LETS GET READY TO RUMBLE: The rivalries and rows that have shaped the state.

Author:Martin, Edward
Position:Cover story
 
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Under one of Charlotte's huge old oaks, a dozen men and women lie facing each other. It's a sultry August evening and nothing stirs, yet the mystic leading the group implores them to "feel the vibrations." The earth below, he says, imparts psychic messages.

One of the seekers is Henry Belk Jr., a large man with a thin, knowing smile. Later, in a workshop, Henry lectures participants on psychography, or automatic writing, in which the cosmos reveals its secrets to the specially endowed without touching pen or keyboard. This very book, he says, holding one up, contains such messages from "the other side."

Henry's father was a Monroe merchant more focused on profit and other earthly endeavors. He struck the mother lode when he founded what would become the country's largest family-owned department store chain. Henry Belk Sr. died in 1952 at age 89, passing his wealth and business to his six children.

Among Tar Heel empire builders, Charlotte's Belk family ranks near the top. But their success was marred by sibling strife and disagreements. It's one of dozens of feuds and rivalries--from bitterly personal to politics and sports, good-natured to nasty--that have shaped the state.

As Henry traveled the world in search of enlightenment, the retailing company was led mainly by two brothers: John, the baritone-voiced, constantly wise-cracking Davidson College graduate, and Tom, a stern UNC Chapel Hill graduate who avoided the limelight while overseeing Belk's transformation into more upscale retailing. John eventually ousted Henry, while another brother who fell into disfavor found his office emptied, its contents piled in his driveway the next morning. "Man is a working animal," John huffed. "He's not supposed to loaf."

Paradoxically, the winners and losers of such conflicts help define the state as much as ever, say historians, archivists, economists and others. Today's 160-mile Urban Crescent--which arcs across central North Carolina from Mecklenburg County to Wake --has seven of the state's 10 largest cities. Topography played a role, says John Hood, chairman of the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation and author of more than a half-dozen books. "Indian trading paths and buffalo trails already existed," he says. But so did 150 years of regional rivalry, often between silk-stockinged easterners once called tuckahoes and, in their view, couth-deficient cohees to the west.

The N.C. Railroad, the crescent's backbone, was plotted in the middle 1800s. A century later, steel wheels turned to rubber, and Interstates 40 and 85 paralleled it. Competing Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro and Charlotte leveraged stops and flourished. Those that didn't, didn't, but still try.

Now, state and federal governments are spending $500 million on high-speed passenger rail to cut Raleigh-to-Charlotte trips to less than three hours. Locomotives that top 110 mph are available, but competition between towns for stops make the three-hour quest as much a matter of urban competition as engines and engineers. The rivalries continue.

RACIN' RIVALS

NASCAR has always brimmed with on-track rivalries involving superstars Earnhardt, Petty, Allison and others. But the off-track competition between Charlottean Bruton Smith and the sport's ruling family, the Frances of Daytona Beach, Fla., is equally compelling.

"He's a bulldog," says Tom Cotter, who for four years in the 1980s was Smith's public-relations director at Charlotte Motor Speedway, one of eight tracks owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc. Smith, now 91, in 1959 leveled a shotgun at a balky paving contractor who threatened to delay his inaugural NASCAR race. Picking fights judiciously has never been his forte.

His chief battle, lasting decades, was with NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and his successors. After forming the sanctioning body in 1948, "Big Bill" banned Smith's speedway partner, driver Curtis Turner, from competition when he tried to unionize drivers, and the feud was on. "Stock-car racing had no organization, and Bruton was trying to form his own, but Bill France beat him to the punch," says Cotter, author of more than a dozen books on cars and racing.

NASCAR remains the only major sport run by a single family that both sets the rules and owns many facilities. But Smith, who grew up in tiny Oakboro in Stanly County, established himself as an integral player, expanding his publicly traded company's empire to venues in Atlanta, Fort Worth, Texas, Sonoma County in California and other locales. "Like all good partnerships, they might have hated each other, but they needed each other," Cotter says. Both the Smiths and Frances show up on various lists of billionaire families.

But the rivalry was about more than just money. "Between Bruton and I, we conked Billy France's head a whole bunch of times," says Humpy Wheeler, longtime speedway president, referring to Bill France Sr.'s son who led NASCAR from 1972 to 2000.

Smith's feistiness was on display when Concord threatened to block a $60 million dragstrip next to his flagship property in 2007. Smith threatened to move the speedway. Concord caved. Today, Smith's Speedway Motorsports owns eight tracks, while the France family-controlled International Speedway Corp. has 13. Smith also controls Sonic Automotive Inc., one of the nation's biggest vehicle sellers with nearly $10 billion in sales last year from more than 100 dealerships.

Auto racing contributed $6.2 billion to the N.C. economy in 2018, according to the North Carolina Motorsports Association in Concord. With 20,000 area employees, Charlotte is the nation's motorsports hub. Much of the credit goes to Smith, says David Miller, the association's director.

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