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Fans turn out for appreciation day at NASCAR Hall of Fame

Sherilyn Washington used her cellphone to take a picture of a shiny red stock car parked inside the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Saturday.

The historical significance of the vehicle escaped her. She just liked its looks.

“The color is enticing,” said Washington, 50, who was at the Hall of Fame for NASCAR Fan Appreciation Day. “And I like seeing all those stickers on it.”

An accounting office clerk, she recently moved to Charlotte from Rochester, N.Y., where her boss at the company where she worked got her interested in NASCAR racing.

“Now, I’m right here in the land of the race car,” Washington said. “This is my first time at the Hall of Fame and I think it’s great. You get to see the cars up close.”

The event started at 8:30 a.m., and admission was free. Fans took their time looking at interactive exhibits. They also stood in line for autograph sessions with such NASCAR Hall of Famers as Ned Jarrett, Bobby Allison and Leonard Wood.

“First and foremost, we hope fans have a good time,” said Hall of Fame executive director Winston Kelley. “Race fans are so fanatical about this sport. It’s a culture in itself.”

Fan Appreciation Day kicked off the “Road to Daytona,” the Florida race where the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series officially begins Feb. 23 with the 56th running of the Daytona 500. Officials estimated Saturday’s attendance at more than 5,000 people.

Dwayne and Jennifer Adams of Charlotte brought their 18-month-old daughter, Emerson, to the Hall of Fame.

“One reason we came is because it’s free,” said Dwayne Adams, 43. “I’m a race fan, and we’ve heard good things about the Hall of Fame.”

Jennifer Adams, 33, said another reason they came was that they wanted to expose their daughter to “all different kinds of cultural activities in the city. That’s part of living in Charlotte.”

Clare Chatman, 92, of Jacksonville, N.C., came to fan day with her son, Michael Campanelli, 66, of Havelock.

“She got me interested in NASCAR,” said Campanelli, who served three tours in Vietnam during his 23-year Army career. “She’s a Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. fan, and I’m for Kyle Busch.”

About 20 years ago, Chatman turned on the TV, watched a NASCAR race and has been hooked ever since.

She and her son are close and go to races together.

“What these drivers do for people and their children is fantastic,” Chatman said as she waited for a question-and-answer session with drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr., Dakoda Armstrong and Timothy Peters.

Always a hero

Fans crowded around when the program began, many holding cellphones over their heads and snapping pictures.

As Earnhardt talked about the ups and downs of racing he mentioned “you’re a hero one week and zero the next.”

“You’re always my hero!” a female fan yelled.

Terry and Cristal Tounzen of Salisbury were Dale Jarrett fans and wore Jarrett attire to prove it.

“This is our first trip to the Hall of Fame,” said Terry Tounzen, 52. “It’s awesome. I’ll be back.”

The NASCAR exhibits took him back in time to 1967 when he lived in Bakersfield, Calif., and he and his dad watched races, cheering for Bobby Allison and Richard Petty.

“That’s what got me started,” Tounzen said.

The Tounzens had come early to the Hall of Fame, spent the morning there and were headed back to Salisbury after they had lunch at Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Whiskey River restaurant in uptown Charlotte.

At least one fan was dissatisfied with the event. Dan Johnson, 63, a disabled painter from Cartersville, Ga., said, “We liked it when it was over at the convention center. There was more room and more drivers.”

He also complained about the cost of Hall of Fame memberships.

“It’s all about the dollars,” Johnson said. “A poor man can’t afford the prices. I won’t be back.”

But Dennis and Susan Mielke of Ransomville, N.Y., were leaving Charlotte with good memories of the Hall of Fame and Fan Appreciation Day.

With the Mielkes were their son, Nicholas, and his wife, Dana, who were married in October on the start/finish line at the Watkins Glen International race track in New York state. The newlyweds had a NASCAR-themed reception and were in Charlotte this week on their honeymoon. They were featured in the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2014 booklet.

A race fan since age 12, Dennis Mielke, now 60, said that as a mechanic, he’s worked on race cars and even driven in races a few times.

“I wasn’t any good,” he said.

Looking around the Hall of Fame exhibits, Mielke said, “It’s a marvelous place with a lot of nice stuff.”

Lifelong fan

Jessie Austin, 76, and Sandy Barnhill, 66, came up from Orlando, Fla., for their first look at the Hall of Fame.

“I’ve been a NASCAR fan all my life,” said Barnhill, who is a native of Williamston in eastern North Carolina. “Growing up in North Carolina, you’ve got to be a fan.”

She always cheered for Dale Earnhardt Sr. and was at Daytona International Speedway the February day he was killed in 2001.

Since then “I’ve been following Dale Jr.,” Barnhill said.

For her, Fan Appreciation Day was a positive experience.

Her take on the NASCAR Hall of Fame: “I wish it was in Daytona,” Barnhill said.

DePriest: 704-868-7745
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