News & Media

Retro Racing: Wrecks exhibit at Hall matches vehicles, video

October 18, 2012, Mark Aumann,

The NASCAR Hall of Fame may have set hours, but that's not necessarily the case for the employees. Consider the situation exhibits manager Kevin Schlesier and his crew found themselves in last week.

Because there was a private event Thursday evening, Schlesier's team didn't get done setting up the newest exhibit until the wee hours of Friday morning. It took approximately four hours to wheel, drag and push it all into place.

It's called "Wrecks: Dramatic Crashes of NASCAR." And it includes vehicles -- or what's left of them -- involved in some of the most spectacular accidents in the history of stock-car racing, along with videos of that exact moment in time.

"It's a rare opportunity for us to use a vehicle to tell a story of a specific snapshot of history."


Whether it's what's left of Phil Parsons' Pontiac after his barrel-roll crash at Talladega in 1983, or Michael McDowell's Toyota after he creamed the wall during qualifying at Texas in 2008, the exhibit promises to bring back specific memories of instances where safety preparations and good fortune combined to allow the occupant to escape without serious injury.

"The great thing about these artifacts is that they tell a story about a very specific moment," Schlesier said. "And what we've tried to do with these artifacts and the media is tell a story about that moment.

"It's certainly a 'hold your breath' moment as a fan, and it could be a career-defining moment for a driver. That ties it all together: These are moments that are emblazoned on fans' minds as moments that people remember. And we're bringing it to life again with the video screen and the actual artifact."

And that's what excited Hall of Fame executive director Winston Kelley when the idea was proposed to him: the opportunity to combine the visual record of each crash with the actual machines involved.

The exhibit provides a look into the evolution of safety, which is ongoing. From a 1960 crash in one of the first Sportsman Modified races at Daytona -- one that involved more than three dozen cars -- to more recent examples such as McDowell's crash, the exhibit hopes to show how racing safety is a continuing goal and ongoing project.

"For instance, we have the black box from Elliott Sadler's car at Pocono," Kelley said. "That tells another story of measuring the impact, and the data NASCAR can use to help with safety."

In addition to the Parsons and McDowell cars, the other primary exhibit features include the truck Geoffrey Bodine was driving when he went airborne at Daytona in 2000 and Mike Harmon's car that was destroyed when it hit the crossover gate during practice at Bristol in '02.


Video: Watch as McDowell crashes hard into wall at Texas, sending his car into multiple flips


So how did the Hall wind up with a pile of twisted metal that somehow avoided a date with the junkyard? Well, it helps that as a whole, racing teams are pack rats.

"It's amazing what's survived," Schlesier said. "Sometimes these cars that were wrecked were sold off as scrap. That's the most amazing thing -- that somebody thought this wreck was spectacular enough at the time to park the car."

With help from historian Buz McKim, Schlesier and his staff began with a list of about 75 major accidents and pared it down to 30. Then it became a matter of matching up video highlights with artifacts.

Some were easy. Some, not so much. But there were some surprises along the way.

Schlesier said the Parsons car had been privately owned and given to the Hall, while the McDowell car had been in storage at Michael Waltrip Racing. Even things like the exhaust header from Davey Allison's All-Star Race accident have survived, which is a great thing for museum curators.

"This space is going to be loud with metal crunching and tire squealing."


"People save the unexpected," Schlesier said. "Part of the joy of doing this job is finding out what exists. You can't be frustrated with what doesn't exist. If I spent a minute being frustrated about every car that was thrown out, it would be a very unrewarding job. So when you find the things that have been saved, it's just great that way."

For some people, the idea of spotlighting accidents may conjure up some unpleasant feelings, and Schlesier is well aware that not every accident has had a positive outcome.

That point was driven home after Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat out the Charlotte race with lingering effects from back-to-back concussions suffered in hard crashes during testing at Kansas and on the last lap at Talladega.

"We did talk about that and we know injuries are a part of the sport," Kelley said. "We didn't shy away from that when we opened, and to NASCAR's credit ... there were folks --when we were opening the Hall -- that suggested NASCAR would not want us to touch on some of the more sensitive topics. And that's not been the case."

The exhibit is scheduled to remain in place until early next year. It's included in the general admission price, and Schlesier hopes fans will appreciate the time and energy he and his staff put into the project.

"We're excited about reuniting the videos with the artifacts," Schlesier said. "I think that's the real draw. This space is going to be loud with metal crunching and tire squealing, things like that -- along with the cars associated with them.

The exhibit will show what's left of Mike Harmon's Nationwide Series car from 2002. (Images courtesy NASCAR)

"We've got a lot of artifacts that provide a general overview of a career or span of time. [With this], it's a rare opportunity for us to use a vehicle to tell a story of a specific snapshot of history. In this case, you're talking about 30 seconds or a minute."