SPW in Review: Charlotte, March 20-21

By Jared Cooper

img_0895Until last week, my only trip to North Carolina had been during an ambitious Sports Power Weekend drive from New York to Durham for a Duke basketball game at Cameron Indoor Stadium against Michigan. It was only fitting then when I decided to make my second trip to North Carolina for another Duke-Michigan game; this time in Charlotte at Time Warner Cable Arena for an NCAA Tournament Game. Being that the NCAA Tourney doubleheader was on a Sunday, I decided to stay through Monday to explore the city a bit, giving me a nice taste of what Charlotte was all about. I was not disappointed.

The Queen City isn’t necessarily a must-visit destination. It doesn’t really have a defining attraction or an attribute that separates it from other cities in the south or east coast, but that doesn’t really hold it back. It is a quaint city that is very walkable and easy to navigate. Being as focused on sports as I am, naturally I was interested in checking out the Time Warner Cable Arena – home of the Charlotte Bobcats, Bank of America Stadium – the Carolina Panthers’ stadium, and the NASCAR Hall of Fame. I came away impressed by all three and convinced that Charlotte is a desirable stop for an SPW over a Panthers home weekend, particularly when coinciding either with a Bobcats game, or even a Duke or UNC game two and a half hours away in Durham or Chapel Hill. It is actually often overlooked how close Charlotte is to Columbia, South Carolina. It is only an hour and a half, making an SEC-NFL combo weekend very possible.

img_0863I flew in to Charlotte bright and early, giving me some time to get some breakfast and walk around prior to the UNC-Washington 12:15 PM tip-off at TWC Arena. The airport is massive but incredible clean and well kept, providing a nice welcome to the city. More importantly, it is only about 15-20 minutes from Uptown – an odd moniker for their downtown area – and the ride is a flat $25. We passed up on the Queen City Diner to check out Harvest Moon Grille, a farm to table restaurant connected to the Dunhill Hotel. The food was fresh and fantastic, and two of the people I was with said it was some of the best bacon they had ever tasted. After breakfast we walked on over to the arena for the NCAA doubleheader featuring UNC-Washington followed by Duke-Michigan. TWC Arena is accessible, modern and clean, and overall very impressive. It reminded me a bit of walking into The Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. It has tall, wide concourses, plenty of concessions with locally popular foods, and an open feel once you are in the court area. Being that the two local darlings – UNC and Duke – were playing, the crowd was full of powder and royal blues. It was a treat that both games came down to one shot as time expired; there isn’t much more a crowd can ask for than that. As expected, Duke and UNC were victorious, leaving the locals happy and the traveling fans from Michigan and Washington dismayed, but entertained. We went for a drink at one of the handful of Irish pubs a couple of blocks from the arena before heading back to the Courtyard Marriott, a good hotel well situated in the heart of Uptown.

A good area to head to at night is the recently built EpiCentre, a hub of restaurants, bars, and entertainment situated around an open-air pavilion. It is about a five-minute walk from the Courtyard, as well as Time Warner Cable Arena. They have a handful of restaurants, both chain and otherwise, as well as a number of bars, a bowling alley called Strike City, and the post EpiCentre Theatres, a movie theatre situated in a nightlife setting with a restaurant and bar.

img_0908Monday I spent a lot of time walking around the city and exploring the streets. I noticed a lot of young professionals, likely involved in banking since that is so heavily ingrained in the fabric of the city’s industry. You can probably cover most of the city in an afternoon walking around, but in addition to seeing the streets, I wanted to check out the stadium and NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Bank of America Stadium is a nearly 74,000-seat stadium that opened in 1996 in uptown Charlotte. It took about 15 minutes to walk from my hotel to the stadium, making staying in uptown ideal for a Panthers weekend. I don’t think I can stress how rare it is to be able to stay in a city and walk to both their basketball arena and football stadium with ease. The stadium itself was nice and clean, with a modern-looking façade. Having not gone into the stadium – they were not offering tours on Monday – I can’t speak on the interior. The grounds surrounding the stadium are well kept and green; you can easily envision that in September and October before the weather turns a bit this is just a great place to be on a Sunday for a game.

Walking from the stadium to the NASCAR Hall of Fame was once again a short 15-minute walk through town. On the way you can pass by the Levine Center of the Arts, a very upscale block consisting of cultural destinations such as the Mint Museum Uptown, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, and the John S. and James L. Knight Theater. This was formerly named the Wells Fargo Cultural Campus until the $83 million private endowment campaign to support new and renovated cultural facilities reached its goal on a generous gift from the Leon Levine Foundation.

img_0920Upon arriving at the NASCAR Hall of Fame I was blown away by how contemporary the exterior and Ceremonial Plaza itself were. The four-level Hall is a bit steep as far as entrance cost at $20 for an adult, but it does provide some good entertainment. There are exhibits such as Glory Road, which showcases 18 historic cars from legends like Dale Earnhardt and recent stars like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, the Hall of Honor, where Hall of Fame inductees are enshrined, and Race Week, an interactive area that provides a behind-the-scenes look at preparing and running on race day. The fact that it is connected to a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant offers another reason to be there on the day of a big event.

I didn’t make the trip to Charlotte Motor Speedway, a short ride from uptown, but I did make it to Mac’s Speed Shop, a BBQ joint with a location in the South End, just two miles or so from uptown. The South End itself, though more spread out, has some bars and restaurants that make it an attractive place for a night out. Mac’s serves hefty portions of some top notch BBQ, and somewhat contrary to its biker bar mentality has a nice patio area with picnic tables for outdoor eating. Overall, a good spot to hit on a nice night.

Ultimately, I would deem my two days in Charlotte to be a success, and I think that is the perfect amount of time to be in the city. That coincides perfectly with a Saturday and Sunday visit for a Sports Power Weekend; it fits well within the SPW motif when you can knock out multiple sporting events and see everything a city has to offer over the course of the weekend. The people are nice and the place is welcoming, making Charlotte a definite Sports Power Weekend destination.

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