By the time Eric Zwiebelman was 19, he says, he lost his edge for collecting baseball cards and wanted a new hobby. Today, with most of his basement filled with more than 600 die-cast models of NASCAR cars, he stands at the collector's crossroads again.
When he was 11, his grandfather encouraged him to start a baseball card collection. Zwiebelman became enthralled with buying, selling and trading the cards. With his grandfather, he eventually opened Hit and Run Baseball Cards in downtown Aberdeen.
But, the 30-year-old Aberdeen resident says: "I guess I just got sick of collecting cards. I tried to collect everything as a kid. There were only three companies then, Topps, Fleer and Donruss, and that meant three sets a year, in addition to boxed sets, and your collection was complete."
'More like a lottery'
"This gave me time to go back and collect the nostalgic stuff, like Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew and Brooks Robinson. Now it's just a market of $5 to $100 packs of countless sets in hopes you get an insert card that has a ridiculously low production amount. It's more like a lottery than collecting."
"In 1988 Maxx came out with race cards, and I kind of laughed at them. But I saved them, and they caught on. The original Maxx 'Myrtle Beach' set sold then for $20, and today it's worth over $200," he says.
Zwiebelman has been a racing fan since childhood. He even customized his Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars when he was young, racing them with his friends in the back yard.
"They [the cars] didn't have numbers, and I thought they should, so I numbered each of them. Imagine my amazement when I walked into the Ames in Edgewood when I was 10 and could buy a replica of a numbered NASCAR car." He said he still prizes those cars he numbered 20 years ago.
The first numbered models were of cars driven by Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip. Made by Ertl, they are still in Zwiebelman's collection.
In 1990, Racing Champions produced the first line of 1/64th- scale NASCAR cars. Zwiebelman picked up Richard and Kyle Petty's cars and that was it. His collection of the many sizes and colors of Dale Earnhardt cars fills up a large display case. Some of his collectibles are National Hot Rod Association dragsters and funny cars, as well as the NASCAR models.
His favorite model is not the most valuable, he says.
"The Kyle Petty 'Pumpkin Car' of 1995 is my first choice. It was the first year Coors sponsored the Petty car and they wanted a painting of Elvira on the hood. Kyle didn't like the idea, so he commissioned his 9-year-old daughter to draw something related to Halloween.
"She drew an ugly pumpkin, and it was so original and off-the-wall. Not what you'd expect on your typical stock car. And in the end that's what makes the car so special and valued as a collectible," he says.
More sentimental is his small array of Adam Petty cars. Adam Petty died in May 2000 in a crash in New Hampshire. "Adam had quickly become my favorite driver, and I can't help but get a little choked up and wonder what might have been each time I look at them. But I crack a smile, too, each time I look at them," Zwiebelman says.
The most valuable car he owns is a first-edition Dale Earnhardt "Wheaties" car from 1997. Produced as the "Elite" series by Action Performance, the car had an original production run of 5,000 pieces.
Action eventually produced a second run of the car, but Zwiebelman was lucky enough to get one of the few first run die-casts in 1997. The car is listed in some price guides at up to $1,000.
Zwiebelman's fondness for NASCAR's past also is evident. Aside from the numerous Earnhardt and Richard Petty pieces there are cars of Edward Glenn "Fireball" Roberts, Ned Jarrett, David Pearson and DeWayne "Tiny" Lund.
Today Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the king of both the NASCAR and die-cast world. The recent release of his 2004 Daytona 500-winning paint scheme has sold for as much as $650 and is by far the hottest collectible of the new year.
The latest trend in die-cast collectibles is autographed cars. Action has taken the next step by offering limited-edition autographed cars that come with certificates of authenticity.
Last year, drivers Waltrip, Richard Petty, Kyle Busch and Busch Grand National Champion Brian Vickers were offered. Action plans on continuing this year, with rookie phenomenon Kasey Kahne to be the first piece offered.
Zwiebelman's collecting has expanded beyond die-cast cars. Numerous autographs line the walls of the rooms where his collection is displayed.
One unique piece on display is the side of one of Kyle Petty's 1992 "Mello Yellow" Pontiacs, which he bought several years ago. He also has a smaller piece of sheet metal from Petty's 1997 "Hot Wheels" car. "I just thought it was the next logical step," he says.
Zwiebelman mixes the "now" with the "then" and comes up with a collection of sports memorabilia for fun and profit. "Mainly for fun," he says.