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Clock Continues to Tick on Hall of Fame Preparations

Source: By Joe Menzer, NASCAR.COM  

May 20, 2009

Construction, gathering of mementoes ongoing for 2010

The small clock sits on Winston Kelley's desk, drawing attention with virtually every second that ticks off it.

The digital readout works backward, toward a date now less than a year away -- April 16, 2010 -- when Kelley, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, expects to receive the keys to the kingdom. It is the date when the construction team currently building the much-anticipated Hall of Fame is scheduled to transfer power to the team, led by Kelley, that will operate it.

"I see it every day because it's right beside my computer," Kelley said of the clock that measures about 3 inches in width and stands about 2½ inches tall. "I don't look at the hours or minutes yet, but I can tell you how many days it is."

That he can. Every day. All you have to do is ask him and he immediately can rattle off how many days are left until he gets to turn the key in the lock on the Hall's door.

On this Wednesday it was 331 days until Kelley and his staff get to throw open the doors and rush in for the first time without feeling like they have to stay out of the way of the guys with hammers and nails. Kelley said a four- to six-week "soft opening" is planned for setting up exhibits and testing everything from light switches to interactive displays before the actual opening to the public can occur in mid-May, about one year from now.

"I equate it to building a house, but hundreds of times over for the number of different light switches you have in there," Kelley said. "If you move into a new house, you might have one light switch that is crossed up and it turns on the fan and you've got to fix that. We hope for zero errors; we know that probably is not realistic."

Already the adjacent NASCAR Plaza office tower is moving swiftly toward completion. The NASCAR Media Group, which will occupy five of its 19 floors, plans to begin moving in by the end of June.

Work on the Hall itself, which is being overseen by the city of Charlotte, is coming along nicely, too. The outside of the building is beginning to take shape, and during a recent tour of the inside it is beginning to take less imagination to see the vision that will include Glory Road, where cars from throughout the history of the sport will be arranged in a sort of timeline that will include banking which simulates that of different tracks; the Hall of Honor which will house exhibits displaying inductees' accomplishments; a state-of-the-art 270-seat theater; and various other artifacts and interactive displays.

"To see it start becoming reality is huge. And when you can go through it, you can see where things are going to be," Kelley said. "Here's where Glory Road and the cars are going to be, and you see how the tracks can be shown and the banking there. You see the Hall of Honor where the inductees are going to be enshrined. ... It's really exciting to see."

Untold stories

As the construction continues at a frenetic pace, head Hall historian Buz McKim continues to work at no less a frenzied tempo to collect the many items that will be needed to fill the Hall and capture the fancy of the more than 800,000 fans it hopes to attract in its first year. (That is expected to fall off to closer to 400,000 in subsequent years -- a projection figure some admittedly have questioned as being too high).

Like Kelley, McKim has been around NASCAR virtually his entire life. His family moved to Daytona Beach, Fla., when he was 12 years old. As it so happened, they lived just down the street from what he found to be a fascinating place called the Museum of Speed, owned at the time by one of NASCAR's founding fathers.

McKim started hanging around the place so much that pretty soon he was hired, more or less, as an under-aged security guard.

"It was an old racing museum that was owned by Bill Tuthill, who was a co-founder of NASCAR. He and Bill France sort of co-founded NASCAR," McKim said. "So I was always around that stuff. I was always meeting the old drivers, because Tuthill knew everybody. People would come in from generations back, and I would get to meet them. I worked in 'security' when I was 12 years old, making sure nobody touched anything.

"So it's like I can look back in these chapters in my life that have brought me to this point, and it's just plain luck. I didn't study it; I didn't go to school for any of it. Maybe it's part of a divine plan, I don't know. I guess this is where I'm supposed to be."

It sure seems that way. Any conversation with McKim is likely to turn into a valuable history lesson of the sport.

For instance, he's an expert on Tuthill. Few casual -- and even many serious -- observers of the sport even know who Tuthill is. Yet Tuthill's story is just the kind that McKim hopes the Hall will be able to tell down to the tiniest detail.

Asked why so few remember Tuthill, McKim answers with a wink and a smile before adding: "We're going to work on that. I'll tell you what Tuthill did, he was the real business brains behind NASCAR. What happened was Tuthill was a great promoter up in the Northeast. He was a former motorcycle racer, and he ran events all over the Northeast.

"Bill France had his little group in the South. So he and Tuthill got together and decided they would have this North versus South deal. Tuthill had his Northern boys with their modifieds and France had his Southern boys. So they all went up to Lonsdale, Rhode Island, which was this high-banked, one-third mile track that seated 30,000 people. And they sold out. Bill France had never seen anything like this, and that's when the light came on."

According to McKim, that was as much the birth of NASCAR as the much more famous meeting that included France, Tuthill and 33 others in the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach only three months later.

"France was like, 'Holy cow!' This was October of '47, and ironically one of France's Southern boys, Fonty Flock, won the race," McKim said. "But he realized how big this could be, so he and Tuthill sat down and they said, 'I think we're onto something here.' Between October of '47 and December of '47, they had laid out a plan to draw the best promoters, drivers, car owners, mechanics to Daytona.

"They were like, 'Let's go ahead and sit down with these guys and tell 'em what our vision is, and see if we can hammer out a uniform set of rules, set up a points fund, a national championship, and we can all prosper from this. ... Let's unify and do everything together and share in this one vision.' They put that all together in about 90 days, if that."

Gathering the stuff

The challenge for McKim and Kelley is to tell the stories of Tuthill and others through what they hope will be the magic of the Hall. It is McKim's charge to collect the artifacts that will do so.

He attacks that job with great relish every day, well aware that one day may bring great and unexpected treasures while others will bear no fruit whatsoever.

"What was great was that we started basically with nothing in the collection. We had one piece, and built from there," McKim said. "We had a basic idea of what the history was that we wanted to tell, what were the highlights -- and then literally had to go out and see what artifacts were related to those events and those people. Did those artifacts exist? Who owned them? And would they be willing to donate or loan them to us?

"So it's been quite a process. It's been over two years that we've been working on this. We have several thousand artifacts that we've been able to either acquire or locate."

Kelley said that he marvels at McKim's ability to keep careful track of what is coming in -- and what they need to go after. But then, Kelley said he always has been amazed at McKim's grasp of NASCAR history, which obviously makes McKim the perfect man for his job.

"I used to think I knew a lot about the history of the sport until I got around Buz," Kelley said. "He isn't one of those guys who wears it on his shoulder and acts like a know-it-all. But I joke all the time about the fact that in the last two and a half years, I think I've stumped him once.

"We'll be sitting around talking about something and I'll be like, 'Are you sure it happened that year? Are you sure that's right?' And then he'll start quoting all this stuff, or he'll know where to look it up and tell me. There was only one time where he thought he was right and he ended up being wrong, but that was one time out of probably hundreds. Most times he doesn't even have to look it up -- but he does anyway just to make sure."

They have to be sure on everything. Of that, they are in complete agreement. That's why Kelley continues to question McKim even when he's already pretty sure the historian is correct on certain facts regarding items they've collected or are pursuing.

"I'm just inquiring because you want to be a perfectionist," Kelley said. "You want everything to be perfect, but life is not perfect. Yet that has to be our objective, for everything to be 100 percent accurate factually.

"There is judgment involved in the artifacts we pick. That's not a thing you can be perfect on -- whether I pick this helmet, or this driver, or this artifact -- but to make sure everything is 100 percent factual is important and you can make certain of that. That is our intention."

McKim said the items he has collected come from many varied sources.

"Everybody has been fantastic, the drivers or ex-drivers, or families of drivers, or fans. It's been amazing," McKim said. "Four or five times a week I get e-mails from someone saying I've got this or I've got that. A lot of times it's nothing special, but sometimes it'll blow you away.

"We found a Bobby Allison Gatorade uniform from a fella who lives up in Mooresville. That was an item we were tickled to death to find."

McKim's favorite item thus far is the information sheet Dale Earnhardt filled out when he began driving in the Cup series in 1975.

"NASCAR News Bureau had all the guys update their personal information every year, so at the archives in Daytona we had several of these. We had three of Ralph Earnhardt's and one of Dale's from '75," said McKim of father and son.

"Dale was living at his Mom's house. It was before he married Teresa. Dale Jr. was 3 months old. And his favorite drivers were Bobby Issac and Richard Petty. He was superstitious of the color green and peanuts, which also showed up on his dad's sheet. His dad was superstitious of green and peanuts. My favorite line -- probably one of the favorite things I've looked at in everything we've ever looked at -- is what he wrote on the line that said to list ambitions other than racing.

"Now this is a guy who lived basically hand-to-mouth at the time. He would borrow money on a 90-day note from a friend of his at the bank so he could buy racing tires. The guy knew Dale probably was good for it because Dale won a lot of races on the local scene. But anyway, under Ambitions Other Than Racing, he wrote NONE with an exclamation point -- and he underlined it. So he was going to be a racer, no matter what. He had that focus. And that really kind of personifies who he was."

Keeping it fresh

In March at Atlanta Motor Speedway, legendary car owner Raymond Parks -- who was in attendance at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach in December of 1947 along with France and Tuthill and the others -- announced that he was donating a number of items to the Hall. Included among them were the championship trophies from NASCAR's first two seasons, the 1948 Modified trophy and the '49 Strictly Stock trophy.

Among those in attendance at the news conference making the announcement were Richard Petty and NASCAR's president Mike Helton.

"When we sit around and talk about NASCAR, I think it's very important for us to remember the beginning of our sport, and Raymond Parks was there," Helton said.

Added Petty: "When racing first started, it was pretty rough. Rough characters, rough cars, rough situations. Mr. Parks brought the sport class. A lot of people looked at that and said, 'If he can do it, we can do it. We can clean the sport up. We can clean ourselves up.'

"It took people like Mr. Parks to lay the foundation that we're still living off of. And without people like him, we wouldn't have the history we have and we wouldn't be where we are today."

By donating the trophies that had adorned his office for six decades to the Hall, Parks ensured that his story will be told and his legacy preserved for generations of race fans to come. Kelley said landing those items was like "finding gold" and he watched Parks' reaction as Petty and Helton hovered over the artifacts following the formal presentation in Atlanta.

"You know, Raymond [who is 94] doesn't say a lot," Kelley said. "But I've been around him enough to be able to look into his eyes and see how he reacted to Richard Petty and Mike Helton admiring the trophies. And they didn't just walk by and glance at 'em. If you noticed, Mike and Richard studied every one of the trophies there. And seeing Mrs. Parks' eyes ... this is their history. They helped build this.

"Talking to the family that is good friends with the Parks' and helped facilitate the whole thing, they said Raymond talked more and beamed more at lunch that day than he had in a long, long time."

A donation such as the one made by Parks serves as a reminder to Kelley of what he and McKim and the rest of the Hall staff are dealing with in terms of the many items that they have been and will be entrusted with over the coming months and years.

"These are individuals' treasures. You've got to be respectful of them," Kelley said. "And that's why our system allows for us to either accept a donation, if that is their preference, or for a loan for a period of time that suits them."

Furthermore, Kelley and McKim said they can envision fans having similar reactions as Parks and Petty and Helton to different items and displays they will discover in the Hall when it opens.

To ensure this, they will regularly change out many of the exhibits. If there is one thing their search for items to fill it already has taught them, it's that they will never be short on interesting artifacts.

That's why they will have six or seven "crown jewel" exhibits that won't change, but everything else will be up for possible switching out with additional pieces that have yet to be collected or have been collected but will be stored and are not yet slated for a specific display.

"We've found a lot of things that we won't be using opening day, but they've given us ideas for future exhibits," McKim said. "The last thing you want to do is get stale in a facility like this. Every museum has the same problem: keeping it fresh for people. Whenever they come in, give them something new to see."

Kelley added: "The first question I remember getting after I took this job, somebody asked, 'What do you think is going to be your biggest challenge?' ... I hadn't even thought about it. But the first thing that comes to mind, from what I do know about the history of the sport and the size of our facility, is that even if the size of our facility was three times as large as it is, we're not going to have enough space to show everything we want to show.

"But that's a blessing more than a curse, because it gives us the opportunity to rotate things out."

Eye on opening day

There is something else on Kelley's desk that catches his eye every day. It is a picture of him as a youth, getting an autograph from Richard Petty at a track in the 1960s. Kelley attended his first race with his father, a former publicist at Charlotte Motor Speedway, in 1964.

Kelley examines the photo of himself and the legendary driver often these days -- after losing track of it for years.

"I stumbled across it about the time I took this job. I remember having had the picture taken, but I really wasn't looking for it," Kelley said. "I just stumbled across it, and here was Richard Petty, the biggest name in the sport, giving me an autograph as a kid.

"Think about it. He's always been that way. I met him for the first time when I was 6 years old in '64. This was later. But the biggest name in the sport has always taken the time for people -- whether it's Bill France Jr., or a little kid or the guy that sells hot dogs. That's the customer service we need to provide to folks."

Much has been written and reported about the Hall since groundbreaking ceremonies were held in January 2007. There have been cost overruns and minor squabbles between the city of Charlotte, which is building the Hall with public money from a hotel tax, and the private sector which is building and will own and operate the adjacent 390,000-square-foot NASCAR Plaza tower.

Officials have joked about the difficulties they've faced when running cable from one building to the other, noting that when the private part of the project crosses over into the public part it becomes a different world. Anything the city works on must be bid out competitively, often slowing down the process in the name of making certain the public money being put up is well spent.When all is said and done, the project will cost nearly $200 million. But Kelley and other officials have stated that they expect to generate revenue of $10 million to $12 million annually at the Hall while hoping to keep operating costs at less than $10 million.

Folks are clamoring to work there and be part of it. Kelley said some positions he has filled have drawn as many as 675 applicants "and that was back when I first took the job in 2006, so the interest wasn't driven by this economy."

While acknowledging that times are different now than when the project was first announced and launched, the goals remain the same. Finish on time and commence entertaining fans by mid-May of next year.

As Kelley can tell you every time he glances next to his computer, the clock is ticking.

When it strikes all zeroes and the doors to the Hall finally fling open for good, it will be up to others to judge if it is the smashing success he and McKim and others in NASCAR have long envisioned. But Kelley exudes confidence and cannot wait for Judgment Day.

"If people can walk out saying they learned something and had a good time and they were treated like they want to be treated, we will be successful," Kelley said.