Visit the home of NASCAR
By Renée S. Gordon
NASCAR’s history is as colorful as the sport. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) grew out of the illegal whiskey trade since bootlegging during Prohibition required superior driving skills and nerves of steel. Illegal stills were located in the hills between Virginia and Georgia where pick-ups were made and young men hauled moonshine down the mountains with the law on their trails. The cars were modified to hide the cargo and increase the speed; mechanics, drivers, sellers and moonshiners were all involved and benefitted financially.
Sports do not build character. They reveal it. —Heywood Brown
The drivers eventually began racing each other in fields and on backroads until the first track was created. In December 1947 NASCAR was created to establish guidelines and set rules. In February 1948 the first sanctioned NASCAR race took place in Daytona, Fla. In June 1949 NASCAR’s initial Strictly Stock race was held on a three-quarter-mile dirt track at the Charlotte Speedway in North Carolina. Ironically, the winner was disqualified for using illegal rear springs.
Today Charlotte Motor Speedway is the “Home Track of NASCAR” and Cabarrus County, N.C., billed as “Where Racing Lives,” is the best place to get up close and personal with all aspects of the sport. You can select from a menu of general sites or follow the self-guided Dale Trail based on locations connected with “The Intimidator,” Dale Earnhardt, Sr., a Cabarrus County native.
Nineteen sites showcase the story of Earnhardt’s life; the focal point is Dale Earnhardt Plaza. A 9-ft., 900-lb. statue dominates the small park. The bronze sculpture and its setting are designed to highlight more than his legend. He is attired in his characteristic Wranglers and cowboy boots as he gazes toward Idiot’s Circle, the circle where as a teen he drove his yellow 1956 Chevy around and around to catch the eye of young ladies. The park itself is designed as an oval with benches in clusters of threes, the number of his Chevrolet Sedan racecar. Seven surrounding pedestals represent the seven titles he won.
Punchy’s Diner continues to serve Dale’s favorite sandwich: tomatoes, lettuce and Miracle Whip on white bread. He said the sandwich served as a reminder of his roots. The diner’s décor is reminiscent of the 50’s and everything is homemade.
Ralph Earnhardt, Dale’s father, is honored on the trail with a memorial in Center Grove Cemetery. Ralph built racecars in a shop behind his house and was also a driver. Known as “Mr. Consistency,” he drove in hundreds of races, winning more than 325. He died at the age of 45 of a heart attack.
Dale Earnhardt, Sr. died in 2001 from a head injury in the final lap of a race. His death prompted the institution of enhanced safety rules requiring greater head and neck protection and better track barriers. No driver has died in a NASCAR race since the changes were implemented. Dale is interred on his 900-acre private estate in Mooresville. The property contains his home and Garage Mahal, his 108,000-sq.-foot garage.
Curb Motorsports Museum for Music and Motorsports (CMMMM) is the lovechild of Mike Curb, musician, millionaire, philanthropist and former lieutenant governor. The CMMMM features a portion of his car collection including NASCAR, IndyCar, modified racecars and celebrity vehicles. Highlighted cars belonged to luminaries such as Bouchard, Earnhardt, Sr., and Petty and Wendell Scott—the first African-American to win a premier division NASCAR race and first to be inducted in the Hall of Fame.
The North Carolina Music Hall of Fame adjoins the CMMMM and at first glance seems not to be related. However, the NCMHF provides cultural background and context for the NASCAR story. Galleries are divided thematically by era and genre with smaller, individual dioramas showcasing individual artists. Items on display include authentic posters, outfits and instruments. Plaques for the 95 inductees are on view.
NASCAR is the ultimate team sport and at heart it is not about drivers racing each other, it is about the team against the track. Nowhere is this better exemplified than by visiting one of the motorsports facilities where the cars are made and teams train. All but one of the NASCAR teams and 99 percent of the industry is based in Cabarrus County and 18 shops are open to the public.
A self-guided tour of Stewart-Hass, largest toolmaker in the world, offers a glimpse of how each car is handmade over a three-week period. Each car is made to exacting specifications so that each is as similar as possible. Each driver must weigh 200-lbs, including the helmet, and the car must weigh 3,450-lbs. The driver sits in a frame within the car’s fiberglass rear and the nose touches the ground so air will not get beneath the car. Cars are cut up after each race and not reused because they no longer meet the qualifications. They are not painted but wrapped in a vinyl decal applied with a hair dryer.
Pit crew members must be trained athletes because speed and mobility are important. Pit stops are approximately 13-seconds during which time all four tires must be changed and 22-gallons of unleaded high-octane fuel must be added. On race day, cars are tested using lasers and other high-tech equipment. If a car fails twice they are penalized.
Charlotte Motor Speedway was built in 1960 and offers a variety of tours including the comprehensive, 45-minute, Trackside Tram Tour.
In some way we are all “racing against the track.” The men and women honored in Cabarrus County each defied the track and did it their way. Visit Cabarrus County to enjoy the ride.
- NASCAR drivers are not required to have a driver’s license.
- Drivers lose up to 10 pounds of sweat while racing.
- Drivers douse themselves with water upon emerging from their cars after a race to prevent the crowd from noticing that they have used their seats as bathroom facilities.
- Richard Petty designed the net used inside race car windows.
- Janet Guthrie was the first woman to compete regularly in NASCAR’s premier series.
- Richard Pryor’s movie, “Greased Lightening,” is based on the life of Wendell Scott.
- NASCAR season is 10 months.
– Photos by Renée S. Gordon
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion. Cabarrus County hosted the 2017 Travel Media Showcase.