North Carolina: Home of the speed freaks

North Carolina seems a laid-back, gentle place – until you encounter the 167,000 people watching Nascar races. Rob Crossan jumps in for a 165mph trip around the circuit

'That breakfast bloody Mary was definitely a mistake," was the last coherent thought I had before half my stomach travelled to my ears and the other half slam-dunked its way to somewhere around my ankles. My cheeks then became fashionably concave as the car hit 165mph. Three laps around the Lowe's Motor Speedway track near Charlotte, North Carolina – part of the Richard Petty Driving Experience – only took three minutes but apparently in the hot and dangerous world of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (Nascar) it was nothing but a leisurely Sunday drive.

"You should see it on a big race day," said my tour guide, Nascar fanatic Stan. "If you can imagine going 20mph faster than that for four hours at a stretch, with 42 other cars trying to overtake you and 200,000 fans screaming the whole way through, then you've got an idea about how crazy these guys are."

Frankly, the concept's a little hard for me to grasp. Especially when such extreme fear and danger lies just on the outskirts of a city as quietly laid-back as Charlotte.

Charlotte tries to look big but it's fooling nobody. Like the puny kid in class who tells you he's actually deadly at karate, this is a city whose downtown area is deceptive in its machismo. Sure there are skyscrapers , but it doesn't take long before you realise you can count all of them on your fingers. There are also power-suits that stomp stridently down Tryon Street to the Bank of America headquarters, but their march is often halted by antiquated trolley-buses which wheeze along the side of the road. These, in turn, are occasionally overtaken by a man called Bridger who, with his horse Elvis, offers carriage rides around the shady streets.

Charlotte was recently declared the nicest place to live in the whole of the United States by Relocate America magazine. But locals such as Bridger are aghast at any suggestion that the city might be about to become the "next Atlanta", the nearest major city.

"That would be awful," murmured Bridger as we trotted past bijou taverns, alfresco cafes and various construction sites. "We only want to develop so far. It wasn't that long ago that you couldn't even get a drink here. A lot of places still don't open at all on a Sunday."

After I'd said goodbye to Bridger and Elvis, I decided to venture around Charlotte on foot, something one can do all too rarely in a US city. Nobody in the downtown area of Charlotte (which, confusingly, is called Uptown) seemed to be in any kind of hurry; I was even told to "slow down, bub" by a group of office boys who were sitting around a park bench.

I strode past the narrow, neo-classical frontage of the Dunhill Hotel. It looked like a tiny old cinema, with wood-panelled doors and stagey lights set around the entrance. Built in 1929 as the Mayfair Manor it even thrived during the Great Depression. However, few of the present-day, (mostly mature) patrons would have been keen to cross the marble floors of the lobby to join me that evening. I was heading for the Howl at the Moon duelling-piano bar.

There are other Howl at the Moon bars elsewhere in the States, but here good old Southern entertainment has been updated for the hedonists who study at UNC Charlotte. Pitchers of beer get sunk as people become prepared to part with more and more cash in order to hear their university anthem played instead of boisterous renditions of "Sweet Caroline" and "Sweet Home Alabama". If the sweating maestros sitting at their pianos ever played a song without a Southern place-name in the title then I didn't hear it; the two baby grands parked on the tiny stage got slowly covered in dollar bills as the night wore on.

Charlotte's humility is one of its most endearing qualities. The next day I strolled around Tryon Street. The plaques on the pavement required a fair deal of scrutiny before I was able to decipher that I was standing at the place where the very last meeting of the Confederate cabinet, led by President Jefferson Davis, was held in 1865. There's no trace of the building now, but the nearby Fourth Ward district is ample proof that Charlotte hasn't completely forgotten its past.

The Fourth Ward is the kind of residential area that is wedged in the popular consciousness of what America should look like but hardly ever does. Huge, rambling, wooden-shuttered houses stand complete with verandas sagging with moth-eaten sofas. The atmosphere is rich with the smell of home cooking. In the midst of it all lies a bar called Alexander Michel's. This dark, wood-lined hang-out was utterly devoid of tourists; it serves as the social hub of the neighbourhood.

Frankly, I wished it was the hub of my neighbourhood. The worn wooden booths had decades of cutlery scars. Scores of people were enjoying a lunchtime beer. It had the kind of lived in, humble vibe that utterly contrasts with the annoying bombast of many American diners. There were no bullying demands to try "world famous nachos", just simple sandwiches and locally sourced real ale. It was all enough to make me think that North Carolina might in fact be the least strident state in the US.

But that's before I learnt about Nascar.

In the same way that even people who don't know the first thing about football can identify a picture of David Beckham, so even if the concept of Nascar is something that is utterly repellent to a specific American citizen, he or she will still be familiar with the names of Jimmie Johnson, Richard Petty (yes, he of the "Driving Experience") and Dale Earnhardt Jr, whose father, the late Dale Snr, has a following that makes the devotees of Elvis Presley look like dilettantes. Nascar is the second-biggest-grossing sport in the US, after NFL. However, for international tourists the closest we'll ever come to appreciating this sort of thing is watching Days of Thunder, the bombastic Tom Cruise racing flick. Don't make the mistake of using that as a reference point around here, though. It would be like asking a British football fan why the players can't pick up the ball. Instead, think about the British sport of stock-car racing and then give it the biggest, noisiest injection of Hollywood dazzle and money that you can imagine and you've got a notion of what this sport is all about.

I decided to take the "Dale Trail" to learn a little bit more about the sport. Way before his untimely death in a crash toward the end of the Daytona 500 in Florida in 2001, Dale Earnhardt Snr was regarded as an American sporting legend. A local boy, born in the small town of Kannapolis, he became known as The Intimidator due to his aggressive Nascar style.

We passed through the gently lilting farmland of Cabarrus County, where almost all of the top Nascar team workshops are based. These are pristine developments that look like biotech laboratories or private hospitals. Nascar started by using souped-up standard-issue cars. But these days the vehicles are hand-made from scratch. The showrooms, full of vintage models, also offer open views onto the workshop floor so you can watch the engineers at work. There's also, predictably, merchandise galore. Families gazed open-mouthed at the scarred vehicles. The trip ended at Dale Earnhardt Plaza in the centre of Kannapolis, where a nine-foot statue of Earnhardt Snr is surrounded by floor-tiles bearing engraved messages from fans.

"We were on the national news yesterday," Stan told me. "We took down some of the Dale Trail banners on the side of the road because they were getting a little tatty and, within hours, we were besieged with calls. People thought we were going to take Dale's statue down too. People round here get very emotional about him."

I later committed what must have been something akin to blasphemy in these parts when, passing the 167,000-capacity speedway track on the way back to Charlotte, I asked Stan if watching a load of cars doing 400 or so laps of a racetrack ever got a little, well, boring for people?

"You've just got to give it time", said Stan. "The more you know, the more exciting it gets." He was utterly sincere. Charlotte and the surrounding counties have just as many churches as anywhere else in the South, but I get the feeling that Nascar is the real religion around here.

State lines: North Carolina

Population Eight million
Area Seven times the size of Wales
Capital Raleigh
Date in Union 21 November, 1789
Flower Dogwood
Motto "To be, rather than to seem"
Nickname Old North, or Tar Heel State

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

The writer travelled with specialist travel agent North American Highways (01902 851 138; www.northamericanhighways.co.uk) which offers return US Airways flights from Gatwick to Charlotte from £550.

Staying there

Charlotte Hilton, (001 704 377 1500; www.hilton.com). Doubles start at $175 (£92), room only.



Visiting there

The Richard Petty Driving Experience (001 800 237 3889; www.1800bepetty.com) costs $109 (£55).

Southern Breezes (001 704 301 5111; www.southernbreezes.com) offer carriage rides in Charlotte; $70 (£37).



More information

www.northcarolinatravel.co.uk

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