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Charlotte, indoors and out

Canyon Crossing, courtesy USNWC

When he was born in 1918, no one could have known that Billy Graham would be one of the greatest men ever to come out of Charlotte, North Carolina. But after six decades of public ministry, Graham has become one of the most influential figures in American Christianity. And after all that time, he still calls North Carolina home.

Graham is only one of many famous faces to come from Charlotte. The city has become a Southern cornerstone in many respects, as both a thriving financial center and the hometown of the favorite sport of the new South: NASCAR. The Charlotte Motor Speedway hosts three of the country’s biggest races each year, and most of the high-profile racing teams operate from home bases around the city.

For church groups, this all adds up to some exciting travel possibilities. Visitors to the Billy Graham Library get to know both the man and his ministry; at the speedway, as well as the newly opened NASCAR Hall of Fame, auto racing comes to life in a way that will thrill visitors of any age. And there are more thrills in store at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, where hiking, zip lines and a host of other outdoor activities complement the classic church-group rafting trip.

A spiritual legacy
Headlining Charlotte’s bill of great church-group attractions, the Billy Graham Library pays homage to the evangelist’s early life, as well as more than a half-century of his ministry.

“Billy Graham was born here in Charlotte in 1918, and his first home was about three miles from where the library is now,” said Diane Wise, promotions manager at the library. “He’s one of Charlotte’s native sons, so they decided they wanted to have a place here where his crusade message could continue on into history.”

The barn-shaped museum building symbolizes Graham’s early life on a family dairy farm in the area. Exhibits in the museum go from there to deal with his early crusades, his pioneering use of radio and television, and his relationships with U.S. presidents and other world leaders.

Although the museum puts a strong emphasis on the message that Graham preached, some sections also have a more personal touch.

“You see artifacts from all throughout his life and his marriage to Ruth Bell Graham,” Wise said. “There’s a room that tells about Ruth’s background growing up as a missionary in China and about their married life together. Her wedding dress that she made is on display there. It’s a very personal room.”

Graham is well respected by political and cultural leaders, and exhibits at the center reflect that. One display showcases a poem that U2 singer Bono wrote for Graham; another has pictures of the evangelist with every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy. When the museum debuted in 2007, Presidents `Bill Clinton, George Bush and Jimmy Carter all attended the opening ceremonies.

Need for speed
If anyone in your group is a NASCAR fan, they’ll find themselves enthralled in Charlotte; if anyone is not a fan, a trip to this city might just change their minds. For all intents and purposes, Charlotte is NASCAR’s capital city.

“Over 80 percent of the NASCAR Sprint Cup teams are based in the Charlotte region,” said Laura Hill, marketing and communications manager for Visit Charlotte. “A lot of the teams have interactive race shops, where you can go on tours. Hendrick Motor Sports has a fantastic tour, where you see a ton of cars, and you see them working to get ready for race day.”

Race day comes three times a year at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, once in October and twice in May. Groups can join several hundred thousand fans at these major races; or on days when there are no races, they can visit for the “Field of Thrills” tour, which takes them into the garages, pit row and other behind-the-scenes areas. Racing fans may also want to take part in the Richard Petty Driving Experience, during which they can join a professional driver for three laps around the track in a racecar.

In 2010, the city of Charlotte opened the NASCAR Hall of Fame, giving visitors an immersive look into the history, culture and science of the sport.

“We want to really educate and engage people in the excitement of the sport,” said exhibits manager Kevin Schlesier. “We don’t see ourselves as a museum so much as an attraction — a place where guests can really experience NASCAR.”

To that end, the hall of fame is full of interactive exhibits. Visitors can try their hands at changing a tire with the pit crew, or play the role of a car inspector and look for rules violations at a video kiosk. Two driving simulators give guests the opportunity to experience high-speed racing at different tracks around the country that were laser-scanned and loaded into the computer to create precise detail.

The history section of the museum includes 28 historic racecars, along with approximately 1,000 artifacts on loan from drivers and race teams. The Hall of Honor room pays special tribute to the sport’s greatest figures.

“We have an artifact exhibit the year after they’re enshrined,” Schelsier said. “That’s accompanied by a seven-foot metal spire that has a relief of their face, as well as a media player with a video about their lives.”

Wet and wild
Groups get a different kind of thrill at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, a 400-acre outdoor adventure park. Created as an Olympic training facility, the center features a man-made river with Class III-IV rapids, along with numerous other recreation opportunities.

“Church groups are great because they’ve been doing raft trips since the church was invented,” said public relations representative Stephen Youngblade. “But for us, it’s not just rafting.”

The center offers a menu of adventure activities for visitors. Most groups make appointments to meet for the 90-minute rafting trips and then turn their members loose to choose their own adventures for the rest of the day. Options include rock climbing, a pair of zip-line courses and 14 miles of hiking/biking trails. Thrill seekers can traverse Canyon Crossing, a new ropes course strung in tree platforms on both sides of a large canyon; for more relaxing experiences, the outfitter offers and guides flat-water floats and stand-up paddle trips down the Catawba River, which runs through the property.

Many church groups make a full day of their time at the Whitewater Center, enjoying a boxed lunch, a catered dinner or a bluegrass concert at the permanent stage on-site.

“The goal is to give people a fun and easy way to work out and be outside, and motivate them to be more active in their lives,” Youngblade said. “We like to joke that rafting, kayaking and mountain biking out here are just a means to an end. We all grew up playing outside.”

Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority


Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.