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Part 2: Catching up with NASCAR Hall of Fame Historian Buz McKim

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Part 2: Catching up with NASCAR Hall of Fame Historian Buz McKim
Buz McKim NASCAR Hall of Fame
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Last week, we introduced you to a gentleman that, perhaps, posesses one of the most prodigous memories in the motorsports industry, Historian for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Mr. Buz McKim. And that's precisely what Part 1 of our discussion with Buz was -- a serious history lesson. 

And while much of that portion of the conversation focused attention on the Daytona 500 and its historic significance in NASCAR lore, this week's installment delves a bit deeper into how Buz found himself with such a cool job at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C. After all, one doesn't just stumble upon such an incredible position.  

So, we proceeded to pick Buz' brain on what it took for him to get there, as well as the incredible undertaking that it was to curate and assemble the exhibits that fans see on display at the Hall.

So, join us if you will as we head for the homestretch in Part 2 of "Catching up with NASCAR Hall of Fame Historian Buz McKim." 

Buz McKim NASCAR Hall of Fame

Tell us a bit about how you came to be at your current position as Historian for the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina?

Buz McKim

Well, it's a matter of being in the right place and the right time, and knowing the right people. I was doing the "art" thing and a friend of mine by the name of Jon Mauk was heading up the newly formed archive position for the International Speedway Corporation. And, John had been in the photography department, and he was put in charge of this new department, and he didn't have a very deep knowledge of the sport, so every once in a while, I'd swing by and help him identify some photos, "This is Fireball Roberts. This is a '57 Pontiac. That picture was taken at Greensboro," that sort of thing, when he was organizing all the files.

And, you know, I was born into the sport, back in the 1950s, so it has always been part of our life. In mid-1997, John had a little bit of extra money in the budget, and he had the opportunity to put somebody on part time in the archive department. Because NASCAR was coming up on their 50th anniversary in 1998, he said "anything that comes out of this department has to be totally correct," as the media was swamping him with requests for information and photos and the like. So, I got on part time to work through 1997 and then he ended up finding a little more money, so I stayed on a little while longer. It wasn't long after when he ended up leaving the department. So, he basically came to me and said "Do you want to take over the archive department?"

So, of course, I said "Heck, yeah, man. It needs work! (laughs) So, then in '03, NASCAR came knockin' and said, "We need someone who has a deep knowledge of the history of the sport, someone who can handle our historic database and work statistics on TV broadcasts. Would you be interested in coming over and joining with the PR department?" And, I said "Hey, that sounds great!" So, a few years later this deal with the Hall of Fame popped up, and I was put on the committee, because of my background, and I did the whole five-city tour -- that was an incredible experience. So, when Charlotte started to look for people to man this project, NASCAR suggested "Hey, why don't you throw your hat in the ring," which meant leaving NASCAR and going to work for the City of Charlotte. They needed someone to go around and find the items that would go into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. So, I gave it a shot and sure enough -- they plugged me in! So, I've been here over five years now. And it's absolutely the coolest thing I've ever been involved in. It is the dream job for me and I'm so honored to be a part of it. It's so cool.

It must have been a lot of hard work to launch such an ambitious project like the Hall of Fame. What did it entail, putting all the initial Hall exhibits on display?

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Buz McKim

That was interesting. Now, luckily, Winston Kelley, our executive director here, he and I have a very similar background in the sport. Our fathers were involved in PR and announcing, and we were fans from the time we were little kids. So he and I have the same feel for the history of the sport. We were very much on the same page as to how the story should be told.

So, we sat down and hammered out what we felt would be a good evolution of the sport. And we sorted out what the main stories we wanted to tell, and thought about who were the people we wanted to talk about, and what were some of the situations that came about. And there were different areas of the hall, like the "Race Week" experience and a lot of the different artifact cases and family cases, Champions, Diversity, etc…

So, we worked up a list of ideas based on what we believed was going to tell the best story of the sport. So, that's what we used as a basis for going out and finding the items that would go into the hall. And, I just started making phone calls, calling in favors, contacting people I'd known in the sport, and it was like the ultimate treasure hunt! So, everything fell into place, we were so tickled; folks really bent over backwards to help us. We got about 99.2% of everything we went after. Of course, there were a few things that just didn't exist. And, we were very fortunate. Even now as we go on, we're always looking for new items. We have the Class of 2013 going in the Hall in February. So, that's another project. There are three of us on the Artifact board, we have Kevin Schlesier, the exhibit manager, a soon to be announced employee to replace Michelle Leopold, our former exhibit registrar, and myself as the historian. So, between us, we're always out there beatin' the bushes for things we need to find, people we need to talk to, etc. We develop a little "wish list" and most of the time it works out pretty good.

How long did you have to put it all together? That is to say how much time between the launch of the project and the day the doors would open?

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Buz McKim

It's pretty amazing, they broke ground in Jan. of 2007 and I came on board March 1, 2007. And, we opened a little over three years later -- from literally a parking lot to this incredible 150,000 sq. ft facility. It was a monumental task and it was truly amazing what everyone accomplished in that short period of time. You know what's interesting too, in terms of the artifacts? One thing I learned working on cartoons, is that the first thing you do is record the voice track. And then you plug the drawings into the voice or the sound. And, so that seems like it'd be backwards, but it's actually not. It's much the same way with the Hall of Fame, you need the artifacts first, so that the different areas can be designed, and so the cases can be put together, and all the photographs. It's pretty amazing; literally, the historical items are the first thing you have to locate if you're doing a facility like ours.

In terms of artifacts, is there anything in particular that has eluded you to this point?

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Buz McKim

I think the one thing that we haven't been able to find, is something that we'd only heard about. In 1954, NASCAR did something nice for a fellow named Red Vogt. Red was the first superstar mechanic of the sport, and he's the guy that actually came up with the name NASCAR. Bill France Sr. and Red actually grew up together as kids in Washington D.C. He goes way, way back.

So, in 1954, NASCAR said as a "thank you" for all that you've done for the sport, we want to give you back all your dues, all your fees, and this gold NASCAR membership with a #1 on it. You are proclaimed #1 NASCAR member. And I would love to find that card. We know a lot of his family members; they said "we don't know what happened to it." And, I used to know Red, when I was a kid growing up in Daytona, a bunch of us that had our Dirt Track clunkers, actually rented a shop from Red next to his repair shop, there in Daytona. And, I didn't know about the card at the time. But, that's something that we've not been able to find. That's our holy grail, if we could ever find that NASCAR Gold Membership #1.

Other than that, really, everything else has pretty much come about. The thing we really enjoy is going out to find A,B and C, then end up finding X, Y and Z. It's like we went up to the Petty's place, and we were going through their artifacts, and we found a check that was made out from Mrs. Lee Petty to Ralph Earnhardt in 1957. And he'd driven for the Pettys in about eight races, in an Oldsmobile. And, you could see the left side of the check, where Mrs. Petty deducted all the taxes. She was a very good bookkeeper! And Ralph's take home pay was $95.45. And another thing that struck me, now I've looked at the check a hundred times, and I was looking at it again the other day, it's been up there for over two years, and I noticed the date on the check was April 29, 1957 -- that was Dale Sr.'s 6th birthday. Isn't that wild?

What about something that really caught you by surprise?

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Buz McKim

Well, I was also a good friend of a lady named Judy Judge, and she was Fireball Roberts' fiancé. And they had dated for years, and Fireball finally got a divorce, his wife finally gave him a divorce, so he and Judy were going to get married the weekend after the Charlotte race. And then he was injured in the Charlotte race and passed away six weeks later. Early on in my tenure at the Hall she called me and said why don't you come up and look at some of Glenn's stuff. And, I thought that was cool. Because anybody that knew him called him Glenn, he didn't particularly like the name Fireball.

So, my wife and I went up there and looked through some of the really cool artifacts, trinkets, ticket stubs, and there were photo albums and all that. But, then she opened one box, and -- holy cow -- it was my Indiana Jones moment. There was this incredible Autolite jacket that'd been given to him in 1963 when he started driving for Ford Motor Company. And I remember in the archives in Daytona, there were a lot of photographs of him in that jacket. He really was fond of it. So, she was telling me the story how after he died, she took all his things and put them in boxes, except the jacket, which she hung in a closet. And she would take the jacket from time to time, and she would hold it and she could still smell him in the jacket. And when she could no longer smell him or his essence in the jacket, she put it in a box, and it had been put away for over 40 years since the last time it was taken out. And, man, it was like a time capsule! Everything was still in the pockets from the last time he wore the jacket.

That was one of my most amazing moments through this whole thing, sifting through thousands of historical artifacts. It's been a heck of an experience.

That's some serious history there, Buz! Speaking of the history of the sport, how do you feel NASCAR has changed over the last 30 years?

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Buz McKim

Well, one of the main factors is the amount of money that's involved. When you look at what a crewmember was making back in the early 80s, even crew chiefs, and see what they're making now -- it's incredible. The purses and what say, Terry Labonte made for the Championship in '84, and how it changed right up to 1995, when he won his second Championship. And then what they're making now, it's really on par with F1. And, the fact you have Formula 1 drivers coming over now, and sponsorships worth in the 10-15 million-dollar per year category -- it's pretty incredible.

Then you've also got the evolution of the NASCAR fan. You know you've got your good ol' boys that sort of thing, but NASCAR is almost becoming "cosmopolitan" in some ways. They're broadening their fan base through the diversity program, and they had a plan years ago to try and get into the top 20 markets and they've achieved quite a lot of them. They felt that was a good marketing strategy to be connected in the Top 20. Also, you've gotta look at safety improvements in the sport. You'll never take the total danger out of it, but they certainly have made a heck of an effort to do that. Since the 1980's you've had the Roushs, The Hendricks, and the Gibbs come in with their incredible shops and multi-car teams, and there were some folks along that line back in the day, but it's gotten to a point where it really is mind boggling.

Do you still watch all the races?

Buz McKim

Oh, yeah. I'm hooked. I can't get away from it. Luckily my wife has finally come on board (laughs)!

TheBLOCK.com would like to give most sincere thanks to Buz McKim and the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C. for all their help with this piece. Planning a trip to the Hall? Be sure to let us know in the NASCAR Forum