The American south is home to two of the most famous National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) ovals: Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, and the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. Both honour their heritage with museums devoted to the sport.
Although Darlington’s 1.366-mile loop looks quaint now, in 1950 the Raceway was the first superspeedway in NASCAR history; its asphalt surface was a step up from the early dirt-track days.
The egg-shaped circuit became known as ‘the track too tough to tame’ when it hosted the inaugural Southern 500 that year. Still active today, it’s the home of the Darlington Raceway Stock Car Museum. Just as the sport provided a counterpoint to single-seater racing, the exhibition opened in 1965 as a riposte to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, which initially showcased IndyCar racing.
There are 14 racing cars, featuring a mixture of early NASCAR history as well as more recent champions. Pride of place goes to the 1951 Hudson Hornet in which NASCAR Hall of Famer Herb Thomas won the second running of the Southern 500. Thomas’ Hudson was the inspiration for Doc Hudson, the character voiced by Paul Newman in the Pixar film Cars.
A copy of Richard Petty’s ‘Petty Blue’ 1967 Plymouth Belvedere is also on show. Petty won 27 races that year, including 10 in a row – an incredible feat that’s unlikely to be repeated.
The ‘Million Dollar Bird’ is a Ford Thunderbird raced in 1985 by Bill Elliott. He earned a million-dollar bonus for winning the Daytona 500, Winston 500 and Southern 500 that year, the latter victory clinching the lucrative prize.
One of the most curious – and successful – machines in the history of stock-car racing is here: a ragtop 1956 Ford Fairlane number 26, driven by Curtis Turner to first place 22 times in a single year in the short-lived Convertible Division. Cases full of winners’ trophies, model cars, racing suits and more are also on show.
The National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame honours more than 75 legends of racing in a special display. Each inductee is represented by a larger-than-life monochrome portrait, along with framed memorabilia from their career. Here’s where you’ll find Richard Petty’s memorable cowboy hat, the red satin jacket that was awarded to Edward Glenn ‘Fireball’ Roberts Jnr for winning the 1963 Southern 500, and a pair of Dale Earnhardt’s familiar wraparound sunglasses.
In addition to NASCAR races, Darlington Raceway hosts various events throughout the year including classic car shows, barbecue contests and marathons, for a true slice of American race-car culture.
A 400-mile drive west, through the heart of NASCAR country, takes you to the Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Alabama. Spectating at a race here is a highlight for any stock-car fan: at 2.66 miles, it’s the longest track on the NASCAR calendar – almost twice the length of Darlington – and you’ll find the International Motorsports Hall of Fame next door.
Sprawling across three exhibition halls and an outdoor pavilion, it features not only NASCAR history, but also covers other areas of motorsport including IndyCar, the National Hot Rod Association, Formula One, motorcycles and many one-of-a-kind vehicles. You’ll find the Automobile Racing Club of America Hall of Fame, too, along with the Quarter Midgets of America Hall of Fame, the Alabama Racing Pioneers Hall of Fame and the Alabama Sports Writer’s Hall of Fame.
It can be hard to know where to begin with a collection featuring more than 150 racers, so start out at the circular Bill France Room, where the walls are covered with colourful murals representing Daytona Beach from the early days of racing on the sand.
Cars on display include the 1940 Mercury sedan driven by Sammy Packard, one of the last true beach racers; the black-and-gold 1962 Pontiac Catalina number 22 in which ‘Fireball’ Roberts won the Daytona 500 that year; and a 1983 Imperial that was the last Chrysler to race on the Winston Cup Circuit, piloted by Buddy Arrington.
You may also see the blue-and-yellow 1980 Chevrolet Monte Carlo that was donated by Dale Earnhardt. It’s unusual because it’s the number 2 car – rather than his later, more familar number 3 – that ‘The Intimidator’ drove to his first Winston Cup championship in 1980.
No NASCAR museum would be complete without a Richard Petty vehicle. Here it’s the 1974 Dodge in which he won his fifth NASCAR Winston Cup championship. He liked the car so much that he drove it again the following year for, naturally, his sixth NASCAR Winston Cup title.
In a case of life imitating art, it’s parked alongside the 2004 Chevy Monte Carlo Wonder Bread car that was driven by Will Ferrell in the comedy film Talladega Nights.
For gearheads, there’s a fine collection of engines including a 1937 Ford V8 that was the first successful American overhead-camshaft racing unit, along with a gallery of Ford flatheads. There’s also a section devoted to the remains of cars that were wrecked in accidents. Most remarkable is the 1990 Pontiac Grand Prix number 30, displayed in pieces, in which Michael Waltrip rammed the wall at Bristol International Raceway in 1990 – one of the most devastating crashes in the history of the sport. It’s testament to NASCAR’s rigorous safety standards that Waltrip was able to walk away.
A road trip to Darlington and Talladega gives fans a taste of NASCAR history, but do try to time your visit with a race week or barbecue competition for the full experience.
Michael Milne is the author of the Roadster Guide to America’s Classic Car Museums
Darlington Raceway Stock Car Museum
- Address 1301 Harry Byrd Highway, Darlington, South Carolina 29532, USA
- Where? 90 miles south-east of Charlotte
- How much? Adults $7.50, children (12 and under) free
- Opening hours 10am-4pm, Mon-Fri
- Tel 001 843 395 8821
- Web www.darlingtonraceway.com
International Motorsports Hall of Fame
- Address 3366 Speedway Boulevard, Lincoln, Alabama 35096, USA
- Where? 50 miles east of Birmingham
- How much? Adults $12, children (6-12) $5, under sixes free; track tours extra
- Opening hours 9am-4pm, Mon-Sun
- Tel 001 256 362 5002
- Web www.motorsportshalloffame.com