In July 2011, Paul Menard stepped out of an electric-yellow race car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the winner of the Brickyard 400 NASCAR race.
Eight years later, the Menards company delivered that same winning car to the Chippewa Valley Museum, where it will sit on display starting Tuesday.
The vehicle is the centerpiece of the museum’s newest temporary exhibit, “Racing in the Chippewa Valley,” a dive into local racing history and a display of racing memorabilia.
“There’s a fairly extensive history of different types of racing around here in the valley, from dirt track stock cars to drag racing snowmobiles,” said photographer and exhibit co-curator Steve Johnson.
Menard isn’t the only famous racer featured in the exhibit. The public will also see memorabilia of Herm Johnson, a famed Eau Claire race car driver who won two championships and had 36 career starts between 1979 and 1985, according to the Chippewa Valley Museum. Johnson died in December 2016.
The exhibit began as a study of Herm Johnson, but for the two curators, it took them about “three minutes” to realize the exhibit needed to be larger, said co-curator and retired professor Dan Perkins of Eau Claire.
“We originally thought about doing the exhibit revolving around Herm, because he had a fairly extensive racing career,” Steve Johnson said.
But the day that Perkins and Steve Johnson proposed the exhibit, museum director Carrie Ronnander gave them surprising news, Perkins said: That same day, a member of Herm Johnson’s family had dropped off helmets, trophies, posters and memorabilia from Herm’s career at the museum.
“Steve said, ‘Maybe there’s more to this than meets the eye,’” Perkins remembered.
“Racing didn’t just start and end with Herm Johnson,” Ronnander added. “He came from a racing community.”
Inside the exhibit
Steve Johnson and Perkins proposed the exhibit in May 2018. They began seriously collecting the items in December, and the museum began designing the exhibit in March, Ronnander said.
The result: A 1,500-square-foot exhibit, featuring Menard’s stock car from the 2011 Brickyard 400, a 1939 Chevy Coupe that raced at Menomonie’s Red Cedar Speedway, drivers’ racing gear and vintage dirt track crash photos.
A drag-racing Yamaha snowmobile, once driven by five-time snowmobile racing world class champion Donna Davidson of Chippewa Falls, will also be on display, according to the snowmobile’s owner, Strand Enterprises.
“It was really the fastest (assembly) of any exhibit I’ve seen of this size, and really only possible because we had guest curators who spent hundreds of hours,” Ronnander said.
Steve Johnson and Perkins talked to veteran racers in several counties, each new discovery giving them the names of more retired racing buddies who might have stories, souvenirs or trophies to include. Perkins spent 182 hours — and put 890 miles on his car — driving to interviews, meeting racers and collecting memorabilia, he said.
“They scoured the countryside,” Ronnander said.
Both curators have a personal connection to racing. Steve Johnson raced small sedans and photographed several of Herm Johnson’s IndyCar races in Milwaukee in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he said.
Perkins competed in Solo II club racing, where drivers race against the clock on a short course.
There’s a rich local tradition of racing — whether cars, motorcycles, go-karts or snowmobiles — in the Chippewa Valley, Ronnander said: “We have a lot of space in the surrounding area to expand and build tracks. I think there are many places in the U.S. (where) there’s a great love affair with the car, and seeing what it can do.”
Steve Johnson agreed: “A lot of people figure if you can put a motor on it, we might as well race it.”
The “Racing in the Chippewa Valley” exhibit opens Tuesday, June 25, and runs through Saturday, Oct. 26. Every visitor will receive a 2019 Paul Menard hero card as a souvenir, according to the museum.
Admission to the exhibit is included with museum admission: $7 for adults and $4 for kids 5-17. Museum members and children under four are admitted free.
The Chippewa Valley Museum, 1204 E. Half Moon Dr., Eau Claire is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1-4 p.m. Sunday and 5-8 p.m. Tuesday evening.