When the Winston Cup Museum opened in May 2005, owner/founder Will Spencer said he didn’t open the museum to make money.
“I wanted to give something back to the city of Winston-Salem as well as preserve the 33-year history of Winston Cup Racing because it had such a positive impact on me and my business,” he has said.
The museum quietly stayed open until December of 2014, then reopened in August of 2015.
“That was because I wanted to go in a different direction,” Spencer said in early December. “When it opened, I said we’d go 10 years, then see if we needed any changes.”
The museum, now called the Winston Cup Museum Special Event Center, is located at 1355 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, right beside where Spencer’s JKS Motorsports buildings still exist (JKS moved to Lexington a few years ago, but Spencer still owns those buildings).
Spencer said he worked with the City of Winston-Salem to rezone the area and make the museum a part of the nearby entertainment district so he could do outdoor events and hold special events inside the museum. In December, for instance, the museum hosted a special Pearl Harbor veterans coffee, and it later hosted the Town of Rural Hall’s awards ceremony and retirement banquet for long-time fire chief Eddie Horn.
Rural Hall held its banquet at the museum because Horn has been a part-time employee for Spencer and JKS. He says he sent Spencer an email saying that he’d like to drive show cars for JKS, and he wound up driving a show car for the Clint Bowyer/5-Hour Energy NASCAR team.
“We want to do car shows and flea markets, and we might hold (outdoor) movie nights,” Spencer said. He said they might show movies with a car theme, with the Steve McQueen flick “Bullitt” among possibilities, along with “Vanishing Point” and “Grease” (the one with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John).
The museum will have interactive games, and Spencer is working with a Greensboro company called Pixels on an application that visitors can download to their smart phones and other devices. Visitors could then hear the words of long-time broadcaster Mark Garrow and learn about the Winston Cup era (1971-2003).
“If you don't have technology to keep young people interested, you won't survive long,” said Christy Spencer, Will’s wife and the museum publicist.
They’ve redesigned their website, and updated their Facebook page.
The museum has a small number of employees. Christy Spencer, Will’s wife, says she’s the behind-the-scenes “bill-payer and numbers girl.” Bill Soper has long been the museum curator. Bill Harrelson, a long-time employee of R.J. Reynolds and a big race fan, showed up for the museum opening in 2005, and now he’s working for the museum.
The night of the Rural Hall banquet, visitors walked into the lobby and saw a silver Christmas tree beside a mural dominated by the photo of seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. Farther inside the showroom area — this building used to be an auto dealership — there’s a red Superbird.
Inside the museum, there are 23 race cars, some of them with working race engines. Spencer says he has 27 cars in other buildings because there was no room in the museum. The wall to the left still shows photos of the Winston Cup era, starting with the first era champion, Richard Petty in 1971, and ending with the last, Matt Kenseth in 2003. In the podium area, visitors could see the first-ever Winston show car, which featured driver T. Wayne Robertson (who later ran Winston’s Cup program) and Miss Winston Marilyn Chilton (later Green).
If you go through a door behind podium, you could see the staging area where they handle catering for events.
There’s still a visible connection between the museum and Reynolds Tobacco Co., partly because of its location. You walk out the museum door and look up, and you’ll see the Reynolds American building, with the Winston Tower behind it.
Spencer is quick to remind you that Winston was instrumental in pushing NASCAR’s highest division and short tracks like Bowman Gray Stadium and South Boston Speedway to greater success.
“So much has happened in those 33 years,” Spencer said, “and if you look at where NASCAR was in 1971 when the sponsorship started compared to where it was when it ended in 2003, it’s really amazing. I had been thinking about some sort of a museum for some time, but in 2003, when RJR decided to get out of NASCAR, the museum idea had a purpose.”
It’s a way to remember Dale Earnhardt Sr., Richard Petty, Bill Elliott, Cale Yarborough and the others.