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Monday, May 10, 2010

NASCAR Hall of Fame is Likely the Only Sports Museum With a Moonshine Still

This is a big week in Charlotte, N.C. On Tuesday the NASCAR Hall of Fame officially opens its door. From Thursday to Sunday an event called "UltraSwim" featuring Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps takes over the Mecklenburg Aquatic Center. On Friday to Sunday, the National Riffle Association annual convention comes to town with featured speakers Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck.

Even though the last three North Carolina governors have been Democrats, I just may live in a Red State.

No matter your political leanings, if you enjoy adult beverages and cars that go fast a trip to the NASCAR Hall of Fame is worth the $19.95 price of admission. I got the chance to get a sneak peak at the facility a few days back thanks to Jake Koneman, who is engaged to marry my daughter, Brhea. Jake has a history degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and did an internship cataloging artifacts donated to the Hall of Fame. He spent hours sorting through everything from engine parts to NASCAR Winston Cups. For all of his hard work he was given a pair of tickets to see a preview of the facility.

The 150,000-square-foot NASCAR Hall of Fame honors the history and heritage of NASCAR. A big part of that history is intermingled with alcohol. Part of the legend of the early days of NASCAR is that moonshine runners started get together to race their cars for bragging rights. As the racing became more popular, safety and competition rules were needed and NASCAR was born.

The best known moonshiner turned racer is Junior Johnson. He made his first moonshine run at the age of 14 and was convicted in 1956 on a charge of producing illegal liquor. He served 11 months in federal prison and years later was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan. Johnson launched a commercially produced "legal" moonshine a couple of years back.

Johnson won the second Daytona 500 in 1960 and was credited for the discovery of drafting on super speedways. He won 50 races at NASCAR's top level before becoming a car owner. His drivers won 132 races and six championships.

Johnson donated something to the NASCAR Hall of Fame you won't see in Cooperstown or Canton: a working moonshine still. Johnson actually had to assist museum staff correctly install the still, which can be found on the fourth floor of the museum. I guess the basics of building a still are something you don't forget.

Johnson's still is not the only drinks related piece of memorabilia in the Hall of Fame. Cars carrying the sponsorship of Coors, Busch, Miller and Miller Lite are featured. Other memorability, trophies, video and photos show how drinks companies have marketed to race fans.

One of the more interesting exhibits concerns the 1979 Daytona 500 and its role in propelling the sport to popularity outside of the southeastern United States. A snow storm hit much of the northeast and it was the first 500 mile NASCAR race to be broadcast nationally in its entirety, creating a large television audience. As CBS viewers watched, Cale Yarborough, driving the Busch beer sponsored car, made a final lap move to pass Donnie Allison on the back stretch. Allison blocked him and the pair crashed. Richard Petty ended up winning the race, but before cameras showed the victory lane celebration viewers got an eye full of Allison, his brother Bobby Allison and Yarborough trading punches. A legion of fans were created almost instantly.

No one is expected to duke it out at the Hall of Fame opening on Tuesday. Dale Earnhardt, Bill France Jr., Bill France Sr., Junior Johnson and Richard Petty will be inducted into the Hall of Fame as the inaugural class during ceremonies on May 23rd.

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