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Ultimate authority: NASCAR’s Mike Helton

NASCAR president a fan, but he has earned respect as its leader

- rgreenjr@charlotteobserver.com
Friday, May. 25, 2012

The green flag for the Southern 500 is about eight hours away when Mike Helton arrives for lunch at the Raceway Grill, just beyond Turn 2 at Darlington Raceway.

Helton, the president and chief operating officer of NASCAR, arrives at the one-story restaurant in a golf cart driven by someone else, who finds a parking spot near the door.

A woman with a cigarette dangling from her lips sells racing scanners behind one corner of the building. Across the gravel parking lot, a fan buys a gray tank top with “Southern Thunder” splashed across the front. Moments earlier, the vendor had been talking angrily to visitors about how NASCAR is siphoning money away from the little man, the giant corporation intent on taking it all for itself.

He doesn’t notice Helton, the most powerful man in NASCAR, walk into the restaurant.

Helton, 58, likes it that way. Built like a bear with swept-back black hair that looks as if he’s been riding a motorcycle without a helmet for hours, a black mustache and wraparound sunglasses, Helton wants nothing more than to fit in when he’s at a race track.

Inside the Raceway Grill, time has skidded to a stop. There are old, fading photos of Dale Earnhardt and Bobby Allison on the wall and posters for races that ended decades ago. A few of the old-school garage guys are tucked into tables in the low-ceilinged building when Helton comes in, and they nod hello.

Before Helton can slide into a booth, a man approaches and asks him to pose for a photo with the man’s grandson. Helton obliges, smiles and exchanges a few words with the young fan. He orders the house speciality for lunch – a hamburger steak with melted cheese on top, fresh-cut french fries and iced tea.

“There’s no single person that makes the sport work,” Helton says, waiting for lunch to arrive. “It’s a collection of people and personalities that makes it work right. I’m more anxious to blend in than stand out.”

During November 2000, Helton was named president of NASCAR, replacing Bill France Jr., who had followed his father, Bill Sr., in the role he gave himself when he created the sport more than 60 years ago.

As president, Helton is charged with executing the policies and vision of NASCAR’s five-member board of directors, of which he is a member, while handling the day-to-day operation of the sport.

Helton is not bound by blood to NASCAR’s founding family, but he feels an allegiance as steward of the sport. As a child in Bristol, Va., Helton went to races with his father and was transfixed by the sound and speed. He drove dirt-track cars for a time but soon understood he lacked whatever it is the best drivers have.

It led him into the business where he became public relations director, then general manager, of Atlanta International Raceway. From there, he went to Daytona International Speedway then to Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, where he became track president before joining NASCAR in 1994.

A tough message

Three months after he became president, Helton had to tell the world Dale Earnhardt, the sport’s North Star and his friend, had died in a wreck on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Asked if that was the worst day of his professional life, Helton nods.

“And my personal life,” he says.

After a moment, Helton continues.

“That was one of those episodes you had to step away from,” he says. “I tell you there was a point where I was angry for not being able to deal with it personally because we had to deal with it so much professionally. But you get through all that stuff.

“You figure it out, although I’m not sure when you do it or how you do it or if you figure out if you ever have.”

Helton understood his job came with challenges. Announcing his friend’s death wasn’t one he anticipated.

Lunch continues, iced tea glasses are refilled and Helton is where he wants to be. He has a farm in Georgia and a collection of older cars, but he lives for race days. They are the reward for the almost impossible demands of his job – balancing the wishes of so many constituencies, and keeping the peace in a sport driven by, among other things, ego, money and horsepower.

NASCAR’s sheriff

Helton is the sport’s ultimate authority. He looks the role, like a sheriff in a John Wayne movie. Helton doesn’t wear a silver star, but he doesn’t need one.

“Of all the people I’ve worked with in racing over 31 years, Mike is probably the guy I respect more than anyone,” says driver Tony Stewart, who hasn’t always stayed in Helton’s good graces.

Plenty of people within the sport have feuded with NASCAR but none has publicly challenged Helton.

“When you say Mike Helton … he’s got the respect of everybody,” says team owner Rick Hendrick, who recently fought a won an appeal overturning a NASCAR ruling against his No. 48 team. “I would hate to think we had to replace him.”

It is not Helton’s job to be liked by everyone. There are drivers to contend with, car owners, track operators, sponsors, television networks, fans and the media. There are multiple layers within NASCAR itself to keep happy.

He must be a negotiator, a counselor, a visionary, a babysitter, a referee, a judge and the man whose hands are on the steering wheel of a sport built on speed. Helton learned from Bill France Jr. to be pragmatic, to see the big picture in a sport that has wrestled during recent years with declining television ratings and attendance.

Helton has applied his own touches. He is willing to listen to all sides before making decisions, but he is guided by doing what he believes is just and in the best interest of the sport. He can listen quietly and he can raise his voice, depending upon the circumstance. He takes the counsel of others but the final answer rests with Helton.

“Sports are, by design, supposed to be emotional and engaging,” Helton says. “If you administrate a sport and you’re a fan of it – and I am a fan – we have to step back far enough to detach yourself somewhat from the emotions of it and make a pragmatic decision about what’s good for the sport.

“The biggest thing Bill (France Jr.) helped me understand is if Richard Petty walked in and raised hell about something or if Dale Earnhardt walked in and said, ‘You guys are idiots,’ is to put that in perspective. Don’t let them sway you with their emotion. You’ve got to make the decision that’s not just good for Richard Petty or just good for Dale Earnhardt or Richard Childress. You have to make a decision that’s good for every other hauler that’s sitting out there. Or for race tracks.”

Helton pushes his plate away, a portion of his hamburger steak unfinished.

“That was the thing he helped me understand. I’m not sure that I’ve got it right yet.”

Varied duties

It’s almost 3 p.m. when Helton emerges from Fox Sports’ Hollywood Hotel, the network’s on-site television studio anchored near the Sprint Cup garage.

Each race day, Helton meets with television officials about the previous week’s telecast, hitting on the good, the worrisome and whatever hot-button issues might have emerged in the last race. They then talk about the upcoming broadcast and any issues that might be associated with it.

Helton is paid handsomely to make decisions. He isn’t reactionary. He leaves that to others.

In his time as NASCAR’s leader, Helton has overseen the move to the so-called Car of Tomorrow and the installation of safer barriers at tracks in the aftermath of Earnhardt and Adam Petty’s deaths. He has seen Jimmie Johnson win five straight Cup championships. And he has seen the No. 48 team fight – and win – a season-changing ruling this year after NASCAR had determined the team had brought a car with illegal C-posts (which connect the back of the roof to the body of the car) to Daytona.

By the time an issue gets to Helton, it’s there for a ruling.

“He almost puts on a black robe, and he’s the judge,” Hendrick says.

And sometimes rulings are reversed.

When NASCAR’s chief appellate officer John Middlebrook overturned some of the heavy penalties against the No. 48 team in March, Helton publicly expressed his disagreement with the decision while defending the process that led to the decision.

Riding through the Darlington garage after his television meeting, Helton says decisions are easier to make now than 25 years ago because more information is available.

He admits he doesn’t always get it right. Asked if there are decisions he’d like to have back, Helton says, “Yeah, probably so. Most everybody has that. There’s a couple of races I’d probably do it differently if I went back.”

And, no, Helton isn’t saying which ones.

A good overview

Arriving at NASCAR’s hauler four hours before the green flag, Helton stops to chat with a handful of people before heading into the hauler for prerace meetings. It’s where he holds court at the track when the situation demands it.

That evening, crew members who fought on pit road will be called in as a disciplinary matter.

The door is open to visitors before the race. It’s different when a driver or crew chief is summoned.

“Invited visits, we call them,” Stewart says. “If I get invited to the (hauler), I’m nervous. I’ve had Mike as mad as my father has ever been at me. The thing about Mike is he loves you to death, but when you do something wrong, he takes it as personal as your own parents do.

“When you get invited in there, you know you’ve done something wrong. … When you sit down, the best thing you can do is keep your mouth shut, listen and, normally when you leave, you have a different opinion of why you were in there than when you walked in.

“He’s the voice of reason.”

Kyle Busch has spent plenty of time with Helton away from the track, visiting injured soldiers at Walter Reed Army Hospital, at banquets together and during White House visits. He is not afraid to kid Helton when the mood is right – “Tell him he’s got the wrong socks on with his suit,” Busch says – but he has learned when it’s time to listen.

“They like to ask your point of view of what transpired whatever it may have been,” Busch says. “It’s the 80-20 rule. You only want to talk 20 and you’re going to listen 80.”

Helton understands not everyone will be happy with decisions he makes.

“At the end of the day, he does what he thinks is right and goes on,” Hendrick says.

Helton can accept disagreement over a decision he makes, but it wounds him to have his motives questioned. When he hears comments critical of NASCAR, Helton says “They might as well stick my name in there.”

Asked the biggest misperception about what he does, Helton doesn’t hesitate.

“Probably the idea that we’re selective in who we are critical of,” he says. “We come out with a penalty or we make a call during a race about pit road speed, it’s done electronically. You are or you aren’t.

“But the idea that we randomly pick somebody to pick on, we have a grudge against somebody and, therefore, that’s why we react to them, the fact of the matter is that’s absolutely false.”

Calm before the storm

It’s cool and quiet in race control 10 minutes before the Southern 500. Helton has ridden the clattering metal elevator to the command center, where various officials are seated in two rows, each with a different responsibility.

Helton sits quietly on the back row. He listens as an official counts down to the national anthem.

There’s a computer to Helton’s right and a television nearby. On a wall to his left, there’s a flat-screen television with 18 camera shots at the same time. Whatever happens in the race, Helton and his staff will be able to look at it, over and over, if necessary.

He watches and listens.

Helton loves to read, particularly books by John Grisham and David Baldacci. He takes a break from fiction to read books written by military leaders and the history of the car industry.

He likes country music, having grown up listening to George Jones, Conway Twitty and Waylon Jennings. Through the years he has met and befriended several musicians and is particularly close with Randy Owens of Alabama.

He used to play golf three times a week and he goes hunting and fishing a couple of times a year. He collects old cars, even getting Hendrick to buy him a stage coach at an auction once.

But what Helton loves is being at the track.

He watches the prerace stage clear the track and listens to the countdown to “Drivers start your engines.” He watches the car pull off pit road.

This, Helton says, is the best part of his job.

“Being at the race track,” he says. “We have a lot of moving parts, obviously. Everything … it starts at the race track. This is, kind of, my heart and soul.”

As day edges toward night, the green flag waves at Darlington and the most powerful man in NASCAR watches the cars roar into the first turn.

Along for the ride.

Green: 704-358-5118; Twitter: @rongreenjr


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