Friday, March 29, 2013

Born of moonshine

When I think of museums--both public and private--I am reminded of countless field trips and hot weekend afternoons spent at the Smithsonian, passing dioramas of scantily clad mannequins representing early man, staring up at enormous, but lifeless, statues of dinosaurs and elephants, and gazing at plexiglass boxes with clothing, tools, shards of pottery, plaster-cast bones, and taxidermied wildlife.  As a young person it was painfully boring, and the marble floors and long walks between museums exhausted me.  As a high schooler and young adult, though, I loved the learning that could be had there.  And museums, for their part, were starting to get more interesting with the opening of the African American art museum and the Air and Space museum.

I moved away from DC fifteen years ago, and, it turns out, museums have changed a bit.  Nothing--and I mean nothing--prepared me for the experience that is the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

First of all, we had only just walked up to the box office when we were already faced with choices--did we want the individual combo ticket, with a simulator ride and lunch for only a few dollars more than the regular adult ticket?  If we'd had kids or a group, the decisions were endless--tickets, lanyards, lunches--on and on with the choices.  Much debate ensued, and we settled on a plain ticket because we knew, thanks to the great and powerful Internet, that AAA members could ride the simulator for free.

The admission "ticket" was a hard card, like a credit card.  It was, in fact, called a hard card.

We walked through the doors and were immediately greeted by a host of people there to help guide us through this experience.  A very nice lady in a motorized wheel chair called us over to the turnstile where she first swiped our cards through the magic card swipe thingy.  Then she directed us to the 
nice gentleman just passed the turnstile, who said, "You will want to go to the right, down the stairs, to our theater.  Your experience of the NASCAR Hall of Fame starts with a 12-minute video..."  And you couldn't skip the video and turn left, as the people behind us tried to do.  Oh no.  They were stopped and quickly redirected.  The nice startbygoingright guy also directed us to the Hard Card Check In kiosks, saying that we should be sure to check in after the movie.  We went before the movie, though, because wouldn't a bunch of people need to do it at once if we waited?  So we "checked in."  First you balance your hard card on a little rack specially designed for it, and then the screen starts asking you really personal questions.  Name, birthday (with year!!!), email address, number of sexual partners and promises of handing over your firstborn to the hag in the back...  So, taking a deep breath of normal-people-just-fill-this-out, I entered all the requested data along with the blood sample and voided check.  (I'm exaggerating, but seriously--they asked a LOT of questions).

Then we were hustled over to a big green screen where they took our picture.  Finally I started to freak out.  What is this for???   The picture lady was super nice--it's just for fun!

(PS--If you're in the witness protection program, DO NOT go to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.)

The introductory video was actually pretty cool, and honestly, I would have watched it even if I hadn't been forced.  They talked about how stock-car racing was born in the south--the Appalachian mountains to be exact.  We have a proud tradition here of course. Of running moonshine.  Yep.  We started modifying cars so we could outrun the cops.  And apparently, back then, the fact that Officer Smith saw Jed driving, and recognized Jed's car, and knew he was running 'shine--apparently none of that mattered unless you were actually caught.  So in the 20s and 30s, folks made quite a living souping up cars and outrunning the popo.

And as so often happens, the men who were rebuilding their cars and racing through the streets of the Carolinas, started bragging.  And soon enough they had to prove their prowess, and runners started racing their cars in fields.  By the late 40s, the racing was formalized and NASCAR was born.

In the early 40s, though, my dad was known to race cars here and there.  I doubt it was anything he really stuck to, but I imagine there were a few summers in there when he wheeled around a dirt track or two.  My dad was an amazing driver--had driven all sorts of vehicles, from two wheels to many axles--and never met a car he didn't want to open up and make fly.

By the time I was old enough to understand what stock-car racing was, cars looked like the General Lee, and that is always what I pictured.  Of course, though, my dad would have been racing in something that looked more like something that should have a rumble seat.  And that was the video we watched on the enormous screen this morning, as cars crashed into one another and tore apart on those dusty fields of 1930s North Carolina.

Unfortunately for me, NASCAR is now synonymous with a culture that represents so much of what I don't like in this country.  The fascination with Jesus (seriously, I'm almost completely certain--certain--that Jesus isn't concerned with who wins the Daytona 500) and war (now, Jesus might actually have an opinion about that) are real turn-offs.  But the fast cars, the technology, the LOUD!!!!, and the home-grown history reach me at a core level.

I love to drive.  I love to drive fast.  And I love the fact that the drivers look like astronauts, with temperature-controlled g-force suits, gadgets and monitors all over their bodies, and rocket booster seats bolted in to amazing machines designed to withstand radical g-forces, 360-degree impacts, and even fires, without exploding the tanks filled with essentially rocket fuel.  Give me more of that!

So we started our tour in the main gallery, after many warnings to be sure to check in our hard cards at every opportunity, "to track our progress."  Progress?  What the hell?  But anyway, we mostly ignored all that and looked instead at the awesome cars lined up along the outer edge of the circular gallery.  The track starts with a 0-degree bank (flat), but by the end is at a crazy 33- degree bank.  There they have a section you can stand on, carefully surrounded by grabby railings because, although 33 degrees sounds easy, it's crazy steep.  One of the driver quotes is, "You're chasing the track all the way around.  And you can never catch it."

And then we were upstairs where they have interactive displays.  We were met at every turn by very assertive and helpful staff, who snatched our cards and registered us for all sorts of fun.  I got to "change" a tire by operating the lug nut thingamajiggy while Bill operated the jack and also ran behind me to fill the tank.  We did it all in 28 seconds.  Having arrived just as they opened, we were the first adults of the day, so our 28 seconds made it on the victory board.

We wanted our free simulator ride (thank you AAA!), but first we had to qualify.  Really?  Yes!  So we stood in line for the qualifiers, watching everyone before us wipe out and go spinning across the digital grass.  Again the hard card was entered and we raced on software that looks a lot like the racing game I have downloaded on this very iPad where I'm typing this blog.

Then we stopped at the place where you get to announce a race.  So while the screen displays real race footage, we were expected to act like announcers.  They offer you the same footage with real announcers as an example.  Here's what I sound like announcing a race (the simulator reminded me we want to paint a pictures with words, for those who can't see the race):  "There's a yellow car, and a white car...  Ooh!  The yellow car is going really fast!"  Bill, my fellow announcer, breaks in.  " Honey, that car is orange."  And, " Oh no!  The yellow car is about to hit--ooh!  It HIT the white car!  It really shouldn't do that..."   And then Bill, "Holy cow!  What a hit!"  And so on.  The recording played back and Bill and I dissolved into giggles, attracting the attention of the nice Canadian family passing by.

And then it was off to the simulator, with the seat rumbling and the loud loud roar of the engine in your ear, and the lady next to me who so didn't want to be there.  Her grumbling was hilarious as she swore at the gear shift and argued with the seat adjustment.  "Drivers, start your engines!!!"  VAROOOOOM!

We walked through the rest of it, touching tools and car parts, and watching footage of amazing wrecks where the drivers just got out of their cars and walked off the (crazy-steep) tracks.  As we left, we had to "check out," so again with the hard card, and now we got to see how many points we'd made and where we were in the line-up.  WHAT?  This was some sort of competition?  Aye carrumba, why would I want to compete for my Hall of Fame experience?

But regardless, it was a great time.  I got to think of my dad, I got to wield seriously heavy tools and, I got to go varoom varoom.

Sent from my iPad, which makes me feel all Star Trek-y, which makes me feel like a geek, but then I remember how cool George Takei is, and I think maybe I'm kinda cool, but then I realize I'm really not, except that I have an iPad and that MAKES me cool. Right?

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