North Carolina's NASCAR roots pay off

The sport's new hall of fame seems destined for Charlotte.

Too bad Atlanta. Boo-hoo Daytona. It looks as if Charlotte, N.C., has taken the checkered flag.

News that Charlotte will become home to a new NASCAR Museum and Hall of Fame ends a photo-finish contest that began 14 months ago and that pitted tourist-hungry cities from Kansas City, Mo., to Richmond, Va., against one another in a bid to claim the prize.

The announcement, scheduled for Monday after presstime, is expected to assuage the concerns of fans who had worried that NASCAR would further abandon its Southern roots. The new hall's probable location near downtown Charlotte goes a long way toward ameliorating those who have fretted as an expanding NASCAR discontinued races at legendary ovals in the South in favor of tracks in New England and the West.

"There are many longtime fans who feel NASCAR is kind of running away from tradition, and that's something NASCAR is aware of and is trying to balance as they move national," says Larry DeGaris, director of the Center for Sports Sponsorship at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. "In that respect, Charlotte might be an olive branch [to the fans]."

Like its famous counterpart, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., the NASCAR facility will pay adoring tribute to its leading lights, such as legendary drivers Dale Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson, and Tony Stewart. "It's like Cooperstown with baseball. It becomes the mecca," says stock car historian Alex Gabbard, author of "Return to Thunder Road." "The NASCAR hall of fame is going to be a big deal, not just now, but forever."

Competition for the racing hall may not have reached the scale of the Olympic bidding wars, but it was no less intense. For each of the finalist cities - Daytona Beach, Atlanta, and Charlotte - states raced to assemble financial packages to draw the $103 million prize. Florida ordered up a special license plate to cover the cost. Georgia late last week squeezed more money out of the legislature to bolster its bid. North Carolina promised to levy a 2 percent rooms-and-meals tax to fund most of its $137 million plan.

Some critics say NASCAR - owned primarily by the business-savvy France family of Daytona, Fla. - will benefit the most from the publicly financed bidding wars.

The France family has been based in Daytona ever since "Big Bill" France's car broke down there in the 1930s. Atlanta came later to the scene: In the 1960s, it became the home of secretive stock car divisions of automakers such as General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford.

Charlotte, though, remains NASCAR's heart: Ninety percent of NASCAR garages are located within an hour's drive.

And Mr. DeGaris, for one, says NASCAR may have forgone the most profitable option to tip its hat to longtime fans. Charlotte's bid, he says, was the weakest when compared with attendance projections for Daytona and Atlanta.

For Charlotte, which usually plays second fiddle to more cosmopolitan Atlanta, the victory is doubly sweet: It gets both bragging rights and an economic leg up.

"There are always going to be people who have issues with the public outlay of money for something of this nature, but it's hard to see how this is going to hurt Charlotte," says Patrick Rishe, a sports economist at Webster University in St. Louis.

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