If you've only seen Raceworld USA in Cornelius from the outside, you must be wondering: Is this a race shop or an entertainment venue?
NASCAR driver Michael Waltrip, whose racing operation is headquartered there, sees it as both: a workplace for his team and an educational experience for the sport's fans.
Visitors can peek inside nearly 20 race shops in the Charlotte area, but at Raceworld USA they become absorbed in the activity.
With a $15 ticket, fans see cars being assembled, touch about 20 interactive screens to learn more about what goes on there, try out equipment and sometimes even chat with Michael himself.
Beyond that, groups can use the facility for events and team building, and Raceworld can tailor educational programs to all ages of school children.
In a departure from traditional construction, Waltrip turned to friends Rick and Noah Lazes of Ark Group, which focuses on entertainment-driven projects such as Charlotte's Uptown Village and N.C. Music Factory.
Together, Waltrip said, they found a site "right in the middle of everywhere" -- the vacant Movies at the Lake 12-screen theater near Interstate 77 Exit 28 in Cornelius.
They saved one auditorium for showing films to fans, converted the others to shop space, reused an old skating rink and added some new construction.
The conversion worked, said project architect Stephen Overcash of Overcash Demmitt Architects, because the theater had mezzanine areas they could punch through to create views of the floor.
Visitors enter the lobby, follow steps up to the mezzanine and peer down into the shop area.
Waltrip said the $20 million-plus, 150,000-square-foot complex, which opened in mid-May, is the fruition of his long-time dream of heightening the experience for racing enthusiasts.
For those in the industry and the north Mecklenburg town of Cornelius, it looks like a Next Big Thing in the making.
Waltrip did the community a favor when he removed an empty big box from the landscape and rejuvenated it as a race shop, said Mayor Gary Knox.
He said an abundance of racing-related businesses have located in Cornelius, and many drivers, owners and team members live nearby. But "this the first time we've had a dedicated NASCAR presence that was fan-friendly," Knox said.
Amid restaurants and hotels clustered at Exit 28, the complex is ideal for generating tourism dollars and boost the town's economy, Knox said.
NASCAR Hall of Fame executive director Winston Kelley said Raceworld "takes it to the next level" in NASCAR shops.
He believes teams preparing to build new facilities and those planning shop improvements will take note and likely borrow ideas "but not necessarily replicate Raceworld."
Some of the established shops in the region attract up to 200,000 visitors annually and already are fan-friendly and guest-friendly, Kelley said.
"NASCAR is the most accessible sport of any in the world -- at the race track, on pit road, in the garage or at the shop," he said.
Kelley has toured Raceworld and is working with Waltrip's team to coordinate marketing when the NASCAR Hall of Fame opens uptown in the first quarter of 2010.
He said Waltrip's shop adds to the "buffet" of activities, from Lowe's Motor Speedway tours to race-car driving schools, that fans choose from when they visit Charlotte.
About 250 people are employed at Raceworld, and visitors can watch what they're doing from the mezzanine.
It might seem disruptive to have someone looking over your shoulder, but Waltrip said it doesn't bother workers.
On the contrary, he said, being on display boosts enthusiasm and camaraderie.
Three Nextel Cup series teams and one Busch series team are operated from the shop by Michael Waltrip Racing.
The facility opened without a big blitz to give the team time to gauge fan reaction and do any necessary tweaking.
So far, attendance is ranging from 500 to 1,000 people a day. Surprisingly, Waltrip said, Wednesday is the busiest day and Sunday is the slowest.
He views Raceworld as a work in progress.
A restaurant and retail shop are planned in about 3,500 square feet at the main entrance, and the pit crew practice area eventually will be expanded.
Also envisioned: a motorcoach lot and community area where visiting fans can hook up RVs, and a mini version of Raceworld that could travel to tracks.
Waltrip said expansion acreage is available, and he can add more buildings depending on growth of the team and fan demand.
Facility: Michael Waltrip Racing's shop located in 150,000-square-foot interactive complex on 11 acres.
Location: 20310 Chartwell Center Drive off Interstate 77 Exit 28 in Cornelius.
What: Movie theater; interactive TVs; views of shop areas such as engineering, gears and transmissions, shocks and suspension, and fabrication. Also: pit practice area, main garage shop floor, hauler display, RV display, souvenirs.
Project team: Michael Waltrip Racing, ARK Group, Overcash Demmitt Architects, Choate Construction, Downstream/XO's.
Hours: 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday.
Admission: $15 adults, $8 for 12 and under, free 2 and under, $10 seniors, $12 groups of 15 or more.