Kevin Schlesier didn’t grow up a NASCAR fan, but he has become one over the past 16 months.
Schlesier is the exhibits manager for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which is scheduled to open Tuesday in downtown Charlotte. As the hall was being built, he was hired in January 2009 to coordinate work between exhibit designers and artifact seekers to help produce the often dazzling displays that mark each floor of the hall.
“I have almost no NASCAR background, but I’ve learned to love it,” Schlesier said. “I hope my perspective, being somewhat of an outside perspective, will help. We want to educate those who know a lot about NASCAR but also generate excitement for people who might come to the hall with somebody who is a fan.
“Working with the artifacts and exhibits made me a fan. It made me appreciate the history.”
The hall’s exhibits include both artifacts – the real things – and what the designers refer to as “props,” items brought in to help tell a particular story.
One of the hall’s best displays focuses on the 1979 Daytona 500 final-lap crash involving Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison. Their Oldsmobiles were crumpled when they slammed into each other at the end of the backstretch in pursuit of a victory that, thanks to their crash, wound up in the hands of Richard Petty.
Video clips show the accident and commentary by Allison and Yarborough, and the display is dominated by two full-size cars showing the damages of a race accident. The cars aren’t the originals, however.
“We thought it would be great to represent that moment by showing the two cars side by side,” Schlesier said. “We had to search for two Oldsmobiles of the same vintage and same model. They were junkyard dogs. We repainted them to look like the race cars and tried to wreck them appropriately. It draws people into the story.”
Although the hall has acquired thousands of artifacts, including many that will stir emotions for visitors, organizers occasionally ran into roadblocks because some items that would have been splendid museum pieces were, as Schlesier put it, “Lost to time.”
“A lot of the materials you would have in this culture are tools,” he said. “People use them up. It’s not like every car that was raced in the 1955 season was put in a garage and was prized. The drivers raced them and used them up.”
That makes the pieces that do survive – among the hall notables is Richard Petty’s 1967 Plymouth that won 10 straight races – even more valuable and interesting.
“One of the unique things about this project is that we started with really great stories and concepts, then had to go out and find the material and images to tell those stories,” Schlesier said. “Some museums have really rich collections and decide based on the collections how they’re going to tell the story. We had to go find artifacts and images to display. Sometimes you go out searching for something that doesn’t exist.”
But those roads can lead to interesting detours. “Sometimes, it worked in our favor because Buz [hall historian Buz McKim] might call somebody looking for an artifact and they might have something else that was great,” Schlesier said.
He said Glory Road, the hall’s introductory display on the main floor, is his favorite hall spot. The sloping section of speedway displays 18 race cars from the 1940s to the 2000s.
“That’s the biggest wow factor for me,” he said. “I’m a car buff. Seeing that many historic cars over that time period – it’s quite incredible to see the change over time. I think our guests are going to be really wowed by that.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEEDtv.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame Grand Opening is set for May 11, 2010. Outdoor Opening Ceremonies are May 11th from 9 to 10 am ET free of charge, open to the public. Outdoor festivities including driver appearances and concerts May 11th from 10 am until 8 pm ET open to the public, free of charge. Tickets to enter the NASCAR Hall of Fame are on sale now at www.NASCARHall.com or by calling 877-231-2010. The countdown to the NASCAR Hall of Fame is on! Visit www.NASCARHall.com/50days for daily updates about the NASCAR Hall of Fame.