Appropriately, it was the unmistakable roar of unmuffled stock car engines that signaled the opening Tuesday of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, a $195-million project that will bring race fans and their wallets to Charlotte.

After the politicians, the speeches, the thank-yous, the prayer and the national anthem, the two living members of the Hall's inaugural class of five inductees arrived on the plaza outside the 150,000-square-foot facility driving vintage cars--Petty his legendary 1974 Dodge Charger and Johnson a 1940 Ford with signage touting his new business--legal moonshine.

Petty pulled up first, just as a light rain began to intensify.

"We got in under the flag," quipped the King, a seven-time Sprint Cup champion and the winner of a record 200 events. "I got another one. I won another race."

Petty and Johnson will be inducted into the Hall on May 23, along with NASCAR founder Bill France Sr.; his son and successor as NASCAR chairman and CEO, Bill France Jr.; and seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt.

To Petty, the car he drove to the opening ceremony was emblematic of the progress NASCAR racing has made over the past few decades.

"I get in the car and I look around--and that's what I think the fans need to look at--how simple that car was inside," Petty said of the '74 Charger. "And then look at the cars and all the fancy things and safety features that are in the cars today.

"You probably don't pay that much attention until you look at one that didn't have any safety features. Then you realize what NASCAR's been able to accomplish over the years in making things safer."

If the Petty-blue Dodge is a microcosm of NASCAR history, the Hall itself is replete with it. Far more than merely a car museum, the Hall offers visitors a high-tech, interactive experience.

"Today, I was a fan," said Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick, who served as honorary chair of the project. "I'm not even a car owner today. I'm a fan looking at some of the history. To walk through here and see cars that I watched race or drivers that I idolized, it's just special to me as a fan.

"I was kind of overwhelmed when I walked in this morning. I don't know what I expected, and I tried to stay away, because I didn't want to see it half-finished."

That's a sentiment shared by many who participated in the opening.

"I wanted to wait until today and walk in with our fans on the opening day," said NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France, who with sister Lesa France Kennedy represented their father and grandfather. "I'm glad I did that. It's a lot to take in. This is a neat day for NASCAR. It really is, and I'm pretty excited to be doing my little part with it.

"The finished product is fabulous, and we're pretty proud of what they accomplished. In the end, this city really goes and figures out the motorsports industry and the assets that are here, probably better than anyone else does."

Initial estimates project the Hall's economic impact at roughly $60 million annually to the Charlotte area, and that may prove conservative, if the Hall helps to draw additional convention business to the city.

"I think this is going to drive a lot of business to Charlotte from the standpoint of convention-goers," Hendrick said. "I think everybody's going to win. I think Charlotte's going to win. I think the sport's going to win, and I think people that are new fans are going to be able to see history that they couldn't see anywhere else."


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