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)

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