Speed reading: ASU library puts stock cars in the stacks
By Chris Verner
NASCAR legend Richard Petty may trace his racing roots deep into the gently rolling hills of Randolph County, but a piece of him will always be lodged in the heart of North Carolina’s mountains at Appalachian State University.
Actually, make that a bunch of pieces. A few years back, Lynda Petty, wife of the seven-time Winston Cup champ, donated a large assortment of materials documenting her husband’s career to the Stock Car Racing Collection at ASU’s Belk Library. The donation ó almost half a century’s worth of newspaper and magazine articles, fan letters, business contracts, scrapbooks and other memorabilia ó is now a core holding at one of the more unusual academic library collections in the country.
When you think of special library collections, you’re more likely to picture musty manuscripts and faded letters relating to famous political or literary figures than old racing magazines or yellowing newspaper clippings about Curtis Turner, the Flock brothers or other storied names in stock-car racing. But the ASU collection serves at least two important needs, according to curator Suzanne Wise. It helps preserve an important aspect of Southern and American history, and it’s a valuable resource for people seeking information on the sport that boasts more than 75 million fans, involves billions of corporate dollars and draws wall-to-wall television coverage.
“We have students and individual researchers who use the collection,” Wise said. In keeping with the nationwide appeal of stock-car racing, Wise said inquiries come from across the country. Along with writers working on magazine articles or books, the library also fields questions from television producers and filmmakers. “We’ll have people contact us from California and other states asking about collection items.”
One of the most important parts of the library, Wise said, is its “clipping” files, which contain magazine and newspaper articles about drivers and racing. While it has older clippings, like some of those donated by the Petty family, Wise is continually updates the files with articles from contemporary racing accounts. The collection on the fourth floor of the Belk Library also includes racing magazines, books, videos, taped interviews, personal papers, photographs and historic promotional and marketing materials. Descriptions of the holdings are available on the collection’s Web site. Eventually, there will be a Web section devoted to the Petty donation.
There are other libraries that cater to students of speed, including the International Motor Racing Research Center at Watkins Glenn, N.Y., and archives at the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing, in York Springs, Pa. NASCAR maintains its own extensive archives in Daytona Beach, but they’re not open to the general public. What’s distinctive about the ASU collection is that it is devoted exclusively to stock-car racing, and it’s designed to facilitate academic research along with offering public access.
ASU is a fitting location, given that it’s just up the road from Wilkes County, home of Junior Johnson and North Wilkesboro Speedway, once one of the most fabled tracks in stock-car racing. The collection began a decade or so ago, when Appalachian State decided to offer a one-time course in the history of stock-car racing. The course proved so popular, it became a regular part of the curriculum, and Wise realized there was a need to provide research materials for students. She began hunting for resources, and the collection grew from there. In 2004, the library received a federal grant to help promote and expand the holdings.
Now, another N.C. college has followed suit. The Atkins Library at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte recently launched a Motorsports Racing Collection, drawing on its proximity to the Mooresville-Concord racing hub. The collection began with donations of memorabilia from racing photographer T. Taylor Warren and the late Don O’Reilly, a broadcaster and publicist who founded “Speed Age” magazine.
While academia’s interest is yet another sign of stock-car racing’s popularity, it’s also evidence of the sport’s maturation from the days when it was often dismissed as a grease-stained enterprise with suspect origins and little appeal beyond the good ol’ boy proletariat. The college archives show that stock-car racing, like baseball or boxing, isn’t just a competitive spectacle but a subject worthy of serious historical study. That’s reflected in a growing number of books that go beyond driver bios or “behind-the-scenes” racing accounts to delve deeper into the cultural, anthropological (and even political) ramifications of the sport, such as historian Mark D. Howell’s “From Moonshine to Madison Avenue: A Cultural History of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series” and sociologist Jim Wright’s “Fixin’ to Git: One Fan’s Love Affair With NASCAR’s Winston Cup.”
Compared to other sports that trace their lineage back well over a century, NASCAR is relatively young, born in the mid-20th century. Some of those who participated in the rough-and-tumble early times are very much alive, which provides a rich opportunity to preserve firsthand accounts of history. For Wise, who’s not only a curator but a fan, it’s imperative to seek out those voices and secure their artifacts before it’s too late.
And you never know what you might stumble across.
Among the boxes of Petty items and the letters of admiration for King Richard was a note from a fan whose feelings reflect just how deeply passions can run in NASCAR nation ó and how quickly they can turn. It was written during the 1969 season, when Petty switched from his familiar blue Plymouth to drive a Ford Torino, to the horror of many loyal followers. The letter writer noted that he had been a Petty fan “forever,” Wise said, but closed by saying, “I hope you never win another race.”
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For information on the Stock Car Racing Collection at Appalachian State University’s Belk Library, visit www.library.appstate.edu/ stockcar/ or call 828-262-4041.
For information on the Motorsports Racing Collection at UNC-Charlotte’s Atkins Library, visit dlib.uncc.edu/special_collections/ or call 704-687-2449.