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A Hall Full of Stories

Source: Charlotte Observer  

May 19, 2007

On his desk, Buz McKim keeps pens and pencils in a burned-out piston that once stroked in the engine of a 1970 Plymouth Superbird driven by Richard Petty.

The engine had locked up on a qualifying lap, and Petty's crew tore it down to see why. They discovered a wrong set of sparkplugs had fried the piston.

McKim, working in the pit stall next door, picked up the piston and asked Petty's brother, Maurice, if he could keep it.

"He said, `It's no good.' So I brought it home," McKim said. "Richard was already a star. I thought it'd be a good souvenir."

Thirty-seven years later, McKim is historian for Charlotte's NASCAR Hall of Fame. Now with the facility set to open by March 31, 2010, he'll have to find thousands of more souvenirs -- each with a story about the sport and its culture.

"We want the hall to tell the whole story of NASCAR," said McKim, former chief archivist for Daytona, Fla.-based International Speedway Corp., owner of Daytona International Speedway and other tracks. "There is so much more history than just the (Nextel) Cup, Busch (Series) and (Craftsman) Truck."

Search for the `holy grail'

Starting from scratch, McKim wants "actually raced" cars from each NASCAR era. He wants helmets, suits, boots and gloves of famous drivers, and posters from legendary races. He wants trophies from races in Hawaii, South Dakota and Oregon, or other oddball venues such as football stadiums, fairgrounds and a mile-long horse track in Las Vegas. Treasured would be the Jaguar that Al Keller drove in 1954 to win NASCAR's first road race at the Linden, N.J., airport -- the only time a foreign-built car has won a top-division race.

So, too, would an artifact from NASCAR's first race -- on a dirt track off Charlotte's Wilkinson Boulevard. In that June 1949 race, Lee Petty, Richard's father, flipped a borrowed Buick that brought out the sport's first caution flag.

Even more cherished would be the gold-plated "Number 1" membership card that NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. gave to Red Vogt, an Atlanta engine builder who in 1948 coined the name National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.

"That would be the holy grail," said McKim, hired in February by the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, which will run the $154.5 million, oval track-shaped facility that the city is building and will own in uptown Charlotte.

The hall, he said, won't ignore the sport's distant origins in moonshine running during Prohibition. "Moonshine did not beget NASCAR," he said. "But some early drivers were rum runners. The sport used a lot of the technology found on their cars.

"We're beginning to figure out what artifacts will tell the story most graphically and correctly with the greatest impact. Then we'll go out and pursue them."

Cover all angles

That pursuit will begin in earnest at summer's end, though McKim and hall executive director Winston Kelley have already begun approaching or fielding calls from collectors and race teams wanting to collaborate.

The hall doesn't plan to buy artifacts, but acquire them through donations or loans.

"We don't want to get into bidding situations," Kelley said. "We're about honoring and preserving the sport's history."

Just last week, Kelley was approached by a former driver offering items.

The hall, he said, will talk with team museums or other racing museums about rotating exhibits and designing tours where fans visit the hall, then team operations and museums.

"There is clearly an interest in collaborating," Kelley said.

Many similar museums, including ones honoring basketball, and country and rock 'n' roll music, get most of their artifacts through donations or loans.

"Most collectors or families want to donate artifacts to honor famous figures," said John Rumble, a senior historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tenn. "They recognize and appreciate that when they donate an artifact to a museum that, in essence, everyone owns it."

The Internet and foreign collectors have driven up artifact prices, and a bidding war could chew up operating budgets.

When Rumble's museum has needed an expensive artifact -- such as Maybelle Carter's Gibson guitar -- a "wealthy supporter" has donated money to the nonprofit Country Music Foundation for the museum to buy it.

The country music hall has more than 750,000 artifacts.

The NASCAR hall won't require nearly that many, since most exhibits will rotate in and out, said project director Dennis Cohen of the New York-based Ralph Appelbaum Associates, which is designing the hall's interior.

"There may be area collectors who are interested in loaning their collections -- many of them idiosyncratic with their own curator," Cohen said. "We want to tell the right story. We want to cover all angles and show all the connections that NASCAR has had with American culture."

Have History?

If you want to discuss donating or loaning artifacts to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, call historian Buz McKim at 704-339-6109 or e-mail buz.mckim@crva.com.

Reach Davis Perlmutt at dperlmutt@charlotteobserver.com