Although NASCAR is based in Florida, anybody who's anybody in the racing game eventually migrates to Charlotte.
By Jeff Owens
When the late Alan Kulwicki decided to pack up his Greenfield, Wis., race shop and head south, he knew exactly where to go: If he wanted to make it in the world's most competitive series, he had to set up shop near Charlotte, N.C.-the hub of NASCAR racing.
"It was pretty easy, really," says Paul Andrews, Kulwicki's former crew chief. "Alan knew Charlotte was where he needed to be."
Sure, Kulwicki put Wisconsin on the racing map with his 1992 Winston Cup championship-but he did it from his shop behind Charlotte Motor Speedway (CMS). His success proved that, despite the lack of privacy in Charlotte, it is possible to build a winning team right in the middle of the action.
Unlike Petty Enterprises and Richard Childress Racing-teams that manufactured their titles within safe distances of Charlotte-Kulwicki built his championship team just a stone's throw away from the competition.
"Alan knew he could get everything he needed right here in Charlotte," says Cal Lawson, former team manager for Alan Kulwicki Racing. "It's just like a lot of Indy Car teams are in Indianapolis; this is the central point for stock car racing."
SETTING UP SHOP
Despite the fact that NASCAR is based in Daytona Beach, Fla., a whopping 90 percent of the drivers in its top divisions are located in and around Charlotte. Race shops and their support industries are scattered throughout the Carolinas, from Randleman, N.C., to Spartanburg, S.C.
Of the 42 full-time Winston Cup teams, 24 are based in the Charlotte-Concord-Mooresville metro area, and 15 others have set up shop within two hours of the hub. The remaining three teams are located in Virginia, but are still within driving distance of CMS.
About half, or 25 of the 51 full-time Busch Series teams have settled in and around Charlotte, and another 19 make their homes throughout the Carolinas.
Charlotte and its surrounding region are a natural environment for stock car racing, a sport that originated when moonshiners raced each other up and down the back roads of North and South Carolina. Stock cars eventually made their way to small-town dirt tracks and then to asphalt cathedrals like Darlington Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"After World War II, there was a lot of red clay in this area, so it was easy to build a racetrack," says H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, who promoted tracks throughout the Carolinas before becoming president of CMS. "You combine that with the ease of taking an old Ford and making a race car out of it, and the sport just began to proliferate."
Fifty years later, racing has evolved into a billion-dollar industry and the fastest-growing spectator sport in the country. Charlotte Motor Speedway alone contributes more than $300 million a year to the local economies of Cabarrus and Mecklenburg counties, and another $50 million is generated by the race teams themselves and the scores of race-related businesses in the area.
With more than 80 teams spread throughout North and South Carolina, plus the two other tracks at North Wilkesboro and Rockingham, stock car racing has undoubtedly become one of the states' biggest industries.
"Most people look at racing as a sport or as entertainment, they don't always see it as an industry," says Doug Stafford, vice-president for events at CMS. "But it has developed into one of North Carolina's biggest industries."
"What has happened here in the Charlotte area," Wheeler adds, "is the same thing that happened in Nashville in the 1950s with country and western music-and now look at Nashville."
RACE CITY, U.S.A.
One of North Carolina's biggest success stories is Mooresville, nicknamed "Race City, U.S.A." Located about 30 miles north of Charlotte, the tiny town has emerged as a mecca for race-related businesses.
More than 30 NASCAR teams are based in Mooresville, including 10 Winston Cup and 12 Busch series teams. Several drivers-Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon among them-and numerous crewmen also live in the area, spreading themselves around Lake Norman, one of North Carolina's most popular recreation sites.
Two things have attracted teams to Mooresville: the proximity to Interstates 77, 85, and 40, and the serene countryside of Lake Norman.
"Location and livability are big factors," says Dan Wallace, executive director of the Mooresville Chamber of Commerce. "Being near Lake Norman and right in the triangle of three major interstates, it's just a natural. And you're just down the road from Charlotte and North Wilkesboro and a few other tracks, so Mooresville is the center of the whole area."
"Accessibility is the No. 1 reason," agrees racing artist Garry Hill, whose studio and home are located in Mooresville, "but free time is at a premium in this business, and the lake gives you a lot of options. It's nice to have a lake in your back yard."
In Mooresville, most of the race teams and support businesses are situated in two industrial parks. Just off Interstate 77, Lakeside Industrial Park houses 16 race teams and 20 race-related businesses. It's also home to the North Carolina Motorsports Hall of Fame and museum, which opened two years ago. Across town, Motorsports Park houses close to 20 more racing operations.
While racing isn't Mooresville's largest industry, it certainly shares the load. Lakeside Park alone provides nearly 300 jobs to local residents. This year, another 60 acres will be added to the park's current 145-acre size, and half of the new acreage has already been committed to race teams and racing companies.
"Lakeside Industrial Park wasn't originally developed to attract the racing industry. It just sort of fell at our door, and it's growing every day," says Cecile Ebert, president of Roe Ltd., the company that developed the park.
Mooresville's biggest business is actually Burlington Industries, a 100-year-old textile mill that boasts more than 1,200 employees. Nevertheless, it's racing that put the town on the map.
"People don't come to see denim being made," Wallace says, "but if they hear that Dale Earnhardt might be down at the gas station or eating lunch somewhere, they'll be here in a minute."
And they'll come by the busload. Wallace estimates that more than 200,000 fans trek through Mooresville each year to visit shops and the new museum. According to Ebert, the museum attracts more than 150,000 fans a year, averaging close to 2,000 visitors each day during race weeks at Charlotte.
"It's unbelievable," Wallace adds. "They come to Lakeside Park and it looks like they're having a parade over there. Literally thousands will go through there. You see motor homes from all over the country."
Rusty Wallace's Penske South and Chuck Rider's Bahari teams, the first to move to the Mooresville area in the late 1980s, set the stage for tremendous growth. Every year, more and more race teams are discovering the need to be near the hub.
In the past three years, Butch Mock Motorsports, Ricky Rudd, and Joe Nemechek have also built shops there. Sabco Racing and the Kranefuss/Haas team constructed new buildings in the shadow of CMS last year, and Brett Bodine and Jack Roush's third race team have moved into two vacant shops.
Kenny Wallace and the Nashville-based Filmar Racing team recently made the jump to the Charlotte area as well. The team moved from the Busch Series to the Winston Cup circuit last year-with little success. Wallace qualified for only 11 races and struggled to finish those. After the season, team owner Filbert Martocci moved the team to Concord, N.C, about 20 miles from Charlotte.
"It was difficult, because the team had family and friends in Nashville, everybody they knew in the world was there," Martocci says. "I thought they were going to kill me when I announced it, but we felt like it was something we had to do. We wanted to be here [in Charlotte]-and we needed to be here."
Did the move make a difference?
"Just look at our statistics and our track performance, and you can see that it's helped," says Wallace, who qualified for every race through the first third of the season and finished in the Top 20 in five of the first eight events.
The move allowed the team two immediate advantages: a more experienced labor force from which to choose, and instant access to parts or equipment the team might need.
"In Nashville, most of the mechanics are All-Pro or ASA people who are used to bolting bodies together," Wallace says. "In Winston Cup, you have to mold and weld and form the metal. We had to teach our mechanics the trade of this sport because Winston Cup is totally different with the way the cars are put together. It wasn't that there weren't really good people in Nashville, they just didn't know how to build a Winston Cup car. Over here, there are people who have gone to school for it and have learned."
And with most of the automotive vendors who service the Winston Cup Series located in Charlotte, anything the Wallace team needs is only a short commute away.
"If it's a Thursday and it's 3 o'clock and we need a part, we can get that part," Wallace says. "In Nashville, we might have had to wait 'til we got to the track to put it on. We had to look ahead and order. In Charlotte, we can just run out in an hour and pick up a part. When we come to the racetrack now, our cars are more turnkey."
All of this saves time-as does the geographic advantage of being in the hub. Concord-based teams are within three hours of Rockingham, Darlington, North Wilkesboro, Martinsville, and Bristol. Richmond and Atlanta are another three hours away and easy to get to. Bottom line: more than half the team's schedule is within an day's drive.
"Nashville is seven hours away [from Charlotte], no matter how fast you drive-and in a tractor-trailer it's worse," Wallace says. "The biggest advantage I saw right away [in Concord] is that the guys can work about a day more. When they were in Nashville and had to get to Darlington or Rockingham, they had to be ready a full day ahead of time. Moving over here, they can work up until that night."
THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
When Roush started a third Winston Cup team last year, he decided to give Mooresville a try. His top teams-Mark Martin and Ted Musgrave-are about two hours away in Liberty, N.C., which gives them the privacy they enjoy, but makes it more difficult to hire experienced crewmen and keep up with the latest tricks of the trade.
In Liberty, many of Roush's employees had little experience when they were hired. Others either moved from the Charlotte area or still commute. When Roush's Jeff Burton/Buddy Parrott team set up shop in Mooresville, the owner got more applications from experienced wrenchmen than he ever saw in Liberty.
"We wanted to find people who were experienced and capable when they came through the door," Roush says.
In Mooresville, Roush also has the luxury of contracting other companies to do much of the body and chassis work, leaving Parrot and his crew more time to organize the new team and fine-tune the cars.
Despite Mooresville's numerous advantages, there is a downside. Roush has the same fear shared by every team located near Charlotte: It's easy for disgruntled employees to find other jobs; and when they leave, many racing secrets go with them. Other strategies sometimes escape through the normal mingling of individuals who share common interests and the same vocation-despite the fact that they're competitors as well.
"The logistics of the business is a little easier [in Mooresville], but there is a concern that if we get our combination to a point where we think it's superior in some areas, we won't be able to keep it to ourselves [like] we do in Liberty," Roush says. "And if somebody in Charlotte becomes unhappy, he can have his tool box moved that day and have another job down the street. You can't do that in Liberty."
Roush, in fact, takes special precautions to keep his secrets inside his Mooresville shop. He has a security fence around the complex, and you can't get in without either an employee card or security code.
"The shop is restricted to vendors who are trusted and folks who are known to be friends," Roush says. "We don't have an open-door policy as far as complete, unlimited access to anybody."
As far as Roush is concerned, he has the best of both worlds: a private, secure shop in Liberty, and an attractive, efficient workplace in the midst of the action in Mooresville.
"We decided to go to Liberty with Mark and Ted to be more private and because we're able to do some special things for the people who work for us, so they don't get frustrated and go down the street and do something with someone next door," Roush says. "We liked being isolated and we saw that we could do things the way we wanted to easier than we could in the middle of the Charlotte area.
"But each year we've been surprised by something that has happened down here [in Mooresville] and we've said, 'If we had been paying a little more attention, something that was more universally known might have come to us sooner.' We hope to have a look at both sides of the business now and put together the best mixture for our program."
CLOSE, BUT NOT TOO CLOSE
Mike Beam has also experienced both sides of the fence-and he doesn't want anything to do with the Charlotte area. He worked as a crew chief for the Mooresville-based Bahari team. He also worked with Bill Elliott in Dawsonville, Ga., and Junior Johnson in North Wilkesboro, and he much prefers the privacy of being away from the big city.
He now works near his home in Hickory, N.C., where Elliott moved his Winston Cup team. While the Hickory shop is about an hour from Charlotte, it's also that far away from any other Winston Cup team. And that's just the way Beam likes it; he has the same privacy in Hickory that he enjoyed in Dawsonville and North Wilkesboro.
"I don't like to be in Charlotte or Mooresville unless I have to," Beam says. "If you've got people working for you and they realize they can go somewhere else, then they don't have to do their best and they can hold that over your head. I'm in a situation where all my guys are from Wilkesboro or Hickory, and they know we have to make this work. I don't have to worry about somebody giving one guy $50 more a week. They're going to be loyal to Elliott-Hardy Racing, and we can move on."
Like Wallace, Elliott and Beam moved from Dawsonville to get closer to racing's hub so they could hire more experienced Winston Cup personnel and improve their team. But like Roush, the two were wary of being too close to their competitors.
"We're an hour from Charlotte," Beam says. "We're also not five minutes from the bars, where you can go to your favorite watering hole and, the next thing you know, if you have something to your advantage, everybody hears about it. We don't have that problem."
Beam and Elliott both believe that keeping secrets is crucial in today's ultra-competitive series.
"Who are the winningest teams in this sport? Who has won the most championships?" Beam asks. "Earnhardt and the Pettys. Who has won the Winston Million? Bill Elliott. All three of those teams were away from Charlotte. History speaks for itself-and it's true. It's very elementary."
For other teams, history-and even superstition-are good enough reasons to stay in the hub. Wallace points out that, in the past few years, more than half of the races have been won by drivers who either live in Mooresville or have their shops there.
"We're the home of the winners," he says.
Parrott also prefers the familiar territory of Mooresville. He and Roush turned down opportunities to buy other buildings to establish their new shop on Knob Hill Road nextdoor to Penske South, where Parrott won 18 races in two years with Rusty Wallace.
"I pushed for this one because I believe there are some wins left here," Parrott says. "There's some magic up on this road, and we want to get some of that."
Contributing writer Jeff Owens covers motorsports for the Gaston Gazette in Gastonia, N.C.