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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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North Carolina’s Queen City takes off

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The skyline of Charlotte, N.C. [Michael Stavsky photo]

You can almost feel the heat rising off the racetrack, as you sit in the driver’s  seat. The roar of the engine is deafening and the thrill of competition gets the adrenaline pumping while you wait for the green light. In a few moments, you’ll be driving your stock car at speeds nearing 250 km/h along the Talladega Motor Speedway or the Daytona 500 racetrack.

No, this scenario isn’t really happening, nor is it a dream sequence from a movie. You’re experiencing the racing simulator at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C. One of the most realistic simulators ever designed, it’s just one of the many hands-on experiences at stock car racing’s Hall of Fame.

Visitors to the Hall of Fame can “race” in qualifying tracks against other visitors, join simulated pit crews changing tires and filling gas tanks like the pros, or test their knowledge of racing history. Each visitor is given a unique access card and can select their favourite NASCAR driver to guide through the museum via numerous interactive computer displays. 

The Hall of Fame guides visitors through several videos that detail the history of stock car racing and its North Carolina roots. Even non-racing fans will appreciate the dozens of championship stock cars on display, along with trophies, racing gear and apparel, as well as other NASCAR paraphernalia.

Charlotte, though, is home to more than just NASCAR. Nestled rustically near the hills of western North Carolina, Charlotte (nicknamed the Queen City), has in the last century transformed itself from a sleepy farming hamlet into one of the world’s largest banking and financial centres. Home to Wells Fargo and Bank of America, Charlotte developed into the nation’s second largest banking centre during the 1980s, following a series of mergers between banking powerhouses. Given its prominence within the financial world, the city was chosen as the site for last year’s Democratic National Convention.

Like many other southern U.S. cities, the development of Charlotte was greatly impacted by circumstances surrounding the Civil War. Following the abolishment of slavery, many local farmers turned to commerce and established the city as a cotton and tobacco-processing centre. Several of the world’s largest tobacco companies are headquartered in North Carolina. Although the industry is highly mechanized today, a number of 18th century tobacco plantations in the surrounding area have been preserved for tourists and offer daily tours.

Charlotte has much to offer families travelling to the region with children. In addition to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the city is also home to the world famous Discovery Place science museum. Spread out over three floors and occupying a full city block downtown, Discovery Place’s interactive exhibits and hands-on activities, as well as an aquarium and huge Omnimax theatre, make it a must-see for anyone visiting with children. Kids will also get a thrill out of the Charlotte Nature Museum, operated by Discovery Place. The museums are open seven days a week, and are certainly among the pre-eminent science centres in the southern United States.

The history of North Carolina is brought to life at the centrally located Levine Museum of the New South. Named for noted Jewish philanthropists and founders of the Family Dollar retail chain Leon and Sandra Levine, the museum presents a comprehensive study of post-Civil War southern American society. Chronicling the reconstruction and rebuilding of the former Confederate states, the museum focuses on the development of North Carolina via numerous displays and exhibits. Visitors are treated to a timeline display of events in local history, from before the American Revolutionary War through Jim Crow segregationist laws as they were practised in North Carolina and up to the present-day “New South”.  

As detailed in a recent Levine Museum exhibit on the Jews of North Carolina, many of the city’s Jewish men fought bravely for the Confederate army during the Civil War.  Although maintaining a presence in the state since the early 19th century, the Jewish community began to flourish after the war. Using their expertise in trade and commerce, the Charlotte Jewish community, although small in number, had a tremendous impact on the dynamic economic growth the city has experienced in the last century.

Today, several synagogues service Charlotte’s 12,000-strong Jewish residents. Although most of the city’s Jews are non-practising, most maintain a strong Jewish identity. This sense of Jewish identity culminated in the construction of the city’s 50-plus acre Shalom Park Jewish Community Center. Located in a tranquil park-like setting, Shalom Park is home to several synagogues, a massive recreation center and is the centre of Jewish life in Charlotte.

Whether as a stop on a trip further south, or as a destination on its own, take some time to visit this Queen City of North Carolina.

Michael Stavsky acknowledges the assistance of the Charlotte Convention and Visitor’s Bureau in arranging his family’s trip to Charlotte.

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