Racing history lessons via Exit 286

23 Aug

The Kansas Auto Racing Museum is a hidden gem for racing fans and those interested in the history of the sport. (Photo from http://www.kansasautoracingmuseum.org/)

If you planned out a road trip with the goal of visiting the sights and sounds of early auto racing, the city of Chapman, Kansas, might not automatically be one of the first places on your list. But believe it or not, it probably should be.

Residing in the town of 1,400 people is the Kansas Auto Racing Museum, where one can see restored racecars, footage and photographs of pivotal events in racing history, and the trophies for the first NASCAR and NHRA events – the winners of which were both from Kansas.

Doug Thompson, the owner and curator of the museum, has personally accumulated a large amount of racing memorabilia over his own lengthy career in the sport, but most of the pieces on display are donated or loaned to the museum because their owners are proud of the racing history.

“We say there’s a million-piece puzzle, and some people are walking around with one or two pieces of the puzzle, and if we all put it together, we’ll see an entire picture, and that’s been the case,” Thompson said.

“Others who are involved in racing have come in, toured the museum, and they say, ‘Well, you know what, I have my grandfather’s scrapbook…’ and they will send it to me, so that’s more pieces of the puzzle coming in, and it’s just ongoing.”

While the museum – which sees about 4,500 visitors each year – is home to many actual racing vehicles, including one that participated in the first NASCAR Truck Series race at Kansas Speedway, it has also cataloged early coverage of the sport, which is significant in part because the medium of covering sports has changed so dramatically over the years.

In addition to photographs showing the transformation and growth of racing over the years, the museum has photos and video of one of the most infamous racing events in the world. It took place at the Kansas State Fairgrounds in Hutchinson in 1974.

“They had a wreck right at the start of the 50-lap Grand National event. 17 racecars burned up, 3 people were badly burned, and we have the film footage and color photographs,” Thompson said.

While the event itself was certainly newsworthy, the repercussions of it to the sport had an even more lasting and widespread effect: protecting the wellbeing of drivers.

“That racing event helped to reorganize the safety aspect of racing by mandating in-car fire extinguishers, fuel cells, racing suits, racing gloves and some other changes in that aspect of racing,” Thompson said. “That was an event that those photographs were on almost every newspaper, every sports page across in the United States in 1974. That happened in our state and it was well-documented through photography and video.”

Thompson said that racing fans from this area or ones who are passing through enjoy visiting the museum because it brings back good memories of watching races as a child or going to events with family. Often, Thompson said, visitors comment that they had no idea that Kansas had so much racing history and that they should have allocated more time to go through the museum.

Since its construction in 1997, the goal of the museum has been to preserve the history of racing in Kansas. With its own racetrack nearing its 10th birthday, the state seems well on its way to having not only a racing past but also a racing future.

“When it was the France family involved [in building Kansas Speedway], I knew it would be an excellent facility,” Thompson said. “It’s been an economic boom for the Kansas City area and has been a major attraction, and it brings big-league racing to the central parts of the United States, and it helps to take NASCAR racing from just being a Southeast-area to truly a national racing series.

“Sometime in the future I think you will see, maybe in 10, 12 years, if the economy can get back to where it should be, you may see race teams that are no longer based in the southeast area only but are more centrally located, and Kansas would be an excellent location for them.”

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