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The New King of France : Helton Picked by NASCAR's First Family to Run Day-to-Day Operations

April 28, 1999|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the first time since Big Bill France founded NASCAR in 1947, someone other than a France is running the stock car racing dynasty.

Mike Helton, a man even bigger than the late Big Bill, has been selected by the France family, mainly Bill France Jr., as chief operating officer, running not only the highly visible Winston Cup series, but all of the 12 others too.

Big Bill and Bill Jr. are the only others who ever held that position.

Helton says that, according to the organizational chart, he's just the caretaker.

"I read somewhere that this was the passing of the torch, but I don't look at it that way," Helton said. "I think any way you look at it, you can count on the France family to manage NASCAR for a long, long time.

"I realize more than most people that Bill France is very much in charge. The way I see it, I am second in command and my job is to take a lot of the load of daily work off his shoulders."

Helton, 45, has been vice president for competition since 1994, a task he took over from Les Richter when the former Hall of Fame linebacker left NASCAR to join Roger Penske and oversee building of the California Speedway in Fontana.

"I was the man in the garage who dealt with teams and drivers in the Busch and Winston Cup series," Helton said.

An affable, friendly giant of a man, Helton is now the one dealing with every aspect of NASCAR, the fastest growing sports enterprise in the country. He will make decisions involving marketing, scheduling, public relations, licensing, expansion and, most important, keeping sponsors happy and satisfied.

"Every decision we make, we must protect the core business, which is racing," he said. "And no one is more important than the drivers. Without them, where would we be? They are our most valuable asset."

With new race tracks being constructed faster than schedules can accommodate them, Helton said his concerns are what NASCAR will be in five, 10 or 20 years.

"It is not a realistic ambition to keep everyone happy or satisfied," he said. "We are trying not to expand to the point where we would be fragmenting what we have. That is what is keeping us from giving second dates to places like California, Texas and Phoenix.

"We probably have room for one or two more races if an opportunity exists for us to go to a new market where we could enhance NASCAR. The bottom line is, if we desire to grow, it has to be worth it.

"That is why new venues, such as Chicago and possibly the New York area, where Donald Trump is involved, would be more advantageous than second dates at current tracks.

"If we did go to any place for a second date, logic says it would be Los Angeles."

Why not A and B divisions, like the National and American leagues in baseball, as has been suggested?

"At this time, we do not think of that as an option." Helton said. "What has made us such a success is that when a fan purchases a ticket, he is sure that Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Bill Elliott are going to be in the same event at the same time. That is one of our strongest points.

"You can't find that in any other sport, not in golf or tennis, not in the team sports.

"With the Bud Shootout and The Winston, we've got 36 weekends of racing this year. We think we can handle 37 or 38, maybe even 39. The issue is how many the drivers can handle.

"You can hire different crews, even different crew chiefs, different haulers, even the owners don't have to be at every race but we can't compromise on the drivers."

In an attempt to take some pressure off Winston Cup, Helton and NASCAR are promoting the Busch Grand National and Craftsman Truck series as optional choices for promoters.

"Not every track, or every area, can get a Winston Cup date, but we have 12 other series that provide great racing," he said. "Already, we have put races in Portland [Ore.], Memphis, St. Louis and other places that want NASCAR racing. We filled the stands at the Milwaukee Mile for a Busch race last Fourth of July weekend.

"We also like the idea of putting the trucks on the same program with CART and IRL open-wheel races. It gives us a chance to show our style of racing to other race fans."

Asked how big he thought NASCAR could become, Helton thought a moment, then said, "I don't know, I'm not sure how big we have become.

"All I know is that on Sunday race days, in Las Vegas or Los Angeles or Talladega [Ala.], wherever we race, we have hundreds of thousands of fans filling the seats and that defines NASCAR as a major player.

"Plus, we have all those Fortune 500 companies participating as partners with NASCAR, so whatever criteria you want to use to determine a major player, we're there."

It wasn't always that way.

Helton, who grew up across the street from a half-mile dirt track in Bristol, Va., remembers when he was working as public relations director at Atlanta International Raceway in the 1980s.

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