Art Arfons and Wally Parks with the Trophy for Top Speed, NHRA Nationals, Detroit Dragway, 1959 / THF122663
Loud, fast, intense. On the surface, drag racing looks fairly simple, but it’s much more complex than it appears. Especially in the professional classes of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA)—Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock—the cars are technologically ultrasophisticated, with truly awesome capabilities. A Top Fuel dragster—today’s ultimate—has a supercharged, 500-cubic-inch V-8 engine that can produce 11,000 horsepower burning nitromethane fuel. It propels that car and driver to well over 300 mph in a 1,000-foot charge that can take as little as 3.7 seconds.
Drag racing’s roots come from the 1930s on California’s dry lakes and the country’s back roads, where people raced each other in a straight line to see which car was fastest. Especially after World War II, speeds were getting up over 100 mph, and Wally Parks, who himself was a performance enthusiast, decided it was time to “create order from chaos.” Parks formed the NHRA in 1951, with the goal of getting hotrodders off the streets and into safer, more controllable, and legal venues. The NHRA legitimized the sport with safety rules, as well as performance and performance regulations, and today it is America’s largest, most important drag racing organization, with a multitude of classes for professional and amateur racers.
In the 1950s and 1960s, drag racing fans loved the “gasser wars”—duels between gasoline-burning coupes and sedans. "Ohio George" Montgomery was among the most famous, and most frequent, winners. He owned, built, and drove this Willys gasser, and scored class wins in NHRA national championship events six times. It is based on the Willys coupe—a small economy car from the 1930s, favored by drag racers for its light weight.
Montgomery called his car the "World's Wildest Willys," and frequently used his considerable talents as a mechanic and machinist to modify the car to make it even wilder. He kept it winning races and championships from 1959 through 1967.
This is its final version, with the top chopped four inches; fiberglass hood, fenders, and doors; and a supercharged, single-overhead-cam Ford V-8 engine.
Dragsters are designed for a single purpose: cover a quarter-mile from a standing start as quickly as possible. Builders throw out anything that does not contribute to that goal, and they concentrate weight as close to the rear wheels as possible to maximize traction.
Slingshot dragsters were popular from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s, so named because the driver sat behind the rear wheels "like a rock in a slingshot." This design was the ancestor of today’s Top Fuel dragsters.
Bob Thompson and Sam Buck, from Lockport, Illinois, built and drove this car and were very successful in the Midwest from 1960 to 1963. They bought the chassis as a kit and did extensive modifications to the 1948 Ford V-8 engine, with special cylinder heads, crank, pistons, magneto, camshaft, and fuel injectors.
Essentially a factory-built race car designed more for the track than the street, this next-generation, ultra-high-performance Camaro is designed and executed for “out-of-the-box” weekend racing.
In addition to a supercharged 6.2L V8 engine rated at 650 horsepower, the ZL1 carries a track cooling package with engine oil, differential, and transmission coolers. Additionally, an exposed weave carbon-fiber rear wing adds up to 300 lbs. of downforce, and integrated front dive planes contribute to ultimate downforce and grip.
Engineers also paid extra attention to ensure the Camaro ZL1’s immense power could be reined in just as effectively with a short stopping distance. The Camaro ZL1 can go from 60-0 mph in just 107 feet, ensuring both remarkable track time and safety, thanks to its specifically designed performance brakes.
Overall, the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1’s incredible performance is the end result of carefully considered engineering decisions that have resulted in a vehicle that redefines what a sports car can do on-track, without compromising its on-road manners.
The modern race shop encompasses a combination of scientific research, computer-aided design and engineering, prototyping, product development and testing, fabrication, and manufacturing. Here you can go behind the scenes to see how experts create winning race cars, using their knowledge in planning and problem-solving.
You can learn about key elements for achieving maximum performance through an open-ended exploration of components of the cars on display, as well as through other activities. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) principles are a key focus here.
This is the actual car that won the LMGTE Pro class at the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans. The win was historic because it happened on the 50th anniversary of Ford’s first Le Mans victory in 1966, but over that half-century, racing technology advanced enormously, and the engine is half the size (a 3.5-liter, all-aluminum V-6 compared with a 7-liter, cast-iron V-8). But twin turbochargers (vs. naturally aspirated intake), direct fuel injection (vs. carburation), and electronic engine controls (vs. all mechanical) gave the GT engine almost 650 horsepower, versus slightly over 500 horsepower for the Mark IV.
Computer-aided design and engineering, aerodynamic innovations to maximize downforce and minimize drag, and electronic controls for the engine and transmission all combine to make the 2016 Ford GT a much more advanced race car, as you would expect 50 years on. The technology and materials advances in the GT’s brakes, suspension and tires, combined with today’s aerodynamics, make its handling far superior to its famous ancestor.
You can’t talk about American sports car racing without America’s sports car. The Chevrolet Corvette was in its fifth styling generation when the race version C5-R debuted in 1999. The Corvette Racing team earned 35 victories with the C5-R through 2004, including an overall victory at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2001. This is the car driven by Ron Fellows, Johnny O'Connell, Franck Freon, and Chris Kneifel in that Daytona win.
Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon earned Ford its first win at Le Mans with the #2 GT40 on June 19, 1966. Ford celebrated that victory with another one on June 19, 2016—exactly 50 years later. / lemans06-66_083
Learn more about sports car performance with these additional resources from The Henry Ford.
Tiny Lund in the pit at the 1965 Daytona 500 / THF117040
“Rubbin’ Is Racin’” — Robert Duvall as Harry Hogge in Days of Thunder
Stock car legend Dale Earnhardt once said, “The winner ain’t the one with the fastest car—it’s the one who refuses to lose.” This form of racing blends innovation, teamwork, and a bit of “trading paint” with rivals along the way.
Stock car racing is famously close-fought—often a contact sport. Few cars come out of a race, particularly on the shorter tracks, without at least a scrape, scratch, or dent from “trading paint” with another car. NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) is an extremely popular stock car series that evolved from Southern moonshine-running during Prohibition. The spectacle is characterized by the color and noises of high-speed, ultra-close racing, highly efficient teamwork during pit stops, and the added conflict of long-standing rivalries among auto manufacturers.
The term "stock car" originally meant a car from a dealer's stock—one that was unmodified. When NASCAR ran its first series in 1949, it was called “Strictly Stock,” and for many years racing stock cars were indeed based on real production automobiles. By 1987, however, racing stock cars only looked stock, and since then, further rules changes have given NASCAR stock cars only a passing resemblance to their production counterparts, with just a few design cues to make the connection. Underneath the bodywork is a purpose-built steel tube frame chassis, racing suspension and brakes, and a pure-bred racing engine.
The Stock Car Racing section of our new exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America presented by General Motors, will delight people who enjoy real, hands-on pit crew teamwork with an activity for four or five people to see how fast they can change the tires and work the gas can. You’ll also see an actual stock car and other related artifacts.
This car, driven by Trevor Bayne, won the Daytona 500 in 2011. His was a milestone victory in several ways. It was Ford’s 600th win in NASCAR’s premier Cup Series, scored by a legendary team that has been involved from NASCAR’s beginnings. It was the fifth Daytona 500 win for Wood Brothers Racing and the twelfth by a Ford car (Wood Brothers also scored Ford’s first, in 1963). For Trevor Bayne, who had celebrated his 20th birthday the day before, it was his first victory in NASCAR’s top series, making him the Daytona 500’s youngest winner. (Coincidentally, in Wood Brothers’ first Daytona 500 win in 1963, it was also driver Tiny Lund’s first NASCAR cup win.)
The Wood Brothers are celebrated for revolutionizing NASCAR’s pit stops. They pioneered the fast, meticulously choreographed and coordinated actions of the team’s “over-the-wall” crew, who jack up the car, change the tires, and fill the gas tank with blinding speed. Their pit stop fame prompted Ford and Team Lotus to hire Wood Brothers to service Jim Clark’s car in the 1965 Indy 500.
This car also benefits from safety advances instituted following Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s fatal crash at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500. That tragic event launched a revolution in NASCAR’s safety regulations and procedures. Arguably the most important of these is the mandatory use of the HANS (Head and Neck Support) device that restricts the movement of a driver’s head in a hard crash. In addition, SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barriers, mandatory crash data recorders in the cars to advance knowledge of crash dynamics, and more energy-absorbing deformation zones were introduced into the next generation of NASCAR stock cars.
We spotlighted racing at Motor Muster for 2021. This 1953 Oldsmobile 88 stock car, brought to us by the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum, fit the theme perfectly. / Image from The Henry Ford’s livestream
Gearheads and automobile aficionados had reason to celebrate as Motor Muster returned to Greenfield Village on June 19 and 20. Like so much else, last year’s show was canceled in the wake of COVID-19. But with restrictions eased and a brighter situation all around, we returned in 2021 for another memorable show. We also welcomed a new sponsor. For the first time, this year’s Motor Muster was powered by Hagerty.
The Henry Ford’s 1953 Ford Sunliner convertible, official pace car at that year’s Indianapolis 500. / Image by Matt Anderson
As always, we brought out a special vehicle from The Henry Ford’s collection. Many of our prominent competition cars are in Driven to Win, but we found a perfect match for the theme in our 1953 Ford Sunliner. The convertible served as pace car at the 1953 Indianapolis 500, driven by William Clay Ford in honor of Ford Motor Company’s 50th anniversary. In addition to its decorative lettering (with flecks of real gold in the paint), the pace car featured a gold-toned interior, distinctive wire wheels, and a specially tuned V-8 engine rated at 125 horsepower.
From the GM Heritage Center, a 1955 Chevrolet from the days when stock cars were still largely stock. / Image by Matt Anderson
Our friends at General Motors got into the spirit of things by lending an appropriate car from the GM Heritage Center collection. Their 1955 Chevrolet 150 sedan is a replica of the car in which NASCAR driver Herb Thomas won the 1955 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Thomas’s car benefited from Chevy’s new-for-’55 V-8 engine which, with the optional PowerPak dual exhausts, was rated at 180 horsepower. The Chevy small-block design went on to win more NASCAR races than any other engine.
Historical vignettes were in place throughout Greenfield Village—everything from a Civilian Conservation Corps setup from the 1930s to a patriotic bicentennial picnic right out of the mid-1970s. Even the Herschell-Spillman Carousel got into the spirit of the ’70s, playing band organ arrangements of the hits of ABBA. (I wonder if that 1961 Volvo at the show ever drove past the carousel. What a smorgasbord of Swedish splendor that would’ve been!)
Our awards ceremony included prizes for unrestored cars, like this 1941 Ford Super Deluxe Fordor. / Image by Matt Anderson
As always, we capped the weekend with our awards ceremony. Our popular choice voting allows visitors to choose their favorite vehicles from each Motor Muster decade. Top prize winners this year included a 1936 Hupmobile, a 1948 MG TC, a 1958 Chevrolet Corvette, a 1969 Plymouth Barracuda, and a 1976 Ford Econoline van. The blue ribbon for motorcycles went to a 1958 Vespa Allstate, and the one for bicycles to a 1952 JC Higgins bike. For commercial and military vehicles, our top vote-getters were a 1937 Ford 77 pickup and a 1942 White M2A1 half-track, respectively. We also presented trophies to two unrestored vehicles honored with our Curator’s Choice award. For 2021, those prizes went to a 1936 Buick Victoria Coupe and a 1967 Chevrolet C/10 pickup.
It was a longer-than-usual time in coming, but Motor Muster 2021 was worth the wait. Everyone was in good spirits and enjoying the cars, the camaraderie, and the chance to enjoy a bit of normalcy after a trying year. Let’s all do it again soon.
If you weren’t able to join us at Motor Muster this year, though, you can watch parts of the program right now. Our popular pass-in-review program, in which automotive historians provide commentary on participating vehicles, returned this year with a twist. We livestreamed portions of the program so that people who couldn’t attend Motor Muster in person could still enjoy some of the show. Enjoy those streams below, or use the links in the captions to jump straight to Facebook.
Barney Oldfield and Lincoln Beachey Racing, Columbus, Ohio, 1914 / THF228829
In racing, a skilled driver means everything, but if that person is blessed with charisma and an ability to attract attention, then the fruits of promotion are close at hand. Ability behind the wheel is essential for winning races. But from the sport’s earliest days, success in auto racing also has been augmented by a driver’s ability to attract attention and build a relationship with fans. This helps generate public awareness, fundraising, and sponsorship. In our new racing exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America presented by General Motors, two exceptional examples—one from the early days of the sport and one from today—are featured, along with their cars.
In the early 1900s, Barney Oldfield made himself larger than life with his widely publicized exploits on racetracks. Oldfield had a reputation as a fearless bicycle racer, and the very first automobile he ever drove was Henry Ford’s “999.” That was about a week before he raced it in the Manufacturers' Challenge Cup on October 25, 1902. Oldfield won handily, which launched his colorful auto racing career. It also produced the first of many opportunities for Henry Ford to promote Oldfield’s exploits to continue building his own reputation on the way to founding Ford Motor Company a year later.
Ken Block has successfully used his charisma, along with his unquestionable car-control skills, to create a name for himself and to build public awareness for his sponsors and their products. Barney Oldfield was largely limited to personal appearances, posters, and newspaper stories and ads to build his brand and those of his backers, but Ken Block has been able to add video, television, the Internet, and social media to his arsenal for attracting attention. His viral “Gymkhana” videos alone have generated hundreds of millions of views around the world. The car you’ll see in Driven to Win was used in “Gymkhana FIVE: Ultimate Urban Playground; San Francisco.”
Festival Queen with the Borg-Warner Trophy at the 52nd Indianapolis 500, May 30, 1968 / Indy50005-68_1096
The Greatest Spectacle in Racing
Say "Indianapolis" and everyone immediately thinks "500." Yes, we’re talking about the greatest spectacle in racing.
The Indianapolis 500-mile race and its venue, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, are the grandparents of American races and race tracks. The 2.5-mile rectangular oval was constructed in 1909 and paved with 3.2 million bricks, which prompted the moniker, “The Brickyard.” A three-foot strip of bricks remains today at the start/finish line. The first Indianapolis 500 ran in 1911, and Ray Harroun won, driving a Marmon Wasp on which Harroun installed a rear-view mirror he had designed—the first ever used on an automobile. His average speed for the 500 miles was 74.602 mph. At present, the fastest 500-mile average speed was set by Tony Kanaan in 2013 at 187.433 mph.
As the 500 grew in importance, it soon became America’s most famous auto race and attracted interest globally. Out of the track’s fame, the name "Indy Car” soon was applied to the open-wheel cars that toured the United States (and much later were included in races in Canada and Mexico), but the Indianapolis 500 always has been the biggest, most important event on the calendar: “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
For the 1935 Indy 500, Henry Ford entered a factory team of cars, designed by Harry Miller and powered by modified Ford V-8 engines. This car is one of ten that were built. Miller was the most important American racing designer before World War II. His legacy includes the 4-cylinder Offenhauser engine (for an example, check out the Meskowski-Offenhauser, which you’ll also find in Driven to Win), plus innovation, superb craftsmanship, and artistic touches like the aerodynamic, cast-aluminum suspension arms that could be pieces of sculpture. This car is lower and more streamlined than any other 1935 race car, with four-wheel drive and independent suspension, front and rear—unheard of back then. Unfortunately, the project had insufficient development time, and the car had a flaw that abbreviated testing didn’t reveal until it was too late. The steering box was mounted too close to the exhaust manifold, and eventually the exhaust heat caused the steering to seize up. All the Miller-Ford cars that qualified for the 500 dropped out.
This collection of parts is the remnants of one of the most horrific crashes in Indianapolis 500 history. It reminds us that auto racing, while much safer than it used to be, will always be dangerous. In a melee of cars on the front straight at the start of the 1973 Indy 500, this car, driven by David "Salt" Walther, crashed into the outside wall and flipped into the retaining fence. A fuel tank ruptured and the methanol fuel burst into flames. The front of the car ripped off, and videos show Walther's feet dangling outside. He was badly burned, and some spectators also were burned, but there were no fatalities. In spite of his severe injuries, Walther came back to race again in 1974. Safety equipment like a helmet, fire-resistant clothing, a roll bar, and rubber fuel tank liners helped Walther survive, but the crash also triggered some changes to safety rules. Smaller fuel tank capacity reduced the risk of fire, smaller rear wings were mandated to reduce speeds, and the track updated many of its rapid-response procedures.
Tom Sneva qualified on the pole for the 1984 Indianapolis 500 in this car, with a four-lap average of 210.029 mph. He was the first driver ever to qualify at more than 200 mph. The car is powered by a 159-cubic-inch Ford/Cosworth V-8 engine that produces some 740 horsepower. This car’s design and engineering follow trends that began in the 1970s and are still seen in today’s Indy Cars. The front and rear wings generate aerodynamic downforce to help the car’s tires grip the road. Its cooling radiators are mounted in the side pods, and the bodywork under the pods is shaped to create a low-pressure area that adds more downforce to essentially suck the car down onto the track. The monocoque chassis is made with both aluminum and magnesium. Today’s Indy Cars still have wings and side pods, but the monocoque chassis are now fabricated from carbon fiber.
Along with all of that planning, we did some serious collecting as well. Visitors to Driven to Win will see more than 250 artifacts from all eras of American racing. Several of those pieces are newly acquired, specifically for the show.
Shoes worn by Ken Block in Gymkhana Five. Block co-founded DC Shoes in 1994. / THF179739
The most obvious new addition is the 2012 Ford Fiesta driven by Ken Block in Gymkhana Five: Ultimate Urban Playground; San Francisco. The car checked some important boxes for us. It represented one of America’s hottest current motorsport stars, of course, but it also gave us our first rally car. The Fiesta wasn’t just for show—Block drove it in multiple competitions, including the 2012 X Games in Los Angeles, where he took second place (one of five podium finishes Block took in the X Games series). At the same time, we collected several accessories worn by Block, including a helmet, a racing suit, gloves, sunglasses, and a pair of shoes. The footwear is by DC Shoes, the apparel company that Block co-founded with Damon Way in 1994.
Racing toys and games are prominently represented in Driven to Win. We have several vintage slot cars and die cast models, but I was excited to add a 1:64 scale model of Brittany Force’s 2019 Top Fuel car. Force is one of NHRA’s biggest current stars, and an inspiration to a new generation of fans.
Charmingly dated today, Pole Position’s graphics and gameplay were strikingly realistic in 1983. / THF176903
Many of those newer fans have lived their racing dreams through video games. We had a copy of Atari’s pioneering Indy 500 cartridge already, but I was determined to add newer, more influential titles to our holdings. While Indy 500 didn’t share much with its namesake race apart from the general premise of cars competing on an oval track, Atari’s Pole Position brought a new degree of realism to racing video games. Pole Position was a top arcade hit in 1982, and the home version, released the following year, retained the full-color landscapes that made the game so lifelike at the time. I was excited to acquire a copy that not only included the original box, but also a hype sticker reading “Arcade Hit of the Year!”
Another game that made the jump from arcade to living room was Daytona USA, released in 1995 for the short-lived Sega Saturn. Rather than open-wheel racing, Daytona USA based its gameplay on stock car competition. The arcade version was notable for permitting up to eight machines to be linked together, allowing multiple players to compete with one another.
More recently, the Forza series set a new standard for racing video games. The initial title, Forza Motorsport, featured more than 200 cars and encouraged people to customize their vehicles to improve performance or appearance. Online connectivity allowed Forza Motorsport players to compete with others not just in the same room, but around the world.
One of my favorite new acquisitions is a photograph showing a young racer, Basil “Jug” Menard, posing with his race car. There’s something charming in the way young Menard poses with his Ford, a big smile on his face and hands at his hips like a superhero. His car looks worse for the wear, with plenty of dents and an “85” rather hastily stenciled on the door, but this young driver is clearly proud of it. Menard represents the “weekend warrior” who works a regular job during the week, but takes on the world at the local dirt track each weekend.
When we talk about a racer’s tools, we don’t just mean cars and helmets. / THF167207
Drivers may get most of the glory, but they’re only the most visible part of the large team behind any race car. There are folks working for each win everywhere from pit lane to the business office. Engineers are a crucial part of that group, whether they work for the racing team itself, the car manufacturer, or a supplier. In the early 20th century, Leo Goossen was among the most successful racing engineers in the United States. Alongside designer Harry Miller, Goossen developed cars and engines that won the Indianapolis 500 a total of 14 times from 1922 to 1938. We had the great fortune to acquire a set of drafting tools used by Goossen in his work. The donor of those tools grew up with Goossen as his neighbor. As a boy, the donor often talked about cars and racing with Goossen. The engineer passed the tools on to the boy as a gift.
We could not mount a serious exhibit on motorsport without talking about safety. Into the 1970s, auto racing was a frightfully dangerous enterprise. Legendary driver Mario Andretti commented on the risk in the early years of his career during our 2017 interview with him. Andretti recalled that during the drivers’ meeting at the beginning of each season, he’d look around the room and wonder who wouldn’t survive to the end of the year.
Improved helmets went a long way in reducing deaths and injuries. Open-face, hard-shell helmets were common on race tracks by the late 1950s, but it wasn’t until 1968 that driver Dan Gurney introduced the motocross-style full-face helmet to auto racing. Some drivers initially chided Gurney for being overly cautious—but they soon came to appreciate the protection from flying debris. Mr. Gurney kindly donated to us one of the full-face helmets he used in occasional races after his formal retirement from competitive driving in 1970.
And speaking of Dan Gurney, he famously co-drove the Ford Mark IV to victory with A.J. Foyt at Le Mans in 1967. We have a treasure trove of photographs from that race, and of course we have the Mark IV itself, but we recently added something particularly special: the trophy Ford Motor Company received for the victory. To our knowledge, Driven to Win marks the first time this trophy has been on public view in decades. Personally, I think the prize’s long absence is a key part of the story. Ford went to Le Mans to beat Ferrari. After doing so for a second time in 1967, Ford shut down its Le Mans program, having met its goal and made its point. All the racing world had marveled at those back-to-back wins—Ford didn’t need to show off a trophy to prove what it had done!
Janet Guthrie wore this glove at the 1977 Indy 500—when she became the first woman to compete in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. / THF166385
For most of its history, professional auto racing has been dominated by white men. Women and people of color have fought discrimination and intimidation in the sport for decades. It is important to include those stories in Driven to Win—and in The Henry Ford’s collections. We documented Janet Guthrie’s groundbreaking run at the 1977 Indianapolis 500, when she became the first woman to compete in America’s most celebrated race, with a glove she wore during the event. I quite like the fact that the glove had been framed with a plaque, a gesture that underlined the significance of Guthrie’s achievement. We’ve displayed the glove in the exhibit still inside that frame. More recently, Danica Patrick followed Guthrie’s footsteps at Indy. Patrick also competed for several years in NASCAR, and in 2013 she became the first woman to earn the pole position at the Daytona 500. She kindly donated a pair of gloves that she wore in 2012, her inaugural Cup Series season.
Wendell Scott, the first Black driver to compete full-time in NASCAR’s Cup Series, as photographed at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1974. / THF147632
Wendell Scott broke NASCAR’s color barrier when he battled discrimination from officials and fans to become the first Black driver to win a Cup Series race. Scott earned the victory at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Florida, in December 1963. We acquired a photo of Scott taken later in his career, at the 1972 World 600. Scott retired in 1973 after sustaining serious injuries in a crash at Talladega Superspeedway. In addition to acquiring the photo, we were fortunate to be able to borrow a 1966 Ford Galaxie driven by Scott during the 1967 and 1968 NASCAR seasons.
Wendell Scott’s impact on the sport is still felt. Current star Darrell “Bubba” Wallace is the first Black driver since Scott to race in the Cup Series full-time. Following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, Wallace joined other athletes from all sports in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. He and his teammates at Richard Petty Motorsports created a special Black Lives Matter paint scheme for Wallace’s #43 Chevrolet Camaro, driven at Virginia’s Martinsville Speedway on June 10, 2020. We acquired a model of that car for the exhibit. The interlocked Black and white hands on the hood are a hopeful symbol at a difficult time.
Our collecting efforts did not end when Driven to Win opened. We continue to add important pieces to our holdings—most recently, items used by rising star Armani Williams in his stock car racing career. There will be more to come: more artifacts to collect, more stories to share, and more insights on the people and places that make American racing special.
Basil "Jug" Menard Posing with a Modified Ford Coupe Race Car. Taunton, Massachusetts, circa 1946 / THF140176
Igniting a Lifelong Passion
Most of us are enchanted with competition. For those with gasoline in their veins, there’s only one way to scratch the itch—become a racer.
Things we do when we’re young often inspire a lifelong passion. Many adults involved in auto racing—as well as adult fans of auto racing—ignited their interest through early experiences. There are many avenues for kids to explore race cars and racing that can arouse a passion for the sport, and you can learn about some of them in the “Igniting the Passion” section of our new racing exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America presented by General Motors. There is an actual Quarter Midget race car, and kids can sit in the driver’s seat. You can see and hear stories from the people with a passion for racing about how they got started. And there are the toys (including slot cars), and a place where kids can build their own wooden kit car then race it against others on a sloped track.
Quarter Midget Racer
The Quarter Midget race car is one-quarter the size of an adult racer’s Midget Sprint Car and has much lower power output. Still, these are serious race cars, with protective systems designed to keep their young drivers as safe as possible. A Quarter Midget is powered by a single-cylinder, 7-cubic-inch engine, and they race on oval tracks that are one-twentieth of a mile around—264 feet. Speeds reach the 45-mph range, and kids learn the skills of car control, race tactics, and race strategy that are essential foundations for aspiring drivers. Many racing stars, past and present, began their careers in Quarter Midgets, including A.J. Foyt, Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Sarah Fisher, Jimmy Vasser, and many more.
The Soap Box Derby car, powered only by gravity, is home-built and raced by kids in downhill competitions that can be intense. Mason Colbert placed third with this car in the 1939 All-American Soap Box Derby national championship in Akron, Ohio.
A large display in Driven to Win features more than 50 gas-powered, scale-model tether cars (along with tools and parts), which were popular from the 1930s to the 1950s. Check out all of the spindizzies you’ll see on display here.
Bobby Unser Crossing the Finish Line, Winner of the 1956 Pikes Peak Auto Hill Climb Race / THF140569
King of the Mountain
What does it take to “race to the clouds”? Power, handling, endurance—and a spirit to conquer the summits of nature. Hill climbs were one of the very earliest forms of automobile competition. They test a car’s power and handling capabilities, and the car-control skills, focus, and endurance of the driver.
Today, there are many local amateur hill climbs, but the most famous one is the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in Colorado, which has been running since 1916. Its tortuous 12.42-mile course has 156 turns and rises from an elevation of 9,390 feet at the start to 14,115 feet at the finish. For good reason, it’s known as the race to the clouds. Bobby Unser is probably the best-known racer to conquer Pikes Peak. He won the overall event a record ten times—in 1956, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1966, 1968, and 1986—which earned him the title “King of the Mountain.”
1958 Moore/Unser Pikes Peak Hill Climb Car
1958 Moore/Unser Pikes Peak Hill Climb Racing Car. On Loan from Bobby and Lisa Unser. / THF91311
Bobby Unser won seven of his ten Pikes Peak overall victories in this car, including five straight (1959–63), along with 1966 and 1968. In this section of our new racing exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America, presented by General Motors, you can "meet" Unser while he tells you what it took to win all those Pikes Peak races. Learn how he continually improved the car, making it lighter by modifying the frame and suspension and switching to an aluminum radiator, transmission case, and fuel tank.
Armani Williams. (Photo courtesy Team Armani Racing.)
Grosse Pointe, Michigan, native Armani Williams is at the start of a promising career in auto racing. He competes in multiple professional truck and car racing series, and is honing his skills with an eye toward joining NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series—one of NASCAR’s three national series and among the highest professional racing series in the United States. This is an impressive goal for any young driver, but especially so for Mr. Williams, who is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
Autism generally is characterized by difficulty in focusing on and processing multiple stimuli and tasks simultaneously. “Focusing on and processing multiple stimuli and tasks simultaneously” is also a pretty fair description of what a competitive driver does behind the wheel, which makes Williams’s achievements all the more impressive.
Helmet worn by Armani Williams, Scorpion EXO. / THF186734
Like most racing drivers, Armani Williams developed his love for motorsport as a young boy. That passion was fostered by toy cars, televised NASCAR races, and a memorable trip to see NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2010. Eager to get behind the wheel himself, Williams began racing go-karts at age eight. He then advanced to Bandolero racing, a type of motorsport in which young drivers pilot scaled-down versions of stock cars capable of speeds better than 70 miles per hour.
Williams made his competition debut in Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) Pro Series pickup truck races in 2016. He set ARCA records by becoming the highest-finishing African American driver in a series race, and by posting the best finish for an African American driver in the ARCA Truck Pro Series championship.
Racing suit worn by Armani Williams, Alpinestars. / THF186736
NASCAR invited Armani Williams to compete in its Drive for Diversity combined tryouts in 2016 and 2017. Established in 2004, the Drive for Diversity program is intended to create a more inclusive culture in NASCAR on the track, in the pits, and in the stands. The program provides training and support to people of color and women pursuing careers as drivers, crew members, sponsors, or team owners.
In 2017, Williams made his debut in the Pinty’s Series, NASCAR’s Canadian stock car racing series. To date, he has earned eighteen wins and two championships in the Pinty’s Series. In 2018, Williams joined the K&N Pro Series East. This American NASCAR series serves as an important development pipeline, building and supplying new talent headed toward NASCAR’s upper levels. Williams earned his first K&N Pro Series top-ten finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he finished ninth on September 22, 2018. Williams earned another top-ten finish—this time in ARCA’s Menards Series for stock cars—on August 9, 2020, at Michigan International Speedway, his “hometown” track. By competing in the Pinty’s and K&N Pro racing series, Armani Williams became the first driver in any NASCAR series with openly-diagnosed autism.
Race 4 Autism car driven by Armani Williams. (Photo courtesy Team Armani Racing.)
Throughout his growing career, Armani Williams has used his platform in racing to raise autism awareness. He established his Armani Williams Race 4 Autism Foundation in 2015. He also covered one of his race cars with a special Race 4 Autism paint scheme featuring the jigsaw puzzle motif that is widely used as a symbol for autism spectrum disorder.
Racing shoes worn by Armani Williams, Alpinestars. / THF186733
Mr. Williams recently donated pieces of his equipment to The Henry Ford. They include a helmet, a racing suit, and a pair of shoes used by him while racing in the ARCA Truck Pro Series. We are delighted to add these artifacts to the museum’s racing collections, and we look forward to incorporating some of them into our newest exhibit, Driven to Win: Racing in America Presented by General Motors. We also look forward to following Armani Williams’s competitive driving career. He’s already made history—and he’s just getting started.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.