Hollywood stuntman-turned movie director Hal Needham passed away last week (Oct. 25, 2013) at the age of 82. Needham was the director of such late-1970s, early-1980s cult classics as “Smokey and the Bandit,” “Stroker Ace,” and “The Cannonball Run.” Oh, and before that, he was John Wayne’s stuntman of choice.
Some not in the know may wonder why Needham’s death would even be mentioned on a racing website. Here’s why:
Needham didn’t just like fast cars in movies, he was also fond of fast cars on the race track in real life. As a matter-of-fact, he, along with Burt Reynolds, who start in multiple Needham-directed movies, owned a NASCAR team together between 1981 and 1989. Specifically, Needham and Reynolds owned the No. 33 Skoal Bandit Winston (now-Sprint) Cup Series entry driven by Harry Gant. The car won a total of nine races throughout the 80s and almost won the Winston Cup in 1984.
Needham also owned the Budweiser Rocket Car that was clocked by the Air Force at more than 739 mph. According to Needham, it was the first land vehicle to break the sound barrier, but that achievement went unreckognized.
According to an interview with ESPN The Magazine writer Ryan McGee, here are Needham’s own words about why he got into NASCAR:
“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. . . .
“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 to 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 and the Bandit” movies. And there you have it.”
Eventually Gant went in the car and went about the business of winning races. The interview from which the above quote was taken also included Gant. About taking the job of driving for Needham and Reynolds, Gant said, “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 (now-Nationwide) Series if it didn’t work out. But we did pretty good.”
I would say the deal worked out pretty well for all involved. As I mentioned before, the effort resulted in nine race wins and a near-Cup. Needham claimed he used voodoo in an attempt to win the title in 1984, also claiming the voodoo worked on championship contender Dale Earnhardt but not on eventual champion Terry Labonte.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Needham, but from what I’ve read, he was one colorful storyteller.
RIP Hal Needham. I have to admit, I’m kind of in the mood to see “Stroker Ace” right about now.
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