By Rick & Sandi Griffin & McKenna, on July 24, 2014

Charlotte for NASCAR fans

I first became a fan of NASCAR a few years ago when I got to drive a genuine race car six laps around the Talladega Super Speedway as part of a Midlife Road Trip adventure. The adrenaline rush was exhilarating as I reached my top speed of 176 mph! Still having never attended a live race, I technically was a NASCAR virgin. So when Toyota Racing offered me the chance to join a group of writers at the Sprint All-Star Race in Charlotte, North Carolina, I jumped at the chance, full throttle.

The first stop on my journey to motor sports Mecca was in Huntersville for an after-hours, behind the scenes tour of Joe Gibbs Racing. If you didn’t know, Joe Gibbs is the only man to win multiple championships in two different sports, He won three Super Bowls with as head coach of the Washington Redskins and his racing teams have won five championships.

The Joe Gibbs Racing facility has a free admission museum located in the main entrance. This museum houses cars, trophies, displays about current drivers, a floor-to-ceiling viewing window that allows you to see where race cars are built and repaired, the workout facility for the pit crew, and, of course, a gift shop. The floors in the garage were clean enough to eat off. If only my wife would only let me wrap our cars like a bag of M&Ms I’m sure that I would have the incentive to keep my garage just as pristine.

After the tour, as we were walking back to our car, we saw Joe Gibbs himself! Naturally, I had to ask if I could take a selfie with him. Someone from our group volunteered to take the picture for me. Unfortunately my phone was in video mode instead of photo mode so all I ended up with was a video of the legendary coach and me with a ridiculous grin on my face, talking like a ventriloquist trying to explain how to snap a picture on an Android device.

Different views of Charlotte

Coach Gibbs then posed for pictures with several others. When it began to rain, he invited us all back inside and gave each of us a copy of his book, “Game Plan for Life.” As he autographed my book, I couldn’t help but feel that I was in the presence of greatness in the form of a humble man who could excel in anything he attempted in life. Except maybe penmanship.

Upon leaving Joe Gibbs Racing, I caught my first glimpse of the Charlotte skyline, with its impressive modern skyscrapers. By the time I checked in to my hotel, the rain had completely stopped and the clouds had disappeared. With camera in hand, I set out to explore Charlotte for the first time.

I could tell by the checkered flag crosswalks in the street near my hotel and at the NASCAR Hall of Fame that I was visiting the Mecca of motor sports. The Hall of Fame already had closed for the day so I just wandered around, snapping pictures of the cool architecture until it was time to meet my group for dinner at the Blackfinn American Saloon. I’m a little embarrassed to say that the Seared Ahi Tuna had me moaning like Meg Ryan in the restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally. Blackfinn is located in a huge development in Uptown Charlotte called EpiCentre. This area has about 40 venues for shopping, dining, nightlife and entertainment; it’s definitely a must-see for anyone visiting the city.

The next morning, I headed back to the NASCAR Hall of Fame to take in exhibits chronicling NASCAR from its moonshine running roots to the the mega-sport it is today. The first thing I noticed upon entering the museum is a banked ramp featuring 17 historic cars. I loved seeing how the cars and sponsorship advertising have evolved over the years.  I also enjoyed learning the stories of iconic drivers like Richard Petty, Bill Elliott, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt. It all made me wish I had paid more attention to NASCAR when I was younger. If more drivers back then looked like Danica Patrick, I’m sure I would have.

Though the Hall of Fame included numerous interactive and hands-on attractions, racing against 15 other visitors in simulators was my absolute favorite part of the day. I performed well enough in the training round to earn second position for the simulated race. Unfortunately when the “real” race began, I crashed in the first turn and ended up finishing second-to-last. Fortunately I walked away from that crash with little more than a bruised ego.

Finally the time had come to venture out the Charlotte Motor Speedway. We first stopped at the infield, where we toured the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Garage and watched crews prep for the race. Then we headed to Pit Road to watch the qualifying laps for the race. I had to change the settings and focus on my DSLR camera to capture the cars as they sped around the track. Those suckers are FAST!

Viewfinder Tip: When attending a NASCAR event, get there early to experience all of the related activities and entertainment.

Before the main race, we left the infield through a tunnel under the track and wandered over toward the grandstands. The grandstands themselves had a carnival-like atmosphere that reminded me of our tailgating experience at LSU: lots of food, loud music, and crazy fans in varying states of sobriety having the time of their lives.

We re-entered the speedway and took the elevators to The Speedway Club, a fancy VIP area that overlooks the famous track. Up here, I wolfed down a prime rib sandwich with grilled onions before the race began. Back downstairs, we took our seats in the grandstands and waited for the race to start. Toyota racing let us use some nifty hand-held device that allowed us to select and view the race from multiple cameras and listen to select drivers communicate with their pit crews.

Watching the live race was so much more exciting than watching a cars make a bunch of left turns on television. I witnessed two wrecks (always exciting) involving a total of seven cars. I also saw an underdog driver, Jamie McMurray, take the checkered flag! I couldn’t have scripted a better race or location for my first NASCAR experience.

Which sporting events would you like to experience for the first time?