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The Canadian Motorsports Hall of Fame? Boom or Bust?

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The Canadian Motorsports Hall of Fame (CMHF) seems like a good idea. It recognizes and honours deserving individuals for their contribution to Canadian motorsports. However, over the years, the Hall of Fame operation has been surrounded by controversy and has seemed to stagger along struggling for recognition and even its survival. Once again there is speculation that the CMHF is in trouble.

The CMHF has been around for about 15 years now. Since 1993 it has inducted about 150 Canadian ‘names’ from a variety of motorsports disciplines into the Hall of Fame. Despite the popularity of the general concept of a Hall of Fame to recognize the greats in Canada’s motorsports history, the actual organization has seen its share of ups and downs and has often seemed to be at odds with its natural constituency of long-time motorsports participants and fans.

By all appearances, the CMHF is in a low period just now, so low that some members of the community of long-time participants and fans question whether the existing organization will survive.

For sure, the general “Hall of Fame” concept is a popular one. Perhaps the best know example is the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. I’m familiar with the motorsports Halls of Fame at Novi, Michigan and Talladega, Alabama as well as the National Motorsports Press Association’s Hall of Fame at Darlington, SC, which honours the greats in stock car racing – albeit with considerable overlap among these various Halls of Fame. But, in truth the concept is a bit thin. Any list of former greats can only have a very small number of members who have a name recognition factor that extends beyond a small community of old-timers. And you can’t build a viable business operation based on just this small and aging demographic of old-timers.

Of course, this is the challenge the soon-to-open NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte faces. Fortunately for them, there are many, many NASCAR greats who are household names across America. It should be relatively easy to build a venue that tells the stories of these NASCAR Hall of Fame stars stories that engage a wide demographic. And the NASCAR Hall of Fame is being built within a motorsports community that has traditionally been able to tap into lots of corporate sponsorship. Despite this, it looks like the Charlotte Hall of Fame is struggling to find enough funding – and already it has gone back to the city for a significant increase in its financial support for the project.

Recently, Jeff Pappone, a sports writer who covers the auto racing beat for the Toronto Globe and Mail joined the chorus of voices questioning the health of the CMHF. He noted that their annual gala at which the new batch of inductees would have been recognised was ”postponed ... in light of the recent economic downturn”. As I understand it, the CMHF officers found it near impossible to sell tickets for the formal affair which would have taken place in conjunction with the auto show in Toronto this month – and, instead of being a fund-raiser, it would have run at a loss.

Pappone went on to say, “Unfortunately, the cancellation of the gala may be a symptom of bigger troubles ahead for CMHF, which has not been able to find backers in its quest for a permanent home. Some prominent members of the hall's board have resigned and plans for a new facility remain in limbo ...”

And he quoted an “insider” as saying, "The institution has been operating for 15 years, most of which were very positive times for the people and sponsors in the sport. To be in a faltering economy without financial reserves and broad support from within and without the sport, more questions are raised than answered."

There are other disturbing signs that the CMHF is in serious decline.

Currently, the Hall of Fame display is located in a leased space in an industrial area north of Milton, sharing the space with a display of restored muscle cars. I visited the display before Christmas to check things out. There was an receptionist who collected my five dollars to get into the muscle car display and that also gave me access to the Hall of Fame display.

The Hallo f Fame consists of a wall of plaques listing the CMHF honorees located up on the mezzanine. In addition, there are a number of cars on display. The only significant one I remember now is the Walter Wolf F1 car which looks like the one that Jody Schechter drove to victory in the 1977 Canadian Grand Prix. The portion of the display up the stairs was poorly lit and dusty and the display was unattended. The CMHF once employed a person to look after this display but, as a cost-saving measure, they switched to a volunteer-based system and it looks like the roster of volunteers for this duty is close to zero.

The CMHF also relied on volunteers to operate it archives but it too suffered from a shortage of volunteers. However, that problem has become academic now because the CMHF recently boxed up all the archival material and put it in storage in Milton.

These days, an organization’s website is its face on the world – and the CMHF website is essentially moribund. Other than a data base of biographies of the inductees up to last year, the most recent information is a terse announcement that the banquet had been cancelled. The posted list of the Board of Directors includes the name of at least one member who has resigned recently – maybe more ... And there’s not a single reference to the archives.

In addition, it’s well known that a number of the members of the Hall of Fame Selection Committee were upset that the Board took matters into their own hands and created their own list of inductees. Naturally, no one wants to cast aspersions on anyone who has been honoured by the CMHF, so the upset parties are reluctant to be very specific about exactly what happened. But, for sure, I know that people are upset over this issue – and it’s just one more wedge that has been driven between the ‘bosses’ at the Hall of Fame and the motorsports community.

So, here’s the face that the CMHF presents to the world: An organization which seems to have fallen into a financial slump – witness the cancelled banquet and the shuttered archives. A dusty, unmanned display in the outer suburbs of the GTA, their archives hidden away in storage, a moribund, uninformative website, an organization which seems to be at odds with its natural community of old-time motorsports participants and fans. No wonder Pappone – and others- have written pieces suggesting that the CMHF is in decline.

There was some buzz in the “community” that Pappone had been inundated by a flood of complaints from CMHF supporters – so I decided to try to figure out what this was about. Frankly, I thought that Pappone’s comments were pretty mild stuff and in line with the picture that I had of this organization.

I sent an email to the anonymous “contact” on the CMHF website and I got a reply from Stuart Sherman, who is the CMHF president. Sherman agreed to an interview and we had a fairly long and frank conversation.

Sherman said that he was upset with Pappone’s piece for two reasons: first, that Pappone was a member of the CMHF group of volunteers and he should have checked with him (Sherman) before he wrote what he did, and second, that Pappone should have written that the CMHF has a bright future.

Sherman asserted that within the next few months, certainly by this time next year, things will look completely different. He said that at the moment a small band of volunteers is working actively to recruit sponsors to put up over $300,000 in funding for a new leased facility in a more central location which will serve as the long-term home for the Hall of Fame. He said that they have already reached 70 percent of their goal and have much of that money in the bank already. This new location will provide three or four times the space compared to their Milton site and it will have room for the archives which are now in storage. In addition he predicted that, with the help of an unnamed ‘partner’ the 2010 gala will be a huge success with perhaps 1000 attendees (that’s probably double the number of any previous banquet). Of course, this new big museum operation would require the appointment of a salaried executive director.

The new display area would feature interactive displays, including driving simulators, and would be pitched at people interested in a broader concept of motoring – more than just historical motorsports stuff.

Of course, Sherman was tight-lipped about the specifics of the fund raising and the business plan but he did talk about recruiting a cadre of business patrons who would donate a substantial sum annually and also signing up a large number of the general public as ‘members’. Some others tell me that Sherman is only talking about the initial costs of setting up the new leased premises as an operating museum and that they would also need to do massive fund raising to cover the annual operating costs.

Sherman did address my question about the apparent difference of opinion between the Selection Committee and the Board over this year’s inductees. He said that the members of the Selection Committee had forgotten that it was the Board and not the committee who had the final say on who the inductees would be – and that the list of ten inductees announced by the Board included all the names that had been recommended by the committee.

So there you have it. To all appearances, the CMHF is an idea which is failing – failing for lack of funding, failing for lack of outreach to it natural community of interest and failing for lack of volunteers.

On the other hand, according to Sherman, all that is going to change within the next 12 months – a new bigger location, an exciting interactive museum-style display that will appeal to a broad demographic, a revitalized archive, and a induction gala (with a double cohort of honorees) in 2010 that will be a huge successful extravaganza.

I’ve heard ambitious claims like this many times in my years as an auto racing fan. Sometimes these things work out, but I have seen so many founder that I have become very sceptical and cynical about extravagant claims like this.

All this sounds incredibly optimistic on the part of the current CMHF regime when you consider the signs that, in better economic times, they were struggling to raise enough money for a more modest business plan.

There are three elements to the CMHF operation: the honouring of the Hall of Fame members, an auto racing museum and the archives of Canadian motorsports history. If the current Board were to fail in its ambitious plans to reverse the current financial difficulties and replace them with a well-funded new operation, what then? I wonder if Sherman and the CMHF Board have a Plan B?

The focus seems to be on the museum idea, with the gallery of Hall of Famers as a adjunct. I worry that the archives, which are currently in limbo in their mummified state, might be simply left to moulder out of sight, out of mind. The archives will need a body of committed volunteers to resume the arduous process of sorting through the collected material, organizing it and cataloguing it. These volunteers will only come from the community of old-timers for whom this history is relevant. And it seems as if the current CMHF Board is alienating this natural community of support.

What will happen if the CMHF fails to find the money to pull it out of its current financial tailspin downwards? Perhaps the whole organization will have to throw in the towel, leaving the government to pick up the pieces of a failed charitable organization and disperse them to various other museums and archives across the country that have little interest in preserving the specialized history of our sport.

If it were up to me, I would be putting the emphasis on preserving and writing the history of motorsports in Canada – using the archives currently held by the CMHF as the mother lode. If we could develop a real research centre for Canadian motorsports history like the model in Watkins Glen (the International Motor Racing Research Center), the recognition of the CMHF ‘greats’ could be a logical adjunct function. And, if the funding can be raised, make the addition of a modest museum aspect the third priority.
Perhaps we need an organization that pays more attention to connecting with its natural community – those of us who feel a connection with the history of Canadian motorsports – and less on holding black-tie formal dinners at prices only corporate executives can afford. We may be ‘old farts’ but this stuff matters to us. Perhaps the big corporate donors would be more inclined to throw their support behind an organization that had the full support of a wide swath of enthusiastic race fan donors and volunteers.

Let’s hope that the current Board of the CMHF – who are accountable to nobody – can pull off their highwire act and raise all the funds needed to make all their rosy predictions come true. But, if they can’t, perhaps it’s time for the broader community of race fans and participants to pick up the pieces and build a new, more viable organization that will preserve the archives and honour the heritage of all those Canadian motorsports greats in the Hall of Fame.

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