MOORESVILLE – For 35 years, the Mooresville-South Iredell Chamber of Commerce has put together an annual festival that celebrates the town’s culture, community and diversity. Every year local vendors, businesses and talent are showcased throughout the day and early evening.
Most people know this event as the Race City Festival, but that wasn’t always the name of the celebration, as Mooresville only gained the Race City brand in the early 1990s.
Racing comes to Mooresville
Racing has long been embedded in the Southern culture, though it didn’t take off until 20-25 years ago, said John Dodson, NASCAR Technical Institute’s vice president of business alliances and NASCAR.
Dodson moved from Winston-Salem to Mooresville in the 1980s for the racing industry. He chose to live closer to the lake than the hustle and bustle that was happening in Charlotte – but once Charlotte became a destination location for NASCAR, Dodson said soon enough the surrounding areas would follow suit.
“All the race teams were in Charlotte, but what happened was we built the first lakeside business park in 1989-90, and the race teams in Charlotte started to recognize this business park,” he said. “They started to understand the benefits of moving to Mooresville. There was a cheaper way to do business and still have access to the interstate. With cheaper taxes and more accessibility and better quality of life, you really started to see the race teams shift.”
As teams from Penske and Bahari Racing made the move to Mooresville in 1991, all of their supporting businesses followed. Now some of the more prominent racing-related entities include Richard Petty Enterprises, Roush Yates Engines, Ray Evernham Enterprises, Dale Earnhardt Inc. and JR Motorsports. The other aspect that attracted racing teams to the quaint town at the time was the advantage of everything being located in one area. Charlotte, Dodson said, was scattered out. The Town of Mooresville also celebrated the racing movement, he said.
“The other thing is that the Town of Mooresville really embraced the racing industry,” Dodson said. “The race teams got good tax incentives and started to really set up shop when Mooresville (approved) the liquor-by-the-drink tax.”
According to North Carolina Department of Revenue website, an excise tax was levied on all alcoholic beverages sold in and/or shipped into to the state. The excise tax also applies to wine sold and shipped by holders of ABC-issued wine-shipper permits.
“This created opportunity for more business,” Dodson said about the advantage of having the tax incentive implemented in Mooresville. “All these restaurants came, and that’s when we started to see a boom. We didn’t have any of the franchises we have today. I think Applebee’s was the first franchise in town. Once liquor by the drink was voted in, there came change. That was how Mooresville really showered their support for the racing industry.”
When the Universal Technical Institute (UTI) campus was introduced to Mooresville in 2002, NASCAR Tech was, and still is, the first and the only standing location with a NASCAR-specific component to it, Dodson said. To date, the campus has had 85 graduates, and as many as 55 of those graduates work in Mooresville.
“All of the campuses teach automotive skills and techniques for the transportation industry, but this campus has the NASCAR program, so you see a lot of students coming across the nation to attend this campus,” he said. “We’re the only educators in the world that NASCAR has teamed up with.”
Before the Race City Festival was associated with the culture of NASCAR and racing – Mooresville Chamber President Kirk Ballard said 25 years ago the outdoor event was a “sidewalk sale,” called the Lake Norman Festival.
“In the old days, Mooresville used to have more of a sidewalk sale, where you’d have businesses move outdoor racks onto the sidewalk and sell their merchandise,” he said.
Ballard, who’s been a part of the Mooresville community for 40 years, has seen a dynamic growth and change in town. The name of the festival was changed by the Chamber of Commerce, and celebrations would coordinate with the same time the races at Charlotte Motor Speedway would go on, he said.
“It was an incorporation of the shift and celebration of our racing culture but also a shift in our diversity as well,” he said. “When (the festival) first started it was between the months of April and June, and that’s when you saw most of the big races occurring.”
But like most industries during the recession between 2008-09, the racing business also suffered, which followed NASCAR’s push to be a more national sport. Tracks built in places like Illinois and Kansas forced out races previously held in the Carolinas.
“We’ve had a pull-back over the years,” Dodson said. “The recession hit every bone in every industry. Some of the teams started to shift closer to the airports, which then shifted some jobs out of town, but a majority of the personnel for the teams, including the wives and families of the drivers, like Dale Earnhardt Jr., are still around the corner and have their fixture here.”
While racing may have seen a decline in attendance and TV ratings recently, the components that celebrated racing in the first place still live on. The Race City Festival draws in patrons from in and around the Lake Norman area and beyond, and Ballard said it’s one of the best-attended festivals in town.
An evolving town
Mooresville has gone through a variety of identities. Before racing, the town was known for its cotton mill.
“We had one of the largest cotton mills right here in town,” he said. “Now, it’s Merino Mill and Alino Pizza. But Mooresville is more than a mill town and a racing town, and that’s what’s happened over the years. The town officials (at the time) tried to (create) a business-friendly environment, and then racing took off. This region really has become a destination location. When I first moved here, you had about 3,500 people.”
Many have brought new communities, cultures and languages with them.
“You have an influx of people who are from outside of the North Carolina region,” he said. “They come to Mooresville and bring their own interests, jobs, businesses, food and culture. It’s really more of a cosmopolitan community, and we have many people who have English as their second language here.”
According to the Mooresville Chamber, the Race City Festival brings more than 20,000 showgoers every year. The festival showcases business, both local to Mooresville or around the area. Attendees can also choose from a plethora of food truck options, take a look at NASCAR displays and souvenirs and enjoy live music, games and other entertainment.
“It’s interesting because you talk to some people and ask them why they choose Mooresville, to my surprise, some have said they first knew about Mooresville because of its association with racing,” he said.
As Mooresville grows, Ballard said, the area can’t really be tied to just one identity.
“You can say that Mooresville is in transition,” he said. “It still has that recognition of Race City USA, and that has brought some racing fans, both international and national, to the area. At the time, (racing) is what was working for the town – that brand. But when people come here, they see that Mooresville is much more than just racing.
“Now Mooresville is becoming known for its own unique offerings, and you don’t have to really educate people about what the area has and where it is,” Ballard continued. “The Race City Festival is a respected event, but it’s morphed into more than racing. You have a variety in Mooresville. It’s a perfect storm of the opportunity for anything.”