It’s hard to capture what’s behind the allure of motorsports.
There’s the hum of a finely tuned engine as it crosses the finish line, and the smell of rubber being literally burnt into pavement while the checkered flag waves. It sits at this crossroads of mechanical ingenuity and human performance, and has history dotted with everything from fast-driving bootleggers to some of the most gruesome wrecks in the automotive world.
See all the images at the bottom of this article
Joseph Saleem knows all of this. He’s spent just as much time behind the wheel as he has behind a book. He’s raced buses, stock cars, formula cars and carts. When he’s not driving, he’s either learning something new, or sharing his knowledge with someone else.
Saleem’s spent years volunteering at car museums in Mooresville; giving tours, answering questions and looking up the history for installations. His business card literally says “historian” on it, and he’s got this kind of mantra that if he doesn’t have the answer right away, he’ll find it for you.
“I want to learn everything about everything in racing,” he said while flashing a grin underneath a crop of sandy white hair and wire-rimmed glasses.
He explained his fixation on racing came at age 6 when he met Midget racer Nick Fornoro Sr. Saleem’s dad and Fornoro happened to work at the same company, and afterward he started collecting all types of racing magazines, being especially keen on following Fornoro’s career.
Since then, Saleem said, he’s driven in more than 700 separate races, and amassed an archive of around 40,000 racing pictures and books. Racing is even what brought him to North Carolina. He moved from Danbury, Connecticut to Troutman in 2004, leaving a job at a company that built laser systems.
“I came here specifically because this is the center of racing in the country,” he said.
It was in 2005 that he started volunteering at the Memory Lane Museum; he started doing research for the North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame a few years later. True to character, Saleem even worked a few years as a security guard at Charlotte Motor Speedway. These days, he said he spends his time doing freelance research for people interested in cars and helping the museums as needed.
And what some may call an obsession, he thinks of as history, he talked about a time in early racing when people cared more about the brand of vehicle than the driver.
“In the old days, I’m talking (early) 1900s, people were just fascinated by the automobile,” he says.
He mentioned that many car manufactures like General Motors and Ford saw a boost in sales because of what was doing well on the NASCAR track.
But tragedy was also on the track.
Saleem said there’s been those he knew who died while racing and he’s read about plenty of other deaths ranging from acquaintances to racing greats. There’s also been many times when he’s only read about drivers instead of seeing them race.
He also recognized that behind each racer’s death is a person with a passion for the sport.
“I think just reading about and the act of seeing so many race car drivers die, and think it’s maybe going to happen to you, it gives you a greater appreciation for the life you have,” he said. “If you go when you’re driving race cars, it’s got to be something that’s really important to you.”
Saleem noted he’s seen racing transform over the years with the advent of technology, but his time researching and hitting the gas pedal hasn’t been defined just by big moments on the track. He said part of the experience has come from meeting fellow enthusiasts, amateur drivers and the legends themselves.
“If I were a billionaire, I might be able to buy some of these experiences,” he says. “But to meet these people, I can’t put a price tag on that.”