Sunday, December 28, 2014

NASCAR Hall of Fame story (from 2012)

NOTE: Appeared in the Hickory (N.C.) Daily Record in 2012

For Kelley, hall is a job and a hobby

By Tom Gillispie

The most touching moment so far for Winston Kelley probably came when the NASCAR Hall of Fame inducted Ned Jarrett.

“I went over to shake Ned’s hand, and I had tears in my eyes for him,” said Kelley, the director of the still-young hall of fame. “He was genuinely surprised, and he looked in my eyes and said, ‘I’m going to make you a good inductee.’

“We were thinking of what we could do for him, and he was thinking of what he could do for us.”
Jarrett wasn’t the only North Carolinian who has impressed Kelley. The hall-of-fame folks asked Junior Johnson, the former moonshine runner, how they could make a moonshine display. Johnson bought the materials, drove to Charlotte and built a still for them.

“We called and asked him to talk us through it,” said Kelley, 54. “Instead, he came here and built it. I was like Babe Ruth designing and building an exhibit at Cooperstown.”
The hall broke ground in January 2007 and opened May 11, 2010 at 400 East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in downtown Charlotte.

Kelley was hired long before the hall of fame was built, and he says he and others traveled to other halls of fame to see how they did it and learn. They visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the baseball hall in Cooperstown, the hockey hall, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and many others. They took what they saw and added their own wrinkles.

Kelley, the hall’s director, says that his job at the hall of fame has been kid-in-a-candy-store for a man whose father, Earl Kelley, was once the public-relations director for Charlotte Motor Speedway, a public-address announcer and a member of the Universal Racing Network broadcast team. Kelley’s first race, the 1964 Daytona 500, probably affected the directionhis life. He got to meet the race winner, Richard Petty. He became a huge Petty fan, and he’s gotten to know Petty during his own long career in racing.

Kelley’s worn many hats over the years; for instance, he once was the vice president of economic and business development and vice president of government and business relations for Duke Energy Carolinas. He’s worked on Motor Racing Network’s radio broadcasting team since 1988, and he still works several races a year. He also worked as a field reporter for “NASCAR This Morning” on Fox Sports Net from 2001 to 2004.

The hall of fame in Charlotte is a perfect job for Kelley, a native of Concord and magna-cum-laude graduate of N.C. State (BA degrees in business management and economics) and a resident of Charlotte.

“I consider myself blessed,” Kelley said. “This is a job and a hobby at the same time. I have to-do things that I don't like to do, but I love honoring people. They’re all so humble.”

He had good access to racers before he became the hall of fame’s director, and that access has increased since. He says it’s been strange to be so close to Petty, Jarrett, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, David Pearson and many others. They once were his heroes, and he’s gotten to know them as ordinary folks.

One of his problems has been who to induct. When they inducted the inaugural class on May 23, 2010, some people complained there were only five. They wanted 20, but Kelley says you can’t complain about a racing class that included Bill France Sr. (NASCAR’s founding father), Bill France Jr. (Bill Sr.’s replacement and the man who helped steward NASCAR into a new era), Junior Johnson, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

The second class, inducted on May 23, 2011, was also strong, with Jarrett, Bobby Allison, Bud Moore, Pearson and Lee Petty.

The 2012 class included two great stock-car drivers, Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough; a crew chief, Dale Inman; a modified great, Richie Evans, and Glen Wood, founder and former owner of the Wood Brothers Racing team.
Next year’s class has already been announced, and it includes three great drivers (Buck Baker, Herb Thomas and Rusty Wallace), a great crew chief (Leonard Wood) and a driver/car owner (Cotton Owens).

Kelley says he’s thrilled to have those men inducted, and he’s looking forward to future inductees.

But you can’t get Kelley to admit which exhibit is his favorite.

“I don't think I’ll answer that,” he said. “It’s like a grandparent having 40 or 50 grandchildren and asking him which is his favorite.”

Still, it’s obvious that Kelley enjoys the Glory Road section, which includes dozens of exhibits. There are displays on the current Cup, Nationwide and truck tracks, as well as displays of the tracks that fell by the wayside, like Hickory, Bowman Gray Stadium, North Wilkesboro, Rockingham and tracks far, far away from the Carolinas.

Kelley is obviously proud of some of the memorabilia, like the car that Ricky Craven drove when he edged Kurt Busch by .002 seconds at Darlington on March 16, 2003. That was the closest record finish in NASCAR history.

He says that people who don’t know much about racing gravitate to the interactive displays, while knowledgeable folk want to hear the old stories, learn about the old tracks and look at the memorabilia.

While Kelley won’t give his favorite display, he does say that the hall needs to induct an engine builder to go with the racers, car owners and crew chiefs.

“I have Maurice (Petty) on my list,” he said almost whimsically.

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