The part of the country from which I come has no race track. Charlotte Motor Speedway was my introduction to NASCAR and to racing. I’m sufficiently beholden to the sports I grew up with – baseball, basketball, boxing and football – that they’ll always be my favorites. They had an almost three-decade head start.
But can you imagine living a life in which you cling to what’s safe and to what you know? I can’t fathom living in Charlotte without experiencing the speedway. At the 2015 Coca-Cola 600, ZZ Top was in the infield playing “Sharp Dressed Man.” I looked around. Where?
How can you be well-dressed when you have the opportunity to eat a 61/2-pound Crank Shaft Burrito?
The beauty of moving to another part of the country is the opportunity to experience what you previously have not. It’s like vacation without the hotels. If you did grab a hotel, the burrito would require its own room.
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If you want to experience Charlotte, you ought to consider the: Carolina Panthers (NFL); Charlotte Hornets (NBA); Charlotte Knights (the Chicago White Sox AAA baseball affiliate); Charlotte Checkers (the Carolina Hurricanes’ top minor-league hockey affiliate); the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Championship; Charlotte Independence (United Soccer League); Charlotte Hounds (Major League Lacrosse); Charlotte Express (Ultimate Frisbee); U.S. National Whitewater Center; college basketball and football at UNC Charlotte, Davidson and Johnson C. Smith; and college basketball at Queens and Johnson & Wales.
Start with the Panthers, Hornets and Knights. Bank of America Stadium, where the Panthers play, is two blocks from BB&T BallPark, where the Knights play. The ballpark is five blocks from Time Warner Cable Arena, where the Hornets play.
The synergy among the three has sparked development downtown and dominated post-work plans. To walk to a football, basketball or baseball game feels like a bonus.
The most popular sport in Charlotte is the most popular sport in almost every other midsized to large U.S. market, and that’s the NFL. Yet Charlotte will become the center of basketball in 2017 when the Hornets host the NBA All-Star Game.
You might encounter Panthers owner Jerry Richardson in a golf cart before a game. He’ll be the tall man sitting perfectly erect and wearing a suit. You’re unlikely to encounter Hornets owner Michael Jordan before a game. But you often see him during one.
You might not know about BB&T BallPark. It accommodates 10,000 fans and offers superb views of the city’s skyline. No matter where you sit, you’re close enough to feel the game. Even when the team is out of town, fans will walk up and stick their faces against a fence. They’ll look at the green grass and wait for their turn to go inside.
For at least 25 years, somebody in or around Charlotte has loudly denounced minor league baseball. They demand a major league team.
Go to Atlanta. The baseball at BB&T BallPark is beautifully Class AAA. Fans usually buy tickets not to see a famous visiting player but to cheer their own players or to relax outside on a summer night.
The place you’re assured of seeing almost everybody you know – although I guess if you’re new this won’t apply immediately – is Quail Hollow Club and the Wells Fargo Championship. The golf establishment and the touring pros love the tournament and the course. As if to prove it, Quail Hollow will host the 2017 PGA Championship.
Most years, the Wells Fargo is a coming together of golf and good times. Started in 2003, the tournament became an immediate fixture on Charlotte’s social calendar.
We all have places we steer visitors. For many it’s the U.S. National Whitewater Center. You can hit the whitewater on a raft or take a gentler route with your family. You can go kayaking on whitewater or on flat water, or you can paddle board. There are excellent, and challenging, mountain bike trails. You can climb rocks or use the zip line.
This sounds like an ad. But there are 700 acres of woodlands, and you don’t have to leave the city to experience them. It’s tough to be anything but impressed.
As vast as the whitewater center is, Charlotte Motor Speedway has it by 1,300 acres. Yet the speedway is small enough to run into the people you hope to.
When my oldest son was about 5 years old, I was showing him the race cars and he ran out of energy. We sat on a small concrete wall. A man walked up. He wore opaque sunglasses, a cowboy hat with a white feather and a narrow moustache. Perhaps he saw a potential fan in my son. More likely, he was just being himself – a very nice and very gracious man who is the ideal ambassador for his sport.
I stood up and we shook hands.
“That,” I told my son, “is Richard Petty.”
You might not know racing. You might find it loud or coarse. But there is no next best thing to being there. Most race teams are headquartered an easy drive (unless its rush hour) north of Charlotte. The sport remains part of who we are.
On one of my most recent visits to the track, a man stepped out of a golf cart and offered his hand. It was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is as unpretentious in his way as Petty, the King, is in his. The tradition endures.
Before there were major league sports in Charlotte, there was racing. Before we became a banking center, there were high-banked turns at the race track. People worked long and hard for little money, and NASCAR was their reward.
For many, it still is. We’ve added others. Hope you find yours.
Tom is a sports columnist for the Observer.