Charlotte: The Hub of Racing Culture

Charlotte is home to Lowe's Motor Speedway and NASCAR history.
By: Allen Norwood
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In uptown Charlotte, NASCAR's new Hall of Fame is just a few blocks from the tower that is home to Bank of America, the nation's No. 2 bank. The ultimate symbol of stock car racing is also within sight of the Wachovia arts campus. 

If the contrasts between sophisticated art and finance and the ultimate blue-collar sport seem striking — and they do even to locals — it's important to understand the heritage they share. The passions that fired both sprouted from the same red clay.

"Both have roots in the textile industry of this region," says Tom Hanchett, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South in uptown Charlotte. "And those roots aren't well known at all."

In its early days, Charlotte was a banking and rail hub that served mills in the region's small towns. The first big banks in Charlotte, including Commerce National, predecessor to Bank of America, were created to serve that textile industry. The France family founded NASCAR, but the sport soon had a special grip on the Carolinas.

The Site of NASCAR Success

NASCAR's corporate headquarters is in Daytona Beach, Fla., but almost everything else is in Charlotte or close by. Ninety percent of the teams are within 75 miles of Charlotte. Tour buses take visitors from shop to shop in nearby Concord and Mooresville. The marketing, publishing and broadcasting centers are located in Charlotte as well as the Hall of Fame complex.

Stock car racing's link to early Appalachian moonshiners is part of its mythology. Many of those early hardscrabble racers did what the old-timers call "shift work": They labored in the mills, and the folks in the stands were mill workers.

"The early mechanics were loom fixers in the mills," Hanchett says. "They were the best mechanics on the factory floor, and they had to fix machines on the fly."

Those were skills perfectly honed for the new sport of stock car racing. The first Strictly Stock race, which evolved into today's Sprint Cup, was held in Charlotte in 1949. It featured 33 cars and drew 13,000 visitors.

The late Lee Petty came from Level Cross to drive a borrowed Buick. He rolled it but still came in 17th and won $25. Hanchett can't prove it but is convinced that NASCAR races were scheduled for Sunday afternoons because the mills ran five-and-a-half days per week. Sundays were the only day the workers had free.

Hanchett says the same competitive spirit built the banks and the sport. Southern banks, led by executives who had grown up in small Southern towns, had to work hard to compete with the big banks and city slickers from New York and Chicago. They scrapped for any advantage.

In order to win, stock car drivers had to take more risks than the other guys. They had to wring more horsepower from their engines and be willing to rub fenders.

"You can't rest on your laurels in the poor South," Hanchett says. "You've got to go for it."

Hall of Fame

To win the Hall of Fame, Charlotte competed with other cities, including Atlanta and Kansas City, and scraped some civic fenders. The complex includes a $190-million hall of fame, entertainment center and museum.

Fans enjoy "Glory Road," a banked ramp featuring 15 to 18 historic cars; a simulator offering the racing experience; and an 18-wheeler outfitted as a car hauler, mobile shop and race-day nerve center.

There is a 250-seat, state-of-the-art theater offering films about the sport and galleries displaying artifacts from 60-plus years of racing. There are broadcast studios and a NASCAR newsroom, a restaurant and shops where fans can buy souvenirs of their favorite drivers.

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