March 28, 2018

Melissa Bleier MAHP '09 on Becoming "The Track Girl"

M.A. in Historic Preservation alumna Melissa Bleier ’09 wrote her thesis on heritage speedways and their place in American cultural landscapes, and has been working on the preservation of speedways ever since.

  • Melissa Bleier ’09, M.A. in Historic Preservation

By Melissa Bleier ’09

When I first walked into Richard Wagner’s office, I thought that I was going to write my Master’s Thesis on ghost towns in Colorado and remnant preservation. When he told me that a “lawyer from Colorado” had just written on something similar and that I could follow up, I was stumped. I wanted to write a Master’s Thesis that would represent my interests within preservation. I wanted to write something that was my own foundation, not building up an argument already presented. I thought about it all night, and when I came back in the next day, I was sure my idea was going to get shot down. In flames even. “I want to write about heritage speedways and their place in American cultural landscapes.” Yes. NASCAR. Yup. Stock cars.

To my (honest) surprise Richard’s eyes lit up and he said that he thought that sounded absolutely fascinating. My committee, Hugh Miller, John Larson (Vice President of Preservation at Historic Old Salem) and Ken Breslauer (a Goucher Alum and the Historian at Sebring Raceway) stepped up to support me and my idea that stock car culture represents an important part of the American landscape.

Three years later, after countless trips to small town libraries, interviews at the Peach Pit with some of the men (and their wives!) who had put NASCAR on the map, digging deep into the archives of the International Speedway Corporation and the back rooms of race tracks and doing lots of research that required me to attend as many races as possible to really explore the cultural nuances of race day communities, I had a monster of a thesis that needed defending.

Sitting with my committee in the Martinsville Speedway Media box, high above turns one and two with my bound copy of Don’t They Just Turn Left? NASCAR’s Heritage Race Tracks and Preserving Stock Car Culture was one of the proudest moments of my life.

Within the pages, I had explored the tradition of the Three Day City, the importance of understanding not all heritage needs to be frozen in time and looked at patterns of automotive heritage in the Southern United States. I created a Southern Stock Car Heritage Area that I still believe should be developed. I defended my Thesis with confidence and had taken the first steps to becoming a subject matter expert.

In the coming years, I worked my rear chassis off! I presented at the North American Society for Sport History, speaking on the importance of preserving speedways in the same way that people work to preserve storied baseball fields. I wrote for a travel blog that featured roadside Americana and created a Road Trip to visit heritage speedways. I wrote for as many NASCAR and racing related blogs, with varying successes. I started my own blog and did my best to keep it rolling! I made my own business cards and hustled.

In 2013 I went to work for NASCAR with their Media Group. Here I worked in their digital archives cataloging race day information. My eventual goal was to work in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

I ended up coming back to California and took a job “in my field” (Preservation!) with the National Park Service at the Golden Gate Recreation Area. I am currently the Realty Specialist at GGNRA. This position is unique as I manage both land use issues and the Historic Leasing program. We lease our historic residential units at market rate to the public and use the rental income to rehabilitate the historic structures. The historic leasing program also pays for salaries and other programs throughout the park.

While working for the National Park Service is a very special career, I am in fact always working on my Career as a Speedway Historian. In April of 2016, I was contacted by the grandson of the man who built Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. Darlington was one of the featured heritage speedways in my thesis. When I had completed my thesis, I gave each of the featured speedways a copy of my tome. Harold Brasington III had come across it while working on another project. After reading it, he decided that I was the exact right person to write his grandfather’s biography and tell the story of the race tracks he built throughout the Carolinas. We’ve been working together since April of 2016 and our project will compliment a documentary that is being developed.

Almost at the same time, Ken Clapp, who I had used as a resource during my Thesis research reconnected with me to ask if I wanted to be part of his west coast stock car history project. A combination of autobiography and an exploration of the west coast contributions to the racing world with one of the men who shaped NASCAR on the west coast? You bet I said yes.

So, by day I work for NPS in a position that uses preservation to actively preserve historic structures and supports my park; by night (and on the weekends and on days off) I work on my two racing history projects. While I am very busy, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am on the Board of Directors for the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame and am pursuing a career in the business of racing. Over time, I have realized that one of the best ways to preserve a legacy is to be part of its future.

Yes, Goucher’s M.A. in Historic Preservation program allowed me to create a foundation to get work in preservation. But the best part of Goucher’s program and specifically my thesis work is that my writing and my plan for the active preservation of heritage speedways is the thing that finally launched my career in stock car racing.