NASCAR Museum Forced To Close, Sell Collection Over ‘Winston’ Name Dispute

A tobacco company that bought the Winston name tried to seize branded museum artifacts in court. Instead, it brought the roof down.
The Winston Cup Museum facilities prior to closure
The Winston Cup Museum on Facebook

An independent NASCAR Cup Series museum has closed after almost 20 years following a protracted legal assault from the company that bought the Winston brand. The company reportedly tried to wrest the rights to the museum’s artifacts from the collector who assembled them, wearing the owner down with frivolous lawsuits over multiple years.

The dispute centers around the Winston cigarette brand, which was founded in 1954 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. At the direction of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company executive Ralph Seagraves, Winston became the title sponsor for the inaugural NASCAR Winston Cup Series in 1971, beginning the modern era of top-level stock car racing. Winston would sponsor the series until 2003, around the time tobacco sponsorships were being weeded out of sports.

NASCAR fans pack the grandstands as a group of cars pass at the Daytona International Speedway during the 1986 Daytona 500 on February 16, 1986 in Daytona Beach, Florida.
1986 Daytona 500. Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images

In 2005, retired NASCAR promoter and business affiliate Will Spencer and his wife Christy opened The Winston Cup Museum in Winston-Salem according to the Winston-Salem Journal. Spectrum News reports it housed decades’ worth of race and show cars, helmets, winners’ champagne bottles, branded memorabilia, and more, all in an approachable format that told a visual history of NASCAR’s golden age. It drew visitors from as far as China and Switzerland.

But it wouldn’t last.

The Winston Cup Museum opening ceremony on May 11, 2005
The Winston Cup Museum opening ceremony on May 11, 2005. The Winston Cup Museum on Facebook

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.

On the floor of the Winston Cup Museum
On the floor of the Winston Cup Museum. Winston Cup Museum on Facebook

Initially, that seemed to be the plan. WFMY reports the museum was to be rechristened the Ralph Seagraves Memorial Museum after the Winston executive behind the sponsorship (and father of museum executive director, Colbert Seagraves). The deal would have reportedly let the Spencers keep the “overwhelming majority” of the museum’s collection. But four years of fighting a tobacco colossus had spent the Spencers, who could no longer prop up their passion project.

“After the past couple of years, we just can’t afford to keep it open and we’ve got to reinvent ourselves,” Christy Spencer told WFMY. “We’ve spent the past couple of years dealing with this litigation and so now the time has come to move forward. It’s just not feasible for us to continue to operate the museum.”

“The museum has never been a money generator. It was never designed to be a revenue generator, [it] was really a way to fuel Will’s passion for the motorsports industry and give hardcore race fans a place to come and see some unique pieces of history.”

And on Saturday, December 16, the museum ran its “final lap,” a send-off attended by some 750 people according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

“Everything runs its course, and it’s had its season—two decades—and unfortunately, I now have to do the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Will Spencer told Mecum, reportedly holding back tears.

“It’s bittersweet with anything that you love,” he told the Winston-Salem Journal.

“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.”

While the couple’s original plan was to keep much of the collection together, an enormous amount is now headed to Mecum Auctions in Kissimmee, Florida in early January. The lots will include everything from race-winning cars of “Fireball” Roberts and Kyle Petty to signed helmets, race suits, and hoods.

The Spencers plan to carry on their preservation in some other form next year, but the crown jewels are scattered to the wind. At least they won’t just fall wholesale into the hands of the trademark-trolling Winston Cup wannabes at ITG, though. You can buy a name, but you can’t buy history you didn’t write.

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