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Monday, July 25, 2011
Needham, Gant colorful as ever

By Ryan McGee
ESPN The Magazine

As I have strolled the beach this summer, I've seen people reading all types of books, from grocery store romance novels to teenage vampire epics to politically slanted Washington tell-alls. But as I settled into my beach chair, these were among the words that appeared in my chosen book's very first page:

"The explosion must have been second to only the A-bomb … five black-powder bombs shot the Chevy thirty feet in the air and folded it in half … I was going upside and backward … 'Holy s---, he's alive!' … John Wayne would have to finish the movie without me."

Now that's what I call summer reading.

The book is "Stuntman! My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life." The author is Hal Needham, perhaps the greatest Hollywood stuntman who ever lived, though I'm not sure how he managed the living part. He's won an Emmy and an Oscar, appeared in 4,500 television episodes and 350 feature films. He directed "Smokey & The Bandit," "Stroker Ace" and "The Cannonball Run." He's travelled 739.666 mph in a rocket-powered car, broken 56 bones and his back twice, and was the first human being to test the automobile air bag.

Needham also happened to have a pretty nice NASCAR career as co-owner of a Winston Cup team with buddy Burt Reynolds. From 1981 to '89 Hal and Burt's No. 33 Skoal Bandit car won nine races and 13 poles and barely missed winning the 1984 Cup title. The pilot of that ride was Harry Gant.

I had the chance at Daytona to sit down with Needham and Gant to talk about the book, racing, pushing the envelope of innovation, and women in hotel bars who used drugs and feminine wiles to steal Rolex watches.

Ryan McGee: OK, full disclosure. Harry, I grew up with a signed photo of you hanging on my wall. Hal, my cousin and I used to play with a Hal Needham Stuntman action doll. And I can, without a doubt, sit here and recite every line from both "The Cannonball Run" and "Stroker Ace."

Hal Needham: Hell, son, I like you already. You remember Harry's award-winning line from "Stroker"?

Hal Needham
Hal Needham has a book to sell, and our man's opinion is that it's worth the price.

RM: "Oh hell, here we go again …"

Harry Gant: [Laughs] That's it.

RM: Hal, you were John Wayne's handpicked stuntman. You started Hollywood's most successful stunt organization. You were directing gigantic box office hits. Why become a NASCAR team owner?

HN: I thought it would be fun. And I thought we could make some money. I had just done this big deal to break the land speed record. I got Budweiser and CBS together and did that deal, had pioneered product placement and sponsorship deals in my movies. So I liked my chances of putting together a NASCAR team.

RM: Was it a hard sell? Oh no, here comes this Hollywood big shot …

HN: Nah. I'm a poor kid from Arkansas, first and foremost. I came to Charlotte and fit right in. I went to Humpy Wheeler at the Charlotte Motor Speedway and he got me in touch with Travis Carter, who was working for Junior Johnson at the time and agreed to put the shop and the team together for me. I flew the U.S. Tobacco guys into Los Angeles and really blew them away with the Hollywood thing, limos and Burt Reynolds and all of that. I told them Stan Barrett, a great stuntman and the guy who'd driven my rocket car the second time, would drive the cars. They had the Skoal brand and I suggested the Skoal Bandit idea to take advantage of all the momentum we had from the "Smokey & The Bandit" movies. And there you have it.

RM: Harry, were you like, "Who is this movie guy?"

HG: Yeah, pretty much. Travis called and asked me to help out. I met with Hal. They had Stan in the car. But eventually I moved in there. We've had crazy people coming into NASCAR from the outside to start race teams all the time, so I was a little skeptical. But I figured I could go back to my construction job or back to the Busch Series if it didn't work out. But we did pretty good.

HN: We did more than good. We should have won the championship in '84. I can still hear Harry coming over the radio at Riverside [in the season finale] and saying the engine blew. And I still say my voodoo act had nothing to do with that.

RM: Voodoo act?

HN: Yeah, our main competition for the championship that year was Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte. I did a whole press conference in this tent with incense and smoke machines. I put little version of their cars on a table and stuck voodoo pins in them. It was all just to get Skoal some PR. But Earnhardt did blow an engine that weekend.

HG: He took it a lot further than that … and NASCAR didn't like it, did they?

HN: Yeah, later that year I hired an actor friend of mine, big black guy, Shakespearean-trained, amazing actor. I had him dress up and follow me around the garage like a voodoo doctor. We walked up to Earnhardt and Labonte's cars and he'd just stand there and stare at them, gave them the crazy eye. A few minutes later I hear over the loud speaker, "Hal Needham, please report to the NASCAR truck!" They said to get him the hell out of there before there was a riot. It was all for PR for Skoal.

RM: But you also got into hot water with NASCAR over some other stuff, too. I remember an issue with telemetry.

HG: Yeah, Hal had run all this telemetry stuff during the land speed record stuff. Like what they run in open-wheel racing. We ran a race at Talladega and that car was so dang wired up …

HN: All that data was being fed back to the pits in real time. It blew their damn minds. [NASCAR president] Bill France Jr. had given me permission to run it. But when the race was over and they saw what it could do, he said, "Leave that thing at the shop next week. I don't want to ever see it again." But we still used it when we tested the car. Now everyone does.

RM: Ultimately, do you think that's what you're known for in the Cup garage: innovation? I mean, other than the voodoo act …

HN: We were the first modern team to start dressing our crew in matching white uniforms with the sponsor logo all over them, like the driver. And I brought in personal trainers and nutritionists to work with the guys, got them in shape and cut time off the pit stops. That's standard stuff now, but it was way out there back in the 1980s.

HG: You remember the Bandettes, don't you?

RM: I was a 16-year-old boy at the racetrack, what do you think?

HN: [Laughs] Yeah, that's what I thought. We hired cheerleaders to come to the track and I got my Hollywood costume designer to come up with some outfits for them. We also painted up the hauler from top to bottom with that white and green and the Skoal Bandit logos. The back said, "You are following the Skoal Bandit Racing Team" so people on the highway would see it. Richard Petty came up to me and said, "You've got the field lapped with that truck." The next year everyone was doing it.

RM: So the Hal Needham NASCAR legacy is innovation, winning races, and voodoo.

HN: And raising hell on Saturday nights.

HG: That reminds me. You got your watch on? [Laughs]

RM: I wasn't going to bring up the Rolex Queens, but it is in the book after all …

HN: Oh hell, OK. We're in Atlanta for the spring race and we stayed over that night to test the car the next day. In the hotel bar I met a lovely young woman and after a few drinks we decided to take it upstairs. Long story short, she hands me a drink and goes into the bathroom to slip into something more comfortable …

HG: And she never came back out.

HN: Well, not that I remember. I woke up the next morning with a raging headache and all my rings, my wallet, and my $18,000 Rolex Presidential were gone. Turns out there was this group of women who drugged men they met in hotel bars and relieved them of their valuables. They called them the Rolex Queens.

RM: But you learned your lesson, right?

HG: [Laughs] This guy really did read the book, didn't he, Hal?

HN: So we come back later that year for the second race at Atlanta. Now I'm wearing a Movado, an even nicer watch than the Rolex. [Hollywood producer] Al Ruddy had given it to me. I met another good-looking woman, same hotel bar. This time I'm being more careful, right? We don't take any drinks up to the room. But the next morning, damn if I don't wake up again, no watch, no wallet. I figure she'd drugged my drink downstairs when I was in the bathroom.

HG: From then on, anytime he saw a woman, he'd say, "I like her" or "I'm going to ask her to dance" and …

HN: And Harry would always say, "Let me hold your watch."

RM: I thought you were going to say he pulled out his line from "Stroker Ace" …

HN: [Laughs hard] Oh hell, here we go again …

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.