During its nearly three decades of existence, the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America has inducted 230 people and managed to move from a small town in Michigan to just outside of Daytona Int’l Speedway’s high-banked fourth turn.
But the creators of the hall never intended for it to recognize racing’s heroes and they likely didn’t anticipate the facility winding up in Daytona Beach, Fla. The original intent was to honor a car that raced much farther north, and on far more gradual banking.
“There was a race car called the Novi Special,” said Ron Watson, who grew up hearing about this supercharged, V-8-powered machine racing around Indianapolis Motor Speedway and would eventually become the president of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. “It was a very popular car, simply because it was different.”
The Novi engine ran the Indianapolis 500 between 1946 and 1965, and versions of it ran before World War II without the Novi name. The name came from the engine’s birthplace in Novi, Mich., and its distinct shriek gained recognition on a global scale during the engine’s more than two decades on the race track.
Thus, the Novi Special became what Watson, who later became a resident of Novi, would call “the most tangible thing about that town that was known throughout the country and really the world.”
That’s when, in 1989, a few people from the city decided to do something with one of the last Novi Specials.
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“I was on the city council and the town really didn’t have any kind of heritage to speak of — other than the local farmers and there’s a really nice mall and everything,” Watson said. “The whole idea was to have a museum around that car. But this is a minor part of the story because that whole thing has gone away.”
The whole thing went away pretty quickly and Watson says the Novi car was only in the exhibit for a short while. Despite a local water tower still notifying any passerby that Novi is the birthplace of the Novi Special, Watson notes the idea of a museum around the car didn’t really catch on in the town.
That’s when the idea came about that there really was no national Hall of Fame for all branches of motorsports. They had the American car, the Novi — all they needed to add was the American racing legacy.
“We always thought we would start with a Hall of Fame and make it very high quality,” Watson said. “That it would gain respect because it was done properly without any influence of anybody in power and it would gain respect in the racing community.
“Then people would support it with dollars and we would come up with a museum, eventually, that was appropriate to honor these people. We devised a system to elect people, recruited some people to be voters and tried to get some of the local car companies and people to buy tickets to an event that we were just kind of putting together as we went.”
Watson says there was a “great response” when the hall opened in 1989 and during its early years. The hall became a nonprofit museum and its first induction ceremony saw guests like 1961 Formula One World champion Phil Hill, 17-time national drag racing champion Don Garlits and legendary Indy car driver A.J. Foyt.
That “started giving (the hall) legitimacy from the get- go,” and the induction ceremony became an annual event with guests from all branches of racing — boats, aviation and every type of car imaginable. Various people from those disciplines helped the operation along by donating vehicles and other artifacts for the museum to rotate in and out of its exhibits.
The problem, according to Watson, was that they couldn’t find a good home for the hall and its museum. After starting as a small display in city hall, the hall was nestled in a corner of Novi’s local exposition center for nearly two decades. People coming to the dog show or any other event at the exposition center would wind up walking by the hall’s door, but in a town of 55,000 residents the motorsports enthusiasts were few.