NASCAR evokes the image of crowds, the shouts and rush of a speedway, the roar of machines pushed to their limit — not a museum or a collection of artifacts. Tom Jensen, curatorial affairs manager at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, would beg to differ.
Jensen recalls beginning his journey with NASCAR at the age of 6. He was walking home in Maitland, Florida, when he discovered a racecar connected to a trailer. Cotton Owens, a legendary NASCAR driver, gave him a tour. “He let me sit in the seat, open up the hood,” Jensen said. “I’ve been a race fan ever since.” Owens was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame opened in Charlotte in 2010, and Jensen has served as curator for the past four years. Working alongside former drivers and their families, he uses cars, personal effects, and other artifacts to craft a compelling story of NASCAR and its drivers.
Entering the Hall of Fame for the first time, patrons are confronted by “Glory Road,” a massive speedway bank replica. Along this road are cars stopped as if in mid-race, all captured in the instant of success: snapshots across time. Car selection for Glory Road demands careful consideration, with vehicles brought in by crane through the roof, closing the space for a week. For the current selection of cars, Jensen collaborated with guest curator Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was NASCAR’s most popular driver 15 years in a row.
Speaking at his January 2022 induction into the Hall of Fame, Earnhardt Jr. said, “Nothing that racing has given me will ever top this night. The people enshrined in this building are my role models, my heroes… to join [my] dad in the Hall of Fame is probably as good as it’s ever gonna get.” Earnhardt Jr.’s car is featured prominently in the Hall, still confetti-bedazzled and a little muddy to capture his moment of victory in the 2014 Daytona 500.
Glory Road displays 18 cars showcasing 15 drivers. Collectively, these 15 drivers won 46 of the first 71 NASCAR Championships, making it the most comprehensive collection of championship cars ever assembled, according to Jensen. “All these cars have a story,” he says.
Jensen detailed the emotional process of sourcing artifacts from grieving families and widows of deceased drivers, like driver Davey Allison, who was tragically killed in a helicopter crash. In summer 2018, prior to Allison’s 2019 induction, Jensen visited Allison’s widow, Liz.
Together, they went through boxes of personal effects, eventually finding Allison’s pilot’s license and NASCAR credentials. “She looked at me and she said, ‘I hated that helicopter from the moment he bought it. But this is an important part of his story, and I want that in there,’” Jensen said.
Owned by the City of Charlotte, the Hall has no collections budget, so artifact acquisition works through a database of lenders and donors. Jensen emphasizes the importance of building relationships.. “You never know what someone’s going to give you,” Jensen says. “We had a guy call up out of the blue one day and say ‘I have the Guinness Book of World Records-certified largest NASCAR cereal box collection in the world.’ So we have 4,000 NASCAR-themed cereal boxes.”
Many such stories are hidden among thousands of artifacts in the Collections Garage, a kind of off-limits archive located below the Hall. Among Jensen’s favorites are two tape measures, each color-coded, gifts from a Hall of Fame crew chief. A closer look reveals their secret: different dimensions marked on the tape, one too short and one too long. Jensen smiled as he noted their significance – fake tapes like these were used by pit crews to slide illegal measurements past NASCAR inspectors.
Moving from Glory Road, visitors enter a room that resembles the inner sanctum of a church — a rotunda, golden-lit, with the quiet hush of a sacred space. This is the Hall of Honor, what Jensen describes as the most important space in the building. On the curved walls are faces of inductees, arranged in a circle to connote that “no one person is any more important than the other,” he said.
Artifact cases display the most recent inductees, assembled directly with the inducted drivers or with the assistance of their families. Each case is unique and reflective of the driver’s personality and history, telling the stories of the drivers as people, not just NASCAR heroes, Jensen said.
This is Jensen’s first museum job, but with a 30-year background in journalism, what he knows is storytelling. “I’m more of a word guy,” he says. “We tell stories with cars. We tell stories with artifacts, and tell stories with loads of photos.”
As visitors exit, they pass again by Glory Road — cars with decades of victory and history packed into the driver’s seat. “You know, all these cars have a personal connection, someway, somehow,” Jensen says. “What’s the appeal of cars going around the circle?… Well, [it’s] a lot more than that… You learn about the people. It’s not about just the cars going around in circles. It’s about the people and what they do.”