Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Web Stock

What does stockcar racing and abused children have in common? Setting aside those twisted individuals who might venture a punch line (no pun intended) to such a question, you’d be hard pressed to answer unless you lived or visited the Bradenton, Florida, area in the latter part of the eighties, early nineties. For it was in this lesser-known Sunshine State city, located along its western shore about an hour and a half north of Tampa, that you’d find the DeSoto Speedway, owned and operated by Tom D. Stimus.

The DeSoto Speedway

Stimus was a highly successful used car salesman with several dealerships in the Manatee County area; a local legend along the lines of P.T. Barnum, whose showmanship and crazy stunts rivaled that of the celebrated circus legend. Stimus, however, kept his piquant persona primarily pent in the television ads he splayed across the area airwaves. The formula was simple. Tom strode by a bevy of buggies, slamming his palm on each as he proclaimed the prices to his audience much like a vehicular evangelist. His oratory would culminate in some sensational fashion.

Poking fun at himself, Stimus aired a series of ads, featuring a stereotypical southern sheriff who charges the pre-owned pitch man with disorderly conduct—being overly obnoxious and loud—in his commercials!

In one such spot the hawker of horseless carriages finalized his fulminating freneticism with a warning that any car buyers shopping at his competitors’ would be burned by high prices, at which point he set a stuntman ablaze to illustrate the point. Of course, this particular strategem may have been self-defeating. After all, there must have been many who opted to get figuratively scorched rather than risk facing the loon who literally sets people aflame!

No surprise these theatrics, reminiscent of the grotesque grapplers’ verbal tête à têtes featured between World Wrestling Entertainment matches, led Stimus to employ one of the faux-sport’s own, Dusty Rhodes, to assist in his carny acts. The wrestling icon, who resembles what might have resulted from cross-breeding the monster from Thomas Edison’s Frankenstein with a bean bag chair, took to hustling autos the way volcanoes take to virgins.

In 1986, Stimus took out full-page ads in the area newspapers designed as “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters, featuring the mug of Moammar Gadhafi, after the Libyan dictator threatened the United States. Rumors circulated that a ten-million–dollar bounty was raised and Stimus promised a reward to anyone who dispatched the Arab ruler.

As aforementioned, this mockish behavior was only evident in the motorcar merchandiser’s colorful TV and radio spots. Off-camera, Stimus was a genial gent—beloved by most, loathed by few—who cared deeply about children… and stockcar racing! His love for the latter led Stimus to purchase and refurbish the DeSoto Speedway, while his conviction for the former couldn’t be more evident than by the establishment of the Tom’s Kids Foundation, which worked toward helping victims of child abuse in Manatee County. To that end, the speedway was outfitted with a picnic and playground, so families could enjoy racing together in a fun and safe atmosphere.

It was only a few months ago that I revealed to you, My Faithful Bloglodytes, Marvel’s joint venture with the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse (NCPCA) to use Spider-Man as a means of educating youngsters about recognizing the three forms of abuse: sexual, emotional and physical (see “An Ounce of Prevention”). Unfortunately, despite the good intentions behind the program, there weren’t a whole lot of funds for promoting it beyond the confines of America’s various school systems. Further outreach came from whatever media attention Spidey’s visit might elicit. And let’s be honest, as important a story as educating kids on abuse may be and regardless of how cool us nerds may find our hero being used in this manner, covering such events would depend on whether it was a slow news day or not.

Even if it were a day deprived of shootings, robberies, rape or any number of perceived meatier fare, a guy dressed as a superhero—even one as iconic as Ye Olde Web-Swinger, flown in directly from said character’s corporate HQ—speaking to area students about this subject would rarely make the front page and most often be buried in the same section as the local woman who collects potato chips, which look like famous people. Some more conservative parts of the country may veer away from the matter altogether, fearing reprisal from its readership who embrace the antiquated and dangerous notion that children should be protected with ignorance not education!

Holy Spud!

Stimus only learned of the program when he saw an article in a Dayton, Ohio, newspaper while on a trip to that enlightened state. He immediately contacted Marvel to find out how he could enlist Spider-Man to visit schools in Bradenton as well as appear at the DeSoto Speedway. Now I’d gigged in Dayton on several occasions during my Webhead tenure, so it’s possible that the appearance which caught Stimus’s attention could very well have been one of my own. But since I didn’t keep records of the hundreds of Marvel jobs I did every year, I’ve no way of knowing. But I’m fairly sure the trip to the DeSoto Speedway was my first gig in Bradenton.

To access the town one must travel on Route 275 south from St. Petersburg over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, a nearly four-mile span that arcs gracefully over Tampa Bay and makes travelers—this one at least—feel they are ascending to Heaven. My host for the trip, a minion of Stimus, felt it prudent to relate the wonder’s tragic past as we traversed its cabled arch. I was surprised to learn that this was the second bridge. The first, a cantilevered design that opened in 1971, had a mere 150-foot clearance. One morning in May 1980, the span was struck during a blinding rainstorm by the ship Summer Venture... during rush hour no less. The center section toppled and thirty-five lives were lost. Those poor victims simply drove into oblivion. I still shudder to think about it, and for the rest of our trip over the Skyway, my stomach was in my throat.

The next day I visited three schools, delivering a message about Emotional Abuse—later NCPCA gigs would feature a presentation, which incorporated all three types of abuse—to students ranging from kindergartners to third graders. There weren’t any admissions afterward to either myself or the on-site expert, John Hobbs, from Tom’s Kids Foundation as we greeted the kids and signed comic books, nor were children running screaming from the auditoriums after being exposed to such reprehensible teaching. And I’ll bet they grew up without the least bit of stigmatism because of it.

At the final school in my schedule, a reporter from the Bradenton Herald asked a couple of first graders to remain behind, so his accompanying photographer could take pictures while I spoke with the kids about Emotional Abuse. To keep the li’l ’uns focused, I made the discussion into a game, asking them if they could give me examples of “words that hurt.” I was always gladdened by the result of these personal encounters. The knowledge that the children retained about the heady subject matter showed me that my message wasn’t getting lost, but rather was reinforced by the costume, and more importantly, wasn’t creating petrified prepubescents. The wee ones were always smiling and happy and seemed appreciative that they learned something so substantive. To quote John Candy from Home Alone...

 “They get over it. Kids are resilient like that.”

When I noticed the photo and article in the next morning’s paper, I was both pleased and annoyed. Unsurprisingly, the reporter asked Hobbs about the man behind the mask. Like every other newsperson before him, he hoped to get the scoop of the century and expose everyone’s Favorite Neighborhood Web-Slinger. The feelings and affect on the child population of Manatee County be damned… We’re talkin’ Pulitzer, here! I’d long come to expect such unethical behavior from the unprincipled press. Just once, I would love to have been shocked by a reporter who did more than give lip service to the idea of “journalistic integrity.”

But what rankled me more were the responses given to this poor man’s Kolchak. Apparently, he didn’t get the memo from Marvel about how to treat questions about the Spidey portrayer, which is basically as you would if he were the genuine article, i.e. a superhero with a secret identity, based in New York City. This interview-challenged Cretan replied that he did not know the name of the man in the suit (okay so far…) “because Marvel will not allow the actor’s name to be released (Aarrgh!).” Bad enough, Hobbs referred to me as an “actor,” but to then infer that there was a conspiracy behind my anonymity was deplorable. Of course, the salacious member of the media ran with it. He probably had to change his underwear on the way home, he was so excited. I certainly hope Hobbs was better at speaking about issues dealing with child abuse!

Hobbs went on to explain one of the goals of the Foundation: “…to build a complex of single-family cottages for abuse victims on a property near the DeSoto Speedway…” I’m all for creating a haven for victims of abuse. But outside a car-racing stadium?!! Isn’t planting people within the confines of the deafening engines’ roar of a speedway a different form of abuse? I’m sure—I hope—the idyllic enclave would be far enough away for its inhabitants not to suffer from the noise, but Hobbs could have been clearer about what he meant by “near.”

I finally met the man himself, Tom Stimus, at the track the next evening. Had I been privy to his outrageous media personality, I might have been intimidated, certainly wary, when meeting him. All I’d heard about the man to that point was that he had built a used-car empire and invested some of the monies earned to purchase and rejuvenate a stagnant local raceway as well as establish a charitable organization to help abuse victims. Far from trepidation or skepticism, I held nothing but esteem for the man.

Stimus turned out to be more jolly than crazy, with a physique and face that would make Mrs. Claus proud. He didn’t smile so much as beam, his eyes condensed to a pair of crescents by the press of his pudgy cheeks. His hair and wardrobe were an anachronism, representative of a different era. The former was a pomade–sculpted, perfectly symmetrical and prominently side-burned coif, ideal for a touring company of Jersey Boys.

As for his ensemble, at least Stimus was consistent. It suited his ’do to a tee, the type of outfit seen on appliance salesmen in the fifties. It was a look last seen in Revenge of the Nerds, only without the pocket protector. He reminded me somewhat of my dad, except Stimus’s was a face wrinkled and formed by a lifetime smiling, not scowling.

Anyone who knows my father will see the irony in this picture

Unsurprisingly, he had a meaty paw, matching arms and a hearty handshake. I feared my phalanges would by mangled and visibly throb like Fred Flintstone’s after Bamm-Bamm had gotten a hold of it. But Stimus’s grip, albeit firm, was respectful. He didn’t need to affirm his manhood with an immature display of machismo, i.e. crushing handshake.

The track was already bursting with fans when I arrived at 6 pm, though the racing wasn’t set to begin until an hour thence. The crowd certainly didn’t develop in minutes and I’d guess the attendees flooded the gates well before they opened at 5. It was a testament to Stimus’s success with the speedway that the place was packed so early. It was also a savvy business move to open the park at dinnertime, ensuring good concession sales, as fans wouldn’t want to risk eating elsewhere for fear of arriving too late to get a seat.

The early-evening opening and start time also made it more conducive to families, who could enjoy a meal and entertainment and still get the kids home and in bed before 9, if they so desired. To foment the family-friendly atmosphere, Stimus had a picnic area and playground built inside the complex, thus providing plenty of activity for children while they awaited the races to begin.

Stimus proceeded to take me on a quick tour of the facilities. Without a frame of reference—I’d never been to a race track before—I can’t comment on its standards, but it was in pristine condition, clean, freshly-painted and uncluttered; it seemed like it had only been built a few days before. I was informed I’d be transforming in his office underneath the stadium, which was ideally situated for my intended signing area, the locale of the picnic tables.

We then entered a spot where parked a lone stock car over which a trio of men were tinkering. More precisely, they were emphatically discussing something as they gesticulated about the car’s backside. I couldn’t fathom what the issue was, but had little time to ponder the situation when my thoughts were interrupted by Stimus, who was in a quandary as to how to introduce me to the crowd. Sure, he could’ve simply announced my arrival over the PA system, but such an unspectacular entrance was anathema to the showman that was Tom Stimus. He suggested my arriving in a racecar, to which I was agreeable, envisioning my Spidey self positioned in the passenger seat, waving to the fans as I cruised by. Again, Stimus interrupted my musings, only this time far more abruptly.

“The only problem my boys are having is how to secure you to the top.”  


“We were thinking of rigging a rope to the trunk and extending it upward with a piece of wood you could hold onto,” said one of the men.

It was at this moment that I realized I’d misheard Stimus. He wasn’t proposing I enter the track in the vehicle, but rather on it! These gents wanted me to arrive atop the stock car, mounted to the trunk with nothing but my grip on a makeshift tether, like a performer at Cypress Gardens. And here I was nodding my head like Dopey. What have I agreed to?! Had I acceded to how fast I’d be traveling, yet! I pictured myself flying off the back as the car hit the first turn, holding on for dear life as I bounced along the tarmac like the cans behind a wedding limousine.

The one time I attempted to water ski, I actually rose successfully on my initial try, only to immediately plunge face-first in the water and swallow half the Atlantic before letting go of the handle. All attempts thereafter faired even worse. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit the mischievous side of me wanting to whiz by the stands like Fonzi in the infamous “jump-the-shark” episode of Happy Days, only without the eventual notoriety that continues to live on in infamy.

“This stunt is going to make my career!”

Stimus’s “boys” had strapped a rope through the trunk, following the base of the rear window, where the ends were tied at its center, a single cord dangling a few feet away and secured to a chunk of wood to be used as a handle. The cable hearkened to the type ubiquitous to jungle adventures, vital to the construction of bridges across vertiginous chasms, which inevitably confront the hero when fleeing angry tribesmen. The thick, fibrous braids prove nigh impossible to sever as the imperiled paladin races desperately to drop the span before his inexorable pursuers overtake him.

I had to admire their ingenuity, guilt welling up inside me as I contemplated telling them about nixing the ambitious plan. Oh, who the hell was I kidding? I leapt onto the car without pausing to discard my jacket before trying the cobbled tether. The rope was certainly strong enough—I imagine its use to this point was for towing disabled vehicles—and the length felt right as I posed à la Spider-Man, enacting my grand entrance and subsequent spin around the raceway. The dowel was a bit thick for my arachnid appendages to grip as firmly as I would have liked—the “boys” probably predicated my paws on Stimus’s when they fabricated it—but enough so that I could still keep from falling off even while waving to my adoring public… just so long as the speed was kept to a minimum.

With assurances of the vehicle moving no faster than an octogenarian and zero hour looming, I hustled back to Stimus’s office to change. The tinkering triumvirate promised to have my spider-mobile ready to go upon my return ten minutes later.

By the time I reappeared in the red-and-blue, the corrugated door had been raised and the Webhead wheels aligned before it, prepped for my coming out party. One of my three inventive motorheads sat behind the wheel, ready to drive me to glory. A cacophony of engines, a stampede of revving horsepower, filled the space from outside the portal. It sounded as though the race had started without me. I could barely hear my screamed query of concern as to whether my fears had merit. My “pit crew” seemed quite amused, their smirking miens saying, “This here Yankee don’t know nothin’ ’bout racing.”

The explanation had me thinking I was every bit the moron they believed me to be, especially since the noise continued unabated during the few minutes we chatted, meaning that the cars were not moving, yet! Duh! The deafening din was merely the sound of idling motors, albeit mega-powerful ones. But still, had I two brain cells to rub together, I would have realized the sound would have modulated in volume as the cars circumnavigated the track had they been in motion. The competitors were in position awaiting the signal that Spider-Man was ready. They would then proceed around the circuit at a leisurely pace, my vehicle bringing up the rear.

“So how many times will I be traveling the track,” I asked.

“Just two,” one of the men replied.

“Then you’ll bring me back in here, right?” I said, directing the question to my erstwhile chauffeur.

“Heck, no! The race’ll be starting by then, and the gate’ll be closed. You’ll have to hop off and come through the side door at the starting line while I drive the pace car into the pit area.”

In a Spider-Man suit, no one can see your jaw drop...

Apparently on the second loop of the oval, the race would begin, the stocks putting pedal to the metal as the green flag signaled the event to begin. I’d be helpless atop my no-longer-so-funny car until the entire field had entered the race before we reached the point where I could hop off and skedaddle out some door I’d never seen before, all whilst a couple dozen automobiles—thousands of pounds of steel—careen back around the speedway at a dizzying velocity toward me.

“Don’t worry. You’ll have plenty of time to get off the track before the cars reach you.”

Maybe they did notice my jaw drop…

Where I was nervous before, I was scared shitless now. Fuck a slow, steady pace. I don’t care if I appear as nothing but a red-and-blue blur as I speed past the stands. Just get me out of there STAT! I didn’t want to end up roadkill, later to be the main ingredient in Granny Clampett’s arachnid equivalent to ’possum stew.

“Boil, boil, toil and trouble...”

I clambered aboard—I couldn’t exactly renege on my commitment at this juncture—and the vehicle entered the speedway. The roar of the crowd the minute I breached the entryway drowned out the turbulence of the motors and for a moment I forgot about what lay ahead. I needn’t have worried about my balance; the speedway surface was smooth and I stood firm, seemingly gliding past my screaming fans.

Visions of an earlier trip to Florida my family took when I was twelve filled my mind. My father had surprised us at Christmas with what would be my first ever trip to Walt Disney World. En route from the airport a billboard advertising Sea World caught our collective eye. It dually featured legendary comedian Bob Hope’s appearance at the venerable aquatic theme park and what made my heart skip a beat, the “Superheroes at Sea World Show.” I was a relative newbie to comic books, a late blooming Marvel Zombie. But when I saw the promo shot of rival publisher DC Comics stars Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash—among others—water skiing atop one another’s shoulders in a pyramid, I forgot all about why we were in Florida. Mickey who?!

To a comics geek of the 70’s, a time when the licensing of our beloved characters was a barren landscape, this type of exposure transcended allegiances. I heard nothing in the rental beyond the huzzah of my brain cells, and it didn’t surprise me one iota when my mom and two sisters detoured to Sea World to secure tickets on our way to the hotel. Even they realized the gravitas of the moment; a once in a lifetime occurrence not to be missed. And like me, wanted to waste as little time as possible seeing this historic event; the very next night we headed back to see the show!

The seats were midway up the bleaches of the open-air amphitheatre where the water-skiing stunt extravaganzas took place. To either side were ramps and other props, festooned in stars and stripes; painted a panoply of vibrant colors; and accessorized with giant ballooned sound effects, the kind ubiquitous to the superhero slug-fests in funny books. I was shaking with excitement. Had I been the Flash, I would’ve vibrated through my seat. Suddenly, the lights went down and the PA announcer introduced Bob Hope! The crowd went wild. I politely clapped. He was obviously just the warm-up act, which explained his mention on the billboard.

Hope’s routine seemed to go on forever, and I finally asked my mother when the superheroes were going to be coming out. I was crushed to find out they weren’t. We were there to see Bob Hope! I couldn’t have been more disappointed. Here, I was experiencing a National Treasure—BOB-FUCKING-HOPE—and I’m dwelling on missing an aquatic stunt show; not even a Marvel-themed one!

This is the actual ticket stub from the Bob Hope show... 
SIX BUCKS!!! I would’ve paid twice that to see the Justice League water ski!

My revelry was suddenly broken by a pronounced increase in engine noise before me. I swiveled away from the stands and saw the green flag waving as the racecars burst into high gear across the starting line. From my point of view—the final turn in the circuit—the vehicles in the lead vaulted around the initial turn and would catch up to my car in seconds. C’mon, c’mon, c’mon… MOVE!

But of course I had to wait until the rest of the field in front of me entered the fray. It was like standing at the back of a green light, edging toward an intersection when you’re in a hurry; the only difference was someone’s life was at stake: MINE! I nearly hopped off the car and pushed. Blessedly, we got to my point of departure, but the pack was entering the third turn and baring down on me. I couldn’t have moved more quickly had I been on fire. I skirted through the door and kept running toward the autograph area, ignoring the two amigos—of the three who weren’t driving—awaiting my egress from the track.

“Hey, how was it?” they asked as I vaulted past.

“Can’t talk now. Got to get to the picnic tables,” I called back. “Wouldn’t want to keep the children waiting!”

Despite my hurry, there was already a mob awaiting my arrival, every one of them holding a copy of the custom NCPCA/Spider-Man Emotional Abuse comic book. During the two-hour signing, I must’ve been asked by every other child in line how it was to ride atop the stock car.

Piece o’ cake,” I replied, though my heart was still pumping in my chest like a jack hammer from the experience. “Sure beats going toe-to-toe with Dr. Octopus.”

The remainder of the evening was spent watching the races, more than a half dozen featuring various types of automobiles. I wouldn’t know a stock car from Stockard Channing and was about as interested. Notwithstanding my love of Hot Wheels cars as a child—I even had the famed Mongoose & Snake Drag Race track—I never got into auto racing. Even the advent of Danica Patrick couldn’t sway my interest (although my URL provider is GoDaddy. Hmm…).

Nice trunk...

The sport barely projected a blip onto the Boston sports radar screen, and other than the Indianapolis 500, was never broadcast in the area in my youth. Stimus and his crew tried to explain the basics and pointed out impressive moves that certain drivers were making, but to me, it was just a bunch of loud vehicles going endlessly around a giant asphalt oval… yawn.

Maybe if they put superheroes atop the cars as they sped past…