Among the kindest most caring people I have ever met in Motorsports is Mr Thomas J. Schmeh. For a lot of years he represented The National Sprint Car Hall of fame and Museum with a ton of class and elan. As time marched on and Tom pulled back from the museum he was replaced by Mr Robert Baker. Talk about a pair of massive shoes to fill! Yet fill them he has, continuing in Tom’s low key and very positive manner. In just a few years he has left his own mark, in an especially meaningful way, the Bryan Clauson Clauson Suite Tower.
He has steered the NSCHoF through the recent mess known as COVID-19 and throughout it all, has maintained a stiff upper lip. I do not know Bob well, other than to wave at him as he waters the flowers outside the Hall of Fame building while heading to Casey’s for breakfast during Nationals week. What I do know from others and any communications we have had, is that he is a professional as well as a thoroughly good and decent man. What else can you ask for from the person entrusted with guiding Sprint Car Racing’s history and heritage.
Let’s try and get to know Bob just a little bit better…
TDP: Just who the heck is Bob Baker and how did he come to become the caretaker of sprint car racing’s most hallowed of halls?
Bob: Thanks for asking. I’m a Kansas City, Missouri native who started attending midget races at Olympic Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri with my family when I was about 2 years old.
So a lifelong race fan would probably be the best answer to this question. Growing up in the Kansas City area, my family attended races at Olympic Stadium,Riverside Stadium, Lakeside Speedway (the old track on Leavenworth Road), the Topeka Fairgrounds track in Topeka, Kansas, and the Missouri State Fairgrounds Race tracks (1/2 mile and one mile track) in Sedalia, Missouri. I actually never got to see a race at Knoxville Raceway until my younger brother and I ventured up to Knoxville after we got our drivers licenses. My dad said it was too far to travel, so that was that. Yet, my brother and I read every account of every race we could find in both National Speed Sport News and Hawkeye Racing News until we were able to drive to Knoxville on our own.
TDP: Like with many other institutions, Covid must have been the nastiest of unwanted kicks to the nether regions. We all assume Nationals Week is a major income source and Covid effectively emasculated the crowd. With the benefit of early hindsight, how bad was it, and were any unexpected “lessons learned”?
Bob: You’re right about 2020 and the covid pandemic being a tough year financially for the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum, Knoxville Raceway, and the Knoxville community as a whole. But we did manage to learn alternative ways of fundraising during the pandemic. Our WinaZ51Corvette.com sweepstakes and our online auctions have helped us tremendously this last year. And we will continue with our online fundraising projects through 2021 as well. But back to your question on last year, it definitely was not a year we want to repeat.
TDP: Many of us who travel a great distance to Knoxville, yet have minimal knowledge of the town itself. How is the museum and for that matter the speedway generally perceived within the community? Is it seen as a treasure/ point of pride, a blessing, a local nuisance or ho-hum whatever?
Bob: That’s a good question. I think that the National Sprint Car Hall of fame & Museum is a definite place of pride for local Knoxville residents and people in the Marion County community. Many people in Knoxville and the surrounding areas bring their family and friends into our museum when they visit Knoxville. Additionally our second-floor conference area has hosted weddings, wedding receptions, pinewood derbies for the Boy Scouts, the Iowa caucuses for presidential candidates, land auctions, funerals, sales seminars, and business meetings for many years now. And most of the time during these events we see people roaming through the museum and commenting about different exhibits and racers that they used to watch during their youth. So I am sure that our museum is perceived with a sense of pride within the Knoxville community.
Being the only museum in the world that is solely dedicated to sprint car racing, also makes our museum a tourist attraction for non-race fans as well. So having visitors from across the country and outside the country stopping in Knoxville is also a reason that I think that residents and business people in Knoxville appreciate the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum as much as they do.
TDP: It always seems that the NSCHoF is always looking for money, raising cash one way or the other. Does it get old as old for you, always scratching and clawing to keep things afloat or does that just come as an expected part of the territory?
Bob: You know we are very fortunate to have a great staff and supporters, who all understand that operating all of our museum buildings is not an easy task financially. It takes every auction, raffle sprint car ticket purchase, museum store purchase, membership donation, and every donation in general to keep the doors open seven days a week-year round for race fans to come in and learn more about sprint car racing. We never get tired of promoting sprint car racing and preserving our sports history with people. So the fundraising is just a means to accomplish the task of keeping our museum open and being able to talk with people about sprint car racing.
TDP: Okay let’s get it over with. Every year the results of the sprint car poll are published and many (we) just want to rip their (our) hair out. Do you ever give any thought to how the voting can be improved?
Bob: I think the same thing can be said for any type of voting poll in any sports. Not everyone is going to agree on who should or should not be awarded a Poll Award. But the people who vote on these awards are the builders, manufacturers, sanctioning body officials, promoters, and press for each class of sprint cars. It definitely is not a popularity contest, and the drivers and people who receive our Poll Awards appreciate these awards because they are voted on by their peers who watch them race, work, and perform throughout the season.
We work to follow the rules and guidelines that are established for our Poll Award voting, and they can easily be found on our website at www.sprintcarhof.com. I think having the rules and regulations readily available for the public makes it easier for everyone to understand that our Poll Awards aren’t a popularity contest, and that’s why the drivers and people who receive them appreciate them as much as they do.
TDP: We all know Casey’s has been a traditional great supporter of the NSCHoF and more recently the Marshalls- are there any other Hall supporters we need to be aware of that we as fans might be able to get behind?
Bob: Casey’s General Stores and Richard & Jennifer Marshall are both two of our museum’s strongest supporters, there’s no doubt about that. But to list everyone who supports our museum from coast-to-coast would take an immense amount of space. I think that we would be safe to say that anywhere you see our National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum logo, the people at these companies, race tracks, magazines, newspapers, and individuals are helping us keep our museum open.
Not everyone donates financially, as everyone has their own way of contributing to our success. There are many people and companies who help us in different ways. Like the race tracks who allow us to display our raffle sprint car every season for race fans to support our museum. Or the magazines who donate space to allow us to inform race fans about fundraisers we have going on throughout the year. Or graphic artists who design everything from the design on our most recent raffle sprint car to our Christmas cards that we send out. Everyone donates in a different way. And we are thankful for everyone who thinks about us and helps us out however they can.
TDP: Nothing like the NSCHoF is the work of one person – please tell us about the rest of your team.
Bob: We are very fortunate to have great staff of people who not only are sprint car enthusiasts, but they also really care about our museum.
Bill Wright, our museum coordinator, plans and sets up all of the great exhibits and displays inside our museum.
Laci White, is our special events coordinator, and takes care of all of our fundraisers, auctions, raffle sprint car appearances, trade shows, golf tournaments, etc..
Lori DeMoss, handles all of our administrative needs and is our museum’s longest tenured staff member.
Jody Rawlings, is our museum store coordinator, and takes care of everything you see inside our museum store when you walk through our museum’s front doors. Steve Staerk, Garry VanWaardhuizen, and Andy Bates take care of our five buildings here at the museum. Heidi and Kenzie Smith are in charge of keeping everything clean and looking nice in all of our buildings.
Brenda Brown, Angie Dingeman, Karan Wadle, and several others fill in part time on weekends and race nights to help us keep things moving in the right direction.
Our volunteers from coast to coast who help us at race tracks with our raffle sprint car appearances, trade shows, auctions, golf tournaments, and special events are some of sprint car racing’s biggest fans and supporters. We definitely could not manage all of the events we do both in Knoxville and across the country without our great volunteers.
TDP: The NSCHoF has an incredible archive, how open is it to the public?
Bob: Our archive building is available to anyone with press credentials with advance notice. Because this building houses all of our country’s sprint car racing archives and because it is not fully public accessible, it is not open to the public. We are very fortunate to have our climate controlled archive building to store all of sprint car racing’s archives in, and for the space to make available to authors and others working to write about our sports history.
TDP: Is the Hall going to sell out and go “All NASCAR” when the trucks and their fans show up?
Bob: We’re looking forward to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Knoxville Raceway on Friday, July 9th for several reasons. First off, we think this is a great opportunity for the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum to educate new race fans about sprint car racing and our sports history.
Plus, we are looking forward to showing off our museum to race fans who have never been here before. So many times when Knoxville Raceway features races with other types of race cars, the fans tell us the same thing, “We wish that dirt late models, or modifieds, or motorcycles, or…… had a museum ‘just like this’ to showcase our sport’s history and drivers”. That definitely makes us feel good when we hear this from race fans.
Back to the NASCAR Camping World Truck race here in Knoxville this summer, this race also gives us another marquee event that we can give our suite holders as a part of their season suite lease with us. Our suites above the museum and at the Bryan Clauson Suite Tower are a big part of helping us keep our museum open. So to be able to offer this event to our suite-holders as part of their suite lease, is something extra that we can do for them to show our appreciation for their years of support. So to answer your question, I don’t think that our museum is ‘selling out’ to this event, but we are looking forward to the opportunity to bring more, new race fans to our museum, Knoxville Raceway, and the City of Knoxville.
TDP: Sorry to end with a cliché question, but what does the future hold for you and the NSCHoF?
Bob: I really believe that the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum’s best days are in front of us, and I say this for several reasons. We have our complex of five buildings set up and in operation right where we want them here in turn two at Knoxville Raceway. The future of sprint car racing looks very bright with new race tracks and marquee events being added every year. The young talent we see emerging in sprint car racing every weekend shows us that the sport will be able to keep race fans entertained for many years to come. Our museum has established programs and events in place that point towards future success.
We have a staff of dedicated workers and great volunteers that share our passion for the sport of sprint car racing – and aren’t afraid to dedicate the time to helping us make things work. We have supporters from across the United States who appreciate our efforts and want us to be successful for many years to come. And because we truly have a sport that has our best days in front of us. For these reasons, we think that the future looks bright for sprint car racing and the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum.
Please tell me the NSCHoF is in negotiations with Paul Silva to make the Kreitz hauler a display. If not, is there something else in the works we can look forward to?
Bob: You will have to stay tuned for more information on this one.
Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum!