Family-Owned NASCAR Museum Shut Down Thanks To Greedy Tobacco Company

Back in the good ol’ days, tobacco companies were some of the biggest sponsors of NASCAR, with iconic liveries from Skoal to Camel to Winston, and the legendary Winston Cup Series ran from 1971 to 2003. The Winston Cup meant far more than just tobacco sales over its 32-year history, even inspiring the Disney movie “Cars” that centered around the fictional Piston Cup.

Will Spencer, a retired NASCAR promoter and business affiliate, opened The Winston Cup Musuem with his wife Christy in 2005 to celebrate the legendary history of the sport of NASCAR and the culture surrounding it. The museum showcased cars, helmets, winners’ champagne bottles and more, and drew fans from around the globe. The Drive reports,

In June 2015, the Winston brand was sold to a subsidiary of Imperial Tobacco, ITG Brands, which in 2019 would instigate a series of lawsuits against the museum per Fox 8. Despite no apparent prior legal conflict between Winston and the Spencers, the Winston-Salem Journal reports ITG asserted it owned the rights to Winston-branded artifacts in the museum’s collection—and therefore, decades of racing heritage it previously had no claim to.

Those claims would be dismissed twice by courts according to an NBC affiliate. A court filing from Spencer seen by the outlet contended ITB believed its “purchase of Winston Cigarettes from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in 2015 somehow gave it ownership of Winston Cup history,” and that ITB thought “we are infringing on their ability to market their cigarettes to racing fans.”

But the deep-pocketed ITG kept trying, and over four years wore down the Spencer family with lawsuits against Will, Christy, their business JKS Incorporated, and the museum itself. In July, the museum announced it would temporarily close as a new lawsuit entered mediation according to Fox 8. Come September, the museum was allowed to reopen on the condition that it rebranded within 90 days.

Kyle Petty driver of the #45 car drives during qualifying for the NASCAR Winston Cup Old Dominion 500 on October 18, 2002 at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Virginia.

Kyle Petty driver of the #45 car drives during qualifying for the NASCAR Winston Cup Old Dominion 500 on October 18, 2002 at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Virginia.
Image: Sporting News (Getty Images)

Exhausted from defending themselves against the extensive and long-fought legal battles presented to them by ITB, the Spencers decided to shut the museum’s doors after a “final lap” with 750 attendees on December 16.

It’s disheartening to see a corporate giant fight to destroy the history of a brand it recently acquired, and even more disheartening to learn how hard-fought the battle was for the Spencers. Thanks to the greed of corporate America, this much-celebrated neighborhood museum was forced to shut down.

The Spencers will be sending a large portion of their NASCAR memorabilia to Mecum Auctions in Kissimmee, Florida next month, including iconic cars that “Fireball” Roberts and Kyle Petty drove to fame along with signed racer memorabilia. The couple hopes to perpetuate their collection in some form moving forward, but thanks to a greedy tobacco company that makes all its money off of exploiting addiction and playing a pivotal role in the deaths of thousands of smokers annually, this piece of motorsports history is no more.

“It’s a shame what people are doing to this history,” added Frank Earnhardt, cousin of Dale the Intimidator. “That is what made the sport what it is today.”

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