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July 2010
Racing Legacy
By Ellison Clary

     Given his strong racing roots, perhaps it’s predictable the executive director of Charlotte’s NASCAR Hall of Fame grew emotional just before grand opening.

     Winston Kelley perched high above the first floor and gazed down on 18 historic race cars in the Glory Road exhibit. Before he knew it, he was wiping tears.

     “It’s that compelling for somebody who has been around the sport for a long time,” Kelley attests.

     Twenty-four hours later, crowds flocked to first-day festivities for the shiny keeper of NASCAR’s most precious artifacts and proudest history. They also played on more than a few interactive exhibits that can rev most anyone’s engine.

     Many more visited the Hall for two other occasions in May.

One was the induction to the Hall of Fame for its first five members: NASCAR founder Bill France Sr.; his son Bill France Jr. who has run the sport for nearly three decades; Richard Petty, the driver whose nickname “The King” sums up his dominance; Dale Earnhardt, whose seven NASCAR championships match Petty’s; and Junior Johnson, former driver and car owner whose youthful moonshine runs were more than lore.

     Then there was the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race under the stars and the Coca-Cola 600 that bookend center city Charlotte’s Speed Street, celebrating the Queen City’s particular version of rapid transit.

     Through it all, Kelley and his crew of nearly 30 full-time staffers and 100 part-timers kept people shuffling through the 150,000 square feet of racing history and fun.

     And if old cars caused Kelley to cry, he also chokes up recounting how the Hall fueled bright eyes for a young boy confined to a wheel chair. And he takes pride in knowing staffers belted out impromptu versions of the Happy Birthday song to other youthful fans.

     “When parents stop you and say your staff did something extra that made a kid’s day, that’s pretty cool,” Kelley says. “The thing I’m probably as pleased about as anything is how much fun the kids are having.”

     But the Hall caters to multiple demographics. “We said we wanted to appeal to people from 5 to 85, die-hard NASCAR fans or not, and I think we have very much achieved that objective,” Kelley adds.

 

Kelley’s Racing Pedigree

     Kelley, 52, is a former Duke Energy executive with an impressive stock car resume. His hobby for nearly three decades was working as a radio race reporter and he’s been a statistician and public address announcer at tracks in Bristol, Va., and North Wilkesboro, N.C. His dad, Earl Kelley, was the original public relations director at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

     Kelley helped Charlotte civic leaders land the NASCAR Hall, then signed on to steer it. To turn dreams into bricks and mortar, he worked with a team that included his boss, Tim Newman of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA); city of Charlotte officials such as Ron Kimble, assistant city manager, and Jim Schumacher, city engineer; exhibit designers Ralph Applebaum & Associates; Bank of America executive Cathy Bessant; Wachovia executive John Tate; and NASCAR officials and construction executives.

     “I cannot tell you how many times I’ve walked through the building and people have lined up to say thank you,” Kelley smiles. “My standard response is that I accept on behalf of thousands of others, and thank you for being here.”

     Kelley says the finished product is about the way he envisioned it, both inside and out. He likes the spacious plaza that fronts the main entrance facing Charlotte’s ever-expanding skyline. The adjacent Buffalo Wild Wings Café adds vibrancy as a commercial component. Overall, the oval structure evokes visions of super speedways.

     Inside, the pedal meets the metal. From NASCAR insiders as well as casual fans, Kelley says, the most frequent comment is, “This has far more than we anticipated.”

     A popular exhibit is the aforementioned Glory Road that displays, among others, the 1939 Ford driven in 1948 by Red Byron, NASCAR’s first champion. And there’s a replica of the 1959 Oldsmobile that Lee Petty steered into the winners circle at the first Daytona 500.

     But there’s much more. The experience of piloting a racer is so realistic that driver Brad Coleman of the Nationwide Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series played with it for an extended time, making sure he turned the day’s best lap. And two-time Sprint Cup champion Terry Labonte praises it for its reality quotient.

     Then there’s a pit crew challenge, where Hall-goers can compete with each other in a complete pit stop  including jacking and fueling a car and changing tires.

     When they need a pit stop of their own, visitors can enjoy a snack bar and gift shop.

 

Moonshine Moorings

     Although illegal spirits didn’t foster NASCAR, there is a connection to the fast-driving moonshine haulers of yesteryear, some of whom became or inspired racers. So how can anyone fail to be impressed by the moonshine still designed, built and installed by inductee Johnson? Envisioned as a scale model, Johnson produced a full-sized distilling contraption. He vows it will work if supplied fire, water and sour mash.

     Some thought NASCAR wouldn’t allow a still in its Hall of Fame, but Kelley maintains its inclusion was never questioned.

     Keeping watch on the exhibits is Kelley’s three-headed team of Kevin Schlesier, Buz McKim and Michelle Leopold. McKim is a NASCAR historian whose connections galore allow him to acquire all manner of memorabilia. Schlesier manages the department and focuses on exhibit rotation and display. Leopold is the collections manager and is charged with the care of the artifacts.

     All of that is critical for fueling top-notch visits. Open seven days a week with a base ticket of $19.95, the Hall is economically accessible.

     Kelley and top lieutenants are tweaking the experience in a few areas. One is signage. The Hall shares a 1,000 space underground parking deck with the adjacent 19-story NASCAR office tower. Getting from the garage to the front door has puzzled some. Others sometimes veer off track once in the Hall itself. The team has more way-finding in the works, both outside and inside.

     Visitor flow is another point of emphasis. “People are probably staying a little longer than expected, but many are under-budgeting the amount of time they need, because there’s so much in here,” Kelley says.

     Exhibit designers classify museum visitors in three categories: streakers, strollers and studiers. Many of the Hall’s visitors seem to be strollers and they are averaging between three and four hours in their visits.

     From his excursions on the floors of the facility, Kelley has met people from as far away as California and he says foreign countries have been represented, too.

 

Hall Has Magnetic Attraction

     The Hall planners and developers are hoping their attraction will have a magnetic effect on tourism and convention business. Kelley offers: “We definitely feel like we’re serving the purpose we intended, which is to be another reason people would want to come to Charlotte.”

     CRVA’s Newman goes further. He points to the largest convention in Charlotte’s history, this spring’s gathering of the National Rifle Association, for whose leaders the promise of the Hall being open was a big enticement.

     “The Hall and adjacent Crown Ballroom have helped us book at least two major conventions a year for each of the next five years, so we are already delivering on this investment,” Newman beams.

     Built into the Hall, the Crown Ballroom is an addition to the Charlotte Convention Center. Of its 100,000 square feet, 40,000 are inside the NASCAR facility. The largest space of its type in the region, it seats 4,200 theater-style and 2,400 for a sit-down dinner. It’s shared by the museum, which also boasts The Great Hall to accommodate receptions in the 675 range and dinners for up to 350. And there are smaller gathering areas, too.

     Those who have participated in special events at the Hall which included meals have been impressed with the food service provided by the Convention Center, Kelley says.

     Another area of concentration for Kelley is in Hall sponsorships. So far, nine have been sold and that has raised about $4 million. More need to be bought for the Hall to pay off a non-recourse loan of $21.5 million from Bank of America and Wachovia.

     “Two things impacted the ability to close sponsorships,” Kelley explains. “It was hard to get somebody to sign up for something they could see only on a sheet of paper. As we started getting something that people could really see, interest started to pick up.”

     The economic downturn also hurt, Kelley says, drying up dollars as marketing executives grew more deliberate in their decisions.

     Then he adds a reason for optimism: “When the market was down and groups were interested in paying a lower amount for a sponsorship, the banks said: ‘Don’t undersell the asset. We know we’ve got an exceptional facility. We provided a very low interest loan. We’ll extend that.’ They didn’t want the money just for the sake of having the money.”

     Kelley has no target number for sponsorships, but points to a display which recognizes the nine. “We’d like to fill up that wall with quality sponsors,” he smiles, adding that the Hall wants to cultivate community partnerships, as well.

 

A Good Decision

     Though owned by the city and operated by the CRVA, the Hall is a NASCAR licensee. NASCAR feedback has been excellent, Kelley says, adding, “They are very proud of the facility and the way it accurately portrays the history of NASCAR.”

     Would NASCAR ever move its end-of-year banquets to Charlotte and the Hall? Kelley thinks that’s a possibility.

     The annual bash for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR’s top competition, moved from a long run in New York City to Las Vegas in 2009 on a three-year contract. Kelley says he personally feels NASCAR will consider rotating the event at some point.

     “Do I think Charlotte has a chance to get the Sprint Cup banquet here at some point?” he asks rhetorically. “Absolutely.”

     A more solid bet is that the banquet for the NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will move to the Queen City from the Miami metro area.  Competitors at that level don’t enjoy travel budgets nearly as lavish as Sprint teams, and congregating near their Lake Norman base could carry strong appeal, Kelley thinks.

     “We have let them know we are very interested,” he says, and he is bolstered by a more recent confirmation of a fete for a NASCAR Touring Series booked for December.

     Another mission for Kelley is making the Hall an even stronger part of Charlotte’s Speed Street. There was a Food Lion live music stage near the entrance this year, but Kelley and supermarket brass are kicking around ways to enhance that experience.

     Meanwhile, the overall aura of the NASCAR Hall of Fame shines brightly.

     Charlotte’s Rick Hendrick, who presides over Hendrick Motorsports as well as the Hendrick Automotive Group, calls the Hall “something spectacular, an unbelievable place.” It’s humbling, he adds, to enjoy the facility and simultaneously think of how far NASCAR has come.

     He especially appreciates the museum’s wide appeal.

     “When you walk in the Hall of Fame,” he says, “you become a fan.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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