ZOUK MOSBEH, Lebanon: Deep inside the Karam family’s lumberyard lies Nabil Karam’s treasure trove: a two-floor museum replete with model cars, airplanes, boats and dioramas of Karam’s rally team as well as re-enactments of the Lebanese civil war. The collection even extends to figurines of Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, Power Rangers and Superman. In 2011, Karam, a professional race car driver better known by his nickname “Billy,” broke three Guinness World Records with 27,777 model cars and 333 dioramas. Three years on, it’s no surprise cars are still the center of Karam’s life, but at this moment it’s safety rather than speed that preoccupies the rally racer.
Sitting down for an interview with The Daily Star, Karam tells the story of his love of automobiles, model building and the message he wants to send to young Lebanese.
Q: Did you have a love for model cars and dioramas as a child?
A: My father, God rest his soul, used to be wood tradesman. He used to bring me some wood, and I would build boats with the wood. When I was very young, I used to build big, beautiful boats, and I would collect cars, and together with my brothers and cousins we formed a small club and put together all the cars we collected.
Then our house was robbed during the [Lebanese Civil] War and I was kidnapped, and I developed a sort of complex [because] everything I built as a child was stolen. I later found a big boat in the garbage that I had built myself. I saved it, and I made it into a diorama. With time, I started collecting again, and I collected the cars I raced in from abroad. I go around the whole world to look for the cars that I want.
The hobby comes from my older brother, who now collects classic cars. He began racing, and I caught his virus by accident.
Q: You’ve built dioramas of scenes from the Lebanese war. Why include these scenes in your museum?
A: We don’t discuss these things. Lebanon has gone through years of war, so I built war dioramas to show the stages of the wars that Lebanon went through.
We are showing what happened in Lebanon, without taking sides, to show the new generation what happened, but without commenting. ... We are not proud of these wars, but is there a Lebanese who was not affected?
Q: Following your world record achievements, what are your future plans for the museum, and do you aim to break more records?
A: The museum is a hobby, not a purpose. I am having fun. I don’t have a lot of free time unfortunately, or else this whole warehouse would have been a museum. I’m very involved in organizations. ... My family and children are abroad, so I travel a lot, and I do a lot of rally racing abroad, since I don’t race in Lebanon anymore. The free time I have here I spend at the museum.
These records have not been broken by anyone yet. I now have approximately 400 dioramas, and I exceeded 30,000 model cars. I haven’t counted them honestly.
Q: What is your favorite car?
A: Of course the car I drove and won with, which is the Porsche. I am the founder of the first Porsche Club in the Middle East, and I have over 7,000 Porsche model cars.
Q: Why did you stop car racing in Lebanon?
A: I have been the Lebanese champion eight times; I have nothing left to prove. ... The cars are now very expensive, and I need to have a lot of free time in Lebanon. There is now a new generation, all of whom are very brave and are of course much stronger than we are.
The new generation likes to take more risks, but I no longer take part in races that are very dangerous. I no longer have the interest to take risks.
Q: Does the museum have a message for its visitors?
A: I have a clear message from the museum to the new generation: Put on the seat belt. Don’t drive fast out of idiocy. And don’t drink and drive. If we can help save one life with this message, we would have made a difference.
We all learned from the accidents we made, and this is the message that I am trying to show, a message of safety through this museum.
When we drive fast during races, there are over 300 volunteers following us: the Army, the Internal Security Forces, the Red Cross, volunteers from the ATCL [Automobile and Touring Club of Lebanon] and they close regular roads. There is help close by to prevent something from happening. There is a big difference.
Q: I’ve heard it said that you never want to grow up, is it true?
A: [Motions to his collection] This is all because I don’t want to grow up. Because of Lebanon’s worries, one day here is like one year abroad. So you need to be distracted.