DAWSONVILLE, Ga. - Gordon Pirkle's pool hall in the foothills of the north Georgia mountains once was the best museum of the early years of stock car racing. That will change today, when a state-of-the-art museum and racing attraction called Thunder Road USA opens in Dawsonville.
"I've dreamed about this for years and years," Mr. Pirkle said. "At first I envisioned a small racing museum. I never thought it would end up as big and great as this."
Inside the $12 million, 40,000-square-foot facility are memories to NASCAR's racing greats, interactive games, a track where drivers can race remote-controlled cars, racing simulators, a theater, gift shop and diner.
But even before the new museum, racing fans have been making the pilgrimage to Dawsonville to learn about NASCAR's past.
The walls of Mr. Pirkle's Dawsonville Pool Room are covered with yellowing newspaper clippings and photos that illustrate the history of stock car racing from its 1930s start to Dawsonville's own Bill Elliott's most recent Winston Cup win last year.
Mr. Pirkle was one of the primary backers of Thunder Road USA, a project that was seven years in the making.
It was conceived in the hopes of restoring Dawsonville's business district after the completion of Georgia Highway 400 cut off much of the traffic flow through the hometown of Mr. Elliott and two NASCAR stars who preceded him, Gober Sosebee and Lloyd Seay.
It is estimated that 250,000 people will visit Thunder Road each year.
The opening was delayed nearly a year by a lack of funding, but workers put in long hours this week to have it ready for opening festivities, which included a private Hall of Fame induction ceremony Friday night and a parade and grand opening for the public today.
Eight drivers will be the first inductees into the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame: Mr. Elliott, Mr. Sosebee and Mr. Seay are joined by Raymond Parks, Roy Hall, Tim Flock, Red Vogt and Red Byron.
Dawsonville, with a population of about 600, takes pride in its racing heritage, and the museum doesn't hide the fact that the earliest racing stars also were well-known moonshine runners.
"When I was growing up around here, Lloyd Seay and Roy Hall were better known as whiskey haulers than as race drivers," Mr. Pirkle told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
He said it took years for the media to give his hometown credit for raising winning racers.
"If they won a race at Daytona, the papers said they were from Atlanta. But if they got caught hauling liquor, the paper said they were from Dawsonville," Mr. Pirkle said.
Mr. Elliott said street racing was popular when he was growing up in Dawsonville. But when he got old enough to drive, police started cracking down, so he turned to dirt track racing - the first step on his road to NASCAR fame.
Mr. Elliott had his own museum in Dawsonville, but closed it and moved his keepsakes and cars to Thunder Road, so there always will be a big Elliott family presence.
He's proud that things such as his late mother's handwritten valedictory address to the Dawson High Class of 1936 will be preserved for future generations.
"It's more important to me that my family be represented," Mr. Elliott said. "Without them I couldn't have done it."