there are a few places where visitors can step onto the display track. Believe me, you feel 33 degrees in your ankles!)

Dale Earnhardt’s iconic #3, seen here on a 1990 Chevrolet Lumina. Many of the greats – like Buck Baker, Richard Petty and Rusty Wallace – are represented by the “Glory Road” cars.

Just at the top of the ramp is the “Hall of Honor” – what we might call the Hall of Fame itself. Here the names of all the inductees are formally enshrined, and computer kiosks allow visitors to dig deeper into the honorees’ careers and accomplishments. The center of the hall features cars, artifacts and documents associated with that year’s current inductees. It’s one exhibit sure to see annual updates.

“Heritage Speedway” may have been my favorite exhibit. As the name suggests, this is where one gets the full history of American stock car racing. Cars, helmets, racing suits and trophies associated with many inductees help to tell the story of NASCAR, from its roots in transporting bootleg whiskey to its current mainstream status alongside the ball sports.

Junior Johnson’s moonshine still – reportedly assembled for display by Junior himself!

The infamous 1979 Daytona 500 fistfight between Cale Yarborough and Donny Allison is recalled through replicas of their cars. (No, the Hall didn’t cut the actual cars in half for this display.)

Those looking for a more hands-on experience will enjoy “Race Week,” the Hall’s exploration of the science and skill behind NASCAR. Visitors can inspect carburetors in search of rule violations. They can walk through a full-sized car transporter. They can work with teams (and against the clock) to re-fuel and re-tire a car in a pit stop activity. And, perhaps best of all, they can climb into one of five cars fitted with simulator equipment and “race” against their friends. Those who prefer to stay off the track can try their hand at flagging the virtual race – and then pose for a photo waiving the checkered (or green, or white, or yellow, or red, or black…) flag.

The Race Day Simulator – the closest you can get to a racing experience while standing still.

I came away impressed with the building, the collection, and the stories told. “Officially authorized” museums – and the NASCAR Hall of Fame is just that – might be expected to avoid difficult subjects. Yet the NASCAR Hall doesn’t shy away from the serious. The sport’s origins in illegal alcohol, its work to improve safety, and its long-running efforts to appeal to wider audiences all get addressed in the exhibits. Like all museums, it might struggle to keep its presentation fresh (I can’t imagine the difficulty in changing out those “Glory Road” cars, for example), but the “Hall of Honor” and changing exhibit space beneath “Glory Road” should help. The NASCAR Hall of Fame is well-worth a pilgrimage for devoted fans of stock car racing.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

cars, by Matt Anderson, racing

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