The circle around downtown Kannapolis, N.C., was derisively called the “idiot loop” by adults because it was where teenagers, including native son Dale Earnhardt Sr., would cruise on the weekends.
“He [Earnhardt] said he did more laps around that than any track,” said Tracy Aldridge, senior vice president of sales for the Cabarrus County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Today, a nine-foot statue of Earnhardt, the NASCAR racing legend who was killed in a wreck at the Daytona 500 10 years ago, faces the circle. It is part of the self-guided Dale Trail, which takes race fans to sites associated with Earnhardt, including his boyhood home. It also epitomizes the major role that NASCAR plays in Cabarrus County and nearby Charlotte.
“We are all about motorsports,” said Aldridge. “Our new tag line is ‘Where Racing Lives.’ Eighty to 90 percent of the race teams are here in our general region.”
Many of the teams’ shops, where sophisticated research and repairs are conducted on every aspect of a racecar, from engines to suspensions to chassis, are open to visitors.
“During the week, you can actually go into the race shop itself and see them working on cars through windows,” said Aldridge.
Several of the teams, such as Hendrick Motorsports — which has four shops on its 140-acre complex representing Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, five-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and Earnhardt’s son, Dale Jr. — also have museums and gift shops.
Dale Jr.’s mom
A great way for groups to experience the racing scene is with a local receptive operator such as Adventures in Motor Sports. “Roger Haas knows all the history and stories,” said Aldridge. “He can arrange dinner with Martha Earnhardt, Dale Jr.’s mama. She still lives in the home Dale grew up in.”
The centerpiece of the NASCAR scene, where the action takes place and the rubber hits the road, is the Charlotte Motor Speedway, which is located in Cabarrus County.
The Speedway is host to three major NASCAR events in May and October, but there is something happening at the track year round.
“The track has eight different race schools that share track time throughout the year,” said Aldridge. “There is somebody on the track nearly all the time doing something.”
Groups can tour the 135,000-seat track and arrange meals on the sixth floor of the Smith Tower. “It looks out over the finish line and pit area,” said Aldridge. “It is a great way for fans to see the track and watch if something is going on.”
Another way for the adventurous to see the mile-and-a-half track is with one of the driving schools, such as the Richard Petty Driving Experience.
“Each member can go 160 miles per hour in a real NASCAR race car,” said Aldridge.
The Speedway just unveiled in May a new HD video screen that at 200 feet by 80 feet is thought to be the largest in the world.
The Speedway also announced that it will once again do Carolina Christmas, a large drive-through light display in and around the track, this year.
Open from Nov. 21-Jan. 2, Carolina Christmas features nearly 500 light displays along a 2.5-mile drive, along with a live Nativity scene in a realistic Bethlehem-themed village, carriage rides and a festival of trees.
To get the word out, Aldridge is sending Christmas lights to 100 top tour operators to introduce a new package in conjunction with the lights that includes coupon books to Concord Mills, the 200-store outlet mall in Cabarrus County that is the most visited tourist site in North Carolina.
Across from the Speedway, the three-year-old zMax Dragway is considered the Bellagio of drag strips with 30,000 grandstand seats, 40 luxury suites and the only four-lane, all-concrete racing surface in the world.
Also across from the Speedway is Sam Bass Galleries featuring work of the famous motorsports artist. “It has a gallery in which you can see his work, from just basic pen to paper art to guitars and all types of unique things he has created,” said Aldridge.
The newest addition to the racing scene is the NASCAR Hall of Fame in downtown Charlotte, which opened in May 2010.
The $195 million building, with a distinctive exterior aerodynamic ribbon of more than 3,200 shingles, is filled with high-tech exhibits that put race fans in the thick of the action, including simulators that let you compete in a virtual NASCAR race and an area where you can try you hand at a pit stop.
A centerpiece of the museum is Glory Road, which showcases 18 historic cars on a track that simulates various racetracks, including the various degrees of banking, up to 33 degrees, the same as at Talladega Superespeedway. Visitors can walk on the surfaces and experience the banking.
Another popular feature is the 275-seat High Octane Theater, where a short film tells the history and legacy of NASCAR on a 64-foot-wide, curved screen with multimedia and sensory experiences, including blasts of air and surround sound that re-create the feel and sound of racing cars.
Cabarrus County Convention and Visitors Bureau