Greg Mercer, Special to the Star
RALEIGH, N.C. – It’s an hour before puck drop outside PNC Arena, and a jug of moonshine that someone’s neighbour’s cousin made suddenly appears and is passed around the crowd.
We’re tailgating in a grassy patch by one of the parking lots that rim the rink, and in between all the barbecue, beers and games of bean-bag toss – called “corn hole” here – you’d forget we’ve got a hockey game to go to. And the high-test homemade grain alcohol, or just ‘shine to the locals, is only starting to flow.
I’m surrounded by a pack of die-hard Carolina Hurricanes season-ticket holders who’ve taken the American tradition of tailgating and introduced it to a sport born in the frozen north. Rain or shine, they’re here before every game, blasting music, plopping down lawn chairs and arguing over the Canes’ offensive struggles.
“At first, the city didn’t know what to do with us, ” says Wade Minter, who grew up in tobacco country in Virginia and is now the team’s public-address announcer. “But this is what defines us as hockey fans in Raleigh.”
Welcome to hockey in the south, where you can see an NHL game for as little as $30 – even less on Stub Hub, as sellouts are rare for the struggling team – and meet friendly fans who are surprisingly knowledgeable about the game.
Sports are part of the lifeblood of North Carolina. Long before the Canes came here, they’ve been tailgating, from NASCAR to college basketball to pro football. In this state, half the fun happens before you even get inside the stadium.
The morning after the Hurricanes game, I’m standing in a former rail yard in the shadow of Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, sipping a cup of beer someone handed me. It’s two hours before kickoff between the Carolina Panthers and Green Bay Packers, and hundreds of football fans are partying like it’s still Saturday night.
A DJ on a small sound stage is blasting dance music, next to a cluster of porta-potties and a trailer serving fresh suds from Charlotte’s own NoDa Brewing Co. Under an aluminum overhang, fans are loading up heaping plates of potato salad, hotdogs, pork rinds, brisket and pulled pork as if it’s their last meal.
It feels like an outdoor concert, not a football game. But this party is being put on by members of the Roaring Riot fan club, a non-profit group that celebrates before every Panthers home game, raising as much as $5,000 (all figures U.S.) every week for local charities.
With the Panthers on a winning streak, it’s an especially jubilant crowd. Fans in turquoise and black are shoulder-to-shoulder with legions of Packers fans, and no one seemed to mind.
“There’s no animosity here. Packers fans are welcome. We just ask people to be a good fan, ” explains fan club president Joe Ryan.
North Carolinians may be hospitable people, but they have their limits.
If you’re in Chapel Hill, you don’t show up at a University of North Carolina basketball game in a Duke T-shirt. When it comes to basketball, those two schools have a Red Sox-Yankees kind of rivalry.
The UNC’s Tarheels, a powerhouse college team, can pack 21,500 fans into the Dean Smith Center. The arena, like all NCAA venues, is alcohol-free, so you’ll have to sip soda until after the game.
Here, hoops are a part of life. Season ticket holders pass tickets from generation to generation, in the shrine that produced Michael Jordan and legendary coach Dean Smith. Games are a unique experience – the school’s Marching Tarheels band plays in the stands, and fans have a tradition of standing after every game and singing UNC’s fight song.
After the game, it’s worth the drive into Durham, home of the iconic Durham Bulls minor league baseball team, for a drink on the Durham Hotel’s rooftop patio.
The bar, built in a restored bank building, offers a great view of the city and has a decidedly retro 1950s style. No surprise it’s one of the hottest spots in town, with imaginative cocktails and fresh pints of local Fullsteam Brewery.
If you need a good fuelling before you start your tailgating, join the crowd at Big Ed’s City Market restaurant in Raleigh, which offers up generous southern cooking (think salty country ham and massive pancakes the size of hubcaps).
If you can eat three of these monstrous flapjacks, made with a special pound cake recipe thinned with buttermilk, you get a free T-shirt. Good luck with that.
People line up here regularly to devour mountains of fresh, golden biscuits, peppery sausage gravy and vats of buttery grits. How you eat the biscuits is up to you: some of the locals mix their butter with blackstrap molasses, to make a sweet spread. It’s an acquired taste.
You can burn off the extra calories by walking to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in the state museum a few blocks away. Admission is free.
On your way into Charlotte, you can check out another kind of athlete at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, where the Canadian Olympic kayaking team trains.
If you’re brave enough, challenge the rapids in the man-made river, or check out 27 other activities from mountain biking to zip lines.
With an outdoor concert series, food trucks, beer garden and expansive patio, it feels like a warm-weather ski lodge.
No sporting trip to North Carolina would feel right without a visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in downtown Charlotte. This $200-million shrine in the heart of stock car country traces the roots of the sport, from its moonshine running past to today’s multibillion behemoth.
You don’t need to know much about NASCAR to appreciate the museum, where admission is $19.95. The sport’s colourful history, cat-and-mouse games played by cheaters over the decades and stunning displays of horsepower will win you over.
If you’re up for it, the museum’s race simulator puts you in the driver’s seat for the closest thing to a real NASCAR race.
For the best tour, ask for Buz McKim, the hall’s resident historian and a former driver himself.
Whether you choose to sip a little moonshine before you go is up to you.
Greg Mercer is a Guelph writer.