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NASCAR hall under way

By Mike Cranston

Associated Press

CHARLOTTE — With dozens of famous drivers, car owners and crew chiefs on hand, NASCAR broke ground on its long-awaited Hall of Fame on Thursday, promising to properly honor its rich history.

Seven-time Cup series champion Richard Petty joined NASCAR president Mike Helton and others in moving the first clumps of red clay for the $107.5 million facility that is to open by the spring of 2010. They used shovels designed to look like pit crew gas cans amid the roar of engines from replica cars of Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

“This will preserve, protect and present that history to NASCAR fans of today and future NASCAR fans,” Helton said.

Petty, Junior Johnson, Buddy Baker, Ned Jarrett, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, Glen Wood and Rex White joined other drivers and car owners for the groundbreaking under a tent in downtown Charlotte.

“I’ve never seen an assembly of history like we have here today,” car owner Rick Hendrick said. “To see all of these people, my heroes growing up, is phenomenal.”

NASCAR decided to put its Hall of Fame in the heart of stock car country last March when it selected Charlotte over Atlanta; Daytona Beach, Fla.; Richmond, Va.; and Kansas City, Kan.

About 90 percent of race teams are in the Charlotte area, and nearby Lowe’s Motor Speedway is home of three Nextel Cup races a year, including the All-Star race.

Many NASCAR stars, including Dale Earnhardt Jr. and last season’s points champion Jimmie Johnson, live in the area. Jeff Gordon owns a condominium within walking distance of the Hall of Fame site.

Stock car racing has several smaller shrines around the Southeast, but NASCAR wanted an official Hall of Fame. Several of the sport’s stars, including Petty, strongly backed Charlotte.

“I was at the very first Cup race, in 1949, out here on Wilkinson Boulevard,” Petty said. “Charlotte is the center of NASCAR racing. That’s where it started and that’s where it grew to where it is now.”

The Hall of Fame will have roughly 40,000 square feet of exhibit space. It’s expected to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors a year and pump millions of dollars into the Charlotte-area economy.

The county’s hotel tax was raised 2 percentage points to help pay for the building. NASCAR will also build a 19-story office tower nearby.

“When you think of Nashville, you think of country music stars. When you think of Los Angeles, you think of movie stars,” Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory said. “From now on, when you think of Charlotte, you’re going to think of the NASCAR stars you see today.”

The Hall of Fame will be owned by the city of Charlotte and operated by its convention and visitors bureau under a contract with NASCAR that runs to 2038. In return, the city will pay unspecified royalties to NASCAR, plus between 5 and 10 percent of various revenue streams.

It’s believed NASCAR may pair the induction ceremony with the weekend’s All-Star race to produce a major weekend event, similar to the NBA All-Star game.

Several fans who attended were dressed in their favorite drivers’ shirts and jackets. Many lined up to get autographs from legendary drivers.

Longtime NASCAR broadcaster Winston Kelley, the Hall of Fame’s executive director, recalled getting an autograph from Petty as a 9-year-old.

“I pledge that we will treat every customer as special as that 9-year-old kid that Richard Petty signed an autograph 40 years ago, a picture that still hangs in my office,” Kelley said. “That reminds me every day, that it’s about the fan.”

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