NASCAR Culture Shock, Part One: Charlotte, North Carolina, USA
The South has been called “The Bible Belt”. Well, I think this area should be called “The NASCAR Belt”. When I visited areas surrounding Charlotte, North Carolina, I became quite culture-shocked after seeing just how much NASCAR means to the people – as much, if not as much as God does to many folks. I visited an incredibly fan-friendly race shop run by a driver who shares my birthday, and scared myself silly as I went around a quad-oval track at close to 200 miles per hour!
185 miles per hour – whoa!
A couple of years ago, I was heading out of Madrid, Spain with a friend of mine to a small village. At times, he drove the small rental car at about 100 miles per hour. Other than the fact that he had to mildly correct his steering going that fast, I didn’t really feel anxious that he was exceeding the speed limit by about 40 miles per hour. This didn’t prepare me for what I would be doing in a city roughly 25 miles northeast of Charlotte known as Concord, where Jeff Gordon Racing School provides NASCAR fans the opportunity to either drive and/or be a passenger in a former NASCAR stock car.
I’m never going to forget my experience of riding three laps in one of Jeff Gordon’s former stock cars around one of NASCAR’s legendary tracks called Lowe’s Motor Speedway, a 1.5 mile Quad-oval track. The races are so popular here (like for the Coca-Cola 600) that the seating capacity in the stands alone is 167,000, roughly 17,000 more people than there are in Cabarrus County, where the track is located.
As I waited in line, I became more anxious. I’m a bit wary when it comes to the idea of going super fast or up and down a lot, why I avoid roller coasters. Before racing, I had to sign a waiver and fill out a health questionnaire so they would know how to treat me if anything happened while I was racing. I had to put on a sheet-like cover on my head under the helmet, plus a neck support apparatus before I could get into the car.
I asked others who had done their laps if they were scared and what it felt like. Everybody said just how much fun they had and that it didn’t feel scary at all. Still, I was unconvinced I wouldn’t be frightened out of my wits, but I wasn’t going to give into fear either. Since NASCAR stock cars don’t have any doors, I had to go in through the window. I was strapped in comfortably, and had plenty of leg room on the passenger side.
Once seated and given the signal to go, the skilled driver took off from the pit area like a bat out of hell. There was no coming back. Within about five seconds, he was increasing his speed in this 2007 Chevrolet Monte Carlo numbered “24” so fast that I felt like I was being mildly crushed as the engine roared. In order to deal with this, I let out a mild scream and closed my eyes hoping I would survive. We made a quick turn around the oval and then another. Then came another burst of pressure on my body as the drive speed down the track increased again. I closed my eyes again because everything was coming so fast at me, like a colored blur. After the second turn, I started to get used to it and looked straight ahead. I thought several times that we were going to hit the wall of Lowe’s Motor Speedway as we came towards it so quickly, but the driver made the turns at the right time. I was squelching up as much as I could though, keeping my eyes open about half the time. When I was more comfortable, my three laps were up after a couple of minutes.
So this is what it’s like to go close to 200 miles per hour with one’s life in another’s hands! Wow! One lady told me that when she looked at the speedometer, it read above 200 miles per hour. I was too busy being scared to look at the speedometer. Still, I would definitely do this again if given the chance. It’s fun, and I now know what to expect.
The talent these NASCAR racing drivers have is incredible. It’s one thing to race around the track when there’s one other car (that being a numbered “8” Budweiser former car for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., as this riding experience is done with two cars not racing each other but staying close), but to do this in a race with a whole bunch of other cars, trying to pass each other and dealing with bumping, accidents, etc., and for hundreds of laps at those kinds of speeds – it’s a miracle these men survive in tact.
Jeff Gordon Driving School has something for all budgets. It is featured at many NASCAR race tracks, with rides and drives ranging in price from $75.00 to $2,999.00, the higher priced experiences meaning more of a fantasy experience. Three laps around like I had is $129.00 (The Champ Ride), a good deal when you consider that I was told by an official there that a new NASCAR stock car costs about $200,000.00.
NASCAR Up Close at Raceworld USA
There are some 300 race teams and 200-plus racing related firms that are within a 75 mile radius of Lowe’s Motor Speedway, which help make racing a 6.4 billion dollar-plus industry in the state. While many of the top NASCAR race teams in the area allow people to visit their facilities like Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Hendrick Motorsports (which has stars Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. on their NASCAR racing team, plus a 200 million dollar budget), fans are limited to basically seeing the race shops (where the cars are built and maintained) through viewing windows while admiring their trophy cases and other NASCAR racing memorabilia in their museums. But this isn’t the case regarding the really fan-interactive Raceworld USA, located about 20 miles north of Charlotte in Cornelius.
This facility is the brainchild of two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip, whose racing team is called MWR or Micheal Waltrip Racing. Waltrip has the same birthday as me (April 30, though he’s older). His people have gone all out to show NASCAR fans what it’s like to be a part of a top notch race team. When I entered the lobby, I felt as if I were in a mechanics’ shop because of the smell of tires, which I love!
Most racing fans begin by watching a 12-minute film in their 130 seat HD Theater. It shows many of the details (even down to whether or not the driver can have a lunch break) leading up to a NASCAR race. Guests then proceed above the different areas of the race shop where they can look down on the process of building a better stock car, from the engineering aspects to the building of shocks and transmissions. In most areas, photos are allowed, except for places like the Machine Shop. I never realized these places assembled so many cars at once. That’s because the drivers need a back-up car for their races as well as other cars that are specifically constructed for other race tracks, since no two tracks are the same. Fans may even be able to catch the pit crew practicing if they come at the right time.
At Raceworld’s Daytona 500 exhibit, Dale Earnhardt’s 2001 fatal crash is documented, something that you will not currently see featured at the Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (DEI) museum in Mooresville, North Carolina.
You can read Roy’s first article on the Charlotte, North Carolina here.
Roy A. Barnes lives in southeastern Wyoming and is a frequent contributor to Bootsnall.com. He has written for many other travel publications, including Go World Travel, Live Life Travel, Northwest Prime Time, Tampa Bay ParentGuide, and Transitions Abroad.