Long before NASCAR became the multi-billon dollar industry that it is today, Naman was one of the bolts that held the machine together.
But it was another piece of hardware that current Talladega Superspeedway chairman Grant Lynch used to sum up what Naman meant to the sport.
“He ran the race track when we didn’t make a lot of money,” he said. “They’d tell me under his tutelage we’d literally straighten nails out and reuse them. And that was because we weren’t making much money back then and didn’t have a lot of money to spend on things.
“… I think the folks that have come along now don’t realize the sacrifices that everybody had to make back in the old days.”
Naman, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., started his love affair with motorsports after a stint in the Air Force during the Korean War. After returning stateside in Knoxville, Tenn., he competed in drag racing, winning more than 200 races.
When his three-year period as a driver played out, Naman found his true niche, in an office with a desk where he rarely sat. In 1965, he became the promoter for the Smokey Mountain Raceway in Maryville, Tenn. He went from there to Talladega Superspeedway in 1970 where he remained until 1988, leaving for the position of executive director at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
“He was a great promoter, and he worked it every day,” Lynch said. “Don probably got out and promoted the Hall of Fame more than anybody ever has, and it probably reached it peak when he was there.
“With everything he did, the building of the Speed Vision Dome, his heart was really in motor sports,” Lynch continued.
Jim Freeman, a longtime co-worker and a successor of Naman’s at the IMHOF, said it was hard work that catapulted Naman from a small Tennessee town and into the NASCAR’s limelight.
Freeman recalled Naman with an old story — the turning point in Naman’s career in 1970.
With a NASCAR stop on the schedule for some time at the Maryville track, complications arose as the date for the green flag neared. But neither the word of God or the president of the United States was too much for Naman to overcome.
A date for evangelist Billy Graham’s crusade was scheduled at nearby University of Tennessee football stadium. The influx of extra bodies onto the road was going to be a problem, but then it was further complicated when it was announced President Richard Nixon would be in attendance.
“He knew they’d shut down that stretch of road for the (presidential) motorcade,” Freeman said. “He got on the phone with every radio station, television station, newspaper — everything — just to get the word out about the al-ternate routes into the track.”
His proactive approach and consideration for race fans impressed NASCAR chairman and CEO Bill France Sr., and he brought Naman to Talladega Superspeedway shortly thereafter.
Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, became steadfast friends with Naman — who he called a walking racing encyclopedia — and begged him away from France back when the Hall of Fame was a state-run entity.
“We were on shaky ground then,” Dial said. “I told Bill France, if there’s any man that can run it right, it’s Don Naman.
“… he’s really the catalyst that took the Hall of Fame to the level that it is now — he put us on solid ground.”
Naman retired from the Hall of Fame in 2000, but remained close to motor sports and was often seen at Talladega’s two races and the annual IMHOF induction ceremonies.
Former Gov. Bob Riley declared Feb. 13, 2008 as Don Naman Day. It coincided with Naman’s induction into the Living Legends of Auto Racing in Daytona Beach, Fla.
It was all quite a career, especially for a native New Yorker in the good old days when stock car racing was a Southern sport with a tight good old boy network.
But Dial said because Naman was the stand-up man that he was, his infiltration was easy.
“It might have been a hindrance for him at first,” Dial said. “But once folks found out that he was going to do what he said he was going to do and he was going to help you out any way he could, they knew they could trust him. And that’s all us Southerners want is somebody that’s going to do what you tell us.
“People loved him. He had a bigger fan base than some of those drivers.”
Bran Strickland is the sports editor for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3570 or follow him on Twitter @bran_strickland.