Remembering a 'Rock' of a friend

- That's Racin contributor
Saturday, Apr. 13, 2013

The invigorating chill of an autumn morning and the aroma of the deep woods stirred the three deer hunters as they ascended a trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

The trio consisted of Hank Schoolfield and Herman Hickman, both now passed on, and me. Members of the Winston-Salem Journal sports department, we had driven to a rugged expanse then known as the Daniel Boone Wildlife Management Area before dawn that day in the late 1950s. We hoped to bag a whitetail buck.

Schoolfield previously had hunted there with success. I had visited the game lands before as well.

But Herman, the Journal’s motorsports writer, was a rookie at deer hunting, and he exuded excitement.

Hank, later the general manager of North Wilkesboro Speedway, led our trek, with me a few steps behind.

Suddenly we noticed that Herman was missing. Back down the trail we went looking for him. After about 150 yards we saw him.

Several times Herman lifted his rifle to his shoulder and aimed toward the forest, but never pulled the trigger. We saw nothing but trees. I expressed puzzlement.

“Herman is so pumped that he imagines seeing a deer,” said Schoolfield. “Let’s go. He can catch up.”

Almost the instant we turned to go a “kablooey” shattered the stillness. The sharp boom of the shot echoed across the hollows below.

We swirled around to see a grinning Herman. He blew on his fingernails and brushed them on his chest in a sign of triumph.

“Let’s go get him!” he said. “He’s an eight-pointer at least!”

“There was no deer there,” said Schoolfield. “You’re seeing things.”

“Was, too,” insisted Herman. “Let’s go get him!”

We started in the direction Herman had shot.

Suddenly, a buck with a rack that looked like a rocking chair bolted up and, with white tail flashing, fled down the mountain.

We went to the spot where the deer arose and found no evidence that it had been hit. There wasn’t a speck of blood.

“What had to happen, Herman, is that your bullet hit an antler,” reasoned Schoolfield, a very experienced outdoorsman. “It stunned the buck for a bit, but he wasn’t hurt.”

Hickman was inconsolable.

“I should have shot him again!” Herman lamented, almost crying.

For the rest of his life, no matter where he was or what he was doing, Herman suddenly would remember that deer.

“I should have shot him again!” he would blurt.

This included his 25 years, from 1968-93, as public relations director/press officer at N.C. Motor Speedway near Rockingham.

Fond memories of my fine friend Herman Hickman are stirring as racing rolls anew at the track in the piney Sandhills. The N.C. Lottery 200, a NASCAR Truck Series event, is scheduled Sunday at the facility now named Rockingham Speedway.

During his tenure at the track, which opened in 1965, Hickman helped popularly nickname it “The Rock.” He worked under three presidents, speedway co-founders Elsie Webb and L.G. DeWitt, then Frank Wilson.

In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, when a trend developed in NASCAR to bring famous celebrities to races as grand marshals, Herman was instrumental in getting some memorable men to N.C. Motor Speedway—Mickey Mantle, Gen. Chuck Yeager, Andre The Giant and UNC football legend Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice.

I recall Herman convincing Mantle to take a ride around the track with Cale Yarborough. The NASCAR Hall of Famer scared the stuffings out of the great New York Yankee. Later that day Yarborough won the pole position for a 500-mile race.

Mantle rocked the press box with laughter when he jumped to his feet as Cale completed the qualifying lap and with tongue in cheek shouted, “God, I wish I had been in that car with him!”

Herman got Yeager to take a swig of fine Wilkes County moonshine. The storied West Virginia aviator, a World War II ace and the first man to break the sound barrier, smacked his lips and said, “Why, you ain’t nothing but a bunch of country boys.”

Herman had the hulking Andre, who really was a giant, astonish members of the media with a simple thing that showed just how huge he was: the wrestler passed a silver dollar through his wedding ring.

Having Justice visit was especially pleasing to Hickman. Herman was on the great Tar Heel teams with the three-time All-American tailback in the late 1940s.

Hickman had a sharp sense of humor.

During the 1980s the publisher of a New York-based newspaper devoted to auto racing repeatedly hounded Herman to buy ads for upcoming events at the speedway. Herman firmly refused, saying, “That won’t help us.”

The publisher insisted otherwise, claiming to have widespread subscribers in the Carolinas and Virginia.

Tiring of the pressure, Herman ended it by telling the guy, “The only way you’ve got any circulation in this area is if somebody leaves a copy on a bus.”

Herman retired in 1993. He died in 2000 at age 73 after a lengthy illness.

After changes in ownership, the track Hickman loved and served so well lost its NASCAR Cup Series dates in 2004 and shortly was shuttered.

Former ARCA champion and driving school owner Andy Hillenburg bought the speedway in 2007 and began restoring it. His dedication and hard work was rewarded last year when NASCAR returned a touring series to the track with a 200-mile pickup truck race, which was won by Cup star Kasey Kahne.

Now the popular truck circuit is back at “The Rock,” and there are hopes that some day a Nationwide Series race and maybe even a Cup event will follow. Somewhere Herman Hickman is smiling.

When the order comes Sunday to flip the ignition switches, I won’t hear “start your engines!”

Remembering Herman, I instead will hear, “Damn! I should have shot him again!”