Long And Winding Road To Preserving Racing History


Stories Of People Who Make A Living In Motorsports

Guest Columnist

Tom Schmeh has been around racing his entire life and has been executive director of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum since 1989.

As many of you know, I am currently charged with helping to preserve the history of auto racing — sprint-car racing in particular. As executive director of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum in Knoxville, Iowa, since construction was begun in 1989, auto racing has been an extremely important part of my life.

I was born in 1959 in Kenmore, N.Y., and saw my first race at Lancaster Speedway in 1969. My brother Jim raced an Opel mini-stock on the pavement at Lancaster and on the dirt tracks of Ransomville (N.Y.) and Merrittville (Ontario). By the end of high school, I was “hooked” on automobile racing.

It wasn’t from a mechanical standpoint, but from a statistical and historical perspective. My many memories include Jim Shampine and John Clapham winning United Racing Club features (when Bobby Stelter went out-of-the-ballpark) at Lancaster in 1970, and Jan Opperman winning twin URC mains at the Erie County Fair in Hamburg (N.Y.) in ’72.

While attending Buffalo State College in the late 1970s, with the encouragement of friend Dave McMullen, I started writing for columnists like Candy Dolin and Bruce Ellis and offering my statistical help. In 1978, DIRT’s late-model division became my focus and I created the Mid-Atlantic Racing Series in order to give the drivers and teams more exposure and a little more cash.

Drivers like Tommy Williams, Craig Keel, “Skip” Furlow, Walt Mitchell and Randy Glenski were MARS regulars in 1979, ’80 and ’81.

While working at the General Electric Company in Utica (N.Y.) from 1980 through ’85, my travels to chase racing took me all over the country. In 1982, at an event at Hickory (N.C.), I met NASCAR director of scoring/timing Morris Metcalfe and he invited me to his “Scoring School” in Albany (N.Y.) that winter. In 1983 and ’84, NASCAR scoring was my hobby, working shows from Oxford Plains (Maine) to Daytona Beach (Fla.).

At the same time, in late 1984, Dave (McMullen) and I went to an Empire Super Sprints (ESS) show at Fulton (N.Y.). We were blown away by the speed and sheer excitement of the race between Ohio’s Johnny Beaber, New York’s Craig Keel and Pennsylvania’s Len Krautheim III. Shortly thereafter, in 1985, I founded the National Sprint Car Poll in an attempt to increase the exposure of sprint-car racing in the mainstream media.

Also in ’85, the 25th Knoxville Nationals was a destination. The event, the track, the city and the community’s support of racing were like nothing we’d ever seen. As Jack Miller would say, “Holy Cow!”

After the Nationals press conference, at which promoter Ralph Capitani, Mayor Graham Fee and chamber director Chuck Day spoke of this ‘National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum’ dream, I volunteered to help.

After moving to Milwaukee (Wis.) to work at Miller Brewing Co.’s corporate headquarters in late 1985 (supporting the computers of Eddie Gossage, Tom Roberts, Bill Weber, Tom Blattler and others), I continued to volunteer on the non-profit museum foundation’s national task force and board of directors.

In early 1989, fellow board member (and treasurer) Don Lamberti of Casey’s General Stores called me and said, “We know you have a business background and a love for the sport and its history, and we’d like you to lead this project as executive director.”

With the encouragement of family, and friends like Larry Janicsek, Knoxville became my new full-time address. In the fall of 1989, construction began on the National Sprint Car Museum, which sits outside turn two of the famed Knoxville Raceway. And in the fall of 1991, through the generous efforts of thousands of individuals and companies like Casey’s General Stores, Pella Corp., U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co. and the Marion County Fair Ass’n, it was completed.

We have been open seven days a week, year-round, since and we are actively preserving the history of ‘big car,’ supermodified and sprint-car racing.

Our archives include film, programs and photos from famous places like Ascot Park, Jungle Park, Langhorne, West Capital, New Bremen and Manzanita, and from lesser-known (but no-less-special to me) tracks like Lancaster, Erie County Fair, Little Valley, Civic Stadium and Shangri-La.

(Original Print Date: October 17, 2007)