The NASCAR race at Cherokee has been around for more than 60 years, and with the help of some fast cars, loud engines, and large-scale paint schemes, it’s safe to say that the speedway is as American as it gets. Each year, the grandstands are packed to capacity, and thousands of fans make the trek across the country to see the sights and sounds of the track. Although the race itself is quite exciting, the real attraction is the opportunity to be at the center of the action: watching the racers zoom past, tailgating alongside fans, and getting a taste of what it’s like to be a participant rather than a spectator is what makes the race at Cherokee so special. The following is a quick guide to give you a feel for what to expect when you attend a NASCAR race at this historic venue in North Carolina.
The Grandstands Are Big
In a sport that is known for its spectacular and awe-inspiring attractions, the grandstands at Cherokee are something special. More than 60 years after its first ever running of the Cup Series, the horseshoe-shaped stands are still the largest of their kind in all of NASCAR. The 300-foot-tall (92-meter-tall) main grandstand was constructed in 1966 and has seen several facelifts over the years. The first floor is an open-air concourse with numerous food trucks and souvenir stands. The upper floors are closed to the public, but give you a unique view of the race from any angle. These concourses are still standing strong and are the perfect place to relax before and after the big race.
The Parking Lots Are Big
One of the first things you’ll notice when you arrive at the speedway is the parking lot. More than a few football fields’ worth of asphalt fill the space adjacent to the track, and it’s the perfect place to put your truck or SUV for the duration of the race. The parking lots aren’t the only thing though. They’re actually part of a larger system of roads known as the tri-oval. During the race, the pit road becomes a fourth lane in each direction, temporarily converting the space into a bustling highway. The effect is rather remarkable, and gives the parking lots at the speedway a completely different feel. More than just a place to leave your vehicle, the parking lots at the speedway serve as a vital connection between the track and the community. The sight of families and children lining the fence, eagerly awaiting the green flag, is a classic image that will remain with us for as long as we remember the speedway.
The Track Is Big
Besides the grandstands and the parking lots, the most prominent feature of the speedway is undoubtedly the track. The layout is quite unusual for a NASCAR oval. Rather than following the standard pattern of a half-mile track, the corners are quite short, with only 700 feet (214 meters) separating the first and the last turn. To put that into perspective, the shortest oval track is only 600 feet (183 meters) long. That gives the drivers a more direct route, which could lead to faster lap times. Thanks to this unique design, coupled with the fact that the track is relatively flat, the racing is typically quite exciting. The entire track is paved with asphalt, but the turns are made of concrete, sand, and gravel—the same materials used to build airports and various sports venues across the country.
Since the late 1960s, the track has remained unchanged, with the only major addition being the construction of the Richard Petty Center for Health and Education in 2008. The building is named after the late Petty, and houses a museum, library, and research center that are dedicated to his life and legacy.
The Hangar Is Big
On the other side of the track from the main grandstand is the infield, or as it’s known at Cherokee, the Hangar. The space is a hub for motorsport fans to meet and mingle before, during, and after the race. For decades, the infield at the speedway was open to the public, and it served as a perfect spot for drivers and their families to relax and enjoy the race. The area still houses the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company’s display booth, as well as a suite of hospitality apartments that are available for corporate teams and well-heeled individuals who want to keep an eye on the action from above.
The Vet Houses Are Big
One of the most distinctive features of the vet houses at the speedway are the garages that line the backside of the property. Rather than having walls or rooms for vehicles to be parked in, the garages at Cherokee are used to house the race’s retired drivers. The area is a hub for these drivers to spend their time building and fixing up cars, and it provides them with a sense of community as well as a place to get their engines ready for the next year’s race. The sound of hundreds of motors being tuned and prepared for the next big race is an awe-inspiring sight to behold.
The entire backside of the track is lined with garages, and each one is connected to a different driver’s house. It’s quite an honor to be granted access to these spaces, as it’s considered a mark of respect for the drivers’ ages and for the sport itself. The presence of these garages adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the track, and makes it more intimate and approachable. The opposite ends of the track are connected by a concourse and a canopy, providing a cover in case it rains during the race.
There Is A JumboTron
One of the most prominent and unique aspects of the speedway is the overhead projection jumboTron. The giant screen is actually located above the main entrance to the parking lot, and it’s something that you’ll immediately notice upon exiting the building. The screen is 15 feet wide and 85 feet long (4.5 meters and 28.5 meters), and it provides an expansive image from any angle. The screen shows all types of content, from commercials to stats and graphics to the latest news stories and even some movies.
The jumboTron was originally built in 1966, and it was one of the many amenities added to the speedway at that time. Other features that were made available to the fans include press boxes, electronic scoreboards, and video replay. Each year, as the sport of NASCAR evolves, so does the speedway. Along with the rest of American culture, the sport now has its own VR experience, called NASCAR 360.
The Party Pit Is Big
The last place you’d expect to find partygoers is at a NASCAR race, but at the end of the day, when the fun and excitement of the sport is over, there will always be people there to have a good time. The party pits at the speedway are a great place to be for the post-race party. Like the rest of the infield, the party pits are open to the public and have been a hub for drivers and their families to socialize and relax after the race. The pits now serve as an area for drivers to cut loose and have some fun, and it provides them with a release after a hard day of racing. The pits also play an important role in the NASCAR culture. It’s here where the teams, drivers, and their families come together to celebrate a job well done, and it’s a place where everyone feels comfortable relaxing and having some fun.
One of the most recognizable and iconic images from the party pits at the speedway is Richard Petty’s famous “What’s Next?” sign. The expression has been emblazoned on T-shirts, hats, and other paraphernalia over the years, and it sums up the camaraderie and optimism that is synonymous with the sport.
The Food And Drinks Are Great
One of the things that really sets the NASCAR races apart from the others is the food. The concession stands offer a variety of cuisine, from the typical hotdog and hamburger to fish and chicken dishes, and everything in between. As it is at most sporting venues, food trucks and vendors also line the backside of the lot, serving up traditional American fare for the fans. Like the parking lot, the food is another essential part of the connection between the track and the fans. The drivers are competing for trophies and for prize money, but they do so in the name of the fans, who are the true winners of these great races. The entire sport is geared toward entertaining and feeding the masses.
What would a guide to NASCAR be without mentioning the drinks? The beer garden at the Vet houses is a wonderful place to relax and catch a break from the chaos that is NASCAR, and the drinks are served in true American fashion: in a chilled state! You’ll find all the traditional beers, sodas, and well-mixed liquors one might want, and it is open to the public, so everyone from grandmother to little girl can join in the festivities.