Saturday, February 25, 2012

Wayne Auton: A life in racing

St. Stephens grad plays key role 
adirector of the Truck Series

HICKORY — Wayne Auton laughs when he says he got his formal education from “The School of Hard Knocks.”

That tough school led to the directorship of the NASCAR Truck Series – which opens the 2012 season on Friday in Daytona Beach, Fla. -- and Hickory Motor Speedway’s Wall of Fame.

Auton remembers the day he made the wall.

“I got a phone call from Bob Friedman, the one who decided to put the wall up in the first place,” Auton says. “He called me up and said, ‘We’re building a Wall of Fame, and we’d like your permission to put your name up there.

“I asked what the wall consisted of, and he said it was the names of people who started at Hickory Motor Speedway and made their name in racing.

“I thought it was a neat deal. I’ve met the right people at the right time to have the opportunities I have today.”

Auton never raced.

“I never had that ambition,” he says.

But he’s made his name in racing.

Auton first was a NASCAR official. He was the NASCAR Goody’s Dash Series director from 1990 through 1995 and has been the director of the Truck Series from mid-1995 to the present.

But, as often happens, it all started at Hickory. He says HMS was dirt when he first went to the track with his dad, the late Robert “Hoot” Auton. His dad was helping driver Elmer Killian, also on the Wall of Fame, and Auton naturally joined his dad at the track.

Hoot Auton was a lifetime official, and Wayne Auton got his start as a fire marshal at the Hickory track. He was a fire marshal the August day in 1977 that Catawba County native Bobby Isaac died after a heart attack in a race at Hickory.

“Bobby Isaac was my hero,” Auton says sadly.

One of Auton’s favorite racing memories came at Hickory, and he learned from it.

“I was part of the ‘over the wall gang,’ the bomber division,” Auton says. “We parked outside the track.

“One night, we thought we’d be so smart. All of the cars are leaned to the left, of course, so one night we ran them to the right. It didn’t work out too good.”

The walls are set up to turn left, not right, so one of the cars hit the wall in the wrong spot. The lap-over was turned the wrong way, and the car was destroyed.

“We thought we’d be bright and mess with (the drivers),” Auton said.

Instead, they just messed up.

Auton became an official in 1978 and started traveling as an official with the Busch Series in 1982. He started traveling with the Dash series in 1987 and became its director three years later.

As the Truck Series director, he saw Mike Skinner become its first champion in 1995. Auton’s also watched all the beating, banging, crashing and feuding since.

Earlier this year, he announced the series will go this year to Rockingham Speedway, which hasn’t hosted a NASCAR weekend since 2004.

He says he’s had many mentors over the years. One was the late Jim Hunter, who worked for newspapers and then did PR, then worked for NASCAR as president of Darlington Raceway and finally as chief publicist.

“Mr. Hunter took me under wing and taught me a ton, how competitors are to be taken care of, how to talk to people, how to show people respect. He was a great person.”

Hoot Auton walked around racetracks with a constant smile, and his son pretty much does the same. Auton’s natural enthusiasm shows in conversations, and that may be part of his rise in NASCAR.

You can tell a lot about Wayne Auton from a quote just before the Truck Series made its first stop at Pocono Raceway.

“I love going to a new race track for the first time,” Auton was quoted as saying. “I am like a kid in the candy store, full of excitement.

“We have been working for over a year to bring the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series to the ‘Tricky Triangle.’

 “Heading to a new track means, for the most part, everyone is a rookie.”

Auton admits that his life has also been all about missing out on things, but that’s true throughout racing. St. Stephens High — he’s from the class of 1976 —held its 35th high-school reunion this year, but the Truck Series was in Las Vegas, and Auton missed the reunion.

“I haven't been to Hickory in probably 10 years,” he says sadly. “When you’re on the road like we are, when you get home you don’t care about going to a race.”

But Auton is in no hurry to leave the road.

“Somebody asked me one day when I thought I’d quit. I’ll quit when they say ‘Gentlemen, start your engines,’ and the hair doesn't stand up on my neck,” he said.

“That’ll be the time to get out of it. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”

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(NOTE: Auton became NASCAR's Nationwide Series director in December of 2012.)

More blog entries from this writer:
• Angel in Black: Remembering Dale Earnhardt Sr.
(a book of great stories)
• Then Junior Said to Jeff...
(the book of great NASCAR stories)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Keeping watch over Bobby Isaac

Keeping watch over Bobby Isaac

Legendary racer's career began and ended in Hickory

HICKORY -- Bobby Isaac apparently was hearing things.

In 1973 at Talladega Superspeedway, Isaac suddenly radioed hall-of-fame car owner Bud Moore and said he was pitting. He got out of the car and pretty much retired from Winston Cup racing on the spot.

Later, he told a reporter that a voice had told him to get out of the car. Maybe he heard it because, earlier in the race, driver Larry Smith died in an accident.

“He was a very unusual person, and a lot people found him a bit odd,” said Humpy Wheeler, the promoter at Charlotte Motor Speedway from 1975 to 2008. “I thought he was a product of the time; he was brought up in a sawmill in the country, and he had not learned to read or write at the time. He went racing for a guy from Cherryville named Frank Hefner, and Frank didn't know Bobby couldn’t read. They’d stop to eat, and Bobby would order a hotdog. He never looked at the menu.”

Legendary racer Jack Ingram, a friend of Isaac’s, says one of Isaac’s wives taught him to read.

“I never figured out who did teach him to read,” Wheeler said. “He was a proud man, and he never talked to people except people he was close to. He and David Pearson were very much alike – where they came from, same age, both from mill towns, and Pearson was one of the most upset people when Bobby died. They traveled together and bummed around together.”

Some people may have thought that Isaac was a coward for walking away at Talladega. Wheeler never thought that.

“Bobby was one brave human being in a race car,” Wheeler said. “I don't think there was anything that scared him. He was one of the first drivers who learned to race the big superspeedways. The cars were faster than they are now, and you had to watch out for the terrible right-front (tire) blowout. It meant you’d really hit the wall hard. But Bobby stayed cool in a race car; he didn't scare, didn't get upset.

“When it came down to a showdown, he was tough to beat.”

Beginning and end at Hickory

The beginning and end of Isaac’s great career were at Hickory.

Robert Vance “Bobby” Isaac (1932-1977), a native of Catawba, visited Hickory Motor Speedway in 1952, a year after the dirt track opened, and decided he wanted to race. He bought a 1937 Ford and put roll bars in it to run Hobby Stocks. His first race at Hickory wasn’t much of a success – he flipped the Ford on the second lap – but it didn’t cool his ardor for racing.

At the end, Isaac was running in a Late Model Sportsman race at HMS on Aug. 14, 1977. With 25 laps left he called for a relief driver  and collapsed on pit road. He was revived briefly at the hospital, but a heart attack killed him in the early morning hours. He was 45.
The day that Elvis Presley died – Aug. 16, 1977 – Isaac was buried in the cemetery behind turns three and four at HMS.
In between, Isaac had a world-class career.

He posted 37 Cup victories and 50 poles, and he won 11 races in 1970, the year he won NASCAR’s Grand National (now Sprint Cup) championship. He claimed 20 Cup poles in 1969, and he had a whopping 17 wins one season.

In 1970, he set what was then a world closed-course speed record of 201.104 mph at Talladega.

A year later, he went to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and set 28 world speed records, including some that still stand.

The Bobby Isaac Memorial races at Hickory – set for Sunday and Monday, Sept. 4 and 5 – isn’t the only memorial to Isaac. Each year, Charlotte Motor Speedway presents the Bobby Isaac Memorial Award to an individual or group in recognition of outstanding contribution to short-track racing. Two of the winners were also HMS stalwarts, Ingram and Harry Gant.

Isaac was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame in 1979 and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1996.

In 1998 NASCAR honored Isaac as one of its NASCAR's 50 greatest drivers ever.

And, naturally, Isaac’s name graces the Wall of Fame at HMS.

‘Isaac being Isaac’

Wheeler’s favorite Isaac story is one about a watch he got, ironically, from the Talladega track. After the Talladega incident, Isaac quit racing for a while, and he wound up racing at short tracks like Hickory.

“One of the results of Talladega,” Wheeler said, “was that he didn’t want anything in the house that said Talladega. Bill France (Sr.) gave him a gold Rolex watch, and on the back it said ‘Quitters never win, winners never quit, Talladega 500.’

“Bobby never wore that watch, never put it on. One day he came into my office (at Charlotte Motor Speedway). He never knocked on the door. He said he had the watch and said, ‘You want you to buy this watch, you need a Rolex.’ I said, ‘No, I don't.’ He said, ‘I know you do.’ ”

Isaac left the watch in Wheeler’s drawer and walked out. Later, Tom Pistone called and told Humpy that he owed so much for car parts. Wheeler would pay for the parts, and Humpy knew that was the cost of the watch.

“I started wearing it, and when he died, I offered to give the watch back to his wife,” Wheeler said. “I thought it ought to be part of his trophy collection, but she said, ‘No, he wanted you to have it.’ It meant more than the money, so I still had it.”

As for Isaac getting out of the car, “It shocked everybody else, but what he did at Talladega didn’t surprise me one iota,” Wheeler said.

To Wheeler, it was Isaac being Isaac.


More entries from TARJ
(a book of great stories about the Intimidator)
(the book of great NASCAR stories)

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The Angel in Black

Race fans probably wonder where the book name "Angel in Black: Remembering Dale Earnhardt Sr." came from.

I wrote "I Remember Dale Earnhardt" in early 2001 for Cumberland House Publishing and decided to promote the book with a story I could send to small newspapers (which are often looking for free copy). So I used a portion of the book and told a story about Earnhardt's love for (and kindnesses toward) children.

In one story from the book, a little boy is dying, and his wish is to meet Earnhardt. Dale had just undergone surgery and couldn't travel, so an ambulance and medical team were assembled to bring the boy to the Kannapolis area.

Earnhardt was wearing a collar, and he was shy about people seeing it. But he allowed someone to take a photo of him with the boy, and he told the boy that no one else would see him with that collar. He spent time with the boy, who didn't have much time left, and he made the next few days more bearable for the boy's parents.

There are other stories like that in the book. Why Angel in Black? In that promotion story, I said that kids didn't see Earnhardt as the baddest man on the planet. To them, he was the angel in black.

Then we were updating the book in 2007. While working on the update, I sent a copy of that article to my editor at Cumberland House, John Mitchell, and he showed it to the publisher, Ron Pitkin. Ron fell in love with the term Angel in Black, and he asked me what we could call the book with Angel in Black as the main head. One of my suggestions was "Angel in Black: Remembering Dale Earnhardt Sr." And that's what was used.

More blog entries from The Auto Racing Journal
(a book of great stories about the Intimidator)
(the book of great NASCAR stories)

Blog entries from The Dog Blog
More blog entries by Tom Gillispie

Anecdotes by Tom Gillispie