CHARLOTTE – It's history encased in modern structure -- and perhaps the only shiny new complex in ultra-modern downtown Charlotte to feature a real still.
It's gleaming glass surrounding sheet metal from 60 years ago, a modern packaging of more than 60 years of hopes of dreams, of heart-stopping passes and horrifying crashes, of gutsy wins and crushing defeats, of fans standing and shouting by unused seats. It's Earnhardts and Pettys and Allisons and Frances; Byron and Johnson and Thomas and Gordon.
It's a melding of past and present into one stunning and riveting museum. It's the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and it opens today.
The experience begins in the hushed silence of a theater. And then the screen roars to life.
Suddenly, all that NASCAR's longtime fans claim the sport has lost and all that new fans are embracing are showcased in a 12-minute synopsis of the noise and chaos and thrill of NASCAR.
From this moment, it's clear this is going to be a real-life kind of experience.
There's stunning footage of drivers of old racing along the beach, scenes of moonshiners being chased by police, of garage areas of old with cars of old being tinkered on. There's an uncanny melding of old with new, an eerie sense of familiarity even as one watches older cars in clips seldom seen. At one point, a commentator calls the tight race to the line as cars from three eras are seen on the segmented screen. The audio matches each perfectly.
Aggressive racing melts into Jamie McMurray's teary response to winning this year's Daytona 500 as the film highlights 60 years of NASCAR history.
The message is clear. NASCAR, past and present, is riveting, exciting -- and now honored in the gleaming magnificence of the sport's new Hall of Fame. The hall manages to represent both NASCAR's past and present, to awe with rare artifacts from the sport's opening eras and educate with realistic replicas and simulations of today's racing.
Embracing both its sometimes ragged beginning and its current technological advancements, the hall will be a marvel for fans both old and new -- and will offer something for everyone.
The museum is an amazing accomplishment for the men who spent more than three years pulling it together. Drivers and owners, past and present, have dug into their chests and found artifacts from their own careers. Instead of putting everything behind glass, officials have found a way to make numerous parts of the museum either interactive -- there are more than 50 displays of this nature -- or allow fans to try out things on their own. There are "Did you know" fact boxes and in-depth explanations of the mechanisms of the car and the sport in various exhibits.
NASCAR's history takes on new life in "Glory Road," the initial eye-catching exhibit in which cars sit on increased banking in a track simulation that wraps around the interior of the building. The cars on that road, which will be changed out from time to time, represent the sport from its beginning to its present.
First, on the lower banking, comes the car of NASCAR's first race winner, Red Byron. Herb Thomas, Lee Petty, Richard Petty, Richie Evans up to Jimmie Johnson are also represented. As fans climb the banking to its climax, it matches what is seen at tracks throughout the circuit. Placards explain not only the performance of a particular car but also its specifications. Tracks are defined as one reaches the appropriate banking, some with actual pieces of asphalt from the track for fans to feel.
That sets the tone for a day of vintage video, landmark artifacts and an education in both the history of the sport and what it takes for a team to get through a race weekend. There's simulators and trivia questions, the chance to take one's "hard card" ticket and register at various machines and then tally scores at the end of the outing. Where do you rank? Who will be your host -- there's a computerized version of a slate of NASCAR greats to choose as guides through the museum at the various stops along the way.
There's so much to choose from and so much to see, it's almost overwhelming. Video is sprinkled throughout the facility, capturing key moments in NASCAR's history. After passing Glory Road, one climbs into the heart of race preparation. There's a state-of-the-art faux shop area with parts and pieces, an engine that can be started and revved, a pair of springs with differing compression rates to work on and a transporter -- complete with ensuing video from four-time championship crew chief Chad Knaus.
Then there's pit road, where fans can work with a jack, take lug nuts off a tire, work with the gas can -- all to a timer that can tabulate your stop. There are racing simulators inside a line of cars -- with Johnson's on the front row on the grid, of course -- and even a row of unapproved parts and not only what the enhancement was, but what it would have done for the car.
The Hall of Honor will reside here as well, a place where "racing greats live forever" and where the year's inductees will be highlighted and all Hall of Fame members will be enshrined.
One climbs into the heart of the sport after ascending to the top floor. This is Heritage Speedway, a Mecca for "old-time" fans of the sport. A vast array of materials from drivers and owners are kept in cases, with explanations of each item. There's a jacket worn by Fireball Roberts in his racing days. Pit boards represent an array of Wood Brothers' drivers. A family legacy row highlights the Frances, Pettys, Earnhardts and Allisons. A video segment highlights NASCAR's greatest finishes. A Moonshine still -- installed by Junior Johnson himself -- sits in a corner.
And one can literally sit with Bill France Jr. and watch race highlights -- at least the life-size cast of him sitting in a chair in front of the screen. There are others represented by these statues as well, racers and officials of old.
Nothing is left out of the museum. It touches on the triumphs and tragedies of more than 60 years of existence in one packed building. It's hard to tell how long it would take one to sample every simulator and quiz, to read each placard and utilize all the interactive displays.
NASCAR has attempted to create a home for all of its fans, whether new to the sport or long-time followers of particular drivers.
Now, fans can judge for themselves whether this has been accomplished in the new hall. One thing is certain: the museum offers an almost overwhelming perspective on the sport in all of its phases. And it unquestionably offers something for every race fan.