In Racing And Movies, Needham Is An Original

Brandon Reed

Brandon Reed

By Brandon Reed
Posted in Columns 4/8/11

Whether it was falling off the top of a building or putting together one of the most popular race teams in NASCAR history, Hollywood stuntman and legend Hal Needham always did things with success in mind.

Needham tells his story in his autobiography, “Stuntman!”, which came out earlier this year and is well worth the read.

Needham tells about his childhood in Arkansas, and how he parlayed working as a treetopper in California into a start in television and movies doing stunts.  Over the years, Needham did stunts for John Wayne, Burt Reynolds, Richard Boone and countless others.

NASCAR car owner and Hollywood director Hal Needham in the Winston Cup garage in the mid 1980s.

He would put together elaborate stunts for movies and television while also setting a new standard for safety and innovation for the people that performed stunts.  Along the way, he would develop new techniques and equipment for performing these stunts, and become one of the most respected and recognized stuntmen in the business.

In the late 1970’s, Needham made the jump from stunt coordinator to director with his film “Smokey And The Bandit”, which was filmed in Georgia.  Much of the footage for the opening and closing of the movie was filmed at the legendary Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta, and has a soft spot in the hearts of Georgia racing fans.

Needham would go on to make nine more feature films, including Hooper, Smokey and the Bandit 2 and the Cannonball Run, which was also had extensive filming in Georgia.

In the early 1980’s, Needham entered into the world of NASCAR, and attacked it with the same ferocity that he attacked his movie work.  He wanted to win.

Needham put together a deal with partner Burt Reynolds and sponsor Skoal to for “Burt and Hal’s Skoal Bandit”, a racing team and marketing bonanza line none that had come before in NASCAR.

Needham tapped fellow Hollywood stuntman Stan Barrett and veteran NASCAR driver Harry Gant to pilot his cars, numbers 22 and 33, respectively, in 1981.  Barrett had piloted a rocket car built by Needham to several records, while Gant’s strong performances in the NASCAR Sportsman series (now Nationwide) showed his winning credentials.

In that first year, Barrett would run in 10 races, splitting his time with his stunt work in Hollywood.  He picked up a ninth place at Talladega for his best showing.

Gant, who joined the team later in the year to pilot the now iconic number 33 Skoal Bandit, ran 22 races for Needham in that first year, giving the team it’s first pole at Talladega, and following it up with poles at Darlington in the famed Southern 500 and at Atlanta.  His best finish for the Skoal Bandit team was second, six times, including in his first outing for the team.

Gant would be the full time driver for Needham for the next eight years.  He gave Needham his first win as an owner in 1982, beating out short track ace Butch Lindley and NASCAR legend Neil Bonnett at Martinsville for the win.  He would follow that up in the fall by winning from the pole at Charlotte.

The team would go on to win nine total races between 1982 and 1989, and just challenged 1984 Winston Cup champ Terry Labonte for that title down to the last race of the season.  Gant would go on to become synonymous with the Skoal Bandit team, and is still known today by many fans as “The Bandit”.

That was thanks not only to his driving, but also to the keen marketing sense that Needham had.

But more than the wins were the stories that came out of Needham’s tenure as a car owner.

Far from being an absentee owner, Needham often built the shooting schedules of his films around the NASCAR schedule so that he could be at as many of the races as possible.  He would fly into the tracks via helicopter long before it became fashionable.

Needham’s team was the first to use in-car telemetry to monitor what was happening with the car.  It came about in a very interesting way.

Needham had the equipment, and approached Bill France, Jr. about it, asking if the could use in the car.  Not realizing the extent to which the Skoal Bandit team owner would go to, France said yes.

When the car unloaded at Talladega for the next race, NASCAR officials were amazed to find the cockpit stuffed full of all kinds of equipment.  When they started making a fuss, Needham told them to go ask France if he had okayed it.

France allowed the team to race with the equipment, but made it very clear that it was to never, ever return on race day.

Regardless, the in-car telemetry that teams use today in testing was born.

Needham was also a master showman at the track.  One time, while Gant was in a tight points battle with two other competitors, Needham called a press conference.  He showed up with two toy cars of the competition, and began a “voodoo ritual” on them.  It was all in fun, but when the two competitors fell out of the next race, Needham seized another marketing opportunity.

At the next race, Needham hired a Shakespearean actor from Atlanta to walk through the garage with him, dressed in a long black cloak.  When they would come to certain cars, the actor would stop and stare in a “vexing” manner at the car.

Needless to say, it started to rattle a few of the teams.  NASCAR told Needham to get him out of there before a riot broke out.

At the next event, Needham came face to face with Dale Earnhardt, who held up two shock absorbers in the form of a cross in front of him, laughing.  It would seem some of the mind games Earnhardt played over the years might well have been learned from Needham.

Needham finally hung up his career as a car owner in 1989.  In all, his team had run 250 races, won nine of them, collected 68 top fives, 11 top tens and 13 poles.

But his contributions, not just in technology but also in the stories he was a part of.

Needham devotes a good portion of his book to his career as a NASCAR car owner.  It’s well worth a read for the great stories and a look at a person who can be said to be a true original.

Brandon Reed is the editor and publisher of Georgia Racing

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