Sports - August 2005

For others, NASCAR Hall of Fame could be the pits
By Chris Roush

When R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. ended its 33-year sponsorship of NASCAR’s top series in 2003, Will Spencer didn’t wait. The owner of Winston-Salem-based marketing and design company JKS Motorsports asked the cigarette maker, one of his clients, for its racing memorabilia. “Most of the stuff was going to end up in a dumpster or a closet,” he says. “Such a deep-rooted piece of what NASCAR is today came from Winston and R.J. Reynolds.”

Trophies, photos, cars and other NASCAR-related items are part of the Winston Cup Museum, which he opened in May in a refurbished auto dealership. It is the latest of more than a half-dozen museums, halls of fame and team stores in the state that have stock-car-racing displays. Each draws thousands of fans annually.

With NASCAR considering Charlotte as the site of its official hall of fame, however, some wonder how these attractions will fare. “They could easily get lost in the shuffle,” says Larry DeGaris, director of the Center for Sports Sponsorships at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. “But that’s only if the tourism board and NASCAR collectively allow that to happen.”

John Sweeney, who runs the sports-communications program at UNC Chapel Hill, believes that the attractions closest to Charlotte would draw more visitors if the hall of fame were placed there. “But if the hall of fame in Charlotte is all-inclusive, then you’re going to hurt all of the other ones. If it has a Dale Earnhardt wing, that will hurt visitors to his shop.”

Officials involved in Charlotte’s bid downplay any problems. “We believe that it enhances the ‘NASCAR Valley’ concept to come here to spend multiple days, enjoy a race, visit some garages and some of the other amenities,” says Michael Smith, president of Charlotte Center City Partners, a nonprofit that promotes downtown.

Still, with organizers saying the Charlotte site would draw about 400,000 fans its first year, resulting in nearly $7 million in admissions and an economic impact of $62 million, some fans — and their money — likely would be drawn from other sites. Bids were submitted to Daytona Beach, Fla.-based NASCAR at the end of May, with a decision expected by the end of the year. Other cities seeking the hall are Richmond, Va., Atlanta, Kansas City, Kan., and Daytona Beach. The hall could open by 2008.

Each bidding city has pluses. Daytona Beach is home to the sport’s showcase race, the Daytona 500. Kansas City would appeal to the sport’s growing fan base in the Midwest, while Atlanta is home of many NASCAR sponsors. Richmond has two popular races. As for Charlotte, NASCAR’s licensing division is based in the city, and the governing body has another office in nearby Concord. Most NASCAR teams have their headquarters near the Queen City.

Nearby Mooresville is called Race City USA and contains both the North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame and Memory Lane Museum. The hall says it attracts more than 300,000 visitors annually. Also in Mooresville is the Dale Earnhardt Museum, an 8,700-square-foot showroom and store that includes the driver’s seven Winston Cup Series trophies. It is part of the headquarters for Dale Earnhardt Inc., the NASCAR stable of teams Earnhardt started before his death in 2001.

Other team headquarters near Charlotte display cars and operate stores where fans can buy T-shirts, flags and models of race cars. Roush Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing are in Concord, near Lowe’s Motor Speedway. The Roush shop has a car museum. Joe Gibbs Racing is in Huntersville, while Evernham Motorsports is in Statesville. Richard Childress Racing in Welcome has a museum full of cars. Many were driven by Earnhardt.

Petty Enterprises is in Randleman, 90 minutes northeast of Charlotte. Its Richard Petty Museum drew 19,000 fans in 2004, 3,000 more than the year before. Executive Director Doris Gammons is negotiating with the Smithsonian National Museum of American History to display the car Petty drove to his record 200th NASCAR victory in 1984.

Currently on display in the museum are 14 cars raced by Petty and his father, Lee, and more than 300 trophies. Gammons doesn’t believe that having the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte would hurt business. “We have a lot of Richard Petty stuff where this is the only place you can get it. Fans of Richard will always come here.”

As for the Winston Cup Museum, daily attendance has been as low as 25, though it did attract more than 170 people Memorial Day weekend. But Spencer says he’s not worried about competition from the hall of fame. “We’ll have more things that they’ll want from us than we’ll want from them.”

Of course, all this is assuming the NASCAR hall winds up in Charlotte. Aside from normal competition among cities, there is a major factor working against the Queen City. The decision will be made by NASCAR’s board of directors, which is controlled by the France family — which owns the speedways in Daytona Beach, Kansas City and Richmond.