“It wasn’t a motorsports crowd to speak of and it was kind of a hidden location, but it was a place where we could get started,” Watson said. “That building became obsolete over the years.
“It seemed that the city of Novi itself didn’t embrace it like we thought it would. It became more of a Detroit entity, it became more of a national entity and we looked for a home for a museum.”
When the city of Novi tore down the building, it truly became time to find another home for the museum.
“We looked around the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan in every conceivable place,” Watson said. “There were some great, big buildings in need of renovation and probably the expense of doing those things would have been prohibitive.”
The hall spent a short time at the Detroit Science Center, which closed in 2011 to make room for the Michigan Science Center. But Watson and his crew considered both the exposition and science centers to be temporary homes. It finally got to the point when they “decided somebody would have to be a host for (the hall).”
That’s when Daytona Int’l Speedway and Joie Chitwood, president of the speedway from 2010 through 2016, offered the hall a permanent home. The hall had multiple other offers, but Chitwood, a member of the hall’s board of trustees who became chief operating officer of the International Speedway Corp. after his time at Daytona, made room for the hall in the building that formerly housed the Daytona USA interactive exhibit.
Only one person on the board at the time voted against the move to Daytona Beach and, after nearly 30 years in Michigan, the hall made the move to the coast in 2016 — artifacts and all.
“It’s something that I’d rather not do too often, I’ll tell you,” Watson said. “We did it truckload by truckload. I think there was one time when I came down here from Detroit and I think we took in five semis of vehicles and then one of our sponsors actually donated a semi-trailer to us.”
The hall became part of Daytona Int’l Speedway’s tours, with each different tour option ending in the “majestic” building once occupied by Daytona USA. But the display isn’t the only unique thing about the hall — Watson says there’s a “very touching” volunteer spirit that stems all the way from the hall’s birthplace in Michigan.
“This is a nonprofit organization and we never had any kind of massive paid staff,” he said. “Our main thrust was volunteers. We had had a bunch of volunteers from Detroit come down here at the end of June on their own just to be part of (the first induction ceremony in Daytona).
“There’s somebody here from Detroit for this week just to do some work down here,” Watson added. “This person is considering moving down, believe it or not. We’re going to try to recreate that spirit here as well.”
For more than two decades, people passed by the hall’s door because they were at a local exposition center for some completely different reason. Now, the Motor sports Hall of Fame of America sits just outside the “World Center of Racing” and has a prime slot on its tours.
The hall started without the influence of anyone in power, gained respect and last year raised enough money to wind up at one of the most recognizable race tracks in America — just like Watson and his crew planned in the late 1980s.
And to think, it all started with a small display at city hall in Novi, Mich.
“This was started out of thin air,” Watson said. “This was truly a grassroots thing and there was no great benefactor who started it. It was just some common people deciding to do it.”