NASCAR Hall of Fame a sight to behold
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The view from the stadium seats in the skybox outside the Hall of Honor overlooking Glory Road, the centerpiece of NASCAR's Hall of Fame, is breathtaking.
From here you can see the history of the sport literally unfold, from the 1939 No. 22 Ford Coupe driven by Red Byron to the 1967 No. 43 Plymouth Belvedere driven by Richard Petty to the 1996 black No. 3 Chevrolet driven by Dale Earnhardt to the 2008 No. 48 Chevrolet driven by four-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
It was from these seats that Hall director Winston Kelley recently came to tears as he realized a more-than-four-year dream was on the brink of becoming reality.
"Just because you see such an incredible history of the sport and the people I grew up with," said Kelley, his voice cracking and his eyes watering as he remembered that moment. "I'm getting to work with my childhood heroes, the Richard Pettys and Junior Johnsons and David Pearsons.
"That historical part literally brought tears to my eyes."
To get a full appreciation for this 150,000-square-foot, $195 million facility that officially opens on Tuesday, one needs to look at it through Kelley's eyes.
A longtime voice of NASCAR on the Motor Racing Network, he has seen every brick laid, every artifact collected and every obstacle that had to be overcome. The stories he can tell about what went into building this Hall are deserving of an exhibit of their own.
None is more moving than the one about Hall historian Buzz McKim calling Junior Johnson for advice on reconstructing the moonshine still that is predominantly featured in Heritage Speedway.
"Buzz called and said, 'Can you talk me through this?'" Kelley recalled of the conversation with Johnson, a member of the first induction class. "And Junior said, 'Well, might be a little easier if I came down there and did it.'"
Next thing you know, Johnson had made the short trek from North Wilkesboro to Charlotte with a pipe wrench and pair of worn channel locks in hand.
"He didn't go down to Lowe's and just pick those up," said Kelley, whose father was one of the first public relations directors at Charlotte Motor Speedway and a member of the Universal Racing Network. "They'd been around the block a time or two. He steps into the exhibit and starts connecting it and telling people what do to.
"I'm sitting there thinking, 'That's like Babe Ruth designing, building and installing one of the first exhibits in Cooperstown. That's history.' Thirty years from now people will come in and say one of the inaugural inductees came and installed the exhibit."
Kelley has put his blood, sweat and tears into the Hall. He stepped down from his position at Duke Energy Carolinas because he believed the stories he and others experienced in the sport should be shared with the masses.
Seeing it all come together, Kelley said, "is like reliving your past."
Asking him to pick out a favorite artifact is like asking a grandparent to pick out a favorite grandchild. He can't.
But he did come up with this list of 12 things that jumped out during a quick walk through a place that one could spend days in and come out wanting for more:
• Smokey Yunick's wooden car template.
• A lighter that had been in Fireball Roberts' jacket since 1964.
• Stanley Steamer Rocket car items from 1906.
• A 1950 seating chart developed by Darlington Raceway founder Harold Brasington.
• A 1940s photo collection of Clifford Morrison, an African-American photographer from Elkin, N.C., hired by NASCAR founder Bill France Sr.
• France's ukulele.
• Al Stevens' 1952 Army surplus radio used in the first attempt at radio communications during a 1952 sportsman race.
• A 1949 stock certificate from Darlington Raceway, NASCAR's oldest superspeedway.
• A 1962 royalty contract for three-time Winston Cup champion David Pearson.
• Lee Petty's 1959 Daytona 500 trophy and shirt.
• Petty's first license issued in 1949 and his first trophy from Heidelberg Speedway the same year.
• A note posted in the Cup garage in 1978 offering a reward from $50 to $250 for anybody "to find a thief" who was stealing items from the garage.
Others may be struck by Jeff Gordon's original application into NASCAR or the 1950s rulebook that was only three pages thick or the two-volume investigation report after Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
McKim has items that are memorable to him simply because of how difficult they were to find.
"One of my favorites is a device created by a famed mechanic, Ray Fox, in 1970 to install five lug nuts on a wheel at the same time during a pit stop," McKim said. "It is an unusual-looking contraption, but after a few attempts at using it during a race, Fox got the idea to glue the lug nuts to the wheel instead."
Among the hardest items to locate were steering wheels.
"For some reason, most steering wheels from NASCAR race cars were discarded," Kim said.
For Kelley, no place is more special than Glory Road, featuring 18 cars that hold significant places in the sport's history on a slice of pavement ranging from zero to 33-degree banking.
From here fans can experience what it feels like to stand on the 33-degree banking of Daytona. They can feel small samples of 40 track surfaces, such as the sand, rock and sea-shell combination that made Darlington the most abrasive on the circuit before being repaved in 2007.
From here you walk to the Hall of Honor, where the initial class of France Sr., Bill France Jr., Petty, Earnhardt and Junior Johnson will be inducted May 23. The displays will be unlike those in any other shrine, with spires almost 7 feet tall featuring a facial likeness of the inductee at the top and another at the bottom that kids can put a paper against and do a rub-in.
Next comes Race Week, where you can see the inside of a hauler and get a close-up view of every piece that goes into the car. If it looks like the inside of Jimmie Johnson's shop, as one current driver recently said, it's because Lowe's is one of the Hall's big sponsors.
Next up is Simulator Experience, the interactive portion of the Hall that includes full-sized simulator cars developed by two-time champion Terry Labonte and an area where fans can test their pit-crew skills.
"I like the pit-crew challenge because it's hard for people to realize how difficult it is to service a car in 12½ to 13 seconds," Kelley said. "So people can see what it's like -- hand-eye coordination, the strength it takes.
"You get into the simulator and you feel the bumps in the track, you feel the bumps if you hit a wall, you see how hard it is to keep the car between the lines."
In other words, if you think Darlington looked tough on Saturday night, you should try it from behind the wheel.
"We wanted to have the most interactive, technologically advanced hall of fame in sports," said Blake Davidson, who manages licensing properties for NASCAR. "I think we've achieved that."
The true historians will love Heritage Speedway, where you can take a decade-by-decade tour of the sport and see everything from Junior Johnson's moonshine still to some of the original Firestone Super Sport racing tires from the 1950s.
Here you can sit in a director's chair beside a replica of France Jr. overlooking the cars that Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed to start the donnybrook following the 1979 Daytona 500 that many claim turned a Southern sport into a national pastime.
Here you can spend endless hours watching many of the 154 videos scattered through the facility and viewing priceless artifacts.
Here Kelley played a role in making sure an accurate history of the sport was told, from its finest moments, such as President Ronald Reagan's appearance at Daytona for Petty's 200th win, to its lowest moments, such as Earnhardt's death at Daytona.
"Our credibility and NASCAR's credibility were on the line," Kelley said. "Dale Earnhardt has two legacies. He's got an incredible legacy as one of the best drivers that's ever driven a race car and what he did on the track. But his other legacy is the impact that his accident had."
Kelley said it was NASCAR's idea to display Earnhardt's accident report.
"People thought we'd shy away from Earnhardt's accident," he said. "The accident reports, I never realized how thick they were. ... People thought we'd shy away from moonshine. We got a full moonshine still.
"Moonshine did not beget racing and racing did not beget moonshine, but there is a linkage there and [it was important] to tell that story accurately."
Kelley's toughest challenge was deciding what wouldn't go in the Hall. His biggest test moving forward will be making sure the exhibits and attractions change enough to keep fans coming back.
Many of those who have passed through so far believe he has achieved just the right balance so far.
"They gave everyone who's really done the sport justice, the justice in the Hall of Fame," said Denny Hamlin, who on Saturday won for the third time in six races. "There's a lot of people that I didn't really know about that I got to learn about. The way they designed it is great."
But to truly appreciate the Hall, where it is, where it was and where one day it will be, one must look through Kelley's eyes.
At times, though, the view may get misty.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.