nascar

Eighteen cars, a frozen parade of horsepower and history, sit silently inside the NASCAR (an acronym for National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing) Hall of Fame. The oldest, a 1952 No. 6 Fabulous Hudson Hornet, leads the pack. Seventeen more NASCAR stock cars follow it, bumper to bumper and side by side, and it’s easy to imagine Richard Petty’s No. 43, Dale Earnhardt’s No. 3, and Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 jostling for position on the track. The current version of the No. 20 driven by Matt Kenseth brings up the rear, the present chasing the past.

Known collectively as Glory Road, the cars include at least one from the six generations of vehicles that have raced in NASCAR’s top level. They hug the outside wall around the Hall of Fame’s Great Hall, a gleaming showroom bathed in the natural light that pours in through generous windows cut to look like a checkered flag.

The “track” the cars rest on rises and curves out of sight to the right, with an adjacent walkway leading to the exhibits themselves. Glory Road banks inward, toward the race fans in the Great Hall, from zero degrees of banking under the Hornet to 33 degrees under Kenseth’s car, with the angle from every turn at every track NASCAR races on represented.

Embedded into the floor in the center of the Great Hall is the Hall of Fame logo. Lines shoot out from it in all directions, with script proclaiming the distance to famous racetracks. Hall officials jokingly call the Great Hall the center of the NASCAR universe, and one day every May, when the Hall of Fame announces its newest members, they’re right.

• • •
 

Retired NASCAR driver Rex White is headed to the Hall of Fame, where officials plan to vote on and introduce the next class of inductees. White, the 1960 champion, is among the nominees. He doesn’t think he’ll make the short list, so he doesn’t spend a lot of time deciding on his outfit. He grabs khaki pants, a white golf shirt, a black sport coat, his hearing aid, and a cane — which he needs because of the effects of childhood polio — and drives to Charlotte.

As the big announcement nears, a group of schoolkids ends their tour and mills about in the Great Hall. One child grabs a steering wheel at an exhibit and pretends to drive in front of a screen displaying a driver’s point of view. The teacher chastises him and tells him to get his hands off that thing, though he’s doing precisely what the museum intends for him to do. The crowd begins to grow. Fans walk along Glory Road, lean over the railing and peek into the cars’ cockpits, and imagine sitting there. Soon they turn from the cars and face the Great Hall, where some of the biggest names in the sport gather in rows of seats to hear the announcement. No other major sport hall of fame has a day like this: a public announcement with candidates present, those candidates as unsure of what will happen as everybody else. In NASCAR, no accomplishment means more than induction here, and soon, five men will hear their names called.

When White arrives at the Hall of Fame, he disappears among the masses. He stands just five feet tall, and the Great Hall swallows even large men. Round and airy, it resembles the infield of a racetrack — if that infield were scrubbed clean. The Great Hall sounds like a racetrack, too, with interviews and race footage broadcast on a giant screen, a tick too loud, this day and every other. And just like at a racetrack, fans hustle for position, as if their favorite driver is approaching, and on any given day at the Hall — today in particular — he might.

A few minutes before the announcement, nervous energy crackles through the Hall. The votes had been cast earlier in the day, and an outside accounting firm counts them behind the scenes. Fans, media, NASCAR officials, and NASCAR legends trade theories about snubs, certainties, and long shots.

White chooses the last seat on the left in the back row, the one closest to the exit, as if the Great Hall is church, and he wants to hustle out to get a good table at Cracker Barrel. NASCAR CEO Brian France, whose grandfather founded the business, reads off one name, two names, three names … When White hears his name called, fourth of five, he — and everyone around him — doesn’t react for a split second. Then, hands shoot in the air, arms wrap around his neck, and his face spreads into a smile.

An hour later, the smile remains. White’s voice shakes with nerves, or joy, or both. He looks at his career like a ladder. He climbed one rung by winning races, another rung with his championship, and now, he says, he’s ascended pretty close to the top.

Pretty close?

He’s there.

The twisting architecture of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, designed by the same firm that renovated the Louvre, not only gives the building a distinctive appearance, but also mimics the shape and movement of a racetrack.

The Hall of Fame announcement and the induction ceremony that follows in January celebrate individual accomplishments: who won what, how many, and where. And some exhibits in the Hall concentrate on facts and figures, too. But the Hall digs much deeper into the sport than titles and statistics, and historian Buz McKim regards every day that he gets to put a shovel into NASCAR’s fertile historic ground as nirvana.

McKim jokes that he attended his first race before his birth. His father worked in nearly every job the sport offers. McKim spent decades as an archivist for NASCAR in Daytona Beach, Florida, so when the Hall of Fame opened in 2010, he fit in perfectly as its historian.

Racing has a simple purity to it: Go that way, as fast as you can. But the NASCAR Hall of Fame reveals a complex sport full of nuance and knuckleheads, left turns and left uppercuts, daredevils and danger. The Hall paints a picture of the entire sport, from its origins among moonshiners outrunning the feds, to its tragic deaths, to its technical triumphs.

McKim sees himself as a detective, and every artifact he finds for the NASCAR Hall of Fame is a mystery he delights in solving. Often others solve the cases for him: Fans send NASCAR memorabilia from all over the world.

When asked which case he most enjoyed solving, McKim’s eyes light up. “Can I show you?” he asks. He  walks down the hall, past cases full of memorabilia that he helped collect. “I call this my Indiana Jones moment.”

The case involved “Fireball” Roberts, McKim’s all-time favorite driver. Dubbed “Fireball” because he threw a great fastball in baseball, Roberts shined as NASCAR’s first big star. “There’s something special about him. I told Judy, his girlfriend, ‘Every time I see Fireball, I feel like I’m 14 years old.’ He’s larger than life,” McKim says. “He was probably the first driver to transcend the sport. Ford used him for advertising when the Mustang came out. He listened to classical music, and he went to college. He was totally different than anybody of his era.”

McKim passes exhibits about the Pettys and Earnhardts, and stops before a display containing a jacket. Red across the chest, with black sleeves and black and red stripes at the cuffs, neck, and bottom, “Fireball” scripted on the left chest. Photographers often captured Roberts wearing the jacket before he died in a crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1964.

Roberts’s girlfriend, Judy, called McKim in 2009 and invited him to her home to look at Roberts’s possessions, to see if there was anything he wanted for the Hall of Fame. He found the jacket in a box. Judy told McKim that she hung the jacket in the closet after Roberts died, and often pulled it out because it smelled of him. But eventually, his scent faded, and she stuffed the jacket in the box and put it away. The box had remained unopened.

“When I saw that, I went —” McKim makes a noise that resembles an engine revving. “It was Roberts’s favorite piece of clothing. There were lots of pictures of him wearing that. Everything was still in the pockets.”

From Roberts’s pockets McKim fished a lighter, half a pack of Juicy Fruit chewing gum, and two passes for the racetrack, all untouched since 1964. The lighter and passes hang with the jacket in the exhibit. McKim says he still needs to figure out how to preserve the gum.

• • •
 

The NASCAR Hall of Fame tried to create a museum experience that closely resembles the sport it honors. Noisy and chaotic inside, the museum feels like a racetrack. NASCAR isn’t stuffy, so neither is the museum. Interactive exhibits recreate almost every step at a race, from driving to changing tires to broadcasting the event. McKim says the Hall strove to reflect the hands-on nature of attending an event.

As he walks through the museum, McKim asks nearly as many questions as he answers. What was your first race? Which era is your favorite? Is there anything you were hoping to see that you haven’t seen? What did you like the other times you were here?

He opens his tour with a trivia question, about what Richard Petty and Amelia Earhart have in common. (Petty was born the day Earhart disappeared.) McKim probably knows more NASCAR facts and figures than anybody on earth. But it’s learning the stories behind the facts, and sharing them in this gleaming museum, that drives him. “You figure out what made these guys tick. I saw a great quote: ‘We work 80 hours a week for 30 years to keep from finding a real job.’ And I went, ‘Wow, that’s it in a nutshell,’” he says. “These guys were absolutely passionate about what they did. The artifacts are cool, but the back stories are what really, really makes it special.”

In that, he sees no mystery.

• • •
 

Tom Wolfe penned the most famous story ever written about NASCAR. Headlined “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson,” it appeared in Esquire magazine. Wolfe specifically profiled Johnson, who became a member of the first class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, but he also revealed the South’s obsession with racing in general.

Wolfe opened the 1965 piece like this: “Ten o’clock Sunday morning in the hills of North Carolina. Cars, miles of cars, in every direction, millions of cars, pastel cars, aqua green, aqua blue, aqua beige, Assassin pink, Rake-a-cheek raspberry. Nude Strand coral, Honest Thrill orange, and Baby Fawn Lust cream-colored cars are all going to the stock-car races, and that old mothering North Carolina sun keeps exploding off the windshields. Mother dog!”

Forty-nine years later, little has changed. Make it 11 o’clock on the last Sunday in May, and put the traffic jam in Concord, on the way to Charlotte Motor Speedway, and other than that, Wolfe’s observations are still spot-on. As a place, Charlotte Motor Speedway grows on race day, expanding beyond its borders for miles as fans wait to enter. Like the cars on Glory Road, the vehicles sit unmoving, side by side and bumper to bumper. Brake lights glow a mile from the track, and it’s still seven-and-a-half hours before the green flag signaling the start of the Coca-Cola 600 drops.

Cars bearing license plates from 13 other states and Canada drift along, plus a red pickup with a North Carolina plate that says ERNHRT3. The track sold tickets to fans in all 50 states and 10 countries. More than any sport, except perhaps baseball, NASCAR celebrates its past. NASCAR also obsesses over the future — how to make a car faster, where to find the next great driver, how to draw more fans and better ratings. But on race day, in the infield, the past and future fade away, and the only thing that matters is right now.

And nowhere is right now so much fun as Charlotte Motor Speedway.

 

• • •
 

An entire community springs up inside the racetrack twice a year, only with barely drivable, rusted-out school buses topped with viewing platforms parked next to million dollar motor homes. This is called camping in the infield, but “camping” is the right word only because there’s no other word for it. The inside of the track has no trees, little grass, and is covered almost entirely in asphalt, which that old mothering North Carolina sun keeps exploding off.

Flags of current drivers, plus many former ones, fly from almost every campsite. Racing fandom is endlessly complicated, in part because every team takes part in every event, as opposed to stick-and-ball sports, which always feature one team against another. In NASCAR, rivalries come and go, allegiances come and go, and villains and heroes trade places week by week. Brad Keselowski, the outspoken driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite car, is a white-knuckling nobody from nowhere whose rise to the top embodies the outspoken, take-no-prisoners approach that makes NASCAR great. Naturally, then, some fans hate him, and therefore wouldn’t dare drink a Miller Lite unless it were cold or free.

Chevy fans don’t like Ford fans, nobody likes Toyota fans, and open-wheel fans best not show their faces. Except none of that matters. Those antagonisms are nothing more than fights at Thanksgiving, and the track is one massive, loud, colorful, incorrigible dinner table.

Early afternoon the day before Memorial Day, Mike Tubbs leans over a grill packed with chicken wings. Behind him and to the left, Turn 3 stands tall and high-banked, 24 degrees with a 625-foot radius, where nerve stares down talent, and sometimes talent blinks. Behind Tubbs to the right, the end of Turn 4 slopes down with the start-finish line ahead.

A few feet away, Joe Tannery watches over a couple dozen hamburgers — far more patties than there are people present. A bunch of soldiers walks by, and Tannery waves at them with his spatula to explain why he cooks more food than he needs. On Memorial Day weekend, 2,500 soldiers visited the track. Tannery plans to make every hungry soldier a fed soldier.

Fans camp in the same spot every year and expect everybody else to camp in the same spot, too, just as you expect your neighbors to still live beside you when you get home from work. Tubbs and Tannery aren’t related, but they’ve been attending races together for so long that they refer to this May weekend, and the subsequent race weekend in October, as family reunions.

Tannery shares his site with his brothers. They live in Raleigh and Garner and the Lake Norman area, and, for two weekends a year, in a motor home at the racetrack. “We make sure we see each other twice a year, whether we need to or not,” John Tannery says.

Everyone laughs. Laughter roars in the infield more often than the engines. Everybody teases everybody about everything. “One time, he was feeding the whole infield …” John says of Joe, with the rest of that story drowned out by another round of laughter.

Tubbs attended his first race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1970, became a regular in the 1980s, grabbed this space, and has returned for races in May and October ever since. As a younger man, he raced and worked as a body and paint man for a few NASCAR teams. He still lives in the area, and now he’s content to enjoy the sport as a fan.

His wife, Frances, feeds their 9-month-old great-grandson. The boy’s mom attended her first race here at 2 months old. “There’s just good people here,” Frances says. “We enjoy it and want other people to enjoy it.”

She tells a story about her favorite memory here, a water fight, and the soaking revenge she sought on a man who drenched her first. “Why would you pick that as your fondest memory?” Tubbs asks. “I’ve always thought the most tickled I’ve ever seen you is when Earnhardt won the World 600.”

Frances: “Oh, God, yes.”

Mike: “You about burnt this place down.”

Frances: “I love Earnhardt.”

• • •
 

Built in 1959 by driver Curtis Turner and businessman O. Bruton Smith, Charlotte Motor Speedway grew to become one of the most important and historic tracks in NASCAR. A driver with no wins there has an incomplete résumé.

Smith left the track in 1962, but returned as majority shareholder in 1975. He hired promoter Humpy Wheeler to run the facility as general manager, and together they introduced several innovations, the most notable being on-site condominiums and lights that made Charlotte the first modern superspeedway to have night races. Wheeler has since left, but the forward thinking continues. In 2011, the speedway unveiled the world’s largest HDTV (a title since usurped by Texas Motor Speedway, also owned by Smith). Standing along the backstretch, it’s 200 feet wide and 80 feet tall, weighs 165,000 pounds and features 9 million LED lamps.

Those changes brought technology to the track, but race day remains largely the same. As the NASCAR television commercial avows, “Everything has changed. Nothing has changed.” As race time approaches, crewmen wear brightly colored uniforms with patches proclaiming allegiance to every product you’ve ever heard of and others you haven’t. Inside the garage area, other crewmen “nut and bolt” their cars, lingo for one last check to make certain that everything that’s supposed to be tight, is.

A country band performs just inside the front stretch. The roads that bring fans to the track remain clogged. The concourses teem with people who carry beers in their hands, tattoos on their shoulders, and, hopefully, sunscreen in their bags. Men wear shorts and T-shirts, hats and sunglasses. Women wear flower dresses and sandals, or cutoffs and cowboy boots, or flower dresses and cowboy boots.

They show up for the race, of course, but not only for the race. “It’s like a great big tailgating party for five days,” says Tina Pellerin, camped not far from the Tubbses and Tannerys. “Where else can you go and get this many people together for five days? Every year you meet someone new, and they always come back.”

It’s a strange fact of a NASCAR race that fans sit inside the 1.5-mile track, with cars whooshing around them, and yet they watch the event on TV — especially now that Charlotte has that massive screen. (Seriously: It’s taller and wider than the White House.) A running joke comes up at just about every site with longtime campers. Tina’s daughter, Samantha, makes it when asked where she’ll watch the race: “There’s a race?”

She’s kidding. Mostly. After remaining unused for most of the year, on race weekends, the infield turns into a playground for children during the day and for adults at night. Samantha brought a pool for her kids and a stocked bar for the adults to stumble away from.

Her daughter, Trinity, 5, loves driver Kasey Kahne, and when he won this race two years ago, she cried. “That’s what it’s all about,” Samantha says as Trinity splashes in her pool. “Watching that, her so excited, is what makes it worthwhile.”

• • •
 

Ray Evernham stands in the lobby of the 5/24 shop at Hendrick Motorsports. Sunshine cascades through glass walls slanted from the top to bottom. Trophies, uniforms, and checkered flags fill glass cases, mementos of Hendrick’s successes at some of the biggest and most important races in America. As driver Jeff Gordon’s crew chief in the 1990s, Evernham won many of those races. As the team’s director of competition today, it’s his job to help Hendrick Motorsports’ four race teams win more.

He leaves the lobby and walks toward the 5/24 shop, where mechanics work on cars for Kahne (No. 5) and Gordon (No. 24). The garage looks more like a laboratory than a garage. Fifteen cars sit in various stages of production, shining like the trophies in the lobby. So do the floors and the walls and the counters and the tools. Probably the mechanics’ smiles shine, too, but they don’t stand still long enough to verify that.

A NASCAR race shop overflows with American can-do multitasking ingenuity. It’s a sports practice field where the mechanics prepare for a competition, both by building the cars inside and by going through vigorous physical workouts and pit stop training outside. It’s a manufacturing facility where highly educated engineers design parts for the cars, which highly skilled fabricators then create. And it’s a garage where mechanics assemble and repair automobiles. The company also has marketing and human resources and media relations and accounting and sales and a TV studio and a gift shop and free tours.

Heck, the Hendrick Motorsports campus is so big it has its own radio station.

Sports field, manufacturing facility, garage — whatever this place is, it’s nothing like it used to be.

Among the 18 cars on display on Glory Road in the Hall of Fame is the Pontiac that belonged to “Fireball” Roberts, NACAR’s first big star.

When Hendrick Motorsports opened 30 years ago, it employed five people and covered 5,000 square feet. Today, the 5/24 shop holding 15 cars covers much more ground than that, and a dozen more buildings every bit that big rise from the green hills of the 100-plus-acre campus. Hendrick Motorsports — the most successful team in NASCAR’s modern era, and arguably ever — now fields four teams at NASCAR’s highest level, leases engines to several others, and employs more than 500 people, all dedicated to one thing: winning.

But even that has changed, as the definition of winning has evolved from finishing first, to finishing first while simultaneously providing good return on investment for sponsors. Racing as a business grows more complicated every year. The pursuit of new sponsors continues unabated — and those sponsors’ expectations grow with every zero that gets added to their fee.

And a staggering amount of work, time, and planning goes into producing a single car.

The engine alone requires more than 2,200 parts. The rest of the car has more than 1,400. Some parts cost thousands of dollars. Some cost next to nothing. Some are conceived and created on site; others are shipped here from as far away as the Gold Coast of Australia. Wherever they come from, they come together here and are put together as the first step in building the future of the sport.

• • •
 

Evernham dreamed of being a championship driver as a young man. But a wreck robbed him of his depth perception, so instead of turning laps, he started turning wrenches. It soon became clear that he had both a knack for building fast race cars and an incredible ability to assemble and motivate a team.

He brought a holistic approach to the top of Jeff Gordon’s pit box, a mix of coaching, planning, and engineering. His innovative ideas about hyper-trained pit crews, where to place a car’s center of gravity, and how to build cars that drive the same at every track helped turn Gordon from a precocious talent into a world-famous athlete. Before Evernham left Hendrick to launch Evernham Motorsports in 2000, Gordon and Evernham were considered among the best driver-crew chief tandems ever.

Evernham sold his shares in his team in 2010 and worked as an analyst for ESPN before rejoining Hendrick Motorsports this year as director of competition. The Hendrick Motorsports he returned to barely resembled the one he joined in 1992.

Evernham, 57, broke into NASCAR while icons of the NASCAR’s formative years still worked in the sport. He believes NASCAR is at a unique time in its history, a big-time sport whose Babe Ruths and Ty Cobbs are still alive. He lapped up every drop of wisdom, dispensed to him by legends like Robert Gee, Harry Hyde, and Waddell Wilson. He personally knows — and raced against — guys in the Hall of Fame now. He’ll be inducted himself one day. And he’s responsible for helping future drivers get there, too.

“Hopefully there will be some young, multi-race winner or crew chief saying, ‘Yeah, when I first went to Hendrick, Ray Evernham was wandering around there,’”
he says.

Those guys will want to know what it was like back in the day, or how to do this or that. Like McKim and the Tannery’s and the Tubbses, Evernham will be thrilled to share what he knows about the sport he loves.

This story was published on

Crossman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte. He spent 12 years at the Sporting News and has 10 national writing awards. Crossman’s work has appeared in the notable mention section of the Best American Sports Writing anthology three times.

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