Woody: Old Promoters Fading Away
By Larry Woody | Senior Writer
He was known as “Uncle Bob” – part carnival barker, part used-car salesman – and man could he put on a show.
Awhile back I came across a wonderful tribute to the late Bob Harmon written by Mike Bell on GeorgiaRacingHistory.com. It brought back a lot of great memories about Harmon who died in 2002 – and reflections on changes in the sport to which he devoted his life.
A couple of the historic old tracks where Harmon once promoted races with such flair and fanfare have undergone big changes: Birmingham is long gone and Nashville Speedway’s obit will be published any day now.
Montgomery, a one-time Harmon stronghold, laid dormant for years but has now been resurrected and transformed into one of short-track racing’s finest venues. And appropriately, the PR man at the new Montgomery Motor Speedway is an old Harmon sidekick, Bill Desmond.
Harmon spent his final years promoting races in Nashville, following in the footsteps of another colorful old-time promoter, Bill Donoho.
Donoho was a gruff old ex-assistant police chief who kept a pistol tucked in his belt. It came in handy on some rowdy Saturday nights when tempers grew short and fuses blew.
Harmon never had to rely on the threat of gunplay to keep order, although there were times when he pushed the envelope.
Darrell Waltrip recalled watching Harmon whip up a crowd prior to the start of a race at one of his Alabama tracks:
“During driver introductions Bob got up on the stage and started yelling into the microphone about what a certain driver had said about another one, and what old so-and-so was going to do about it. The fans started booing, the drivers were giving each other dirty looks – I was afraid he was going to start a riot before the race even got started.”
Waltrip called Harmon “the last of the old-time promoters. The first time I laid eyes on him I was at some little track and this guy comes out in a pink-and-white stripped jacket, jumps on the back of a flat-bed truck, and starts getting the crowd worked up. He sounded like a guy at a carnival. I whispered to somebody, ‘Who IS that guy?’ and they laughed and said, ‘Oh, that’s old Uncle Bob.’”
There are no more authentic Uncle Bobs left in racing since Humpy Wheeler packed up his elephants and folded his tent – although Eddie Gossage comes close at times.
The sport is poorer for it.
The old-time promoters knew how to sell tickets and draw a crowd back before the days of TV advertising. They got out of their office, burned shoe leather, and PROMOTED the sport.
They pitched stories to sports writers over drinks, they hustled ticket giveaways, they shamelessly stirred controversy. They provoked feuds and provided fireworks. They kept things hopping.
Once when Waltrip was winning most of the races at the Fairgrounds, Donoho offered a bounty to any driver who could beat him – by whatever means, no questions asked. During another slow summer Donoho offered “roll-over” money to drivers who wrecked – $10 for each barrel roll. The fans ate it up.
Racing was never dull back then. It was wild and exciting. If it got boring the track promoter poked it to life. But TV racing and changing times killed the local tracks, and the colorful old promoters faded away.
The sport got too big, too refined. It had no place for a wily old snake-oil salesman in a candy-striped jacket inciting the crowd from the back of a flat-bed truck.
I guarantee you if some of the old-time promoters like Harmon, Donoho and Wheeler were running the show today, we would have plenty to write about. They wouldn’t allow fans to doze off in half-empty grandstands.
I miss Uncle Bob. The sport misses him even more.
– Larry Woody can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments