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HEDGER: The Long Look

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — It might be due to our involvement with the Saratoga Automobile Museum, where I’m currently developing an extensive NASCAR oriented main gallery exhibit for a June opening.

Or maybe it’s just the aging process, which curating the comprehensive exhibit has sped up exponentially. But it seems like today’s younger race fans are far less in touch with racing history than the “old timers.”

We pundits hate to be proven wrong but in this case, that would be a welcome outcome, as it seems that many of the younger set currently criticizing NASCAR events and race cars might appreciate them more if their sense of history was enhanced.

One can’t help but wonder how drivers could strap into the cars used decades ago, many of which would not make a good street stock today, and go out and turn the speeds they ran. And they were wearing cotton work pants, t-shirts or short sleeve dress shirts and a helmet that would commit suicide if it ever saw a Snell testing apparatus. Times have definitely changed, though Darlington and a few other tracks remain basically as they were when teams went to the parking lot to “borrow” tires off spectator cars to have enough new rubber to get through the 500-mile race.

Visitors to North Carolina can get a feel for how much NASCAR’s premier circuit has changed, as we did, by visiting three museums in close proximity. The N.C. Auto Racing Hall of Fame and the Memory Lane Museum are a mile or two apart in Mooresville, with NASCAR’s new Hall of Fame a short drive away in downtown Charlotte.

Former Penske man and vintage car collector Don Miller, along with a dedicated group of volunteers, oversee the NC HoF and its variety of old race cars. The cars are immaculate and the docents have great stories about each to share as visitors stroll around, sticking their heads in one car after another and recalling great races and driving heroes of the past.

Down the street, Alex Beam operates Memory Lane as well as his adjacent trailer sales operation.

“I’ve been around cars all my life and was involved in racing around Mooresville way before it became ‘Race City,’ so this was a natural thing for me to develop,” explains Beam. “We provide cars for movies as well as offer people a look at racing’s past, good and bad.”

While Beam’s huge building has dozens of race cars, perhaps the most striking is a perfect example of “good and bad” in one wadded-up mess. Geoff Bodine’s mangled truck from his famed Daytona crash in 2000 shows both how vicious a crash can be and how NASCAR’s design specifications have given drivers a much larger degree of protection than offered by some of the cars nearby.

“Geoff called me and said he’d like to have it in my museum so people could see it and appreciate just how lucky he was,” offers Beam quietly. “It’s not that old but it’s a big part of NASCAR history, so we’re very glad to have it here on display. It seems like history is going away since the speedways started getting a ‘new’ crowd in and they just don’t have a sense of the good old days. Now it’s all money, but I think fans, especially the younger ones, would appreciate the racing more if they developed a better sense of the sport’s history.”

The relatively new NASCAR Hall of Fame, as might be expected, is a bit more modern in design and had access to many items and technology that the other museums did not. Combined with the Hall of Fame displays honoring the sport’s greatest talents, the NASCAR facility gives visitors a feel for both the past and today, topped by the gradually rising track surface that lets you appreciate just how steep the Talladega banks really are.

We’d recommend all three facilities to those visiting the area, whether for race weekend or as part of a vacation trip. And if that’s not enough, come by Saratoga Springs this summer and talk racing with us as well. All ages are welcome when it comes to reliving the past.

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Posted by on May 14 2012 Filed under Columns, Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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