North East Motor Sports Museum Opens June 12

Story by Barbara Neville Wilson

Photos courtesy of North East Motor Museum

I relish the fresh asphalt underfoot when I shut the door to my car and I admire the fresh landscaping as I walk in the open door. There’s an air of expectation in everything from the bright colors of the street side sign and the sharp-edged engraved bricks half-filling the wall to my right, to the Orange Glo wood cleaner and Hagerty Silver Polish sitting casually next to a 4-foot tall trophy. I step tentatively onto the main floor.

The day is May 31st— T minus 13 for the North East Motor Sports Museum on the New Hampshire Motor Speedway grounds. The hum of low voices leads me to a conference room where a handful of men are talking earnestly. I say I’m hoping for a sneak peek for an article I’m writing, and it takes a few seconds for my presence to register. Then a silver-haired gentleman rises. “I guess I’m the one who can help you,” he says.

Hearing that the story will appear in time for Motorcycle Week, he leads me to the north end of the museum’s 10,000 square feet. Wall height photo murals loom over motorcycles stacked two high. He points proudly to a red bike emblazoned with “BSA” and the number 58 and directs me to look carefully at the photo above. “Jody Nicholas wins…” says the caption. And there’s the same motorcycle heeled tightly in a curve with the flagger poised to mark the victory. I read the placard, “…The race was not without its drama as Jody crashed his bike at the start of the last lap while leading the race. The second place rider…passed the fallen Nicholas and was on his way to win when Jody picked up his bike and restarted the race. Jody was able to catch…and pass for the win in the last turn.” It’s a brilliant photo and amazing to see it right beside the actual bike. “How’d you do it?” I ask.

It was quite a coup to put the two together, he admits. “The key is you have to get the right guy,” he says. And for motorcycles, Bob Coy was the right guy. Indispensable to the birth and growth of vintage motorcycle racing in North American, Bob not only founded and remains president of the United States Classic Racing Association, he was one of the first to rouse interest in vintage road races and revived the original “Laconia” track in nearby Gilford, NH. Bob personally owns at least 200 racing motorcycles, so was an obvious choice for mounting the motorcycle display. The results are stunning.

Next to Jody Nicholas’ bike is a larger than life photo of Gina Bovaird and her bike, and below it, Ron and Bryan Caron’s 1984 factory built Honda that registered the American Honda’s first mile win in the 1984 Duquoin Illinois Mile. My guide points out a repaired leather jacket placed next to the machine. “He rode the bike on ice,” he says, and the tires were spiked for traction. “He laid the bike down,” and this is where the other guys’ spikes ran right over him, he gestures.

The informational cards are conversational and full of little tidbits that make me feel like I’m sitting with friends, hearing their favorite stories. Here’s another red machine, notably bottom heavy with an engine so big, the foot pegs are mounted behind it. It’s Eddie “The Savage” Sarno’s motorcycle that he built AROUND its dual carb 401 cubic inch Buick “nailhead” engine. Once he finished the bike, race authorities had to rein in its power; “…he was only allowed to make single passes, and only for exhibition, not in competition. He developed a push-off starting system that resulted in the huge slick spinning and smoking the entire quarter mile….Smoking the tire, Ed managed a best ET of 10.38 seconds at 141.53 mph.” When he was dying, Ed made everyone promise that it would never be ridden again. Riders’ loss? The North East Motor Sports Museum visitors’ gain.

By this time, it’s obvious that displays at the North East Motor Sports Museum are put together by people who really know and love the motorsports. We walk south, past the only snowmobile on display (winner of New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s one and only snowmobile track race), past Bill Binnie’s “Lola,” the LeMans class winner, and people collating, polishing, and arranging. “Early last week, we weren’t even here,” my guide says and then tells me, unbelievably, that the entire Museum is run by volunteers.

“No one gets paid,” he says. “The museum is put together and run entirely by volunteers in love with the sport.” There are 29 Board members, all “who work,” and “lots of volunteers that work.” The displays have been donated or are on long-term loan from racers, collectors and fans from all over the nation. Exhibits range from vintage motorcycles to soapbox derby cars, midgets, NASCAR and Sprint car winners.

At the south end of the building, a black-capped gentleman wields a yellow rag. He meticulously buffs the wide tires of a red-trimmed black machine. “How did you get this assignment?” I ask. He introduces himself as Wes Pettengill and points to photos of a driver with Hollywood looks. “I knew the driver,” he says. The photos are of Ollie Silva, NESMRA/Star Classic winner in 1969, 1970, 1971, and 1974. The Museum obtained the car, he says, and he and his project partner Rick Eastman asked to put together the exhibit. Together they have created a meticulously documented display of Ollie’s career: photos of winning moments complemented by the actual trophy, and short explanations of race highlights. A remarkably lifelike mannequin sports Ollie’s uniform, helmet and trademark sunglasses.

Wes emulated Ollie from a young age and cultivated a friendship that stretched into the racecar driver’s final years at the Veterans’ Hospital in Manchester. He took photos and became a keeper of the driver’s history.

Our whole conversation revolves around the driver’s feats, his traits–“he never threw anything out”– and the honor Wes feels in being able to bring Ollie’s accomplishments to the attention of new generations. Nothing is said about Wes’ owns accomplishments as a collector and purveyor of Classic Toys or his own classic car collection. I Google that later.

Similarly, my guide, Dick Berggren, never mentions his own history as a race car driver and founder and editor of pivotal racing magazines. He doesn’t mention his Ph.D in Psychology or his career as an in-demand ESPN sports announcer. Heck, he doesn’t even mention his appearance in the movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby!

Instead, he’s just a guy happy to help others fall in love. In a rare turn when he was interviewed, he told Car and Driver in 2012, “My father took me to a stock-car race when I was eight. It was love at first sight. It was like those stories where a guy meets a girl and knows immediately that they are destined to become a couple and spend the rest of their lives together…”

I’m reluctant to leave. One fascinating exhibit has led me to another to another, yet I’ve hardly seen half of them in the hour I’ve spent. At each display, story trumps detail so much that I forget I’m in a “museum.” The story cards immerse me in living, breathing memories. The stories are so well told I feel a little jealous. These are magnificent adventures, and I missed them!

Thanks to the North East Motor Sports Museum, though, I can live the excitement vicariously.

Ladies and gentlemen: start your engines.

The North East Motor Sports Museum is located at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Route 106 in Loudon. It opens to the public June 12th with a Grand Opening slated for Race Weekend July 15th. Visit www.nemsmuseum.com for more information.

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