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Friday
Aug262016

Idol Chatter

By William G. Sawyer, Editor at Large

This week's collection is one of people, not vehicles, and an interesting look at some of the racers with whom our Editor at Large crossed paths — CAS

Tim Richmond. Having it all wasn't enough. RacingOne/ISC ArchivesWe all have people we admire, if not idolize. Role models we look to for inspiration and guidance. Some may be parents, relatives, or others in our personal sphere, although proximity and familiarity have a way of exposing flaws that dull enthusiasm. Others are public figures we only see in stage-managed environments that reflect a pre-fabricated persona concocted by the media, agents, and carefully crafted press releases. Rarely do we have an opportunity to see celebrities in the true light of day.

The death of Bill Alsup brought back a flood of memories of racing drivers I’ve been exposed to over the decades. Most were brief meetings influenced by the situations in which they occurred while others were longer term, offering deeper understanding of the personalities involved.

In December, 1979 I took a job with Matthews, Muhleman, McLean, the National Auto Parts Association’s (NAPA) ad agency. One of the partners in the agency was Max Muhleman, a sports reporter who bucked the establishment by covering NASCAR in its infancy, riding that train to a successful career in sports marketing. Along the way Max worked in PR for Shelby American, served as General Manager of Dan Gurney’s All American Racers during its infancy, and helped found the World Hockey League. After Max and his partners sold the ad agency he set up a sports marketing firm that worked closely with Rick Hendrick’s racing teams.

A perk for taking the job as Eastern Regional Advertising Manager for the NAPA account was the opportunity to work with Max and occasionally assist him in his racing endeavors. Within weeks of joining the agency a quick in-and-out trip to NAPA’s distribution center in Albany, NY turned into a three-day hibernation in a seedy motel room as I waited for the airport to recover from a record snowstorm. Once the storm cleared, I was about to board a plane back to Charlotte when Max asked me to fly to Daytona Beach to help with the Busch Clash.

Televised racing wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today. The agency and client realized they could get unpaid television exposure by creating a record of qualifying results as they happened. The idea was simple. Driver names and times were printed on magnetic strips that could be easily moved from slot to slot on a board emblazoned with Busch logos as changes in the qualifying order occurred. The television network, we reasoned, would periodically show the board on air as a visual adjunct to its reporting. Another agency employee and I, wearing Busch jackets, manned the board.

Inclement weather once again scuttled my plans as the temperature dropped thirty degrees in less than forty-five minutes. Accompanying winds dislodged the magnetic strips, sending them flying as drivers making qualifying runs fought to control their cars. Luckily our efforts to stop the strips in mid-flight never made it on a blooper reel.

Buddy Baker won the pole that day in an Oldsmobile sponsored by NAPA Shocks. Our agency wasn’t involved with the NAPA Shocks racing effort, but I attended the pole winner’s press conference anyway. Baker was a tall, imposing man one could easily imagine living the kind of life James Garner and John Wayne portrayed on screen. I never expected the man who just wheeled his stock car around Daytona at 194.009 mph to be intimidated by a room full of press nerds, but he was a bundle of nerves, fretting like a school kid performing on stage for the first time. He was so uncomfortable I expected him to bolt from the room at any second. Since then I’ve come to appreciate the debilitating effect severe anxiety has on those suffering from the disease. Unlike many of the drivers I encountered over the years Baker was the antithesis of the stereotypical devil-may-care racing pilot.

Benny Parsons qualified 14th for that race and finished 5th in the M. C. Anderson Racing Oldsmobile, a good finish for the former Detroit taxi driver, but that didn’t stop him from seeking me out and giving me a tongue-lashing I’ll not soon forget. Parsons, owner of a pair of NAPA stores in rural North Carolina, was rightfully upset that the brand he represented put its sponsorship behind Baker. I tried to explain what Parsons already knew. NAPA was a loose amalgamation of independently owned companies operating regionally that joined together to increase purchasing and advertising benefits. NAPA Shocks was a private label owned by Monroe, a company with which I had no affiliation. To make things even more convoluted, the NAPA Shocks funding came from the sale of a racing-themed record sold through NAPA outlets. The record promotion failed and the unsold discs are said to be buried in the infield of Charlotte Motor Speedway. I’m not sure that’s true, but I do remember that the little known recording artist’s biggest claim to fame was a rumored affair with Tammy Bakker, the eye shadow and false eyelash-loving wife of Jim Bakker of PTL Club infamy.  

As uncomfortable as our meeting was, I fully understand Parson’s anger at being required to contribute to his competitor’s success by selling records through his NAPA stores. In that brief encounter, Parsons demonstrated the passion and competitive spirit that drove him to the 1973 Winston Cup Championship.

Dale Earnhardt. 1986 NASCAR champ and acquaintance of the elusive Ted Bennett. RacingOne/ISC ArchivesA few days before the 500 I attended a cocktail party at a Daytona Beach country club where I made the acquaintance of a young driver from Kannapolis, NC on the verge of success. Dale Earnhardt was days away from meeting Teresa, the race queen he’d later make his wife. We frequented local bars together, eventually ending up at one in a Holiday Inn where we met Joe Whitlock, a legendary NASCAR personality, journalist, jokester, and friend of Earnhardt’s. Within moments of entering the bar Whitlock pointed at me with a shocked expression on his face and exclaimed “You’re Ted Bennett!” (I’d had a few drinks that night, but I was relatively sure I wasn’t Bennett.) I protested, but Whitlock wouldn’t take no for an answer. He motioned for the bartender who confirmed my uncanny resemblance to the man they claimed was the wildest hell raiser in Daytona Beach. “If I were you, I’d leave town now before anythin’ happens,” Whitlock advised. “There’s no tellin’ who’s gonna come after you seekin’ revenge.”

Earnhardt was strangely silent. I left that bar sure I was about to either be arrested or beaten senseless by a jealous husband or other person maligned by my doppelganger. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized Earnhardt and Whitlock took advantage of my inebriation to have a bit of fun at my expense. Even so, chills ran up my spine later that afternoon when Whitlock pointed in my direction and yelled, “Look out folks, it’s Ted Bennett!” before scurrying away with an evil grin on his face.

I had a brief conversation with David Hobbs at the cocktail party where I met Earnhardt. Hobbs was gracious, but my primary memory is of Hobbs periodically glancing over my shoulder looking for someone either more engaging or more important than I. A few years later I met Hobbs a second time, also at Daytona, when close friend Steve Fitzpatrick hired Hobbs to drive his Mustang in a Kelly American race at the Speedway. I had the pleasure of dining with Hobbs and Fitzpatrick that weekend as Hobbs regaled us with hilarious stories told with the dry wit and colorful descriptions we’ve come to appreciate through his broadcasting career. One can only surmise that the difference between the two encounters was due to the fact that Hobbs was being paid, but we’ll never know.

Bill Alsup tried to make it in Indy Car racing when most drivers his age were considering retirement. A gracious and confident man. Photo: IMS Archives.Bill Alsup, the driver whose recent death triggered this article, may not be the most famous driver I came into contact with, but he is one of the most memorable. I met Bill while working as Director of Marketing of Championship Auto Racing Teams. It was an uncomfortable time, partly because, despite its small size — or perhaps because of it — CART had a bit of a Mean Girls quality in those days. Jealousy and enmity filled the halls of the CART office, primarily due to a particularly petty Director of Public Relations who was no knight in shining armor. The emphasis on self-promotion rather than teamwork went all the way to the top of the organization with few exceptions.

The drivers were just as cliquish. Many, especially those on their way up, carried huge baggage with them. Always wary, rarely relaxed, they hid behind a protective cocoon constructed to shelter them from the stress that comes when you constantly have to prove yourself in order to keep your ride. Unfortunately the tension that peaked on race day rarely fully disappeared, but Alsup wasn’t that way. Open and congenial, he always greeted people with a friendly smile regardless of the situation. How he managed to avoid falling into the trap that ensnared many of his peers is beyond me. Alsup possessed confidence gained through a lifetime of achievement. He was a doer who knew what he wanted and went after it, regardless of the barriers. An entrepreneur who worked hard at whatever he did, Alsup didn’t let the fact that he was 40 years old stop him from attempting to make it in Indy Car racing at an age when many racers are thinking of retirement. Alsup ran as an independent for most of his CART career, but a brief stint with Team Penske resulted in second place in the 1981 CART championship for the man I was lucky to know. You can read more about Bill Alsup and his career in Gordon Kirby’s excellent tribute here.

I met other drivers while at CART that broke the mold. Many at the top of the sport, like Mario Andretti, were secure in their position. Other notable exceptions were Michael Andretti, Chip Ganassi, and Bobby Rahal. I won’t bore you by repeating stories I’ve told here before, but you can read more about my CART days and a revealing story about Al Unser, Jr. in an earlier feature, Never Eat Hamburgers in Manhattan.

Of all the drivers I came in contact with I knew Tim Richmond best. Fittingly, we met in a singles bar in Charlotte a year or two before I moved back to Michigan to work at CART. Tim had no reason to befriend me, I was nothing more than a race fan at the time, with no connection to the upper echelon of the sport. We hit it off nonetheless, and saw each other often in social situations. He was always friendly, open, and accessible. He was a truly good guy, if a bit wild.

I caught a glimpse of his legendary out-of-control behavior one Friday night at 2001, the singles club we both frequented. NASCAR was racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway that weekend so I was surprised to see Tim arrive in full Curtis Turner mode with a race queen on each arm. Glazed eyes poked out from beneath a cowboy hat with a rakish red feather tucked in the hatband and he slurred his words as he spoke.

“What the hell are you doing, Tim?” I asked.

“Whaddaya mean?” he replied.

“You’re driving tomorrow and you’re drunk out of your mind,” I answered.

The look on Tim’s face said more about him than any words he could muster in his inebriated state. There was none of the cockiness he’s known for, no rancor, or defensiveness as he looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t you get it Bill? I just don’t give a shit.”

We all dream about what it would be like to be born wealthy, handsome, charismatic, and athletically inclined. Tim Richmond was born with each of those attributes, and it turned out to be a curse rather than a blessing. The son of permissive parents who gifted him with a Pontiac Trans Am, a speed boat, and a Cessna on his sixteenth birthday, Tim knew no limits. His was the wealthiest family in a rural Ohio town, thanks to his father’s invention of a machine that revolutionized the piping industry by allowing contractors to auger beneath highways rather than tear up pavement. He was a high school football star whose jersey was retired upon graduation, and the first time he stepped into a race car he lapped quicker than the car’s regular pilot.

It’s easy to see Tim’s comeback victories at Pocono and Riverside while suffering from AIDS as Gatsby-like confirmation of his greatness, but that’s giving him too much credit. We can recognize the difficulties he faced without letting him off the hook. Every one of us is accountable for our actions regardless of external factors acting upon us. I view those victories as Tim’s final attempt to prove his invincibility in the face of glaring evidence to the contrary.

Tim’s existence was characterized by a desperate search for limits as he rushed headlong through life daring authority figures and the laws of physics to discipline him. Whether he was out on the town or roaring around the high banks Tim dared someone, anyone, to reel him in. Fawning parents, friends, and sycophants hoping to gain from Tim’s increasing fame failed him, just as he failed himself. When authority figures and speed wouldn’t tame him, Tim looked elsewhere, descending deeper and deeper into depravity. The man whose legendary car control thrilled thousands of fans lost control of himself.

It’s a well-known fact that Cole Trickle, the character Tom Cruise played in Days of Thunder, was based on Tim Richmond. In my opinion Cruise and the scriptwriter phoned in their performances, glossing over the nuances that contributed to Richmond’s tragic persona. What could have been a great movie that explored the human frailties behind a seemingly invincible personality substituted a banal love story for emotional depth, and a contrived rivalry for realistic pursuit of a goal Tim was incapable of reaching.

As a youngster Al Kaline, the Detroit Tiger outfielder, was my hero. Once puberty took root the roar of engines replaced the roar of the crowd as admiration for Dan Gurney and Jimmy Clark pushed Kaline aside. In those simpler times we looked up to people for their accomplishments rather than their Q scores. We’ll never fully understand what drives someone to succeed, but one thing I have learned is that, behind the media hype there lies an individual far more interesting than the stereotype they portray.

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