A NASCAR Collecting Primer

I received an interesting inquiry from a long-time collector of baseball and football cards. He’s been having fun lately with NASCAR and watching Cup races on television. He’s a true sports fan and is impressed with the head-to-head competition, every man for himself every week, and the flat-out action with no time-outs, no between innings, no substitutes and no offensive/defensive team platooning.

Now he wants to capture some of his racing enjoyment by collecting NASCAR cards, just like he’s collected baseball and football memories on cards. His question to me was, “What’s the best way to go about it from scratch?” Given my involvement with card collecting for so long and my interest in racing cards in particular, he wanted whatever advice I could give him.

Boy, talk about an invitation – I like NASCAR, I like cards and I like talking about them. So this was the trifecta, and I was glad to give him my two cents worth.

First of all, I told him I was impressed with the question. Too often folks get into a new hobby by jumping in head first, figuring they’ll just enjoy the fun and figure things out as they go along. I’m always one to emphasize the fun in card collecting because that’s the primary reason for having a hobby. And while it’s nice if a collection of anything accrues a little value over the years, from my perspective, card collecting works best as a hobby, not an investment.

That said, it doesn’t mean I just pour money into my card collecting willy-nilly. But even though I’m spending money for the fun of collecting cards, I can still be smart about it.

I told him he should take much of what you’ve learned about cards already and apply it in making your NASCAR card decisions. Many of the same “rules” apply: 1) you can’t have everything, 2) condition trumps cost and 3) only get a card because you like it – not because somebody else says it’s “hot.”

Figuring out exactly what to collect, we talked about the options in NASCAR cards. Fortunately, it’s a lot easier with racing cards because there is not the plethora of releases you see in the other sports. In addition, everything of consequence is made by just one company – Press Pass – and they’re very diligent in putting out quality products over a reasonable schedule. They also protect the value of the cards with well-disciplined production numbers. Each of its brands has a unique pedigree, so you’d do well to educate yourself about those aspects by reading the ads, publicity material and the hobby press, such as the card set reviews in this column.

When you’re getting started, you first need to look at what’s available. Visit some shows and shops, and watch what’s available online. Pick up a sampling of some of the cheaper ones to check over and find out what shifts your gears. The two most popular methods of collecting NASCAR cards are by base set and by driver. After that, memorabilia cards are the focus of many collectors, and a recently emerging area is collecting the boxes and wrappers. Let’s consider some distinctions of these approaches:

Base sets
Nothing documents the totality of a NASCAR season like a base card set, and there’s a wide variety to choose from. From the big-picture overview of each season’s opening regular Press Pass brand to the Cup focus of VIP, to looking back with Legends, base sets are compact collectibles packed with pictures and information. And prior to the recent nasty habit of seeding short-prints in with the base cards, most of the sets are not that expensive either. The images, narratives and the character of base card sets capture the sport like nothing else. That’s especially interesting with the vintage sets, which in racing is just about anything before 2003. The historical record is great fun to collect, and it’s very impressive when you put together runs of different brands from a series of seasons – say, all the VIP sets from 1994-2003.

Drivers
NASCAR cards lend themselves ideally to the interests of fans who like collecting things pertaining just to their favorite driver or drivers. With several card releases each year, including base cards and inserts in each brand, the typical popular driver will have from anywhere from 12-40 cards each season. Preserving a driver’s accomplishments and career with your NASCAR cards is a unique and impressive way to organize a collection, whether you focus on a single driver or several.

Memorabilia cards
There are plenty of certified autographs and race-used pieces in NASCAR cards, though not so many as to dilute their value. From driver-worn firesuits, gloves, shoes and caps to race-used tire rubber, sheet metal and pit-stop signs, it’s a treasure trove. You really have the option of two basic approaches, though you can certainly combine them any way you want to: 1) pick a few favorite drivers and collect their memorabilia cards or 2) go for really nice pieces from a wide cross section of racers, with the quality of the memorabilia piece being the driving factor. If it’s scarcer stuff you like, there are lots of classy limited-edition cards of 50, 25 or even fewer. In racing, there is also a very high premium for multi-colored memorabilia and for cards numbered at a driver’s car number (say, card “20 of 100” on a Tony Stewart piece).

Display boxes and wrappers
For something a little unique and above the ordinary, empty retail display boxes and wrappers can give any collection a style that’s hard to beat. They’re colorful and dramatic, and they put the cards into a context that will set your collection apart when you show it off to others. While there’s no price guide on display boxes and wrappers (yet), some of the vintage ones are really tough to find and bring significant bragging rights with them.
Finally, the very best advice I could give to this collector (and to anyone collecting racing cards) is to figure out what you like and go after it. And be careful about jumping on the latest bandwagon – you might just get taken for a ride. Have fun, but be smart.

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