Sunday, February 1, 2015

Life, Life, Love

In Charlotte, getting her simulated motor running

The opening display at the NASCAR Hall of Fame museum in Charlotte, N.C., shows the banked track. As you walk, the bank gets steeper. (Philippa Chaplin/Staff)
The opening display at the NASCAR Hall of Fame museum in Charlotte, N.C., shows the banked track. As you walk, the bank gets steeper. (Philippa Chaplin/Staff)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - "I really enjoyed the simulation! Driving those cars like Mario Andretti!" a friend told me after she visited the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

We were in town for our sorority's biennial international conference, and the Queen City had laid out the pink-and-green carpet for us. Even the NASCAR museum, right down the street from the convention center, had put our sorority's colors in lights.

After the conference ended, I spent Friday afternoon at the NASCAR Hall of Fame with my family, who were picking me up for summer vacation. Frankly, I was a bit apprehensive about the tour: I'm not a racing fan, and I cringe when I hear about crashes. On the other hand, I try to keep up with sports, and actually know a few things about NASCAR.

Upon entering, you get a Hard Card giving you access to challenges in the exhibits, and tracking your progress as you complete them. One is the simulated Pit Crew Challenge: Jack up a car, change a tire, fill the gas tank. (My family ruled!)

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  • The first floor rolls into the second via the "Glory Road" exhibit, designed like a race track to bank as you ascend. I actually got a little motion-sick as I walked along the track and tried to navigate the embankments - at one point, 33 degrees. Along the way are 18 historic cars representing six NASCAR generations.

    At the end of "Glory Road" is the NASCAR Hall of Honor, a shrine to the inductees. I was familiar with quite a few names, but what struck me was that many are not drivers but owners, engine builders, executives, and promoters. The main criterion to get into the Hall is "contribution to the sport."

    The fourth floor is the Heritage level, where the story of the National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing's origins unfolds. It goes back to Prohibition, when moonshiners souped up their cars to outrun the police.

    Through this year, the visiting exhibit is "Rockin' and Racin'," exploring the relationship between music and NASCAR. On display is a Taylor Swift car, in her favorite color (red), with the singer's image. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing's No. 42 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car, already with Target as a sponsor, was repainted for an October 2012 race to promote the release of a deluxe version of Swift's album Red, which was available exclusively at Target. (The album sold 1.21 million copies in its first week in the United States and was the third-biggest-selling album of the year.)

    NASCAR Race Weeks have lured stars the likes of Stevie Wonder, Lenny Kravitz, Britney Spears, Kid Rock, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mariah Carey, and Brantley Gilbert.

    In the Race Week section of the hall, visitors get a behind-the-scenes look at how a team, and the industry in general, prepares for a race: There are sponsors to land, pit-stop activities, car-preparation information, news conferences, media sound checks, and more.

    It was here that I became a racing aficionado. In the exhibit's qualifying rounds, visitors get to test the track. This simulation, with a screen and a steering wheel, isn't easy. Driving up to 200 m.p.h. sounds like fun, but just try to control the vehicle on steep embankments with a seemingly endless stream of cars in front and back. I did pretty well, though. Only wiped out twice. And lost some points when I didn't see the black flag to make a pit stop. Apart from that, I was ready for race day!

    We lined up for the racing simulation. This time you sit in a car, or at least a car shell, with netting in place of the windows, like on real race cars.

    NASCAR is second only to the NFL in TV ratings, and some say it's a leading U.S. economic indicator. After visiting the Hall of Honor, I know why. I'm ready to head to Dover International Speedway in Delaware and hear the engines roar.

    The simulated race, in particular, gave me empathy for the drivers and new admiration for their skills. I'm almost one of them: I didn't win, but in the field of 10, I placed a respectable fifth.



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