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Old North State Racing & Motorsports Tour

North Carolina’s history with racing is unparalleled. The state began running competitive auto races before many states even had automobiles; legend says that the first stock car race took place when the second car was built. It’s almost surprised that it took until 2011 for Stock Car Racing to officially become North Carolina’s official team sport.

With the changing nature and fortunes of auto racing in general and NASCAR in particular, the state has more defunct race tracks than ones that are currently operating. Classic tracks like the North Wilkesboro Speedway, Occoneechee, and Asheville Motor Speedway either sit decaying or have been wiped from the landscape.

Some, like Rockingham, that have gone from active to inactive and back again. Meanwhile, the racing continues to grow with a mixture of major speedways (Charlotte) and short tracks with long histories (Bowman Gray, Hickory) still hosting races amidst a changing landscape.

Trivia: Nearly 90% of the teams competing in NASCAR’s top three series are based within a 90 mile radius of Charlotte.

We’ll check out a mix of the old and the new, hit some museums dedicated to racing and transportation, direct you to some shops where today’s racing teams mix science, speed, guts, and grit in their quest for the next race, and get a good look at central North Carolina in the process… all on the North Carolina Racing Tour. Start your engines!

Start in Winston-Salem, which lies right along I-40 in the Piedmont region of central North Carolina. The new Best Western PLUS Hanes Mall Hotel is an ideal spot for the pre-tour pit stop, just off I-40 on the southwest side of town. Our first track is Bowman Gray Stadium just outside of the city’s downtown. It’s known as “NASCAR’s longest-running weekly track,” having hosted its first NASCAR-sanctioned event in 1949 (Fonty Flick was the winner, in case you were wondering). The .25-mile asphalt oval – with almost no banking, by the way – still hosts weekly races from April through August as part of the Whelen All-American Series. Races are still in held in four divisions: Modifieds (the main feature at Bowman Gray), Sportsman, Street Stock, and Stadium Stock.

Most racetracks don’t have “Stadium” in their name but yes, Bowman Gray – constructed in 1937 and named for the former RJ Reynolds Tobacco chairman – hosts football games, too. The Wake Forest Demon Deacons played here until 1968, and the Winston-Salem State Rams still have Bowman Gray Stadium as their home field.

The track/stadium is near downtown Winston-Salem, which was originally two separate towns (guess their names). Yes, one of them was Salem… and the historic Old Salem Museum & Gardens preserves the area that was settled by Moravians in the 18th and 19th centuries. This district, just south of downtown, includes original and restored shops, homes, and churches amidst old streets lined with towering trees and populated with skilled interpreters who can showcase blacksmithing, cobbling, tinsmithing, gunsmithing, traditional baking, carpentry, and more.

Within Old Salem, the Frank Horton Museum Center houses the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts and other exhibits. Meanwhile, the Salem Tavern is a National Historic Landmark in itself, having hosted customers since the 18th century – including George Washington for two nights back in 1791. St. Philips Moravian Church nearby is the oldest surviving African-American church in North Carolina, dating back to 1861. When you first reach the area, stop in the Old Salem Visitation Center for more tour information and full details on everything to see; the area is definitely worth checking out.

Trivia: When Salem merged with Winston in 1913, the new city was named “Winston-Salem” and thus became the first – and only – time the U.S. Postal Service officially designated a mailing address city with a hyphenated name.

Like many North Carolina cities, Winston-Salem is a university town: Wake Forest University’s 7,500 students are congregated on the campus north of downtown, while Winston-Salem State University adds another 6,400 students near downtown. There are also some smaller schools, such as Piedmont International University, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and Salem Academy & College just south of downtown.

Along with racing and college football, Winston-Salem enjoys pro baseball with the Winston-Salem Dash, a Class-High A Team playing in the Carolina League. They are part of the Chicago White Sox farm system and play their games at BB&T Ballpark, which opened in 2010 and offers a nice view of the downtown skyline along with baseball action.

Other things to do in Winston-Salem include checking out the Reynolda Historic District, once the 1,067-acre estate of one R.J. Reynolds (R.J. stands for “Richard Joshua” in case you were curious) and his wife, Katharine. The district includes shops, restaurants, formal gardens, and galleries, with the Reynolda House Museum of American Art serving as the centerpiece. Housed in the Reynolds’ former mansion, the museum is considered to have the finest collection of American art in the southeastern U.S. For kids, the Children’s Museum of Winston-Salem and SciWorks provide plenty of interactive and educational fun. And for the outdoors, a quick ride north on U.S. 52 to Pilot Mountain State Park provides plenty of opportunities for hiking, climbing, and more around this distinctive natural landmark.

Well, that’s plenty to do and see just in the first city. We’ve seen the first track, one of the most historical in NASCAR. Let’s head south out of town via U.S. 52 and continue the Tour.

Less than 20 minutes away, U.S. 52 meets up with Welcome, North Carolina (sounds like a friendly town), home to Richard Childress Racing. Head off to “Old U.S. 52” and you can tour the NASCAR Sprint Cup Shop and the RCR Racing Museum, which is housed in the original No. 3 race shop. Inside are 47 vehicles (22 of which are race cars driven by Dale Earnhardt), a transporter rig, 16 video screens, displays, memorabilia, photos, trophies, and more. Further south along U.S. 52 in Lexington is the Richard Childress Winery in case a glass of vino is in order.

Further southwest along U.S. 52, I-85 joins in (as have U.S. 29 and 70) for the ride to Salisbury. The Old Salisbury Road (County 1147) is the old road and a good alternate, especially for motorcycles. U.S. 29 & 70 separate from I-85 to head into downtown. Fans of Cheerwine may recognize Salisbury as the home of the legendary cherry-flavored soft drink.

History buffs will have a field day in Salisbury; the downtown district covers 30 square blocks and includes the Rowan Museum, which an 1854 courthouse and the “Old Stone House”; the Dr. Josephus Hall House a federal-style home built in 1820 that was home to a prominent Confederate surgeon; the Rockwell Museum, and the nationally-featured mural “Crossroads: Past into Present,” which depicts the town over a century ago.

From a transportation standpoint, Salisbury is home to the North Carolina Transportation Museum, a 57-acre site showcasing planes, trains, and automobiles (the vehicles, not the movie). Among the exhibits are a full-scale replica of the Wright Brothers original Flyer and the Polar Express train.

Continuing southwest via U.S. 29 or I-85 – take your pick – we hit Kannapolis, hometown to Dale Earnhardt. The city has the “Dale Trail”, the first motorsports heritage trail in the country. The Cabarrus County Convention & Visitors Bureau's Visitor Center offers tours and brochures, so you can follow the Dale Trail from his boyhood neighborhood through his career, featuring places like “Car Town,” the “Flying Mile,” and “Idiot Circle.”

The tour includes Dale Earnhardt Plaza in downtown Kannapolis and Dale Earnhardt, Inc., a.k.a. the “Garage Majal.” Earnhardt was part owner of the Kannapolis Intimidators, a Class-“A” affiliate of the Chicago White Sox; they play at CMC Northeast Stadium. Kannapolis is a music city, too; the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame is downtown and you can learn more about artists and performers native to the state from Randy Travis to Roberta Flack and from John Coltrane to James Taylor. Mike Curb, known to many for his music and record industry work, is also a motorsports enthusiast and his Curb Motorsports Museum in Kannapolis showcases cars – some of which Curb owned – that were driven in races by everyone from Richard Petty to Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett, and more. Memorabilia from many of the rock and country stars Curb has worked with are also on display.

Right next door to Kannapolis along I-85 or U.S. 29 is bustling Concord, a hubbub of activity featuring multiple race tracks, racing shops, shopping, and museums. Concord is most famously home to Charlotte Motor Speedway, a massive complex which includes the 1.5-mile quad oval, considered NASCAR’s “home” track (it also has a 2 ¼ mile road course track inside the oval). It’s here where the Coca-Cola 600, Bank of America 500, and the Sprint All-Star Race take place, along with plenty of other major events. The superspeedway alone accommodates over 140,000 spectators.

The entire complex spreads over 2 ½ square miles and includes ZMAX Dragway, the only all-concrete, four-lane drag strip in the country. Next door is the Dirt Track of Charlotte, a .25-mile clay oval that houses plenty of dirt races including the World of Outlaws finals. The speedway complex dates back to 1959 and has had a dramatic history through changes in ownership along with numerous racing triumphs and tragedies. Available tours of the complex include the “Feel the Thrill Speedway Tour” and the “Over the Wall Tour”; they can be booked by calling (704) 455-3223. Charlotte is also one of the tracks where you can partake in the NASCAR Driving Experience, where for a fee you can either ride or drive in a real NASCAR race car around the track. The Charlotte Auto Fair takes place here twice a year; other non-racing events at the complex include outdoor concerts and even auditions for one season of American Idol.

Trivia: Charlotte Motor Speedway became the first sports facility in America to build condos that offer year 'round living for residents when 40 units were constructed overlooking turn 1 in 1984. Eight years later with the installation of over 1,200 lighting fixtures, the track became the first modern superspeedway to host night races.

And Charlotte’s not even the only speedway in Concord; the Concord Speedway features Legends and Bolero racing on its 1/4-mile track, NASCAR stock racing on its ½-mile track in a venue designed to entertain the entire family. It’s located along US 601 on the southeast side of Concord, not far from Albemarle and the Best Western Albemarle Inn. Also near the Concord Speedway is the Reed Gold Mine, site of the first documented gold discovery in the United States (North Carolina actually led the United States in gold production until California took over in 1849, leading to the “Gold Rush.” But there’s “gold in them thar hills” here, too!)

Racing shops for many teams have sprouted up in the area, including the Hendrick Motorsports Complex, the Roush Fenway Racing Museum & Gift Shop, and Stewart-Haas Racing just a few miles away in Kannapolis. They each offer tours, memorabilia, and a look at their shops. From feeling the rush of the competitive spirit to exploring the engineering complexity going into these cars and trucks, checking out these shops is both exciting and informative. The Sam Bass Gallery of Motorsports Art just south of the Charlotte Motor Speedway showcases over 300 pieces from the guy who is the (first) officially licensed artist for NASCAR.

Concord is the second-largest city in the Charlotte metro area; the racing and non-racing options for things to do are many. Concord offers shopping that includes the massive Concord Mills, which houses hundreds of stores along with the SEA LIFE Charlotte-Concord Aquarium. Downtown Concord features historic walks and places like the Bost Grist Mill, which started grinding out flour and cornmeal back in the early 1800’s.

The restored mill is filled with equipment and artifacts as it continues to grind corn into meal and grits; tours are free. The beautiful Cabarrus County Courthouse went up in 1876 and features a 16-foot Civil War monument erected 16 years after the courthouse opened. The courthouse features a museum and an art gallery. The Cabarrus County Museum offers more art and cultural exhibitions showcasing the wide variety of peoples and cultures that have populated the area for hundreds of years.

To continue the Tour, let’s head southwest into the largest city in the Carolinas, Charlotte. Known as the “Queen City,” it anchors a metro area of over 2.3 million people and is the 16th largest city in the nation. Charlotte is a world-renowned banking center, second only to New York nationally;

From Concord, follow I-85 to I-77 or, since we prefer the slower, explore-the-place-you’re-going-through route, follow U.S. 29 into the city. U.S. 29 becomes Tryon Street, one of the two main axes in Charlotte’s street system. It intersects with Trade Street and marks the city center, which is known as “Uptown”, not the usual “downtown.” Known as The Square, this intersection is marked by four statues – one on each corner – and is easily referenced from anywhere around the city since the 60-story Bank of America Corporate Center, one of the city’s tallest and most recognizable office towers, sits at this location.

There’s plenty to see and do in Charlotte, particularly throughout Uptown. For sports, the NFL Carolina Panthers play at Bank of America Stadium, which also hosts the annual Belk Bowl; the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets play at Time Warner Cable Arena, which also hosts the minor-league hockey team, the Charlotte Checkers. The Charlotte Knights are a AAA-affiliate of the Chicago White Sox (part of the same farm team as the Winston-Salem Dash earlier in our Tour) and play at BB&T Ballpark, which offers a beautiful view of the Charlotte skyline in the outfield.

Outside of team sports, whitewater rafters consider this area a center of paradise almost as much as racing fans; the U.S. National Whitewater Center is located just west of the city near Gastonia. Aviation fans can enjoy the Carolinas Aviation Museum on the grounds of the busy Charlotte-Douglas International Airport (don’t forget, North Carolina is “First in Flight” – the license plates throughout the state should remind you anyway). Nightlife in Charlotte bustles in the nearby NoDa neighborhood (along Tryon northeast of Uptown) or in Uptown itself, with the EpiCentre development considered one of the top entertainment destinations in the South.

Charlotte offers many museums in Uptown. The Levine Museum of the New South explores the post-Civil War history of the American South with a variety of interactive exhibits, including their primary permanent exhibition “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers.” Nearby is Discovery Place, a science and technology museum with plenty of hands-on exhibits for all ages as well as an IMAX Dome Theatre.

Following Tryon Street southwest from there you’ll find a massive mix of skyscrapers, restaurants and bars, some parks, and shopping. More museum appear on the southwest side of Uptown in a complex known as the Levine Center for the Arts. This area includes the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art which features an innovative design and focuses on mid-20th century art and architecture.

Across the street, the Mint Museum Uptown showcases a rich and diverse collection of local, national, and international art between this location and its sister location just outside of downtown, the Mint Museum Randolph, which was the first art museum in North Carolina when it opened in 1936. The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture lies across the street from the Mint Museum Uptown in a distinctive modernist building.

The big museum for race fans in Charlotte is, of course, the NASCAR Hall of Fame, just down the street from the Gantt Center and the Mint Museum Uptown. This complex on the southeast corner of Uptown covers 150,000 square feet and showcases the history and heritage of NASCAR, honoring drivers, crews, cars, and fans. From the sweeping circle of real race cars and descriptions of NASCAR tracks past and present to interactive exhibits where you can do everything from change a tire to climb into one of the famous “76” observation balls that were used for decades to get a birds’ eye view of races, to the Great Hall, Glory Theater, Hall of Honor, and more, you could easily spend an entire afternoon – or more – checking out everything here.

SIDE TOUR: Rockingham

From Charlotte, our main Tour heads north… but we’d be remiss if we didn’t note Rockingham Speedway and Rockingham Dragway, both located about 50 miles east-southeast of Charlotte. Rockingham Speedway (“The Rock”) opened on Halloween Day 1965 as North Carolina Motor Speedway, just northeast of Rockingham along U.S. 1. The track hosted a number of NASCAR races, including two Sprint Cup races each year, until losing races to California and Texas. Since 2004, it has only sporadically hosted races and ownership is changing again heading into 2015. Being a full-fledged facility but empty most of the time, it proved popular for filmmakers, serving as a shooting location for The Dale Earnhardt Story, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and even the 2007 Bollywood film Ta Ra Rum Pum.

A half-mile track built in 2008 behind the speedway is now a popular test track, and across the street Rockingham Dragway continues to host regular events, including in the Drag Series, Superbike Series, car shows, IHRA races, MOPARS, and more. To get to Rockingham, follow U.S. 74 southeast out of Charlotte through Matthews and Monroe. About 25 miles past Monroe follow the signs to U.S. 1 northeast of Rockingham near the junction of Highway 177; the complex including the Speedway and Dragway are at that intersection. Monroe features the Best Western Inn & Suites – Monroe, and within close distance of Rockingham itself are the Best Western Lumberton (east of Rockingham where U.S. 74 and I-95 meet) in Lumberton and the Best Western Pinehurst Inn just up U.S. 1 in beautiful Southern Pines, which is also an excellent place to get some golfing in. To get back to Charlotte, head back via U.S. 74 and resume the Tour heading north.

Whew! That’s a lot of great stuff. To continue the Tour from Charlotte, let’s head back north via I-77 and head into one of the other “hearts” of the racing world, around Huntersville and Mooresville. Many drivers, crew members, and engineers live in this area north of Charlotte (also called “North Meck”, being in northern Mecklenburg County), especially along and around Lake Norman, an “inland sea” of sorts. Lake Norman was created when the Cowans Ford Dam was built along the Catawba River between 1959 and 1964, becoming the largest body of manmade fresh water in North Carolina. It offers 520 miles of shoreline, covers nearly 50 square miles and features a 34-mile long main channel, making it the major water recreation and fishing hub for the Charlotte area. The International Jet Sport Boats Association (IJSBA) has a tour stop on Lake Norman, adding to the variety of motorsports in the area. When jetboats aren’t racing on the lake, it’s also a great place to fish, particularly from areas in Lake Norman State Park in nearby Troutman.

Huntersville is home to Joe Gibbs Racing, hosting teams and drivers in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series as well as a host of developmental drivers and motocross, amassing quite a few victories and Sprint Cups along the way. Their facility includes a viewing area for the shops and a gift shop; both are open during normal work hours.

The city also hosts the Carolina Renaissance Festival each year on weekends during October and November. It’s one of the largest Renaissance festivals in the country. So basically, whether you’re wearing a race suit or Shakespearean garb, you’ll fit in in Huntersville. The city has a plenty of upscale shopping too, especially in areas along I-77. At Exit 23, the Huntersville is home to the Best Western PLUS Huntersville Inn & Suites Near Lake Norman, which is a terrific “base of operations” if you plan on taking a day or two to fully explore all the shops north of Charlotte.

More racing shops are in “Race City USA” just to the north in Mooresville, home to over 60 teams and racing-related businesses are in town. Many shops are in complexes where streets have names like “Gasoline Alley” and “Raceway Drive.” Most offer either tours or observation areas, and not surprisingly all offer gift shops where you can purchase merchandise. They include Penske Racing ; Cagnazzi Racing and Gray Motorsports ; Brad Keselowski Racing ; Kurt Busch, Inc. and Kyle Busch Motorsports ; and plenty more. Dale Earnhardt, Inc. features a showroom of ever-changing exhibits of Dale in a 240,000-square foot facility; JR Motorsports offers hour-long tours.

Technically in Cornelius, NC but also right off I-77 in the Mooresville area is Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR), which has an extensive showroom area and self-guided tours where you can observe the shops and learn, via plaques and flat-screen TVs describing the activities, about the science and engineering behind the aerodynamics, braking, shocks, and more. Given all this, it’s only fitting that Mooresville hosts two major racing museums. The North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame serves as Mooresville’s official visitor center and features over 40 race cars from stock to drag, including a supercharged flathead 1929 Ford and the “Walk of Fame” saluting drivers.

Displays, art, and showcases chronicle the state’s extensive racing heritage. To the west along Highway 150 is the Memory Lane Motorsports & Historical Automotive Museum, which includes not only heritage race cars but also old gas pumps, vintage pedal cars and toys, bicycles, a model T, and more. You could spend several days in Huntersville and Mooresville packed with race shop, tour, and museum activities and not even remotely get bored!

Once you’re done with “Race City USA”, want to keep exploring? Head north via I-77 or U.S. 21 – take your pick – is Statesville, a city of 25,000 with a handsome downtown and many tree-lined neighborhoods. Downtown is a nice place to walk, as you check out a number of historic 19th century buildings including a stately, imposing City Hall. Congregation Emmanuel, built in 1891 on nearby Kelly Street, is the oldest house of worship in Statesville and one of the few remaining 19th century-era synagogues in the nation. A number of major North Carolina highways intersect in Statesville, including I-40, I-77, U.S. 21, U.S. 64, and U.S. 70; no wonder it’s a transportation hub!

It’s also the home of Front Row Motorsports, one of the younger teams competing in the Cup series; current drivers include David Ragan and David Gilliland and they’ve been making inroads on superspeedway tracks during the last few years. Their facility doesn’t offer tours, but they do have an observation area so you can see what they’re up to (not everything, of course…) If you want to pick up a little history too while you’re in Statesville, check out Fort Dobbs just north of town.

Fort Dobbs was an early frontier fort – it was established in 1755 – that played a significant role in the French and Indian War and the Anglo-Cherokee War. Only eleven years later, it was abandoned. Archeologists unearthed the fort’s remains in 2006, and now those remains and some well-appointed replicas are available for viewing and exploring at what is now called Fort Dobbs State Historic Site. If you’re ready for a break from all this racing around, the Best Western Statesville Inn is conveniently located along I-77 just south of I-40.

And why not top off the tour with an old school track where many drivers got their start? Let’s go to Hickory.

From Statesville, follow U.S. 70 west. The road parallels I-40 and you can use the interstate for a faster option, but let’s face it: the better look at everything is on the two-lane roads. Cruising through the western Piedmont region and into the Catawba River Valley, enjoy the rolling hills and farms. Just past the Catawba River and the little town of Catawba, look for the connection to the Bunker Hill Covered Bridge.

The bridge, accessible just off U.S. 70 via a pretty walkway along Lyle Creek, was built in 1894 and is one of only two remaining covered bridges in North Carolina. Believed to be the last remaining example of the Haupt truss construction style used on wooden bridges, it’s a National Civil Engineering Landmark. The information signs by the bridge provide an informative look at the bridge and travel of the day, and you’re welcome to stroll through it.

From the bridge, continue west on U.S. 70 through Claremont and into Conover, a town of 8,000 golfers recognize as the home of the Greater Hickory Kia Classic at Rock Barn each June. Just to the south via NC Highway 16 is Newton, which has over 100 historical buildings in its downtown area, including an original cotton mill, St. Paul’s Church & Cemetery, which dates back to 1808, and the Catawba County Courthouse, which houses the county’s Museum of History.

Back to U.S. 70, we head into Hickory, a bustling town of 40,000 founded under a hickory tree in the 1850s by Henry Robinson, who built a log tavern there and made it home. The town was called Hickory Tavern until the name was shortened in 1873. The city spreads out over a wide area, but the downtown remains a busy place and Union Square offers shopping, indoor and outdoor dining, frequent farmers’ markets, and just a nice area to relax and enjoy the day.

Nearby, you’ll find plenty of intriguing places on what’s called the SALT Block, a block-sized complex featuring the Catawba Science Center, the Hickory Museum of Art, the Western Piedmont Symphony, and more. There are plenty of exhibits and shows – some available all the time, some by special event – for all to see. Nearby, the lovely Harper House offers a nice look at Hickory’s history – inside a lovely 1887 home with Queen Anne styling.

The city’s history was built heavily on furniture, with Hickory White still operating as one of the oldest furniture manufacturers still on its original site. The Hickory Furniture Mart is popular with shoppers and furniture dealers from around the world; inside, the Catawba Valley Furniture Museum traces the industry's roots in the area. Check out the reproduction of an early shop, complete with vintage tools and furnishings.

But for the racing tour, we’re mainly here to see Hickory Motor Speedway, the “Birthplace of NASCAR Stars” and the “World’s Most Famous Short Track.” Hickory has launched many a future NASCAR star onto the big circuit; the storied track opened in 1951 as a .5-mile dirt oval and had the likes of Junior Johnson, Ned Jarrett, and Ralph Earnhardt winning championships here during the track’s first decade.

Today the track is .36 miles, paved, and hosts features from the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. The “Wall of Fame” at the entrance features some of NASCAR’s biggest names from the past six decades. Check out the weekend races, particularly on Friday nights, during the season from March into early November!

The Best Western Hickory is conveniently located along I-40 near U.S. 70 on Hickory’s southeast side, close to the Furniture Mart and Hickory Motor Speedway and only minutes from downtown.

Zigzagging though central North Carolina from track to track and city to city, this Tour gives you a great look at the old and the new in racing. From the glitz of NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in Charlotte and the monstrous complex in Concord to the early tracks in places like Winston-Salem and Hickory, from tracing the history of early drivers to exploring the latest technology in race shops in Huntersville and Mooresville, it’s a taste of everything in racing and everything the cities along the way have to offer. Enjoy… and watch your speed!