An Economic Engine Nobody Had Imagined

MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Twenty years ago this fading mill town faced its own
mortality. The minimum-wage jobs stitching blue denims were disappearing
fast and when Mayor Joe Knox convened the first meeting of a new economic
development board, his opening words sounded like an obituary: "We’re getting
ready to go broke."


But a combination of shrewd planning, blind luck and convenient geography
turned Mooresville into an unlikely success story: a town that re-created itself
as "Race City, USA," home to the nation’s top stock-car teams. Now, with a
facelift, identity transplant and economic transfusion, this nowhere town has
such a prominent place on the map that it’s even become a honeymoon

"The only stipulation I
made when I proposed
was that Mooresville
would be our first trip,"
said Missouri
contractor Bob Kelton, a so-called "gear head" who
led his accommodating bride through the high-tech
palaces where Daytona 500 racers are built and
fine-tuned. "For race fans, this is what Graceland is
to Elvis fans. It’s the Hollywood of NASCAR." A
decade ago, top NASCAR drivers and their teams
began to alight here, drawn by favorable economics
and geography. In their wake came jobs (half the
town’s workers have jobs in or related to motor
sports), tourists and a construction boom that
changed State Highway 150 from a country road
with two gas stations into a thoroughfare of malls,
racing museums, motels and restaurants.

The problem Mooresville faced when turn-of-the-century mills started closing is hardly unique. The Carolinas
lost more than 100,000 mill jobs between 1991 and 2001. Last year alone, 62 plants closed, taking 23,000
textile jobs as the industry–once the economic foundation of the Carolinas–suffered through its worst year
since the Great Depression.

In response to the loss of jobs, the South went hunting for replacement industries, many of them
automotive. Over the last decade, Honda, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz went to Alabama; BMW to South
Carolina; Nissan to Tennessee. In April, Alabama won out over four other Southern states for a $1-billion
Hyundai Motor Co. plant that will employ 1,500 people.

But attracting new industry did not come cheap. Mercedes-Benz, for example, got $253 million in state tax
incentives to put down roots in Vance, Ala.–$168,000 for each of the 1,500 jobs the plant created.
Mississippi got Nissan’s $1-billion truck factory after offering a $300-million package, including $80 million
to train workers.

What is unusual in Mooresville’s revival is that the effort was spearheaded by a town, not a state, and they
didn’t have to buy the jobs. And that the motor sports industry landed here by a stroke of good luck and
wasn’t the type of industry townspeople wanted to attract.

"When the first race team moved in, then others followed, a lot of people thought we were just getting noise;
a bunch of greasy mechanics and junkyard garages," recalled Dick Morosa, a volunteer at the North
Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame off a street named Gasoline Alley. "Well, it turns out these people go to
church and their shops are cleaner than any restaurant you ever ate in."

Knox saw the curtain coming down on the textile era in the early 1970s. He got the federal government to
build a wastewater treatment plant and the state to provide grants. The town leased 753 acres off Highway
150 and created two industrial parks with infrastructure, paying off the notes when plots in the parks were
bought by developers or NASCAR teams.

NASCAR’s top drivers–51 of the 58 Winston Cup teams live and work in Mooresville, or within a two-hour
drive–were enticed to the town by easy access to three interstate highways, one of South Carolina’s lowest
property tax rates, plenty of land in industrial parks, and a good lifestyle on the banks of Lake Norman,
where million-dollar mansions now are as commonplace as an order of ribs at the Sweetfire Bar-B-Q.

"Things have changed in town with all the growth," said Jack Moore, who has worked at the hardware store
on Main Street for 56 years. "Traffic’s worse, property’s gone up. But we’ve still got a small-town flavor and
you don’t hear people complain. I don’t know where we’d be without NASCAR. It saved Mooresville."

Small-town Mooresville may still be, but with a touch of Disney. Restaurants put stock cars on their roofs to
attract customers, streets have names like Performance Road and Speedway Drive, tour operators shuttle
tourists to the "garage mahal"–built by the late racer Dale Earnhardt and run by his son–and the police
chief is looking for a sponsor to buy his department’s 30 cruisers, to be painted in the wild colors of stock

With NASCAR’s popularity soaring, Mooresville’s timing was perfect to get a slice of the bonanza. NASCAR
says its licensed clothing sales alone total more than $100 million a year and top drivers have become
national celebrities with NBA-style incomes. Motor sports is a $1-billion industry in North Carolina, the
state says, with $750 million of it generated in and around Mooresville.

At one new business in town, a training school for pit crews, Chuck Homrighouse was lifting weights. A
computer security analyst, he moved to Mooresville from upstate New York and signed up for the school’s
$1,700, five-week course–the first step toward a career on the racing circuit.

"I figured all the students would be local guys," said Homrighouse, 36. "But look at the license plates in the
parking lot. They’re from Michigan, California, Illinois–all over. Ten years ago, I’d never heard of Mooresville.
Now, if you want to do NASCAR for a living, this is where you’ve got to come."

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