When the Northeast Indiana Racing Museum first opened in 2002, it was a great opportunity for former drivers, owners and fans to develop a central spot to share their culture and history. For about 18 years, the collection kept growing as friends and families continued donating items.
But then, as with the rest of the museums in Auburn's Kruse Plaza, the facility was forced to close because of financial problems. The racing group was asked in February to clean out the museum by July 31.
Moving out was tough, though understandable, but finding a new place to store everything was harder. Former driver Mike Hendricks (the organization's self-described president, secretary, treasurer and mechanic) couldn't just shove everything into storage. No, that wasn't good enough.
“I haven't thrown anything away or sold anything,” Hendricks said. “I don't plan on getting rid of anything until I can find the right people that it belongs to. It all means something to somebody.”
Taking on Hercules' 12 labors might have been less of a challenge. The 20 cars on display were moved efficiently, but that still left about 100 trophies and plaques, countless pieces of memorabilia including helmets, gloves and other equipment and an estimated 10,000 pictures that filled the 10,000 square-foot space.
Hendricks is getting help from Pete Talarico and Kevin Allgire and a vast network of Facebook friends and former racers. He guesses he has talked to more than 500 people from across the country by phone and made more than 100 trips all over the region to deliver the memorabilia. He's about 75% finished, and the majority of the winter will be spent sorting and copying pictures.
“Then I'll call the families and say I have a packet full of pictures and then I'll send or take them to them,” he said. “I don't feel that the people should come to us, I think we should go to them. I just feel that I should. They were good enough to loan stuff to us, and we were in charge of it, we were caretakers of it and things happened. Now I feel we owe it to them to get it back to them, one way or the other. I feel that I need to do that.”
He's also looking for a potential new home for everything, saying he's kicking the tires on some places, but finances are limited and thus so are the opportunities. He's asking everyone to sign a document on receipt ensuring the items can return if a new facility can be found.
It's a tough time for those who loved the place and what it meant to so many. Hendricks, 71, hates that it has to happen, but he's also taking responsibility to make sure the process is done correctly. The former Fort Wayne Community Schools teacher and Navy veteran is trying to live up to the examples set by the museum's founders, including the late Paul Ladd and Don “Popeye” Page. It's about the honor and integrity of the project.
“It's kind of a mission right now,” he said. “I want it done my way because I know it will get done right. I think of Paul a lot when I'm doing this stuff. I'm trying to do it the way he would want it done. As long as I can get Popeye's approval, and I think I have Paul's approval from heaven, then I'm OK with things.”
The toughest part? Hendricks knows it's unlikely a new facility can be found and most of the memorabilia will end up on attics, garages and basements until a future generation decides what to do with it. It's unlikely to ever be enjoyed by the public again.
“It's kind of fun, but it's sad, that's how I look at it,” Hendricks said. “It's not going to be anymore. I've looked around somewhat, and the first thing everybody says is how much money can you pay? Museums don't make money. They aren't in it to make money. They are to preserve history and that's why we were in it.”
Hendricks can be contacted through the Northeast Indiana Racing Museum's Facebook page or at firstname.lastname@example.org.