Friday, February 6, 2009

Stock Car Racing and The Last American Hero: An Interivew with Bob Cole

The following is a part of an interview I gave 12 years ago for an Appalachian film class I was taking at the time at ASU in Boone. My professor, J.W. Williamson, suggested I interview a man by the name of Bob Cole, who lived in Todd, just outside of Boone. I met him in the Hardee’s dining room at New Market Center, and we talked for about an hour about his knowledge and experience in stock car racing and film. He currently runs a large beekeeping operation, and travels around the world to teach how to cultivate bees. He also had a storied past that I felt, as an undergraduate, I only scratched the surface. He mentioned that he worked as an actor, consultant, or stunt driver on 11 different movie and television films, most notably Dukes of Hazzard, Where the Lilies Bloom, and the main topic of our conversation a film entitled The Last American Hero, starring Jeff Bridges. The movie was based on a Tom Wolfe article in Esquire magazine called "The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson, Yes!" in 1965.

I thought for years after transcribing the article to post parts of it online for the benefit of anyone interested, and only now have got around to it. I felt inspired to go back to look at this interview by a student I had last semester, whose grandfather turned out to be non other than Bob Cole. I’m sure she thought I was crazy when I very avidly said, “Really!! I know him! I interviewed him in college.”

Interview with Bob Cole

DH: In The Last American Hero you played the part of Mr. Collins, is that right?

BC: Marshall Collins. He was a Federal Marshall who was in charge of the ATF, alcohol, tobacco, and firearms people. It was a federal occupation instead of a county or a State. It’s like your Federal Marshals are today.

DH: How did you get that part for the movie?

BC: Well, I had been in an earlier film in this area called Where the Lilies Bloom.

DH: What were some of the more memorable experiences about The Last American Hero in particular and was it any different than some of the other movies you played a part in?

BC: Basically the thing that was the most memorable in my particular case was the directors asking me to find locations and people and set up situations where they could do their filming with them. If you find a good location and find the right props and people to go with it and you will find out that it works along pretty well. That to me was the challenge of the whole thing over the rest of it was to find those things that would fit those things the director would work with. They want three locations for a shot. They go to each one of the three and check them out, and the one that they like is the one they use for the shot. Some are better than others. Some have better lighting, some have better scenic values, some have better areas that you can magnify what you are doing and others you want to not have anything detracting from the focus of the shot. It depends on what they wanted and what they are working with.

DH: The scenes that you played a role in, where were they filmed at?

BC: They were filmed out in the Crowder’s Mountain area, which was outside of Gastonia. We had found that they needed the mountain top thing to coincide with how Wilkes County sort of lies out over there. Remember this is Junior Johnson’s area and the area that he lived in is just east of North Wilkesboro. So we tried to find something that looked fairly similar to that. Crowder’s Mountain was the closest. They didn’t want to stay up in this area [of Wilkes/Watauga Counties] to shoot because it was too far from an airport. See, your “rushes”, your filming of each day is sent to Hollywood for processing, so you have to have a ready availability of transportation by air to get them there. And then they are back the next day. They go out in the afternoon, they are processed that night and the next day they arrive back. What you are doing is the scenes you shoot today you review the next night so that anything needs to be corrected or be re-shot you can do it while everything is fresh and still there and is available.

DH: So what they filmed for the day they sent all the way back to Hollywood to process it out and then sent it back to the locations where the filming was being done.

BC: We called those the “dailies”. In other words, you always go through your daily shooting on the day after in the afternoon after you had your dinner. In that way the director and the assistant director can script people and all of this can have a look-see at it. Sometimes they allow the actors and other people to sit in on it and I being a director’s assistant, a director’s and producer’s assistant. I was able to work with that to see just what they needed further. If they needed something then I had to sort of round it up and get it worked out. We didn’t have to shoot too much over but occasionally there would be things they wanted a little better, better visibility, maybe. The lines could, of course, be dubbed in later. You have to have as good a shot that first round as you could possibly get.

DH: You had mentioned you were a stunt man, and that kind of makes sense because that one scene in the movie where Junior Jackson zooms by in his Mustang and you are forced off the road down into a ditch.

BC: Tumbled off into a creek and it was thirty-four degrees when I did that scene. It was pretty cold, and we did it twice.

DH: So Junior Johnson was a consultant and technical advisor for the movie. You knew him from racing, but did you work with him much as far as the movie was concerned?

BC: Well, I would ask him on things when we were doing racing shots. I’d say “Junior, do you think there is any way to improve it?” He would say,“Well, you could have brought so-and-so up a little closer and made things a little more believable.” What we were after was intense believability. When you don’t have the believable characteristics in any shot that you make you are setting up comedy. Comedy is not what you are shooting. You are shooting a believable sequence in people’s lives and how they react and work with them and so forth and so on. Jeff Bridges was nice to work with. He was a great young man. We had a lot of fun. Jeff Bridges was very happy when they would let him drive the Mustang, which we didn’t do a whole lot because of the fact that we only had three of them and we didn’t want to waste one. We did a lot of voice coaching for the actors and actresses who were from Hollywood, especially Geraldine Fitzgerald who is a very famous Irish actress and she had a very decided Irish accent. But we broadened it out a little bit and she worked with that. She and I would just go off and take her dialog, her script for the day, and just go through it and go through it and go through it until she had a pretty sustainable country sounding accent.
Junior is a very likable person, and he came up the hard way and he spent some time in jail because of what he did. His family and his family’s family have been involved in some type of moonshine or liquor making in the Wilkes county area. Of course, that was the biggest industry in Wilkes County and they needed to have it delivered so certain people with high powered cars would drop out on the road in the evening and go to Richmond or Roanoke or Raleigh, clear down to Charleston, South Carolina, and carry whiskey that far. And that was prior to plastic jugs. Everything was in glass, glass or in tanks. Some of the bigger runs had special tanks that were curvatured to the body of the car and put into the boot and everything. In fact, if you had a spare tire and had to go into the back seat…

DH: You were in trouble, then I guess.

BC: Uh huh. Overload springs, the whole smear.

DH: I believe they put extra springs so when they were loaded down it would look normal and it wouldn’t look like they were riding low. There was a book I was reading called Dirt Tracks to Glory about stock car racing. It had a lot of different interviews. There was one guy, Banjo Matthews…

BC: He was a race car builder from over in Asheville. He just passed away this past year, Banjo Matthews. He lived over in the Asheville area and he did a lot of driving setting up at Weaverville at the little race track they have there. Banjo was a good car driver and a good builder. He built some of the finest racing chassis that has ever been on a dirt track. And he did a real good job for paved tracks as well, but dirt tracks he could build a chassis that was absolutely safe where you wanted it you put it there and it stayed there. He was a good builder, run a big automobile parts house in west Asheville.

DH: Lamont Johnson, he was the director and you were the assistant director to him?

BC: I was an assistant to the director and to the producer as well, who was John Rogers. We worked together in finding all the locations and the places we wanted to shoot and the race tracks we wanted to use. See, Ned Jarrett, who at the time we did the shooting was the entrepreneur and the manager of the Hickory race track. He was an old friend from many years and we were able to use his facility in some of the earlier filming that was done. And then the track at Martinsville, Virginia and so forth. We were going to do some work in Charlotte or perhaps at Daytona, but the money wasn’t there and so we had to curtail a little bit of the more grandiose plans for the movie. This was a Twentieth Century Fox film.

DH: One thing I noticed about the movie was it was more or less a biography, but they changed some things. For one thing they changed his name to Junior Jackson in the movie…

BC: This had to be done because of some family commitments that he had made that they wouldn’t use the Johnson name. That was part of the deal with Twentieth Century Fox, not to use the Johnson name.

DH: Also, I guess this maybe wasn’t written into the plot in order to make this a more exciting movie, but Flossie who was his high school sweetheart…

BC: Who was his wife, but are now divorced and he’s remarried.

DH: Right. But was that just Hollywood wanting to put in the track groupie…?

BC: Flossie came later in his racing career, and this was something that occurred after his first year or two in racing. She was his high school sweetheart, but they wasn’t that marriage inclined until after he rubbed some dollars and got more so on his feet. And he was also trying to pay fines against the family because of the bootlegging activity, you see. He had a world of things to pay off. That’s one of the reasons why he did go into racing because there was a legal way of earning money without going around running hooch to all these different places that were buying from him.

DH: In the movie, the scene where you blow up the still, is that kind of the same time when they confiscate the seven thousand one hundred gallons of moonshine in actuality from his father Glen. Does that coincide…

BC: This is primarily of the same and estimate that this occurred, although many years later. It was one of the largest seizures in Wilkes County. They used every subterfuge in order to conceal their operations and to cover them up and mask about so that the Feds, the ATF people did not come upon them and blow them up and wreck their still equipment and everything.

DH: I was reading somewhere that when stock car racing was really starting to get popular some of the race tracks were trying to make laws to where if you have ever been arrested you couldn’t race, are you familiar with that?

BC: This was a thought at one time which some of what we call the do-gooders. The do-gooders out vote a lot of people in some things, but not in this sport. A lot of people in the racing game were, of course, well trained in that they had been in high-speed chases and things of this nature due to moonshine running. They knew roads, knew how to set up cars, knew how to drive in particular circumstances, and they had a lot of guts.

DH: The movie The Last American Hero for some reason didn’t do too well in the box office and they ended up taking it back and editing it and then re-naming it Hard Driver?

BC: There is one thing you have to say about The Last American Hero. It continues to play on television. HBO and some of the other outfits as well as the, even the Family Channel. They run the film every so often. Action, on the satellite channels, they run it about every three to five weeks. WGN in Chicago runs it every six weeks.

DH: Yeah, I didn’t know it still got that much air time on television.

BC: You know how I know? Residual checks.

DH: You still get commission, then.

BC: We were promised a piece of the action for the work we did in addition to our regular salaries.

DH: If you don’t mind me asking, about how much do you get every time they show the movie on T.V?

BC: Ninety dollars. And when you think of all the people involved who had this part in their contract.
Incidentally, this Last American Hero group was one of the better crews that I worked with. When they first came to this area to shoot they did not have certain people with them that would be part of what we called the crew. Like construction coordinator, painter, various prop men and the wardrobe people and all that. They asked me for suggestions. I went right back into several of them I had to work with and pull people out there I thought were exemplary in the way they did their thing and the degree of completion in all of the projects they worked with.

DH: You said you knew Junior Johnson. How did you get to know him?

BC: Through racing. If you’re in racing sooner or later whatever you are doing and what you are involved in you rub elbows with a lot of people and you get to meet people at the tracks. I know Kale Yarborough and a whole flock of others, the older drivers. Some of the newer people I don’t know at all because I have not been actively engaged in it or going to races or being in the racing circle for a long time. This film just happened to be something that was sort of tailor-made for what little knowledge I had about it and how I could help them set their things up and we were able to get thirty to thirty-five of the real good NASCAR drivers to drive in a lot of the sequences. See, we interplayed what you saw on the screen was actual races which were going on at that time. Then you take the sequences of the actual races and you tailor them in to fit your script so that things work out and that you get a legible continuation of the story line that you are working with and so forth.

DH: There were a lot of old drivers that when they started to race on these big super speedways were afraid to race on it, weren’t they? Because of the speeds were getting so high that…

BC: Well, you age out and your reaction time gets slower and you have to be well aware of that. For instance, it takes an almost instant recognition of the situation you’re in at a hundred and ninety-five miles and hour versus ninety-five miles an hour. It has to be that quick. And actually when you are driving at the super speedway speeds you have to be driving from the third to one half of the track in front of you. That’s why you have spotters up on the roof who were talking to you on the radio telling you what’s happening in front of you before you ever get to it. But sometimes it happens right in front of you and he (the spotter) never gets a chance to open his mouth before you are into something. One thing you never do. You never drive into the smoke because you don’t know what’s in there. You learn that a long time ago, even if you have to tag and hug the wall to break your speed down.

DH: Because you don’t know what’s on the other side.

BC: You don’t know what’s in the smoke there. If you have a car crossways in the track you got a hundredth of a second to recognize it. If you are doing a hundred and fifty, a hundred ninety miles an hour you can’t believe what a stop that is. I’ve tagged the Darlington wall at a hundred sixty-five miles an hour. That’s where you get your Darlington stripes on the outside of your car.
DH: I hear you did some work in television as well.

BC: I have been in a number of different things, mostly a lot of the Dukes of Hazard episodes. We did a lot of the driving in that.

DH: As a stunt driver?

BC: The General Lee, yeah, we drove those. That big ol’ Dodge, we wrecked about nine of them.

DH: There’s one thing about the Dukes of Hazard, show that always amazes me. No matter how many times that Dodge Charger gets into a crash-up it gets into it always pulls away without a scratch.

BC: Well, you have three vehicles. One that you are shooting with, one they are fixing and they hope to fix. But you always keep three on hand of anything that you are working with that has to be in scenes. When the Director wants something in a scene he wants it. It can’t be in the shop. You got to have one ready to go. They got to mirror one another, be absolutely the same paint job, same scratches, same dents, same dirt. Everything’s got to be just so.

5 comments:

Ken J Kaplan said...

I think the questions were thoughtful and I give this interview a big thumbs up! I really relished it. Great job David.

David Wayne Hampton: said...

Thank you, Ken. I wish as an interviewer I had some more probing questions to ask him at the time. Though Mr. Cole played down the significance of his experiences in life, it sounded pretty amazing that one man had accomplished so many different and interesting things in life.

street racing muscle cars said...

"I love racing thats why i m here to appreciate you!
You have done a great job keep it up."

Anonymous said...

Mr. Hampton,
Thank you so much for posting this. I just now found it online and loved reading it again. This is the student you had all those years ago, Laura. I still pull out the copy you gave me after class that day. I really enjoy reading and learning new things about my grandfather. Hope you are doing well. - Laura C.

David Hampton: said...

Hey Laura! I appreciate your reply. I was just talking to a stunt person this past weekend who had worked in Atlanta on The Walking Dead , about your grandfather's work with Dukes of Hazzard. I almost forgot about giving you a copy of that interview. Im doing well, and I hope you are too. Take care!