Helton Enters Hall as Landmark Figure

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 5 2022

Executive Vice Chair of NASCAR Lesa France Kennedy (right), Senior Advisor to NASCAR Mike Helton, and Senior Vice President of Racing Development and Strategy Ben Kennedy celebrate Helton being awarded the Landmark Award during the NASCAR Hall of Fame Voting Day on Wednesday. (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – From the Appalachian Mountains to the beaches of Daytona, Mike Helton has left a nearly five-decade distinctive footprint on NASCAR. 

The first non-France family member to serve as NASCAR’s president, Helton has been there through the sanctioning body’s popularity explosion, its stagnation and now its resurgence. The recipient of this year’s Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR, Helton was the person who on Feb. 18, 2001, had to walk into a crowded infield media center at Daytona International Speedway and announce, “We’ve lost Earnhardt.”

A quiet, modest mountain man from Bristol, Va., Helton’s stature makes him an imposing figure, but he’s always dealt with disciplinary situations with a firmness that makes one feel like they just disappointed their father. On Wednesday when the award’s recipient was announced by NASCAR Chief Operating Officer Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR Executive Vice Chair Lesa France Kennedy, who was seated on Helton’s left, gave him a huge hug, something Helton said meant “everything”. Immediately, NASCAR’s senior advisor found himself in unfamiliar territory – receiving an award instead of presenting it. 

“It’s kind of humbling,” the 68-year-old Helton said when asked what the award meant to him. “It’s overwhelming. I never thought of myself as being able to share a plaque with the names that are on the Landmark award or in this building (NASCAR Hall of Fame). This kind of caught me off guard. I didn’t really expect this to happen.

“I’m better suited for recognizing people that did things in the sport than accepting them. When we first put this Hall (of Fame) together, we kind of knew it was going to be a big part of our sport going forward because it could tell our story from the past. To have been a part of that story along the way has been a reward of its own.” 

Helton moved from Bristol, where he was a sports director on an AM radio station, to Atlanta in 1980 to become the public relations director at the speedway then known as Atlanta International Raceway. He became AIR’s general manager in 1985. Helton joined Daytona International Speedway’s management team in 1986 and then 18 months later was named general manager at Talladega, which was then known as Alabama International Motor Speedway. A vice president of International Speedway Corp., he was named president of the Talladega track in 1989. Helton held that position until January 1994 when he succeeded Les Richter as NASCAR’s vice president for competition. Five years later, in February 1999, he became NASCAR’s senior vice president and chief operating officer, becoming the first person outside the France family to manage NASCAR’s day-to-day operations. A year later he was named NASCAR’s president. On Feb. 10. 2015, Helton became NASCAR’s vice chairman. Today, he remains a NASCAR senior advisor.

“I knew Bill (France) Sr.,” said Helton, who noted every championship celebration makes him smile. “I worked hard with Bill (France) Jr., and I learned a lot from Bill Jr. and Jim France. To watch Lesa and (her son) Ben (Kennedy) carry on the France family culture for our entire industry has been a great reward.”

Helton said with a smile that the thing that amazed him the most about his career was that he’s still involved with NASCAR. 

“Along the way you just have so many milestones that when you look back at it, you think, ‘Gosh, I remember that, kinda,’” Helton said with a smile. “Then you look down the road and all of a sudden you’ve been doing this for over 40 years and it’s pretty amazing.”

In reflecting on his career, Helton said he could have remained at the Atlanta track if Bruton Smith had allowed it after Smith purchased the facility. He also noted he could have remained at Talladega, retired from that track and been happy. However, when brothers Bill France Jr. and Jim France asked him to join them in the NASCAR offices, Helton told them he would do whatever they wanted. 

“Just being at the right place at the right time was more than being good or lucky,” said Helton, who never thought about walking away from the sport. “I just happen to grow up in an era where the sport was growing so big and had so many different elements supporting its growth that it was just a great time to be a part of it. Remembering a lot of where we came from and then transferring into where we are today has been quite a ride. It’s been pretty spectacular.”   

 In addition to Helton, others nominated for the Landmark Award were Kennedy, Janet Guthrie, Alvin Hawkins and Dr. Joseph Mattioli.

The Class of 2023 induction ceremony is scheduled for Jan. 20, 2023, at the NASCAR Hall of Fame and Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, N.C. Tickets for the induction ceremony will be available later this month on NASCARHall.com.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 5 2022
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