LOUDON, N.H. — We aren’t big car lovers. We’ve never been to a NASCAR event; couldn’t tell a stock car from a sports car. Richard Petty? Isn’t he a singer? OK, we do know who Richard Petty is, The King of NASCAR racing. The point is we were quite surprised by how much we, non-racing enthusiasts, enjoyed the North East Motor Sports Museum. We were quite blown away by this little gem of a museum, dedicated to showcasing New England motorsports. We visited long before the current pandemic began, but the museum is now re-opened at 50 percent capacity.
Located next to the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the impressive, family-friendly, 10,000-square-foot museum is jam-packed with race cars and motorcycles, trophies, helmets, photographs and vintage racing attire, all capturing the history of motorsports in New England. It’s colorful; it’s fun, and it’s educational.
“It’s the only museum that captures the whole of New England motorsports,” said Dick Berggren, president of the museum. “We would have lost all this history.”
Berggren was a former NASCAR TV announcer, and when his career ended, he put all his energy into developing the museum, a nonprofit built and managed by volunteers. It was slow going until veteran New England race car driver Bentley Warren gave him a check for $40,000 and told him to broadcast the donation to anyone who would listen.
“Bentley is an incredible businessman but a cheapskate,” Berggren said. “People figured if he was in, it must be something worthwhile. It was the impetus, and checks started coming in.”
The museum was built from the ground up by local contractors, businesses, and racing enthusiasts, who donated money, materials, skills, and time. The cars, motorcycles, and other artifacts — all with New England ties — are on loan from private owners. “I worried we wouldn’t be able to fill the museum,” Berggren said. “Now, I have to turn some things away.”
New England has a rich, deep history of motorsports. The first oval track race ever run in America was in Cranston, R.I. (1896); the first purpose-built road racing course in America was in Thompson, Conn. (1952). There was a 1-1/4-mile ultra-high bank track made entirely out of lumber in Rockingham, N.H. (1925), and a one-mile dirt track in Boston. They used to run races on Old Orchard Beach. The history is recounted here with vintage artifacts, and the museum library has the largest collection of books, photographs and magazines highlighting New England motorsports history.
There’s a helmet collection that tells a visual story: the flimsy, bare-bones helmet worn by Trigger Watson (crazy dangerous!) to the armor-like helmet worn today by Chris Perley.
But the cars and motorcycles — about 25 at any given time — grab the most attention. There’s the 46 Legend, a mustard-colored Jalopy driven by George Barber and Morris Roy “Pappy” Forsyth. “When 46 showed up in the pits, the other drivers looked at the payout for second place,” reads the car’s information plaque. There’s the motorcycle that Jody Nicholas fell off of during a race, jumped back on, and won. There’s the soap box derby car Denny Zimmerman built when he was young; Zimmerman later went on to win Rookie of the Year at Indianapolis 500. Every car and motorcycle comes with a story.
“This is the strangest car we have,” Berggren said, pointing to a 1940 Packard. “It completed the Peking (now Beijing) to Paris race. “I’ve seen videos of this car racing through Mongolia — crazy! It costs $80,000 just to enter that race.”
And, of course, there’s a Joey Logano car, a NASCAR Cup Series Ford Mustang that he drove to win the Martinsville race, the one that propelled him to the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series Championship. Logano is New England’s most successful big-league racer, and the youngest racer to win the Daytona 500.
“That car was key to Joey Logano’s success in winning the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series Championship.” Berggren said. “As you can see, it was a very rough race.”
The car is banged up and dented, with celebratory beer splatter still on the windshield.
“I’ll tell you what the kids love,” Berggren said, as we walked through the museum. “That damn slot car rack.”
We loved it, too, pulling the trigger and racing our cars around the track. The racing simulator is popular too, allowing you to “drive” famous cars on famous race tracks.
The cars and motorcycles are on loan for one year, so the exhibits are swapped out. We asked Berggren what he’d really like to get his hands on.
“I’m desperate for a Stanley Steamer,” he said. “I’d take any Stanley Steamer!”
The Stanley twins were originally from Maine and headquartered the Stanley Steamer factory in Watertown, Mass. In 1899, Freeland Stanley and his wife climbed the Mount Washington road in a Stanley, the first car to do it. Stanley Steamers went on to win many races, including one down Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue. In 1906, a Stanley Steamer driven by Fred Marriott from Massachusetts, set the record for the fastest mile ever run — 127 mph, which stood until 1911.
We’re betting one day someone will come in with a story and a Stanley Steamer to loan.
North East Motor Sports Museum, 922 NH 106, Loudon, N.H., 603-783-0183; www.nemsmuseum.com. Sat. and Sun. 10-4. Adults $10, under 12 free.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com