Relief was mixed with excitement as Winston Kelley learned that Charlotte had finally landed the NASCAR Hall of Fame on March 6, 2006.
The most exhilarating moment for the man who ultimately became the Hall’s executive director had happened earlier, in August 2005, when he and others were wooing NASCAR officials on their site visit. As they escorted the racing executives out of the Charlotte Convention Center for a tour of uptown Charlotte on a red carpet, both sides were lined with cheering people.
“The hair still stands up on the back of my neck when I think about walking between this combination of race fans and people that are just fans of Charlotte,” Kelley grins.
Bank of America and Wachovia, as well as many other uptown businesses and civic organizations, had joined Duke Energy in letting hundreds of employees take time off to demonstrate their desire for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
“It was an amazing experience,” Kelley reminisces. “That was when we were still recruiting and the media was rife with rumors of it going elsewhere.”
Charlotte’s Passion for Racing
Kelley had believed all along that Charlotte would be chosen; that it was a place where the Hall of Fame could thrive. But Charlotte was locked in heated competition with Atlanta, Kansas City, Daytona Beach and Richmond, and, to its credit, NASCAR kept its decision-making process stifled.
So it was understandable for Kelley to feel relief last year when NASCAR publicly announced its decision. “You look at what’s going to be best in the long run,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said that day, validating Kelley’s assessment.
“From the point of view of somebody who’s grown up in the sport,” Kelley points out, “I felt the Hall would be successful anywhere for the first several years. But I felt Charlotte’s ability to connect with the race teams and this community’s enthusiasm to embrace it would make us more successful in the long haul.”
It boiled down to Charlotte’s passion and team effort, Kelley feels. Wachovia and Bank of America offered to lend millions of dollars for land, construction and other expenses at well below prime interest rates. The recruiting team was a coalition of bankers, public officials and people from the hospitality industry, which supported an increase in the Charlotte room occupancy tax to help pay for the Hall.
Kelley represented Duke Energy on the team, largely on the strength of his racing roots and his continued involvement in the sport. His dad, Earl Kelley, was the original public relations director at what today is Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Concord, Kelley’s hometown. His weekend hobby for nearly two decades has been working as a race reporter for MRN Radio. His resume includes race statistician and public address announcer at Bristol Motor Speedway and North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Considering all that, some would think it only natural for Kelley to be the Hall’s executive director. Kelley didn’t, initially.
He was happy at Duke, where he’d fashioned a 27-year career and had recently been named vice president of economic and business development for Duke Energy Carolinas. Furthermore, he thought that Tim Newman, chief executive of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority which will operate the Hall, would want someone with a background in entertainment.
But Kelley knew so much about racing, and felt so passionate about it, that he couldn’t resist completing an application when the position was opened. He interviewed on a Thursday and was offered the job on Friday. Still, Kelley admits he felt “pulled.” He liked Duke Energy and enjoyed his job. He took a month to decide.
Eventually, the unique nature of the position won him over.
At the Wheel
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Kelley drawls in a mild Southern accent. “It’s being part of a team building a project that will have a lot of staying power.”
“The City of Charlotte needs to get credit for the job they are doing,” says Kelley, pointing out that the $154.5 million Hall is being built on six acres of city land and the city is providing financing, largely through lodging taxes.
Jim Schumacher, city engineer, and his municipal team is coordinating design and construction. Schumacher is working with internationally acclaimed award-winning architects Pei, Cobb, Freed & Partners on the exterior, and on exhibit design with Kelley and with Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the largest museum design firm in the world whose projects include the Country Music Museum in Nashville and the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
“The building itself will have an iconic design that will become a symbol of Charlotte, at least in the race community,” Schumacher says. “When you see a picture of that building, you’ll know it’s Charlotte.”
Its oval shape comes directly from race tracks and will be encircled with a ribbon, possibly stainless steel, to convey motion. That ribbon will wrap a structure featuring lots of glass and will twist to create a shelter over the main entrance facing Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
When the Hall is completed in time for the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in May 2010, Schumacher vows it will offer a memorable visitor experience. “Absolutely, people are going to be impressed and surprised,” says Schumacher. “It’s going to be a fabulous building.”
Even Schumacher is quick to add, “I have not previously been a race fan, but I’m coming to appreciate the sport. Even more than a race fan, I’m a fan of Charlotte. Creating this kind of attraction that’s going to be an icon for Charlotte is absolutely an exciting project.”
More Than Just Racing
The Hall development is actually a three-tier project, Kelley explains. There’s a convention center expansion that adds a ballroom to accommodate 2,500 people, 50 percent larger than what the center can handle now. Underneath will be a five-level, 1,000-space parking garage to serve the Hall. And above will rise a 19-floor NASCAR office tower, scheduled for occupancy in mid-2009.
The Hall itself will encompass 130,000 square feet on three levels. There will be a 250-seat theater with several purposes. It will offer a video on NASCAR’s history, shown on a giant high-definition screen with surround sound.
“There will be a lot of energy in there so folks will feel like they’re at a race track,” Kelley says. The theater screen will also show NASCAR races in real time. “We realize we’ve got to add some technology to make them want to leave their couch or favorite watering hole to be with us,” Kelley smiles.
The theater also will be available for private parties and groups that might want to rent it for various functions.
Exiting the theater, visitors will pass through simulated garage doors. Nearby, a separate viewing area will show races from previous seasons. Main exhibits will be on the second and third levels. They likely will include cars, trophies and maybe even a scoring tower.
On display nearby will be well-known race cars from NASCAR’s earliest years through 2007. Included will be the “car of tomorrow,” that soon will dictate design for the racing versions of Chevrolets, Fords, Dodges and Toyotas that compete each weekend.
Another exhibit will guide visitors through a full race-week experience. It will show how drivers prepare and will allow fans to race each other on a simulated track. The inside of a transporter tractor-trailer rig will show how teams haul race cars from track to track. A simulated inspection station will illustrate the ways NASCAR makes sure cars adhere to racing specifications.
A tribute area will honor well-known figures from past racing near a timeline that details stock car racing’s growth from the days before the France family created NASCAR in 1947. It will chronicle the growth of the sport through 1971 and highlight the modern era marked by corporate sponsorship and increasing technological sophistication.
Given stock car racing’s early underpinnings in the transportation of illegal alcohol, some have speculated that the Hall might include a working moonshine still.
“I would say probably not,” Kelley smiles. “We will show the connection between moonshine and NASCAR,” he adds. “One idea is to have moonshine available for folks to taste and purchase, but we don’t want to overstate moonshine’s role.”
A True Race Fan
Kelley, 49, likes to ride either of his two Harley Davidson motorcycles on weekends when he’s not working NASCAR radio broadcasts. He says he doesn’t have a favorite driver currently, preferring to pull for those who haven’t won in a while.
But he remembers well his first real exposure to racing. His mother took him and his brother to the Daytona 500 when he was just six. He recalls meeting Richard Petty shortly after he’d won. Kelley came to know others in the Petty dynasty, including Richard’s father Lee and son Kyle who still races. Kelley sometimes rides in Kyle Petty’s motorcycle charity event.
Kelley even has a photo of himself as a 9-year-old getting an autograph from “King Richard,” and freely admits that Petty is his all-time favorite driver, mostly because he consistently takes time to interact with fans.
That flair for helping people appreciate auto racing obviously runs strong in Kelley’s psyche. While the Charlotte region put together a well-rounded package of reasons why it should host the Hall, Kelley believes a passion for such a facility was paramount in winning the day.
Newman sees that passion in Kelley. “Every once in a while you find somebody who’s the perfect fit for a job,” Newman says. “Winston is a perfect fit on many levels. He’s been around the sport his entire life, so he thinks like a fan. He knows the sport because of his broadcasting work, and he knows economic development because of his work for Duke.
“He has a great commitment and passion for the project.”