Speeding Through the Past: New Museum Exhibit Chronicles Valley’s Racing History

Tom Giffey

Drive Herm Johnson of Eau Claire and the Menards pit crew at the 1982 Indianapolis 500. (Photo by Steve Johnson)
Drive Herm Johnson of Eau Claire and the Menards pit crew at the 1982 Indianapolis 500. (Photo by Steve Johnson)

If motorsports get your engine running, then put your pedal to the metal and make tracks to the Chippewa Valley Museum for its latest exhibit, “Racing in the Chippewa Valley.” The exhibit, which opened this week and runs through Oct. 26, features vehicles and memorabilia detailing the Valley’s racing history from the 1940s to the present, including dirt track racing, ice racing, go-kart racing, and snowmobile and motorcycle racing – not to mention Indy and stock car racing.

Highlights of the exhibit include the stock car that Eau Claire native Paul Menard drove to victory in the 2011 Brickyard 400 (complete with a life-size cutout of Paul, perfect for selfies), an Indy Car engine developed in the 1990s by the Menards Racing team, a 1939 Chevrolet that was raced at the Red Cedar Speedway, and a go-kart owned and painted by another well-known driver from Eau Claire, Herm Johnson, who died in 2016.

The exhibit began to take shape last year when a pair of local racing enthusiasts approached the Chippewa Valley Museum with an idea: creating a display to honor Johnson, who raced on the Indy Car circuit in the 1980s and finished ninth as a rookie in the 1982 Indianapolis 500. (Johnson’s career ended in Indianapolis, too: While trying to qualify for the Indy 500 in 1986, Johnson suffered a serious crash.)

Out of that initial idea from the guest curators, Dan Perkins and Steve Johnson (no relation to Herm), the exhibit gained momentum like a well-tuned automobile. The pair gathered stories and artifacts from dozens of racers from around the region.
“Dan and Steve approached us at a time when we had gallery space for a short-term exhibit,” said Carrie Ronnander, the museum’s director. “They had the connections and knowledge to pull the exhibit together, so it seemed like a good fit. This is the kind of collaboration that makes Chippewa Valley Museum a community museum.”

In addition to the vehicles, the 1,500-square-foot exhibit includes a collection of drivers’ racing gear (such as racing suits), vintage photos and newspaper articles, an area dedicated to Herm Johnson, and a race-themed play area for kids. Plus, all visitors will be able to take home a Paul Menard “hero card” to remember their day at the (historical) races.

Racing in the Chippewa Valley” exhibit • June 25-Oct. 26 • Chippewa Valley Museum, Carson Park (1204 E. Half Moon Drive), Eau Claire • 10am-5pm Monday-Saturday (plus 5-8pm Tuesday) and 1-4pm Sunday • admission to exhibit included with regular museum admission of $7 for adults and $4 for kids age 5-17 • (715) 834-7871 • cvmuseum.com