Most visitors to the Darlington Raceway Stock Car Museum aren't quite sure what to expect. Old cars, or modern ones? A history lesson, or a fresh look at a most contemporary and constantly evolving sport?
The answer: The museum offers all this, and a lot more.
Originally, the facility was called the Joe Weatherly Stock Car Museum; the name was changed following a major renovation and expansion project in 2003.
"Little Joe" Weatherly had a reputation as one of racing's most colorful characters back in the sport's early days, even earning the nickname "The Clown Prince of Stock Car Racing." He was known for his zest for life, his no-holds-barred driving style and his seemingly endless creativity in the field of practical jokes.
But Weatherly was much more than a prankster. He was a serious competitor on the track, with two wins at notoriously tough Darlington Raceway, in 1960 and 1963.
Joe Weatherly was killed while driving at Riverside in 1964, but he left a legacy at Darlington that went beyond a couple of entries in the win column. The driver who like so many others began his career racing on dirt had a real disdain for the fancy Indy cars so popular at the time, describing them as looking like "cucumbers with hayraker wheels."
Just as Darlington Raceway had originally been constructed in 1950 to give stock car racing a platform to rival that of the Indianapolis 500, the Museum was intended to do the same for the history of the still fledgling sport.
After a visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Musuem, Weatherly suggested to his good friend Bob Colvin, then president of Darlington Raceway, that he consider building a stock car museum in South Carolina. Colvin not only liked the idea, but followed through with it; following his friend's death, Colvin brought plans for the Joe Weatherly Stock Car Museum before the Raceway's Board of Directors, where they were unanimously approved. The facility was officially dedicated on May 2, 1965, and still stands as a testament to the greatness of the sport of stock car racing and those who compete in it.
A walk through the Museum is not only a trip through the history of Darlington Raceway, but of the entire sport. On the end of a line of classic cars, looking like a prop from a 1940s film, sits the 1950 Plymouth Johnny Mantz drove to Victory Lane in the very first Mountain Dew Southern 500. Mantz was the slowest qualifier for the race which he eventually won by 15 laps over second-place finisher Fireball Roberts.
Did you know that the winningest car in the history of stock car racing is a convertible? The 1956 Ford convertible which sits in the Weatherly Museum won 22 races in a single year racing in the convertible series, plus three more races that same year with the top welded on - including the Mountain Dew Southern 500 at Darlington.
Sitting quietly in the middle of a row, sporting its trademark blue and the number 43, is the 1967 Plymouth of Richard Petty, a car that won 10 races that year. Occupying a prominent spot in the back is Darrell Waltrip's 1991 Chevy Lumina, which rolled eight times in the '91 Pepsi 400 in one of the most fearsome crashes in stock car history. Waltrip walked away from the incident, and the car stands as an impressive witness to stock car safety.
In the rear of the building visitors can find the National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) Hall of Fame, filled with photos, memorabilia and interactive exhibits showcasing the sport of NASCAR racing and the personalities who have inhabited it over the years. Alan Kulwicki; David Pearson; Junior Johnson. Lee and Richard Petty. Neil Bonnett.
Ever wondered what a restrictor place looks like? How about the famous "Hemi" engine? Both are on display in the Darlington Raceway Stock Car Museum, along with other bits and pieces of racing trivia such as Fonty Flock's Bermuda shorts and Joe Weatherly's very own racing shoes.
The Darlington Raceway Stock Car Museum and NMPA Hall of Fame offer those who are interested in the history of stock car racing an in-depth look at the roots of the sport, and has a lot to pique the interest of newer fans as well. All in all, both facilities provide a unique stroll down NASCAR's memory lane.
The Darlington Raceway Stock Car Museum, NMPA Hall of Fame and Darlington Raceway gift shop are open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday - Friday. Museum admission is $7.50 for adults, $5.00 for military and FREE for kids under the age of 12.