“I’m Tired”: Even After Closing NASCAR Museum, Owner Fights New Lawsuits

Winston Cup Museum owner will spencer goodwrench car
Courtesy Will Spencer

“This has been painful,” says Will Spencer, owner of the Winston Cup Museum in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which featured NASCAR-related displays from the 32-year era when NASCAR’s top class was referred to as Winston Cup. On December 16, 2023, almost 20 years after the museum opened, Spencer was forced to close it for good.

It may be unfair to say that the sole reason for the shutdown is lawsuits filed by the current owner of Winston cigarettes, ITG Brands, but there’s little doubt that they were a contributing factor. Most of the contents of Spencer’s museum, including 33 race cars and other memorabilia, went up for auction last weekend at Mecum’s Kissimmee 2024 event in Florida.

“They hate me,” says Spencer of ITG. After reading some of the filings, it’s hard to argue. “ITG heats up personal accusations to Spencer in museum dispute,” ran the headline for a January 10 story in the Winston-Salem Journal.

The NASCAR Winston Cup era began in 1971 when the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, owner of Winston cigarettes, signed a deal with NASCAR to brand its top series as the Winston Cup. It was a brilliant move for both companies—to refer to the NASCAR series, you had to mention its sponsor. NASCAR soared in popularity. The deal lasted until 2003, when Nextel assumed the sponsorship.

That was the period Spencer wanted to honor with the Winston Cup Museum, which opened in 2005. Most of the museum’s displays, especially the retired race cars it featured, were from that era.

winston cup museum closed shut nascar
Facebook/Winston Cup Museum

Things changed in 2015, when tobacco companies Reynolds and Lorillard merged. The Federal Trade Commission insisted that the company divest itself of four brands. ITG—short for Imperial Tobacco Group, a subsidiary of British conglomerate Imperial Brands—was formed to acquire Winston, Salem, Kool, and Maverick, as well as Blu e-cigarettes. While Spencer’s main business, a sign company, still counts R.J. Reynolds as a regular customer, the relationship with ITG soured.

The lawsuits began three years ago. “Because ITG owns the Winston brand, the company argued that it owned the Winston-branded artifacts the museum possessed. The claims were dismissed twice,” said TobaccoReporter.com. Spencer considered rebranding the museum, “but it would have been like taking Old Yeller and naming it Blue. I knew it would never be the same. It just wouldn’t be in my heart.”

ITG has continued to sue Spencer, with the most recent motions coming after the museum closed. ITG’s law firm, Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphery & Leonard, of Greensboro, North Carolina, where ITG is headquartered, filed an eight-page affidavit four days after Christmas, insisting again that Spencer be held in criminal contempt of court. That affidavit was amended January 8 and expanded to 20 pages with narration from Glen Tibbits, senior vice president of marketing at ITG. It cites a YouTube video hosted by a motorsports historian named Mitchell Stapleton.

That December motion quotes Stapleton in the opening moments of the video, which is one hour and 19 minutes long: “There are some things you got to know about Will Spencer and the Winston Cup Museum before we get going. If you’re a race fan you’ve probably seen the articles about the Winston Cup Museum having to close on December 16th, 2023, and maybe you’ve seen the stuff about the lawsuits surrounding it [that] the questionable-at-best United States judicial system has allowed a large company to bully this guy into closing his museum.”

ITG is complaining not about what Spencer said about the company in the video, but what the YouTube host, who posts as Stapleton42, said. Yet the motion holds Spencer responsible. ITG claims to have been “disparaged and defamed” by the video—a video that fewer people may have seen were it not for the publicity ITG generated by its legal actions.

Spencer and his wife, Christy, argue that the costs of defending the lawsuits in general, and trying to keep the museum going in particular, have been financially taxing. ITG dismisses their argument: “Defendants have claimed in multiple public posts that the financial costs to rebrand is too much—thus they are going to auction all of their Winston Cup related cars and memorabilia… That is objectively false. Just one of the cars, a Dodge Daytona, is estimated to sell for more than $750,000 at auction… Considering that Defendants could sell one car to pay for all of the rebranding, financial constraints are not the issue.”

That 1969 Dodge Daytona, a former Dave Marcis superspeedway car, received a high bid of just $225,000 and did not sell. We aren’t sure who “estimated” for ITG what old race cars are worth, but they need some remedial instruction. It didn’t help that the selection of Spencer’s cars and souvenirs—billed, without any mention of Winston, as “The Rise of NASCAR’s Modern Era Museum Collection”—sold on the afternoon of the final day of the 13-day auction, when presumably a lot of the bidders’ money had been spent. 

In fact, all but a few of the 33 cars that Spencer brought to auction were sold at “no reserve,” and prices for the most part were modest. A 1986 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS, complete with a 700-horsepower V-8 (some of Spencer’s cars had everything but the engine) that was built by Junior Johnson and driven by former Cup champions Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte, in full Budweiser livery, went for just $62,700.

A 2008 Toyota Camry raced by Cup champion Dale Jarrett went for $9900. A 1995 Pontiac Grand Prix driven by Kyle Petty sold for $14,300. A 1996 Monte Carlo, raced by Waltrip in 1995 and 1996, sold for $9900. A 1994 Ford Thunderbird raced by Cup champion Bill Elliott went for $27,500. Incredibly, a rare, restored 1957 Ford, driven by Glenn “Fireball” Roberts to eight victories in ’57, drew a high bid of just $40,000 and didn’t sell.

Not surprisingly, the highest bid was on a former Dale Earnhardt 1995 Chevrolet Monte Carlo in black Goodwrench livery; it went for $348,700. The majority of Spencer’s collection of painted hoods, drivers’ helmets, gloves, and retired uniforms each went for $1500 or less—often much less. (DeWalt fire suit autographed by Cup champion Matt Kenseth: $590. Dave Blaney Amoco fire suit: $236.)

It’s true that Winston and ITG have been disparaged, but more by the media than by Spencer. “Museum closes its doors after years of lawsuits,” was the headline for a story on SpeedwayDigest.com. “NASCAR museum shut following lawsuits,” ran the title of a story on TobaccoReporter.com. “Family-owned NASCAR museum shut down thanks to greedy tobacco company,” wrote Jalopnik.com.

Spencer, 63, went to his first NASCAR race in 1971, the year the Winston sponsorship began. He went with friends, staying in their Winnebago in the infield of Rockingham Speedway. “Sunday, we rode down to between turns 1 and 2 on Honda Mini Trail 50s, and watched Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, and Bobby Allison and everybody go after it. I came home and started building model race cars. I still have my Buddy Baker one.”

He founded JKS Incorporated in 1984, which began as a sign and display company but grew into a full-service firm after adding manufacturing and fabrication services, as well as a marketing department, which develops trade show displays and brand experience events.

Much of the company’s work involved motorsports, and Spencer, since that first race 53 years ago, has never strayed far from NASCAR—he managed the show car fleet for Reynolds and a variety of teams. He often acquired wrecked Cup cars and rebuilt them into show cars. “The joke was that they’d wreck the car on Sunday, and Will would buy it on Monday,” Spencer said. “At one time, I had over a hundred of them.”

Spencer and his wife started the Winston Cup Museum as a gift to the city of Winston-Salem and to NASCAR fans, preserving an era in which NASCAR grew from a regional sport to a major national one. “It was probably the most important 32 years NASCAR ever had,” he said.

winston cup museum closed shut nascar
Facebook/Winston Cup Museum

“In 2003, I realized that if I didn’t save the stuff I had, and put it together collectively, you would never be able to gather it back up again. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. So I spent a whole year making sure that what we had didn’t end up in a dumpster. The pictures, the trophies, the awards, I saved everything. In December of 2003, I was the last man out.” He literally removed the NASCAR photos from the walls of the R.J. Reynolds offices.

So he took an old Nash dealership, gutted it, and built a museum. “It never made any money, and it never would,” he said, adding that it lost an average of $50,000 a year. 

“I feel like we kept it alive for nearly 20 years, but I’ve been fighting 800-pound gorillas,” he said. “I got myself into a pickle.” What does he guess all this has cost him? “It’s really hard to put a dollar figure on it,” he said, “but in all it’s been a two-million-dollar hit, just to have it taken away.”

The next court date, at which he’ll answer ITG’s charges of criminal contempt, is February 6. “I might go to jail for it, but I’ll keep fighting. It’s unrelenting, and it has been going on for three years. I’m tired.”

ITG may win the battle, and the law firm of Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphery & Leonard may continue to compound billable hours, but there’s no argument that they’ve lost the public relations war.

Maybe it’s the difference between doing something for money and doing it for love.




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    I am no lawyer (parents raised me better than that) but what is really going on? On a business case perspective this seem to make no sense. The financial gain if any is chump change for ITG. The continuation of the museum seems to provide positive exposure for Winston in a time of limited tobacco advertising. This attack on a little guy can only result in negative reactions to those who use the product. I am asking whose wife or daughter did this guy seduce? Something personal had to happen because some fat cat has a real attitude toward Spencer. Maybe a boycott is in order. Full disclosure the above is just my opinion and I have no personal or financial interest in this case

    Will Chevrolet show up to claim my El Camino SS because it has their name on it? I’ve got a couple of signs, a clock, a coffee cup… I guess promotional material is just on loan?

    There seems to be no limit to corporate hubris. At one point, Harley-Davidson told people that if they changed ANYTHING on their bike from the way it was delivered when it was new, they *had* to remove all H-D emblems and logos everywhere because “It wasn’t a Harley” any more. Everyone ignored them. They also tried to patent the sound of the engine. USPTO told them to get lost.

    (In this corner, one pencil-neck corporate lawyer who is about to tell his opponent what he can and can’t do to his motorcycle. In the other corner, a 600 pound biker with one big eye in the middle of his forehead who is extremely angry about being told what he can or can’t do to the motorcycle he owns, which he paid for by robbing several hundred convenience stores [“I never actually fired the bazooka that time, your honor.”] and he is even more annoyed over the few survivors who were brave enough or foolish enough to testify against him. Gentlemen, place your bets and I will ring the bell.)

    I can’t fathom in my mind, why ITG would be so butt hurt by a museum that has been around longer than their acquisition of RJR, and was allowed to display their souvenirs and advertisements during a time when they sponsored the NASCAR series, when it could only help this ITG with brand recognition and free advertising when tobacco products today have very little options to compete for customers with all the new restrictions on tobacco and tobacco related products! With the wasteful time and money involved in lawsuits and litigations, they could have helped numerous shelters and charities, instead of harassing Will Spencer for just trying to keep the “Silver” age of cup racing alive and a unforgettable moment in time! I have sent this very same message to the email address of ITG customer service and I hope a million other people do the same! I need to start a petition to boycott their products and really get their attention because I don’t know how companies in England treat their older rebranded products about old advertisements but we don’t do that in the USA! Shame on them!

    It sucks when you all the money and pick a guy trying to keep NASCAR alive for the every day guy and girl like it was I started racing in 1968 @ islip speedway

    Me too! I would have thought NASCAR could have provided some support – maybe even bought the museum as a package to save it being split up. I don’t think ITG would try harrassing NASCAR the same way they have Will Spencer.

    What is it anymore!!! Man spends a great part of his life just to please people and I’m sure younger generation. He enjoyed doing it and to please others as well so now I guess anyone that want a couple of fender to show your friends best be were of talking a sign or a hood or fender unless it says ITG. Bristol will never be like it was in the 70s or 80s but anyway seems to me like something going on between them or they are trying to show people who’s the boss or there TOBACCO and NASCAR not selling like it used to. One mans trash is another mans treasure and he did what he liked don’t take that away from the man he said probably best 20years of his life. NASCAR should step in and say a word for you but anyway hate that has happened to you.
    Good luck Mr. Spencer

    I’m not big on free money for people, but Spencer should be helped out by the racing community. This is ridiculous.

    Bullshit is what this is. It’s a shame that all of our history is being destroyed in this country. I wouldn’t go watch a NASCAR race now if it was in my back yard.

    What is ITG. Does it mean “ IT’S TERRIBLE GOVERNANCE”, or “ IT’S TERRORIST GOONS”.
    Anybody who buys their products is a communist Groupie and should be blacklisted economically, fired, demoted, tarred and feathered and discarded into wood chippers and discarded as Granate for a malfeasance frivolous lawsuit and fined OR SUED BY NASCAR $ 1,000, 000 , 000 dollars ( That’s ONE BILLION DOLLARS IF THISE NUMBERS HAVE YOU SCRATCHIG YOUR HEAD HOW MUCH MONEY IS THAT ?) for actions detrimental to NASCAR. Yeah !!!

    Beats all I’ve ever seen or heard. If fender guitars joins partners with another brand an they change the names will the rock n roll hall of fame have to give up their instruments or what about the pieces at the NASCAR hall of fame that has Winston on it an not IMG shouldn’t they have to fork over all that stuff? Maybe I’m misunderstanding what’s going on but it’s pitiful how things work anymore.

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