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Interview with Winston Kelley, Executive Director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame

As the co-owner of Notinhalloffame.com, I can legitimately say that Halls of Fame have crossed my mind on a daily basis for the past two years. It is not just the running debate as to who should be in each one, as our site’s name would suggest, but its complete story. This goes much further than just a list of who is inducted and who is left out; rather it is a composite look at the institution’s history, facility, interactive nature and commitment to the future.

NASCAR 1Assumptions would be that Halls of Fame would naturally seek to strive in all of those categories, but alas this is not always the case, and certainly not the standard of all of the institutions we discuss on a regular basis. For example, the Hockey Hall of Fame, while striving to be as interactive with visitors as possible, struggles with the limitations of their physical Hall.   The Baseball Hall of Fame, while considered to be the most respected Hall of all the sports, has an impressive view of its past, yet lacks focus on its future. The Football Hall of Fame has no interactive component and the WWE Hall of Fame does not even have a physical structure to call its own.

With all of those large and respected Halls having discernable flaws, it was a little shocking to find one that has followed a path of construction based on a pure logical progression, that stays true to its roots, embraces its future, caters to its fans (both hardcore and casual) and has a physical presence that it fans can point to with pride. I did find one that fits all of those stipulations in Charlotte, North Carolina in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

With all due respect to the aforementioned Halls, it is a lot easier to be the new kid on the block and learn directly from those institutions and methodically mimic what works and avoid what doesn’t. As a major sport in the United States, NASCAR has come a long way from the dirt tracks and perception that it is an unsophisticated “Southern” sport. Granted, the bulk of the drivers are from the American South, but anyone who has watched a race on Fox Sports would be impressed by the slick use of technology and camera angles. Viewers are not just watching the action from above, but from inside the vehicle creating one of the most dynamic visual presentations in the medium today. It is a sport that seeks to evolve constantly, blessed with forward thinkers and yet celebrates its past without being defined by it.

The NASCAR Hall of Fame has a near flawless execution. With a new sleek building in uptown Charlotte, North Carolina, the Hall is not just housing a collection of plaques and memorabilia. It features interactive displays that are designed to appeal to not just hardcore racing fans but to those who have limited knowledge of the sport.

In terms of the induction process, a selection committee chooses five inductees per year. The committee actually includes a fan vote; the first of its kind in any major Hall of Fame. This initiative adds to the overall appeal to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, as visitors of the Hall not only go there to celebrate the achievements of the inductees, they can feel they had a hand in putting them there. No other Hall of Fame can give a guest that emotion.

As such, it was with great anticipation that I sought the opportunity to speak with Winston Kelley, the Executive Director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

NASCAR 2Nobody can really argue that Charlotte is the perfect place for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. North Carolina is clearly the cradle of the sport, and many of the people who appear on my list are from that state, as are many of the people who are already in the Hall. I know that Daytona and Atlanta were contenders. Was it easy for NASCAR to make the selection of Charlotte?”

“Specifically, the Hall is not part of NASCAR. We are part of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority and we are owned by the city of Charlotte. The contract to build us was between those three organizations with a Public/Private partnership. NASCAR issued an RFP (Request for Proposal) back in 2005 and it went out to initially four cities. Three other additional cities express an interest, and it was narrowed to five cities, and then further narrowed to three (Daytona, Atlanta & Charlotte). NASCAR made the selection based on what they felt what was best. They would be in a better position than I to say exactly why it was chosen, but they appeared to agree with the rationale that we put forward in the proposal. This would be the Public/Private support that was here, the fact that it was an extension to the convention center, the central location and that the industry (NASCAR) was based here. Every one of the other cities had attributes that made them attractive locations. We tried to focus on what attributes made most sense to us and focused on that with our proposal.”

The Hall of Fame facility itself is a very impressive building. It is state of the art and I have noticed that it is not just a celebration of the sport, but makes a very conscious effort to be an interactive facility allowing for visitors who may not even be fans of NASCAR to get something out of visiting it. I have also noticed that it is a very family friendly facility. Were there elements of other Halls of Fame, be it Baseball, Hockey or the Rock and Roll Hall, that you looked to replicate during the construction process?

“The answer to both questions is yes. Yes, we were looking to do something more interactive that appealed to race fans, and non-race fans. We wanted it to appeal to all ages, whether you are eighty-five years old or five years old, or whether you grew up with the sport or were new to it. We also wanted to use the technology that was present to us that some of the older Halls of Fame did not have. We were definitely looking to have something that was hands-on and interactive as well as a historic celebration of NASCAR.

Yes there were concepts of other Halls of Fame that we looked at that if we felt were applicable we would use, although we would portray it in a different manner. Every other Hall of Fame that we went to would always explore different concepts. The one thing that was amazing to me was that the people in other Halls were so open with their information, with their ideas, with their insight. They saw us as part of the Hall of Fame family and not as competition. Anything that they could do to help us, they were more than willing to spend hours and hours with us. One of the things that became very obvious was that we had to make sure we were properly honoring our sport the way that the other Halls successfully did theirs.

An example is in the Country Music Hall of Fame has a timeline display that shows its evolution. On their timeline when certain events happen such as the Kennedy Assassination they would put in perspective of what was going on in Country Music at the time. Somebody that is fourteen years old may not know what was going on in Country Music in the early 60’s, but every fourteen year old has studied the Kennedy Assassination. We wanted to do something similar, which for us would be the evolution of the automobile.

On the Baseball Hall of Fame, their introductory video is very different than ours, but theirs can go from Sandlot Baseball to the modern day. We wanted to capture the essence and excitement of NASCAR racing from the dirt track days to what it has evolved. We loved their concept, but we had to be true to our sport’s history and embrace the NASCAR feel.”

It seems like you received a lot more support than people would realize. Granted, there is no reason that other Halls should view you as a competitor as especially logistically you are geographically far away from the major Halls.

“They totally opened their arms to us. We were always welcomed to call back at any time to ask for any information. Several of them I have stayed in touch with. One of the guys from the Baseball Hall of Fame is a part of the American Legion World Series which has its home in Shelby, North Carolina, so when he is there; he always calls or comes by. I have been blessed not only with professional relationships but with personal ones as well.”

One thing that impresses me very much with your Hall is the incorporation of fan involvement in regards to the selection process. Obviously, you want to make sure that it is still experts who are still quarterbacking the process, which is how it should be, but fans still have a say in the process which I don’t believe exists in any other Hall. Was this a decision that came easily, or was it another example of trying to differentiate yourself from other institutions?

“I have to give NASCAR credit for that. As part of the contract (for the Hall), the only thing that NASCAR had complete control over was the developing and selecting of the inductees. This of course made sense to us as the contract was negotiated. It’s their sport for sixty plus years. When they came up with the process and I say this as someone who has been around the sport since 1964, I think the process that they come up with was superb. I am a big fan of it, but I can’t take any credit for it. The fan element for me was just the icing on the cake. It is the very first and only Hall of Fame to give the fans a chance to participate. However, it is not done in a way that they can stuff the ballot. It works out to one vote, and as a member of the voting panel, I have one vote. My vote is equal to the fan vote. I am thrilled that the fans are a part of it and are engaged with it. Give NASCAR the credit for that. I love the process. I love that we focus on five individuals per year. There were some that said you should have twenty or twenty five to start with. I think that the five that are going in next year which are entries sixteen through twenty, we are going to give them so much more attention and do for them, what they did for the sport. We couldn’t do that if we had twenty in year one or any year.”

So is it safe to say that there will always be five inductees per year, or may we see less in the future?

“Currently, that is the plan. As we go down the road and if there is a reason to change that number, that door remains open. However, there is no plan to change this number in the foreseeable future which I think is the right decision.”

NASCAR 3That makes a lot of sense as once you become too rigid you paint yourself into a corner. With no disrespect to the Baseball Hall of Fame, once you become a too structured you become the target for criticism. Flexibility does not seem to be their strength, where it seems to be yours.

“You are always going to have folks who have different opinions as to when people should go in and who should go in. We like the way it is set up currently so that you can have a good spirited debate every year. The other thing that I think is relevant is that if you look at the number of athletes that exist in NASCAR versus other stick and ball sports, the sheer quantity is not there. Sure, you have administrators behind the scenes, like our crew chiefs are the same as their coaches. Track operators can be similar to some of the Team owners. There is 42 people on a football field who are started times fifteen games that are going on every weekend. You do that math versus 43 drivers in the Sprint Cup Series, 43 drivers in the Nationwide, 43 in the Camping World Truck, a handful in the Modified and you just don’t have the volume. We are also only 64 years old whereas Baseball started in the 1880’s and Football in the 1920’s. The volume of athletes is just smaller in NASCAR.”

The overall reaction of the drivers to the NASCAR Hall has been positive in that they are treating it as the final cap of their careers. When the announcement was made for your last class, there was genuine emotion from the inductees and their families when they were inducted. For that to happen so quickly is a testament to how quickly the NASCAR Hall of Fame has come to matter.

“I think that is a fair statement. Each one of inductees have put in a different way, be it from Richard Petty in our inaugural class to our most recent class with people like Darrell Waltrip. I think Darrell articulated it best. All of our inductees are in other Motorsports, State or Sports Halls of Fames. Many are in multiple Halls of Fame. Darrel said ‘We’re NASCAR. NASCAR is our career. This is OUR Hall of Fame, and this is what makes it so special to us.’

Or even in the case of Cotton Owens who passed away last Sunday, he had mentioned before he died that this was the culmination of his professional life. His family was so glad that he (Owens) was aware of it before he died. For the people that have been inducted, NASCAR has been their life. They view it as their home and we are glad to be that home to honor them.”

This might be unrelated but I think in many ways you draw a lot of comparisons to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“Part of why you see the connection is that the architects who did our facility did theirs. If you come here you will see other similarities between us and the Golf Hall of Fame and Country Music Hall of Fame as the exhibit designers did theirs as well as ours.”

I’ll finish off with one of those dreaded ‘interview’ questions. Where do you see the NASCAR Hall of Fame in twenty years?

“We’re two years old, in terms of being open. We opened in May of 2010. We are very new in our evolutionary stage. There is a still a lot that we want to be. We want to be to NASCAR what Cooperstown has become to Baseball. We want to be the hallowed ground at the end of someone’s career.

I met with someone who I think was eleven years old and his parents through a friend. He was an aspiring racer and working his way up and the family just wanted my perspective. We want that eleven year old kid to aspire to be in the NASSCAR Hall of Fame. We want the aspiring mechanic who wants to be a crew chief to think of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and anyone else who is in trying to get in the industry. We want the industry to continue to embrace us like they have.

We are a go to place to do special events. When people have special artifacts that they want to share with the world and as people decide where they want them shown whether they were passing away, and I don’t mean that to send morbid, that we are the place that our artifacts will be showcased. Whether it is the cars or trophies we want to be a part of the history of NASCAR.

On the Charlotte community side, we want to be seen as a destination attraction. We were built with tourism money to bring people to Charlotte which we have done in a big way. Fifty Five percent of the people who visit here have come from more than fifty miles and the reason they came to Charlotte was to see the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Conventions choose to come here in part because the NASCAR Hall of Fame is here. Race fans come here because the Hall is here. People have their family reunion in Charlotte to take part in the Hall of Fame. We are part of the community, an attraction, an asset, as well as an iconic place that folks who are involved in the industry want to be inducted or have their memorabilia showcased here.”

I want to congratulate you again for building a Hall of Fame that became so relevant so fast.

“It was all an incredible team effort, from all the people mentioned, the construction team, and the design team. Throughout the whole project, the whole perspective is what is best for the Hall, not what is best for anyone individual. There was a lot of spirited discussions and debate but at the end of the day we feel that we built the best Hall of Fame that we could. I’m just the person who gets to talk about it a lot, but there were hundreds and hundreds of people who were involved in that, and I give them all the credit. NASCAR is a tight knit community and we have been immediately supported by them.”

 

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