Lake Norman & Mooresville

N.C. Auto Racing Hall of Fame's No. 1 volunteer

"I think I've died and gone to heaven!" is a comment Jean Sheets often hears as a volunteer at the N.C. Auto Racing Hall of Fame.

Sheets, who volunteers four days a week, has built a reputation for knowledge among fans. Many, including out-of-state fans, arrange their visits for when she is there.

The hall of fame, a nonprofit museum, is dedicated to all types of racing, from drag racing to stock cars. People come in and ask, "Is that little lady here?"

Jean, who will be 83 in February, orders merchandise, takes inventory, organizes and cleans display cases, answers questions - usually without having to reference the museum's library - and rolls the tires.

Until about 2007, she regularly "put the cars in neutral and pushed them around" in the tight space of the museum, but her doctor told her to stop.

Her favorite part of volunteering is talking to customers, she said. And: "I like it when a driver comes in and I recognize them. Sometimes I call them by name. Sometimes I don't."

Asked how she grew to love racing, she replied, "I was married to a race nut."

Her husband, Lawrence Sheets, "did not miss a Charlotte race until the day he died. We started going to races in 1946 and 1947, before NASCAR was formed."

Jean and Lawrence Sheets applied to be volunteers before the museum opened and volunteered when it opened in 1995. After Lawrence died in 1998, but Jean continued volunteering.

"If it wouldn't have been for me coming over here, I'd be 6 feet under," she said. "It keeps you going, and I enjoy it."

Most of the visitors to the museum are pleasant, but one visitor used "foul language" in front of one racer's display. Sheets told him, "We don't judge people."

When he persisted with his opinion, she told him, "That's according to you. If you really look at his record, he was a good racer."

Hillary Clinton, a presidential candidate at the time, came to the museum for a political rally in 2008. Sheets said, "We had to move half the cars out of here." The Secret Service and FBI were told Sheets had promised to help her grandson move that day. "I had to take my truck," she said. She was the only one cleared to come and go from the museum site.

Bob and Sue Crawford of from Marlborough, Conn., in town for their first NASCAR race, visited the museum for the first time recently. Watching Sheets, they said, "We were impressed. We saw her push the tires."

The Crawfords were surprised at the museum and said it was better than any of the other museums around that they visited because "you can see the cars better."

Sheets said the museum has close to 40 cars on display.

While touring the museum, she pointed out a blue 1963 Corvette.

"I told the owner, when he's ready to give it away, I'll take it," she said. Then she stopped in front of one car, bearing the number "45," to take a picture.

"It's Adam Petty's - the only 45 the Pettys don't have," Sheets said.