Fans meet drivers at NASCAR speed fest

02/07/2013 11:52 AM

02/08/2013 8:35 AM

For NASCAR fans, there’s no place better to be than in Charlotte this weekend. No, it’s not race week, but well over 50 NASCAR drivers from all three national series – plus many of the sport’s legends – will gather uptown for NASCAR Acceleration Weekend.

The occasion: The NASCAR Hall of Fame is inducting its fourth class Friday (Rusty Wallace, Buck Baker, Junior Wood, Cotton Owens and Herb Thomas), following autograph signings by many of the Hall’s previous inductees, including Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison and Junior Johnson.

That event provides the excuse for Saturday’s “Preview13,” which is held at the Hall of Fame and the Charlotte Convention Center and lets fans meet 60 drivers; it also features the unveiling of 2013’s new Generation 6 models and 2013 paint schemes.

Wristbands for each of Saturday’s four autograph sessions are a hot commodity. Fans at last year’s Acceleration event began lining up the day before. “Our first people started lining up at 4 a.m. Friday morning in the rainy drizzle just to get that autograph wristband,” says Steve Sweeney, NASCAR’s director of consumer marketing.

This year, the Hall of Fame is accommodating die-hard fans by opening its lobby, showing the Tom Cruise movie “Days of Thunder” and race highlights throughout the night, and having concessions on hand.

NASCAR superfan Milt Laughlin, a retired music industry executive who lives in Nashville, Tenn., has attended all four induction ceremonies and presented Waltrip with the Hall of Fame lifetime membership at last year’s inaugural event. (Similar weekends used to take place in Winston-Salem.)

“It’s a laid-back atmosphere,” Laughlin says. “I get the feeling (the drivers) are there to show the appreciation for the fans of the sport. The season hasn’t started yet. Everyone is tied for the championship at this point. At the race, it’s hard to interrupt them (for an autograph), but Acceleration Weekend provides that avenue to interact with drivers or others in the sport away from the track.”

“I watch football on TV, but I’ve never been to a live game,” Laughlin says. “You would never be able to get as up close and personal (with the NFL) as we have been (with NASCAR) over the years.”

Driver Clint Bowyer, the 2012 Sprint Cup Series runner-up, enjoys the interaction with fans.

“Just talking to them and getting to know them. Today there are a lot more of them. It’s what separates our sport,” he says, adding that he does see the same faces. “I have some fans from Hawaii that come every year to three or four or five races. You can always pick them out.”

In addition to fan interaction, the unveiling of the Generation 6 car – which NASCAR starts using this year – will be a big draw.

“It has all the safety features of the Generation 5 car we’ve been running, but draws back to the design of cars that people can purchase at their local dealership,” Sweeney says. “The Ford Fusion we’re racing, for instance, is a direct tie to the production model of the car. It harkens back to true stock cars, where cars were coming out of the dealership and then being modified for the track.”

The evolution of the cars also pushes the evolution of the sport and its drivers.

“You have to be able to adapt and continue to keep up with the time and be better,” Bowyer says. “We’re all super-excited about racing and putting on a show with the new cars, but nobody knows how they’re going to race.”

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