Bill Smith was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1929, and before his 20th birthday he was already racing. He started with motorcycles, and later moved to racing cars in the late 1940s. He became known to many as “Speedy” Bill Smith, and though his first business began at the age of 14 – a hauling service – most people recognize him as the founder and owner of Speedway Motors.
The parts counter was basically non-stop while we were there.
He was just 22 years old when he borrowed $300 from his wife, Joyce, to start a performance parts business. Starting with a small, 20 x 20 storefront, that mail-order business took off and is now one of the oldest mail-order businesses for aftermarket performance parts. Just two years later, that small business grew to over 5,000 square feet and by the 1960s they were manufacturing their own street rod and race car bodies in its own fiberglass manufacturing facility.
We paid Lincoln a visit a little over a month ago, and we were able to tour not only Speedway Motors and see their mail order business first hand, but we also stepped across the street to his sprint car museum to view the hundreds of sprint cars, race cars, collector cars, taxis, toys – you name it, and it was probably there.
Upon arriving, we wondered if that entire building was Speedway Motors. It is, and it's massive.
The mail order business is a fast-paced business that is spread out over 500,000 square feet, with shelves so tall that most people would refer to the top as the “nose bleed section.” This is not a job for someone with a fear of heights.
Want to build a street rod?
The goal for shipping parts is to try to get every order placed in the morning shipped out the same day, and the entire time we were there we saw was thousands of parts being pulled, picked, packed, and pushed out the door.
While some of their systems seem almost old school, there’s a lot of high-tech going on in that warehouse that many might not even be aware of. For instance, every box that gets packaged up has a code given to it that identifies what’s in the box and how much it should weigh.
If you ordered five parts and they weighed a combined weight of 47 pounds, before it’s shipped the weight must match the code on the box. If the box weighs more or less, it is inspected to make sure that extra parts – or missing parts – weren’t the cause of the weight difference.
High-tech order processing and a little bit of old school parts pulling combine to get thousands of orders out each day.
That’s a system of checks and balances that we don’t see often, and it was interesting to see how their orders of fast moving parts are pulled by computer, making it easier to assemble and order and get it out the door in no time at all. Whether the order is for a race car, street rod, musclecar, or even a complete fiberglass-bodied street rod kit, it all ships out of the same, huge building that has been one of the larger footprints in Lincoln, Nebraska.
The Museum of American Speed
After our brief tour through the warehouse to see what happens with parts, we stepped across the street to the Smith Collection Museum of American Speed to see the four-stories of race cars and memorabilia. The museum is a bit deceiving from the outside, and walking inside to see full-size race cars hanging on the wall is simply amazing.
We knew there wasn’t going to be enough time to see everything, and we had missed the earlier tours. But we did get a personal, guided tour through doorways, down hallways, up stairs, in an elevator, and we were still amazed that around every corner was more to see.
Top: There were Indycars on the wall, land speed cars, and even a V16 SBC.
Bottom: Yeah, I touched the original Red Baron, defying the signage. That's the oldest living pedal car, next to an early race car transporter on the right.
Then we came around one corner and there it was: The. Red. Baron. The details were impeccable, and we had to know if it was the real Red Baron. Nothing was out of place, it wasn’t missing anything, and although there had been copies over the decades, we knew that it had to be genuine, and it was.
Oh yes, it’s the real thing. And we laid hands on it, despite the warning not to.
The sign said, “Please, Do Not Touch” but we couldn’t help it. When nobody was looking, I stepped over the barrier and laid a finger on the Red Baron – and I was a kid all over again. I touched the original Red Baron!
Of course, that wasn’t the only cool thing in the entire museum, but it was definitely a highlight to stand next to the Red Baron, lay a finger on it, and walk away with a grin as we checked out more famous cars and insane engines.
We even got to tour the famous engine room and see some engines and rare parts made of unobtainium. There was a display of the various Model T water pumps available, unique engines, old pedal cars, and even a couple walls filled with lunchboxes from just about every decade.
Top: The various Model T water pumps available, the engine room, NASCAR representation, and a blown half-a-V8 from Mickey Thompson. Bottom: Speedway is also getting into Pro-Touring.
There was a great display of taxis that we didn’t get to see because the exhibit was closed, but the toy room brought back some memories (but we deny we were ever there when some of those toys were first created). The collection of pedal cars on display would have you shaking your head in awe, some of those kids had some pretty cool pedal cars back in the late 1800s.
They have it all there, and then some. So if you find yourself in Lincoln, Nebraska, with a few hours to spare, you owe it to yourself to check out the Museum of American Speed for yourself. You don’t have to be a sprint car fan to enjoy the collection, you just have to step back into your childhood and dream a little.
Speedy Bill Smith still hangs around the premises and watches over everyone.
You can find out more about Speedway Motors’ history on its website and its history page, and don’t forget to check out their millions of performance aftermarket parts in the building that takes up a half a million square feet. And check out our gallery from the tour below.