Other than my father-in-law, I don't come from a big family of NASCAR fans. I'm aware of the various names and personalities. And I even went to a race - at the Martinsville Speedway - many years ago, courtesy of my husband's dad.
But my kids don't know much about the drivers or the cars. They've seen glimpses of races on the TV, but that's been just about their only exposure. In fact, when noted NASCAR historian Buz McKim asked one of my daughters who their favorite driver was, she said, "Is there a Dale Ear-and-hard Jr.?" Apologies to Earnhardt fans. That's how she pronounced it.
Regardless of their interest or knowledge of the sport though, the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte was easily their favorite destination when we traveled there earlier this year. Opened in 2010, the 150,000-square-foot hall is a shrine to all things NASCAR. Actual race cars, touch screen exhibits, countless videos, a theater, fascinating artifacts and lots of hands-on activities make for an incredibly active visit. There's always something new to look at, to learn about and to do.
The venue, McKim tells me, traces the history of NASCAR from the turn of the century as the sport progressed to the need to form a unified series of races in the 1940s.
We started out, thankfully, in the so-called High Octane Theater, a 278-seat theater that features a movie that explains the history of NASCAR. It gave all of us a great foundation to understand what we'd see as we walked through the exhibits with McKim as our guide.
From there, visitors walk through the Great Hall, which features rotating exhibits, and the Glory Road, a banked ramp with more than a dozen historic cars. At points along the ramp, steps lead visitors up onto the ramp to see how steep they really get on actual tracks. From there, the Hall of Fame includes the Hall of Honor, where you can learn more about the inductees, and, a Heritage Speedway, which features artifacts from the past 60-plus years.
But, if my kids could have spent a day there, they would have been fully stationed in the Race Week exhibit, an incredibly interactive area that gives visitors a behind-the-scene glimpse of what a NASCAR team does to get a car ready for race day.
Here's what my kids could have done over and over again:
The Simulator: Visitors hop in a car and "race" with other museum goers. The experience takes you on simulated tracks, which change depending on what race is coming up. In fact, the experience is so realistic that professional drivers have visited to get ready for race day. (I'm no good, but my older daughter can give any driver a run for their money, we learned!).
The Pit Stop: This recreates the pit stop experience when drivers pull over to get new tires. You get your team together and race against other teams of visitors to see who can complete the tasks, including jacking up the car and unscrewing and screwing on the tire. There's a lot of moving parts - and it's a lot of fun for families to do together. (Mine definitely needs some practice on this one!).
The Transporter: The full-size transporter - those giant 18 wheelers - can haul two race cars and all of the equipment a team might need. At the Hall of Fame, you can walk inside one to see what it looks like.
The Kid Zone: My tween was a little too old for this area, but my grade schooler loved it. Here, she found a touch screen game; a pit stop experience sized just for her; information about drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon as kids; and more.
Design a Car: Just outside the Kid Zone, there's a large touch screen where visitors can design their own car, including the colors, sponsors and more. I think my kids each designed about a dozen cars.
The Hard Card: The Hall of Fame calls this an "all-access pass to the behind-the-scenes excitement and industry expertise." Visitors use it to track their achievements throughout the museum, which my kids enjoyed. You get it as you arrive at the Hall of Fame and then register the card, picking a NASCAR driver as your "host," as you enter the exhibits.
We were here for about three hours. My kids could have loved another three hours.
The museum in downtown Charlotte is open daily. And you'll never know who you'll see here - members of a band with a big show in Charlotte, current and retired NASCAR drivers and more are regular guests. Tickets are $19.95 for adults and $12.95 for kids ages 5 to 12 with discounts for seniors and military. Everything is included except the Simulator, which is $5 per person.