Just imagine whizzing around a mile-and-a-half race track at 165-170
miles per hour on the immense Lowe’s Motor Speedway. This is where the big boys of NASCAR fame, of course, do their racing . . . and where crowds of up to 300,000 fans watch the daredevils do their stuff.
That’s just what we were able to do – whiz around that track, albeit not in an actual race – on our recent visit to Kannapolis, North Carolina, a small community just outside Charlotte, which definitely gives this whole area its “racy” reputation.
First off, we stood in line at the Richard Petty Racing Experience waiting to don our racing uniforms and helmets. Then we each had to “lower and squeeze” ourselves through the window of one of the colorfully painted racing cars and get belted in for the experience of a lifetime. The professional driver beside us makes it all look easy,
but it has to be a huge challenge to actually be in a race for the cup. It was definitely a scary and heart-pumping experience, but we’re glad we had the opportunity to go on such an exhilarating ride.
If you decide to do this, here’s how a racing experience happens:
1. You arrive at the Speedway at 9 a.m. to beat the crowds
2. Plunk down $99 per person for the short but thrilling three-lap ride. Note: The rates go up from there depending on how in-depth you want your experience to be.
3. Fill out a detailed liability release, which includes the verbiage saying basically that you could risk serious injury or even death. This really makes you just want to jump into one of the cars and go! It certainly has to give folks some second thoughts–but usually not for long.
4. Next, you suit up in a NASCAR-style uniform and helmet.
5. Then you get fitted with a special neck brace – the kind that might have saved racer Dale Earnhardt’s life had he not refused to wear one.
6. You’re ready to go, but first you have to gingerly slide feet-first into the car through a window that’s about 15 inches high by 30″ wide. Then you’re “riding shotgun” next to what you trust is a professional driver – both of you seated just a foot or so off the ground.
7. The car you are in, along with two others, take off in a row from the pit area, all with a huge roar and at breakneck speed.
8. In seconds you are accelerating up to 170 mph and whirling around the 1.5 mile oval track that’s banked at incredible angles at both ends. The speed is more than twice what we normally travel on the freeway, of course, and the adrenaline feels like it will burst right out of your very pores.
9. As you approach the first turn, you wonder why you’re doing this, and all good Catholics would probably cross themselves at this point, if it were possible to get an arm to move — with all the “g” force in
the tight confines.
10. In a few more seconds, you see the one-lap flag signal, and you begin to think you may not die after all.
11. Two more laps and you see the checkered flag, then the rpms wind down, and you glide into the pits and stop.
12. You slide/fall/slip (with a little help) out of the tight confines of the car and momentarily feel like kissing the ground, but instead you walk a little unsteadily back to the pits yelling, “Re-ride; re-ride!” much like when you got off a roller coaster at the carnival when you were a kid.
Petty’s brochures, by the way, read: “Where memories are born and the experience lasts a lifetime.”
TRAVELING THE “DALE TRAIL”
Even if you aren’t a NASCAR racing fan, we feel certain would still love a trip to Kannapolis and nearby Charlotte, the state’s most populous city.
Kannapolis, home of the Motor Speedway, is the birthplace and hometown of the revered, and almost worshiped, NASCAR driver, Dale Earnhardt. Nearby is Concord Mills (one of a chain of huge malls) and the Bass Pro Shop, both of which are major tourist attractions in the area.
As with much of North Carolina, we found the little community of Earnhardt fame located amongst rolling, green hills and dense stands of forests: pine, maple, oak, chestnut, and elm trees – many overgrown and, it would seem, nearly choked with immense clusters of kudzu ivy. During the summer, it’s hot and humid, but the heat and humidity do not deter the race car fans one bit.
You’ll remember that Earnhardt died tragically at age 49 on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. His son, Dale, Jr. (known as Junior and now a NASCAR star himself), was driving a car behind his father when the tragic accident occurred. Earnhardt, Sr. had convinced himself that he was invincible; his nickname, “The Intimidator.” He did not
wear a face mask or neck support, which are now required. The kind of accident that killed him would probably not occur with today’s safety standards. Though now paid millions to race and endorse products, Junior has chosen a more private and simple lifestyle, living in pre-fab home on some acreage outside the town.
The neighborhood where Earnhardt, Sr. grew up has been renamed Car Town, and Kannapolis preserves the memory of the racer with the “Dale Trail,” a stretch of roadway that includes the home where his mother still lives and where she used to prepare his favorite sandwich–tomatoes, lettuce, and Miracle Whip (not mayonnaise, mind
you, only Miracle Whip). While in town, we ordered a version of that now famous sandwich still served at Punchy’s Diner for $3.33.
You’ll remember that Earnhardt’s race car was #3, and the locals have changed a highway to also carry that same number. In keeping with the Car Town name, the Earnhardt home is located at the corner of Coach and Sedan streets. Nearby are Buick Street and Chevy Lane and other streets with auto-related terminology.
The Dale Trail, located just off Earnhardt Boulevard, also includes a stop at a bigger-than-life statue of Earnhardt in his Wrangler jeans and sport shirt sculpted by the famed artist, Clyde Ross Morgan, of Sedona, Arizona. Nearby the statue is a small car museum located in the building where Mike Curb, a great race fan, built racing cars. He
also started a record/CD company that distri utes CDs by many country/Western singers. On display in the museum is the car Earnhardt drove for Curb Motorsports when he won his first Winston Cup Championship in 1980. Curb later moved to California where he served as Lt. Governor.
We also had the fun of spending some time in Charlotte, now a financial center second only to NYC. We were impressed with the stately architecture, the many museums, the emphasis on the arts, and the great hotels and restaurants.
We enjoyed a stay at the exquisite Ballantyne Resort and Spa and ate a delicious dinner at the well-known, up-scale McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant located in the heart of the city. We feasted on some North Carolina mountain trout and also some cashew-crusted tilapia. Note: If you get a chance to eat there some day, be sure to
save room for one of their heavenly desserts, creme brulee.
All in all, a visit to Kannapolis and Charlotte, NC, is a never-to-be-forgotten experience.