The Launch of RacersReunion.com
The original RacersReunion website was launched on January 22, 2008. The inspiration for the site came after founder, Jeff Gilder attended an event at Memory Lane Museum in Mooresville, North Carolina where approximately 70 former drivers gathered for an autograph session. Several of the drivers in attendance had not made a public appearance since the end of their driving careers. Fans (after seeing attendees listed in the newspaper) showed up in force to see drivers from their past. Some, to the surprise of the drivers, brought memorabilia to be autographed that they had saved for decades. It became very clear there were still fans interested in seeing drivers from years gone by. RacersReunion "Where Legends and Fans Unite" was created to reconnected former drivers and their fans.
The Origin of the Idea
The name RacersReunion and much of the concept facilitated by the website originated with former NASCAR independent driver, Paul Lewis. Paul held an annual event in Johnson City, Tennessee (and later in Jonesborough, TN) that he called Racers Reunion. He and several of his driving buddies realized (at the funeral of a friend) the only time they saw each other was at funerals. They began holding the annual event to bring drivers and families together to reminisce and share their experiences with others. The event grew to include food vendors and a car show, that often included vintage and current race cars.
Reminiscing the Meeting and Mentorship
Gilder and Lewis met at Kingsport Speedway when Gilder was making his NASCAR Late Model Stock debut. Gilder began his racing endeavor on motorcycles racing motocross and later moved on to stock cars on dirt tracks in the 1980s. The Late Model Stock Car on a concrete track was a challenge to Gilder who managed to qualify dead last that night. Lewis had been watching the understaffed and overwhelmed team struggle to find the handle when he offered to help. And help, he did. After a couple of complete suspension overhauls, two more practice sessions, and some final adjustments, Gilder managed to make his way from 28th (last place) to a 7th when he had to pit with a throttle problem. He eventually finished in 11th place. Prior to the race, Lewis had schooled Gilder on how to allow the faster cars to get by during the race. He said, "You're going to begin getting lapped early. Just move to the inside, let them get by, and race the track using the lines I showed you." Lewis had walked Gilder around the 3/8 mile oval earlier and showed him the best corner entry lines, braking, and accelerating points. Both were surprised when, rather than being lapped, they began passing cars and moving up. Gilder remembers making the call (during a caution) on the radio to his crew chief, Dickey Lee Whitehead, "I don't know who that dude is, but don't let him leave!"
Lewis and Gilder connected. With Lewis' help, they sat on 15 poles, won 13 races, set a track record for qualifying, and won a championship the year following their meeting. It was a relatively short racing relationship, spanning three seasons, but the friendship and the connection continued. Gilder wanted to give something back to Lewis who had refused to take money for his help. In the years that followed, Gilder relocated, but kept up with Lewis and his Racers Reunion events. It was Lewis who invited Gilder to bring his camera and come to that Memory Lane event in Mooresvile in 2008.
The Beginning of a Journey
The launch of RacersReunion.com was the beginning of a journey to celebrate racing history, reconnect drivers with their fans, and assist other racing history groups grow and become more recognized in their efforts. Not long after the launch, Gilder was approached by a group of drag racing enthusiasts who asked to have their sport included in the RacersReunion family. The situation between stock car racing fans & drivers and drag racing fans & drivers was very similar. Gilder began traveling to events interviewing drivers from both sports and sharing the interviews on the website platform. Within the first year of existence, RacersReunion Radio was added to the platform, playing a combination of music and interview segments. The online station quickly outgrew the the original launch platform and expanded to include a selection of stock car and drag racing talk radio shows. Five shows are still running as of this writing.
The Old School RacersReunion.com Shootout
On July the 18th 2008, RacersReunion.com and Old School Racing joined forces and partnered with Lucky Dog Television to create the first ever live streaming of a stock car race. The race was held at the Nashville (Tennessee) Motorplex and featured drivers such as: Geoff Bodine; Sterling Marlin; Harry Gant; Jack Ingram; Larry Pollard; Lake Speed; Randy Lajoie; D.K. Ulrich; Dave Marcis; and Charlie Glotzbach. Bodine and Malrin raced door-to-door with Bodine taking the win. The race that appeared live on the RacersReunion.com was a huge accomplishment in some ways but a disappointment in others. In 2008, there weren't that many consumers with sufficient bandwidth to stream live events. The poor reception (in their eyes) took away from the overall accomplishment.
The Love Chevrolet Columbia Speedway RacersReunion
2009 brought the inaugural Columbia Speedway RacersReunion and 30,000 fans to the old speedway in Cayce, SC. Columbia Speedway had been closed since the 1970s when a group of local fans and RacersReunion members began discussing the idea of a reunion at the track. The event took shape in approximately four months from the first discussions at a RacersReunion Christmas party in December 2008 and the event date the following April. The local Chevy dealer, Love Chevrolet quickly got behind the event and came on board as title sponsor. Several of their current managers and employees we huge fans of the old speedway. Over 100 volunteers showed up to help clear underbrush, trees, and rubble to accommodate the event. At one point, a volunteer showed up with a dump truck, a track hoe, bulldozer, tractor, and tank of diesel fuel and donated their use to the preparation. The entire Cayce, West Columbia, and Lexington County communities rallied to make this event a huge success. The event included a parade (technically it was a procession...since we did not have a permit for a parade) an autograph session, music, a vintage race car display, vendors, and a car show.
From that inaugural event the owners of the old speedway saw how the track could still contribute to the community and invested heavily in a revitalization project to clear the infield, install irrigation, and create a multi-purpose event facility on the property. As of this writing the Historic Columbia Speedway hosts multiple events each year including car shows, festivals, sporting events, and other gatherings.
How Technology Affected Growth
RacersReunion.com used technology to bring attention to its cause. Through radio, television, live streaming, and thousands of shared interviews, along with (then) state-of-the-art event promotion, RacersReunion surely carved out a spot in racing history. The same technological advancements that helped RacersReunion impact racing history, eventually grew to provide similar opportunities to others with the same objectives. Although a broadening of online platform opportunities may have diluted RacersReunion's potential audience, those platform opportunities (such as Facebook) have brought reams of racing history out of basements, attics, and memories for all the share.
Time will tell if future generations take an interest in the history related to their eras. The era that RacersReunion serves (or served) brought photos, stories, and memorabilia to be shared in ways not previously available. We weren't the first. Other early adopters like Bill Pratt's Draglist.com have done the same thing by creating a living historical document. Draglist.com preceded RacersReunion by more than ten years...maybe fifteen. Hat's off to all who took (and will take) the initiative to simply ....start the process.
Many of the drivers we have interviewed have since passed. But, their memories and many of their first-hand accounts are here to be further shared and remembered. Over 15,000 members have contributed to this effort. The time has come to discuss where we go from here and how we carry this forward for the benefit of future generations. We're open to ideas from those with interest. Give us your thoughts. Join us as we celebrate tens years of ...celebration!