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Speed Street starts its engines

Wednesday, May. 22, 2013

Trucks began lumbering into uptown Wednesday, installing stages, hauling in food and placing barriers for Food Lion Speed Street, the NASCAR-themed street festival that will take over parts of the center city over the next three days.

The No. 33 car was already parked between Third Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. A bamboo-colored margarita bar sat nearby, and the stage on Tryon Street was nearly all the way up.

The event starts Thursday afternoon, with bands taking the stage for three nights, appearances by NASCAR drivers and headaches for some uptown workers.

“I usually just walk out here and catch the bus home from work,” said Melanie Jones, who works at the Fifth/Third bank building uptown. “But that’s not going to happen tomorrow.”

The city expects nearly 400,000 people to attend the festival.

Those attending will include Tim and Kelly Johnston, who came from Alberta, Canada, to see the All-Star race and the Coca-Cola 600.

Their goal was to take in the sights of uptown Charlotte. But they were delighted by Speed Street’s earliest signs.

“It was an awesome surprise,” Kelly Johnston said. “We just wanted to see the city today, but now, we’ll be here all three days.”

Here are some things to know about the long weekend:

•  Road closings: The footprint of Speed Street is a giant “L” that generally starts at Fifth Street, stretches south along Tryon Street, and hangs a turn at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, extending to the NASCAR Hall of Fame at Caldwell Street.

Many of those streets started closing Wednesday and won’t reopen until 8 a.m. Sunday.

Certain streets along the way – portions of Fourth Street, Third Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard – will reopen for stretches of rush-hour traffic.

The main entertainment stages – and the biggest crowds – are usually at the ends. The Food Lion Stage is at Fourth and Tryon and the Coca-Cola stage, where the biggest acts will play, is in front of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

•  Security: Speed Street is the city’s first large public event since the bombings at the Boston Marathon in March, and police and other first responders are beefing up security – though it may be hard to tell.

City Manager Ron Carlee has designated the street festival an “extraordinary event.” The declaration bans people from bringing a range of items into the festival, such as hammers, fireworks and other things that can be used as weapons.

The declaration also gives police officers more latitude to search people who appear to have one of those items. Speed Street was declared an extraordinary event last year, too.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Maj. Jeff Estes said more officers would be visible. And he said people should expect police to pounce on any unattended packages or bags.

Also, expect to see more bomb-sniffing dogs, police say. The Charlotte Fire Department will have 20 members of its hazardous materials team working before and during the Speed Street event, checking for explosives said Deputy Chief Rob Kinniburgh. That’s a slight increase from previous years, he said.

Police encourage people who see something suspicious to call 911 or report the activity to police.

•  Crowds: While about 400,000 are expected, crowd numbers fluctuate based on events, police say.

The free concerts are always a big draw. On Thursday and Friday, bands will begin taking the stage at 6 p.m., and headliners will begin performing around 8:45 p.m.

NASCAR drivers will make appearances all week, but popular drivers Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick will take the main stage from 7 to 7:45 p.m. Saturday. Richard Petty will take the Food Lion Stage at 1:15 p.m. Friday.

•  Getting there: Speed Street officials encourage people to take the Lynx light-rail line into town.

Typically, an additional 10,000 to 15,000 people will use the light rail. Parking lots at stops from Scaleybark Road south to Interstate 485 are free.

•  Free concerts: Randy Houser and Jamey Johnson perform Friday at 7:45 and 9:30 p.m., respectively; and Sister Hazel and Survivor close out the festival at 8:15 and 9:45 p.m. Saturday. Speed Street also exposes homegrown talent to massive crowds.

Mooresville’s Landon Parker Band – the Race to Stardom contest’s country winner – opens at 6 p.m. Friday. Chris Sanchez gets things started on Saturday at 2:30 p.m., followed by ’80s hard rock tribute Hair Nation at 4, Race to Stardom’s rock winner Blu Avenue at 5:30, and Chelsea Bain at 6:30. Courtney Devores contributed.

Wootson: 704-358-5046; Twitter: @CleveWootson