There's a shrine to evolution in the unlikeliest of places. It's smack-dab in the middle of the country. It even shares a parking lot with a mail-order retailer. But it's appropriate that the Smith Collection Museum of American Speed reflect the environment that made it possible. If the heartland wasn't already the epicenter of dirt-track racing to begin, then Speedway Motors certainly put it there.
The Museum of American Speed lucks out when it gets mostly complete and clean examples lik
This isn't the first time we've showcased the Smith Collection Museum of American Speed. Editor Brian Brennan showcased the museum in the Winter '11 Street Rodder Premium. In a nutshell the museum represents the preservationist side of the Smith family, the patriarch of which, Bill Smith, founded Speedway Motors in 1952. He and Joyce transformed a small business into a production and retail dynasty that their four sons, Clay, Carson, Craig, and Jason, govern today.
We used the prior story to sell you on the idea of going to see the museum. We still encourage you to go; it really is incredible. But this isn't a story about the displays. Rather this is about the things not on display.
Brennan got more than a story about a museum. He came back with a mandate. You see, the stuff displayed in a museum, any museum, doesn't stand alone. It's merely the product of a whole other world. It takes space, purchasers, organizers, researchers, librarians, restorers, and displays. In that sense the Smith Collection Museum of American Speed is a whole business unto itself.
Work can’t start without researchers like Bob Mays. Mays may joke but he’s serious about h
Naturally an operation on that scale requires a ton of space. The museum itself occupies 135,000 square feet. That's 3 acresof go-fast goodness. But there's a discrepancy: the building's footprint alone is more than halfof that figure. And it has three levels.
So what's with the extra space? "Very few things come here complete," museum operations manager John MacKichan says. "Sometimes we get a pallet with a block on it. It might be a bunch of boxes with random parts. We might not be able to use everything immediately but that doesn't mean we can just get rid of stuff. We might need a specific part to complete another display down the line. Some of these parts are incredibly rare—we have a few that we think are one of one. What do we do if we have to go out searching for such rare parts?"
And it's a real issue. Case in point, carburetors. Most prewar engines ran examples produced in relatively small quantities—Miller, Riley, and Winfield come to mind. As I marveled about a carburetor parts cache in the main storeroom MacKichan lamented the availability of complete examples. "There's a real carburetor shortage," he says. "This looks impressive but these are just parts. We need complete carburetors to display an engine."
Most of the truly rare stuff comes in like this pair of Maxi overhead-valve conversion hea
Here’s what it takes to make it look like the Adams-Moeller that Don Clark and Clem Tebow
New arrivals go in one of two places: immediately on display or in storage. Storage means
1. The storage rooms are nothing if not impressive themselves. This was taken at the mid-way point of just one of them. Our local supermarket would likely fit in this one.
2. Some racers fade into history. Midget racer Dick Manny won't; his V-8/60 engine and possibly other goodies will represent him on the floor. The museum has displays for other regional racers like Johnny Gerber.
3. Rest assured this isn't a random pile of parts. Old axles take up space and a number of these boast quick-change housings. The Sprint Car chassis topside is its own proof of evolution: transverse leaf and radius-rod sockets in the rear but four-link and torsion bars for the front.
4. Here's about 70 years of wheel technology, the oldest easily a century old. There's a wood-spoke wheel at top, a cast-center clincher at bottom, a dental-drive hub laced to a drop-center rim, at least two brake-vent generations of Halibrands, and some unknown but ultra-wide cast Sprint Car wheels.
5. The museum is more than parts and cars; it's a literature repository. Among other things Antigone Jackson scans things like the entire volume of National Speed Sport News that the museum recently acquired. She's got a job ahead of her; she was working on the mid '30s when we were there.
6. A library means nothing without a librarian. That's Marvona Tavlin. She's the keeper of a wall of rolling stacks that occupy nearly two whole walls.
7. You want pistons? None of these has seen a cylinder. In fact some haven't even undergone the final machining operations necessary for their use. But they'll find homes in lonely blocks one day.
8. Around the corner … Hurst Airheart calipers. Most of these appeared N.O.S. In light of the number of '60s and '70s Sprint Car frames turning up in barns these will find new homes sooner than later.
9. We have a soft spot for Halibrand lobster calipers, even if they're impractical for street use (they use pucks rather than conventional pads and suffer kick-back and piston cock). But here's a stack of the things under another stack of what appear to be Hurst Airhearts.
Nor can any museum display every asset in its possession. "Right now we're working on the model for an expansion," exhibit designer Jarrid Roulet noted. "You've seen what it's like out there. We have the place packed as it is." In fact the model sits in a wing recently finished to accept a dry lakes display. "We want to show people the way these cars look on the salt, which means we need to set aside a whole section," he says as he points at a platform that runs almost the entire length of one wall. Half a dozen pallets of recently donated engines and parts makes the space issue seem that much more pressing.
And that brings up another element of the museum: acquiring artifacts. "We have to buy a lot of things but like any other museum we couldn't do this without donations," MacKichan says. "It benefits those who donate as well. People are passionate enough about these things to collect them but nobody lives forever. We've gotten a lot of things that some family was ready to take to the dump, things we consider priceless. Instead of paying to throw things away they get a tax write off for donating them."
Work can’t start without researchers like Rich Johnson. Johnson also coordinates events.
Which, of course, brings us back to what beguiled Brennan enough to send me out to photograph it. What follows reveals the scope, nature, and breadth of a museum's operations. Don't take this lightly: a curator isn't likely to ever let the public see what's behind the curtain, and it's a rare occasion even for us.
Still, as neat as the stuff is in the wings it's not really accessible. Though there are truly rare and historically significant things in the rafters they're largely unrecognizable when grimy and disassembled. It's the stuff on display that's truly breathtaking. This is just an occasion to see what it takes to collect, erect, and maintain those displays.
I'm fortunate to have seen some of the finest automotive museums in the world, including a few that aren't even open to the public and a number that no longer exist. Still, none represent what the Smith Collection Museum of American Speed does—American performance—much less represent it so thoroughly. In a sense it reflects the philosophy of its creator, an amateur racer who climbed to the top of his industry.
As we ambled the aisles Bill Smith turned and asked my opinion. I told him I thought he won. "Good," he said, a grin creasing his face. "That's what I came to do."
10. You want carburetors? Some really early examples predate our interests (think teens and early '20s updrafts) but a few of you may recognize the names: Miller, Fish, Winfield, and so on.
11. Winfield carburetors, being the most abundant and some of the most advanced for their era, get used more than any other. As a consequence they're in high demand in the museum. These surrendered their innards but ultimately they'll meet new pieces and go on another engine. There's no such thing as junk here.
12. It's the little things that get us weak-kneed. This recent acquisition, a nondescript toolbox, houses a catalog worth of Winfield jets, nozzles, emulsion tubes, and fittings. Most of the stuff like this went to the dump more than half a century ago.
13. I've noticed one thing consistent among all auto museums: huge magneto collections. This is itself a museum's worth of Eisemann, Bosch America, Scintilla, WICO, Shiefer, and Harman-Collins pieces. Like carburetors, they're necessary to displays. They'll all see the light of day again.
14. If you think we have lots of manifolds to choose from today you've got another thing coming. The museum has at least 100 V-8 examples on formal display, not including the ones on engines or awaiting display. They're rare, too: Shanafelt, Hex, SAE, Norden, and so on.
15. Riley engines are exceptional but the flat-twin Riley on Scott Fernyhough's bench stands out. Fernyhough builds the various engine stands and displays throughout the museum.
16. Jarrid Roulet literally gets paid to play with models. He designs the displays and exhibits, the latest of which represents the most recently finished exhibit room.
17. Of course this is what the room looks like now. Though merely a repository for an old sprinter, an '80s Hot Rod magazine Speedrodder project, and a few NASCAR racers, the Bonneville collection it'll hold will create a void in the museum's cache.
18. And ultimately this is how the pieces will look once displayed in the new room. Like the Maxi, the Alexander F-head conversion converted the exhaust side to overhead valve and not the intake side that truly needs the help!