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A Quick Trip to the Nascar Hall of Fame

Richard Petty’s 1967 Plymouth Belvedere, part of the “Glory Road” exhibit at the Nascar Hall of Fame.Dave Sheets Richard Petty’s 1967 Plymouth Belvedere, part of the “Glory Road” exhibit at the Nascar Hall of Fame.

For Sunday’s Automobiles section, I wrote about a daylong tour I took with two friends through the heart of present-day Nascar in western North Carolina. The story focuses on the race shops in the Charlotte area, many of which are open to the public, but it also touches on the region’s pivotal role in Nascar’s past, from the sport’s bootlegging origins to the legendary drivers who first earned their stripes in the Tar Heel State.

So it was entirely appropriate that our tour ended at the Nascar Hall of Fame, in downtown Charlotte. Many of museum’s particulars have been covered previously in the Wheels Blog and elsewhere in The Times, but I’ll add a few firsthand impressions.

In short, I was impressed. Glory Road, the sweeping exhibit that greets fans as they enter the museum’s Great Hall, features 18 classic Nascar vehicles parked on a track whose banking gradually increases as the cars progress into the modern era. It’s the museum’s green flag, in a sense, and it offers a neat snapshot of the history of stock car racing. Not surprisingly, cars from the sport’s earlier decades — back when they actually looked like stock cars, in other words — were the highlights. Favorites included Herb Thomas’s 1952 Hudson Hornet, Fireball Roberts’s 1963 Ford Galaxie and the Plymouth Belvedere in which Richard Petty won 27 races, including 10 in a row, in 1967.

The Hall of Honor, the museum’s centerpiece, was in a state of suspended anticipation when we visited. The Hall of Fame had been open for less than a week, and its inaugural members (Bill France Sr., Junior Johnson, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Bill France Jr.) had yet to be officially inducted; video tributes to the five honorees were playing in this second-floor auditorium, but portions of the display, including the cars, were still under wraps.

The second floor also features an elaborate Race Week exhibit, which gives visitors a look at the inner workings of a race shop. It’s a little more hands-on than your typical race shop tour — fans can test the weight of a Nascar tire or the tension in a wheel spring, or inspect a sample carburetor or fuel cell to see if they meet official standards.

There is also a pit crew challenge, where groups of three can race against the clock as they try to jack up a simulated car, change a tire and fill the gas tank — our best time was a middling 18 seconds. Elsewhere there were driving simulators and a “broadcast booth,” where fans can try calling a Nascar race. (It’s much harder than it looks, or sounds.)

But history is what drew us to the Hall of Fame, and it was the third floor, also known as Heritage Speedway, that occupied the rest of our visit. An exhibit on Nascar’s prehistory, from the turn of the century through World War II, was instructive, as was a short film on the founding of Nascar in 1948 — but really, all I needed were the film clips, shots of cars racing along the beach at Daytona or sliding sideways through the turn of a quarter-mile track. The museum offered plenty of them, so I was hooked.

And yes, Junior Johnson has indeed supplied a working moonshine still — one he helped to assemble on the premises — but disappointingly, if perhaps necessarily, it sits behind glass.

It being opening week, there were still some kinks to be worked out. In a video exhibit dedicated to Nascar’s greatest finishes, it was surprising to find the 1976 Daytona 500 not included. That race, in which Richard Petty and David Pearson crashed as they came out of turn four, a few hundred yards shy of the checkered flag — with Pearson’s battered car crawling across the stripe as Petty’s car stalled in the infield — is arguably the greatest Nascar finish of all. Kimberly Meesters, a spokeswoman for the Hall of Fame, assured me that the clips in the exhibit rotate, and that the 1976 Daytona race would be included soon.

Elsewhere, the 1979 Daytona 500, famous for the final-lap crash between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison — and even more famous for the post-race dustup between Yarborough and the Allison brothers, Donnie and Bobby — gets a more full treatment, with a video display of its own and replicas of the two cars.

In the end, our two hour-plus visit was not long enough. As closing time approached we breezed through the Nascar Vault, an L-shaped gallery loaded with photographs and memorabilia from the sport’s first six decades. Ideally, we could have lingered there a while longer, but the hour was late and the security guards were getting antsy. I left the museum feeling as if there was plenty I’d missed — but at least we have an excuse to visit again.