Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Assessing the HOF and race shops

This past weekend, I made the six hour voyage to what I like to call Heaven – but most people call it Charlotte. The point of the trip was to see what the new NASCAR Hall of Fame was all about. And while I was there I figured it would be prudent to check out the shops of all the race teams. All in all, it was a wonderful trip – I enjoyed every minute of it. Each time I have been to the Charlotte area it has always been great experience as it THE spot for a NASCAR fan. However, some of you are either a.) Not within driving distance to North Carolina (some might say Birmingham isn’t driving distance) or b.) Have not yet had the opportunity to visit these places. After reading my reviews of the race shops and Hall of Fame, you will have a better understanding of what to look for and expect at NASCAR’s capital city.

Roush – Roush was the very first shop I went to. It was located off the same exit as Charlotte Motor Speedway so it wasn’t very difficult to find. The shop and the museum were in two separate buildings. The museum was great; it had all sorts of souvenirs ranging from used crew member uniforms to lug nuts to race used sheet metal. I got an up close view of Matt Kenseth’s winning car from the 2009 Daytona 500 as well as Todd Kluever’s torn up ARCA car from a few years ago in a vicious Daytona wreck. The museum even had a small movie theater (NOTE: I didn’t go in to this, so I’m not sure if it was on the team history or something else). The staff was real friendly, but I got a chuckle out of one guy in the museum who was a crew member for one of the teams – he was giving his buddies a tour of the place, and made it well known to everyone else he was a pit guy. Nothing wrong in having pride for your job.

While the museum was really cool, the shop itself was a bitter disappointment. And by that, I mean it wasn’t fan friendly. There was only a small viewing window by the entrance that allowed me to hardly see any of the cars. I saw three of David Ragan’s cars and maybe one of Greg Biffle’s, but that was it. The coolest part of the shop was when I entered and looked to the right, Robbie Reiser’s office was sitting right there. Unfortunately he was busy talking to someone so I did not get to say hello.

Richard Petty Motorsports – There is really not much to say here. It was in the same parking lot as Roush’s, but WAY smaller. It was one building, and this was definitely the worst of the shops I went to. I walked in and there was a receptionist and an Elliot Sadler show car, but there was no window to view the garage. As a matter of fact, they weren’t even selling any RPM products. Needless to say, I was in and out of this one. In fairness, I know this is a struggling organization and they can’t afford to build the mega shops like Hendrick and Roush.

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing- EGR was stop number three, and it was just 1/2 mile down the road from Roush. Overall, Ganassi had a very impressive place. His museum was in the same building as his shop, but his “museum” was a collection of the team’s trophies which were in the main lobby. The souvenir store sold interesting items such as lug nuts, sheet metal, and race used tires. The best part of this visit was the fan friendly access to the shop. There was a viewing platform that actually allowed you to be in the garage and hear the sounds of the work being to done to the race cars. I was very satisfied going here.

Stewart Haas Racing- Stewart Haas was next on my list, and it was just a few miles down the highway from the speedway. It had a very similar setup to EGR, with its souvenir store on the right and the shop in the back. Unlike Ganassi, however, it did not have a viewing platform. You were able to view the shop from the main room which was separated by a large window. The window picked up lots of glare from the lights, and therefore was somewhat difficult to view the work being done. What separated Stewart’s shop from the rest was how you were able to view the fabrication room, which was on the left side of the building. This gave SHR a nice distinction from the other teams. As for the store, they did not have the race used items like the other teams had, which was a disappointment. Like all the other places, the staff was friendly and they gave me directions to my next stop, Joe Gibbs Racing (jokingly, they were hesitant to give me directions to another team).

Joe Gibbs Racing- Joe Gibbs Racing was the only shop I had been to previously. It was several years ago, though, so I needed another visit to refresh my memory. One of things that make the JGR shop so nice is that you view the shop from above. You have a glass window separating you and the shop, but seeing it from an elevated view definitely enhances the viewing experience. The store was on par with Roush and Ganassi – used sheet metal, lug nuts and the like. One side note here: this was the fourth shop I had been to, and I ran into the same couple at every stop. The first three stops were on the same road so it made sense, but I found it funny at this point as the Gibbs shop was a good 25 minute drive from the other shops.

Michael Waltrip Racing- They sure do make you feel welcome here – a kind, elderly man held the door open for me along with a kind greeting. But, here is what is just terrible about this place- THEY CHARGE YOU $10 TO VIEW THE GARAGE! I saw Waltrip promoting the place on Race Hub a few months back, so I was really excited to check his place out. But when none of the other places charge you anything, I certainly wasn’t going to pay for something I had been looking at all day for free. Considering the fans play a big part in the success of owners and drivers, it’s not right for a team to charge them to see their garage. On the other hand, the souvenir shop was excellent; it had more race used parts than any other team, including splitters and transmission parts. The store also had David Reuitimann’s wrecked car from the 2007 California race. As torn up as that car was, you wouldn’t know it was in a wreck by looking inside. It really goes to show you how safe these cars are.

Penske Racing – About ten miles down the road from Waltrip’s shop was Penske Racing. This was easily the surprise of the trip. As far as viewing the shop goes, this was clearly the most fan friendly. It contained a “fan walk” where you walked above the cars and crew members. It was like looking out on your back deck and seeing a race shop. I was very satisfied that I made the trip to Penske. Not much to the souvenir store, though, as it was just t-shirts and a few die-casts. But I didn’t drive all the way to North Carolina to see the stores - I wanted to see a good race shop. And with that said, Penske’s was my surprise favorite.

Hendrick- This was my last stop of the day. It was on the way back in town (located literally 1 mile away from the track) so I saved it for last. As I was entering the building, there was a sign that said turn to 92.1 (I believe that was the station) for more info. There is a whole radio station devoted to Hendrick’s shop! I thought that was pretty cool. Anyway, like Roush, Hendricks place was divided up. I went to the museum first, which was pretty impressive. It had Cole Trickle’s car from Days of Thunder, along with many other cars from Hendrick’s storied career. I had to rush through most of it as it was nearing closing time by this point. Fortunately and unfortunately, it didn’t take long for me to see the shops. There were two shops right next to each other with Gordon and Johnson’s in one, and Junior and Martin’s in the other. Like I said though, it took me just a few minutes to see both of them. This is because it was very difficult to see the cars being worked on. Considering that Hendrick has the most money, I was expecting a much better viewing experience than this. Pretty disappointing, but at the same time its amazing how big his place was.

Two big races teams not on this list are Red Bull Racing and Richard Childress Racing. I did not visit Childress because it was about 50 miles away from the city and there was not enough time to go see his place. Red Bull wasn’t too far away – it simply didn’t make my list of shops to visit. Sorry Red Bull!

Hall of Fame – I don’t think I have any better way of explaining the Hall of Fame than by saying it met my expectations. That isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, as I had both positive and negative things to say about the experience. I was fine with the $20 admission, but anything more would be too much. The first thing I did at the HOF was go see a movie they played every 30 minutes. They movie lasted about 15 minutes and it pretty much recapped the 60 year history of the sport. Since it took me a good 3 hours to see everything, I can’t get into everything so I will just say what I had problems with.

My first issue came when I was looking at Kurt Busch’s 2004 championship car. Right by the show car was a picture of Kurt's machine during a race that year. Next to the picture had a caption which stated Kurt Busch and Juan Montoya were racing at Daytona. That is all fine and dandy, but Montoya was still racing in F1 during the 04 season (McMurray was driving the No. 42 Texaco Dodge that year). Maybe it isn’t a huge deal, but inaccuracies like that really get my blood pressure boiling.

There was a really awesome feature at the Hall where you could broadcast a clip from an old race (you could do a television or radio broadcast). Since the line was long for the radio, I chose television which had no line at all. The race clip they had was the infamous race at Richmond in 2008 where Kyle Busch and Dale Junior crashed battling for the lead with 2 laps to go. I had a great time being the play by play announcer for it, but when it went to replay my broadcast, there was no audio. Now I know why there was no line for this.

After my tour was over, I was looking forward to eating at the café they had. I was expecting televisions featuring old and current races, NASCAR décor on the wall, and more racing themed items. However there was none of that. The café was more of a concession stand that offered hot dogs and bratwursts. Nothing was on the walls, just plain white paint and no televisions. After you finish your visit at the Hall, do yourself a favor and go eat at Buffalo Wild Wings (right next to the HOF) instead.

So to sum it all up, most of the fun came on Friday when I visited the race shops. Penske was my surprise favorite and would definitely recommend you visit it if you are in the area. The Hall of Fame was enjoyable as well. I know I highlighted more of the cons than pros, but do not let that discourage you from visiting. There are so many great things to see there and it will definitely be worth your time. You can find out how quick you can change a tire and figure out what walking on 33 degree banking feels like. The artifacts in there are certainly spectacular, especially the 76 ball. And hopefully the problems I pointed out will be fixed by the time you get up there.

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