NASCAR honors its heroes and history at new Hall of Fame in Charlotte

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2010

CHARLOTTE -- When the curators of NASCAR's Hall of Fame couldn't figure out how to reassemble the pipes and boilers and vats that make up the hand-hewn moonshine still that Junior Johnson had donated for display, they called the famed stock-car racer for advice.

"Just stop where you're at!" barked Johnson, 78. "I'll be down there in about an hour."

Never mind that it's a 90-minute drive from Johnson's farm to Charlotte. After a high-speed jaunt down Interstate 77, a few turns of a pipe wrench and some tweaks with his pliers, Johnson had the elaborate contraption back together -- exactly like the stills his father had built to brew the illegal whiskey that paid the family's bills -- and ready for its featured role as a glass-encased exhibit.

NASCAR's $200 million Hall of Fame, which opens Tuesday, pays homage to the champions of stock-car racing's past and provides a peek under the hood at the technology that's driving its present and future.

The scale of the 150,000-square-feet complex, which gobbles up five acres of prime commercial real estate, is testament to NASCAR's emergence as a major league sport. It also represents a dramatic turnabout among the powerbrokers of Charlotte, who strived for decades to market the city as the embodiment of the upscale New South and play down, if not deny outright, its association with stock-car racing, a sport long derided as the mindless pursuit of ne'er-do-wells.

Suddenly Charlotte isn't just claiming its NASCAR roots; it's celebrating them, moonshine included.

"Twenty years ago, [Charlotte's elite] looked down their noses at it as a redneck sport," said John Connaughton, an economics professor at UNC Charlotte. "Today, most people look at it as entertainment and a big business that generates billions of economic impact and thousands of jobs. Racing is no longer a four-letter word."

While NASCAR's corporate office is in Daytona Beach, Fla., 90 percent of its race teams are headquartered in the Charlotte area. That translates to a $5.9 billion economic impact and more than 27,000 jobs for North Carolinians, according to a 2006 study co-authored by Connaughton. And that's significant in a state that has lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs in the last decades, with textiles, tobacco and furniture particularly hard hit.

"It's funny how money changes the way the wealthy perceive an industry," veteran promoter H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler said.

Wheeler still remembers the sting of his first presentation, as president of Charlotte Motor Speedway, to the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. It was 1976, and he had come to extol the business opportunities stock-car racing afforded. Afterward, the chamber's chairman presented him with a pair of white socks and a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

But those stereotypes have given way among Charlotte's business titans as billions have poured into the sport. Wheeler likens it to Nashville's delayed embrace of country music as its calling card.

"The South didn't produce a middle class until long after the Northeast did," says Wheeler, author of "Growing Up NASCAR." "When you have an emerging middle class, it doesn't want to talk about its roots. It's not until after a middle class has emerged that a society will embrace it roots and not be ashamed of them."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company