Unwrapping a visit through NASCAR history

January 07, 2013, Alan Cavanna, NASCAR.com

With old trading cards, old tales come back to life

The best Christmas gifts I received this year turned out to be things I already had.

In an effort to be sentimental (and rid her new house of some of my stuff), my mother surprised me with three boxes of racing cards from my childhood.  Each box had hundreds of cards, all from the early ‘90s. The cards are old enough that Richard Petty was still in a driver’s suit and Mark Martin still had a full head of hair.

Some of the cards produced laughter, while others evoked memories. But most prompted questions, ones I didn’t have when I was nine. Each one of these 3.5-by-2.5-inch pieces of history had a story -- a story I could now appreciate.

So I took them all to Ken Martin. By title, Martin is the senior director of archive management for NASCAR, in charge of finding and utilizing every piece of historical video footage.  In reality, he is the sport’s living encyclopedia. 

Martin can recite the finish from the last beach race in Daytona in 1958 because, as a 6-year-old, he was there. While watching grainy film of a mid-1950s Martinsville race, he saw himself standing in the infield of Turn 2. Martin’s love of the sport led to a career in video production and working with ESPN in covering NASCAR. Now he helps catalog much of the history he saw firsthand.

I pulled out the cards at random and let Martin go; first, a card with Alan Kulwicki’s No. 7 car, sponsored by the U.S. Army. The car ran only one time -- in the 1991 Daytona 500.

“It was a deal where there wasn’t a lot of sponsorship money,” Martin said, examining the card. “It was about the start of the Gulf War, and so (series sponsor) Winston brought the military in to sponsor these guys.”

An early Jeff Gordon card prompted Martin to tell the story of when he first met the eventual four-time champion in Indianapolis. Martin and broadcaster Bob Jenkins coached Gordon on handling media interviews.

“He would sit in there in this little polyester sports coat, with that bad mustache, driving an old beat-up, pick up,” Martin said. “But as a result of that, we were always real close to Jeff.”

Martin knows so much history that one card would lead to several stories. A card of Danny “Chocolate” Myers, Dale Earnhardt’s gasman, led Martin to tell the story of the 1957 Southern 500. Myers’ father, Bobby, was killed in a wreck on the backstretch.

After telling that story, Martin went through his own archive and produced the program from that race.

The gesture had a bigger meaning. Whether it’s in a cardboard box in the attic or neatly filed in a drawer, each piece of memorabilia has a story about the sport’s history.

“What you’re doing with your cards right now,” Martin told me, “is the same thing we’re doing when we find an old piece of video. We’re looking to tell the story behind it.”

I’m glad my mother didn’t throw those boxes out.