Photo courtesy ISC Images & Archives

Catching up with racing’s ‘Hat Man’: The incomparable legacy of Bill Brodrick

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It would not be a stretch to say Bill Brodrick has been in victory lane more than any other person in history. And yet he never competed in, nor won, even one race.

At hundreds of races from 1969-97 – primarily NASCAR Cup and IndyCar events – Brodrick was an imposing figure in victory lane, standing alongside the likes of numerous future NASCAR Hall of Famers such as Dale Earnhardt, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty and David Pearson after they won races.

It was hard to miss him. He stood 6-foot-3 and had a wrestler’s body, along with flaming and flowing long red hair and a Grizzly Adams-like beard.

He was known as “Red,” “the Victory Lane Ringmaster,” “Big Bill” or simply “Bill.” But what was really his calling card, and the nickname that made him famous, was “the Hat Man.”

He was the ringmaster of victory lane. He ran the postrace celebration like a business, deciding who’d greet the winner first and the subsequent pecking order, so to speak. He’d direct the race queens who typically kissed the winner and when. He also directed photographers where to set up and when to shoot. He arranged how TV would cover the celebration and made sure the networks had the best camera angles and the first interviews.

NASCAR car owner Banjo Matthews (left) talks with UNOCAL publicist Bill Brodrick at a NASCAR event in 1980. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives)

But Brodrick’s biggest claim to fame was how, in almost military-like precision, he got the driver and crew members of the winning team to change hats nearly every 30 seconds or so to allow photographers to take shots for different sponsors.

If Dale Earnhardt won, Brodrick passed out GM Goodwrench hats, Union 76 hats and many more to accommodate almost every sponsor on the winning car. If Richard Petty won, Brodrick passed out STP hats, Union 76 hats, and so forth until every sponsor was represented in victory lane photos. It’s where the famous “hat dance” got its name, courtesy of Brodrick.

“I’m tall, am a big guy, and I had long hair and I had a beard,” he said. “That persona is what stuck in people’s minds. When I realized that, I wasn’t about to get rid of my beard and long hair. I still have it. I haven’t changed much, except for a few more lines in my forehead. People still come up to me and say, ‘Hi, Hat Man, how are you doing?’ That persona is what made me what I was to the fans and viewers.

“Being The Hat Man was my trademark. In fact, I had ‘The Hat Man’ trademarked for a number of years so nobody could come along and steal ‘The Hat Man’ name away from me.

“Television is what made people recognize me. I never expected it. It just happened. I was there and for what I was doing, I’d be on camera, and people would recognize me and see me with the drivers.”

Photo: Bill Brodrick

A former sportswriter and radio host in his native Cincinnati, Brodrick went to work on Jan. 1, 1969 for Union Oil in California (also known as UNOCAL) as PR director for its worldwide racing division. Four days later, he was in Daytona for timing tests, and with that began the legacy of “The Hat Man.”

Since Union Oil’s Union 76 was the official fuel for NASCAR, IndyCar and other series during much of his tenure, Brodrick was a man in constant motion, going from Daytona to Indianapolis to Le Mans and more. He often spent 200 days on the road in any given year.

These days, Brodrick, 79, lives in retirement in Algonquin, Illinois. Due to medical issues, he doesn’t travel much anymore, but he still keeps up with racing and fondly recalls the good old days with an excitement that seems as if they almost happened just yesterday.

Brodrick was friends with everyone back in the day. He used to hang out with David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, Al Unser (Sr. and Jr.), A.J. Foyt and countless others during some of their most successful years in racing.

Even though he’s been gone from racetracks for 20 years, he hasn’t been forgotten. He still gets several letters and trading cards to autograph from fans.

Brodrick still gets trading cards he was featured on from fans seeking his autograph, even this one, which had his last name misspelled.

And yes, he’s still recognized as “The Hat Man.”

“It doesn’t happen like it used to, where everywhere you’d go, especially at race time, in airports and all that kind of stuff, but it still happens,” he said. “I’m flattered for what I get.”

Not surprisingly, Brodrick has a ton of stories to tell. He’s thought about writing a book, but “I’d have to change all the names to protect the guilty,” he says with a laugh.

“I’ve done so much in my career that has enabled me to travel the world and participate in all kinds of events,” Brodrick said. “I ran in the Cannonball Run, was in the Great American Race, we sponsored some vehicles. I helped out for 20 years at the Super Bowl, too.”

Here’s a few of Brodrick’s other favorite stories:

“The drivers were all my favorites,” he said. “David Pearson and I got along well and were good friends. Dan Gurney was one of my favorites as both a driver and a car owner, a real gentleman and great to work with.

“I also got along real well with Bobby Allison. Bobby would like to drown me with champagne. Whenever Bobby would win a race, I knew I was in trouble. We’d go to Mass on Sunday morning before we’d go to the racetrack – we are both Catholic – and he’d say to me, ‘I’m going to get you today, Brodrick.’ And I’d tell him, ‘I hope so, Bobby.’”

Brodrick had a special relationship with both Petty and Earnhardt.

“They were super guys and total opposites in victory lane,” Brodrick said. “Richard was the

NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison “gets” Bill Brodrick with champagne after a win. (Photo: Charlie Morgan)

quintessential pro.

“Whenever Richard won, I’d have a cup of milk ready for him. He wanted a cup of milk because Richard had a bad stomach. He only has half a stomach; he had the other half removed at one time. I’d have a cup of milk for him, and he’d also want a couple aspirins until he got the Goody’s sponsorship, and then I’d have to have a couple of Goody’s for him and he’d drink his milk (before he met the press).

“Then he’d say, ‘Okay, Bill, let’s let them cats get their pictures.’ He’d go over and give them what they want. He was great to work with.

“Probably the best time I had with Richard was his 200th win at Daytona in July 1984 when President Reagan was there. That was such a memorable day.

“And then there was Ernie Irvan’s win at Loudon in 1996 after he was seriously injured in a crash. There was Alan Kulwicki’s first win at Phoenix in 1988. There was also Darrell Waltrip when he won Daytona in 1989 and did his funky little dance, what’d they call it, ‘the Icky Shuffle?’ There just were so many good memories and stories over the years.”

But Earnhardt, well, he was kind of a different story.

Brodrick was in victory lane for most of Dale Earnhardt’s wins. Photo: Getty Images

“He always wanted to do everything his way,” Brodrick recalled. “I’d ask him to do something and he’d say, ‘I don’t want to do it.’ But actually, he was pulling my chain. The first thing he’d always say to me is, ‘Brodrick, where’s the champagne?’ I told him he’d get the champagne when we were done because he’d love to spray the photographers and people in victory lane. If there was a race where I didn’t have any when he won, he was not a happy camper. That was Dale’s big deal in victory lane.

“If there wasn’t any champagne, he was just his ornery, contrary self. He could be gruff and rough, but he’d give me that wink and smile, and you knew he was just being hard with you.”

And then there was Pearson.

“I used to fly down to Spartanburg (South Carolina, where Pearson lived), I’d meet David and then we’d drive together to Darlington,” Brodrick said. “There’s a restaurant at the Darlington Raceway that’s called the ‘Speedway Grill.’ They had and I heard still have the greatest hamburger steak and French fries in the world.

“One day, we were going to a race, and we were running late, we had to be there by noon, and I told him there’s no way he was going to make it on time. This was back when the speed limit was 55 mph. There’s a town near the track about 20 miles from Darlington where a four-lane highway begins. There’s a state highway patrol office there, so we were passing that office when a highway patrolman pulled out in front of us and proceeded to go exactly 55 mph heading to Darlington.

“Pearson was going crazy behind the wheel because he knows he can’t pass the cop. We had a bet who was going to pay for lunch. Pearson was very frugal with his money. He could make a buffalo scream off a nickel. The cop was also going to Darlington. Of course, I won, we didn’t get there by noon and Pearson had to buy lunch and boy, was he ticked. That’s one of my favorite stories of my career.”

But even with enough stories to last another lifetime, one thing stands out above all in Brodrick’s mind.

“What I miss the most is the camaraderie and fellowship we had in the old days when I was working,” he said. “I thank God every day that I was able to spend time when the sport (NASCAR) was in its heyday. We were very fortunate to be doing what we were doing when we were doing it. That’s what I liked.”

Brodrick was six weeks shy of 30 years with Union Oil when the company was sold, putting him into a forced retirement earlier than he would have liked.

Just like that, the racing, the travel, the thousands of drivers, crew chiefs, team owners, sanctioning body officials and even fans he came to know was gone – as was his “Hat Man” alter ego.

Bill Brodrick today (Photo courtesy Bill Brodrick)

The abrupt end took Brodrick by surprise, but he tried to make the best of it. He decided to open a bar in Algonquin called “Tavern At The Bridge,” because it was located on the Fox River.

The bar became a repository of all kinds of racing memorabilia, mostly from Brodrick’s collection of items he gained during his career. It also attracted thousands of race fans who wanted to see the “Hat Man” behind the bar.

“I put 40 years of racing experience to good use, and I bought a tavern,” he laughs. “I kept it for 11 years and I’ve never worked so hard in all my life.

“My whole life was in racing and motorsports, and I got paid to do my hobby. Then I went to work and worked almost 24 hours a day. I found out what it was to own a business and be responsible for people.

“The economy turned bad in 2008, and I turned it over to my son and was finally able to get out of the business. It was a lot of fun and we met a lot of people, but boy, that was work after all the years of going to races.”

Brodrick still keeps up with racing, particularly NASCAR, IndyCar and sports car racing, even though his health issues – primarily arthritis in his back – prevent him from even going to nearby tracks such as Chicagoland Speedway or Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Still, a day doesn’t go by that Brodrick isn’t reminded of all the things he’s experienced.

“For almost 30 years, I had the greatest job in the world,” he said. “I met so many great people, was at so many great races, saw so much racing history in the making.”

And right there in the middle was the one and only ‘Hat Man.’”

Bill welcomes emails from fans and past motorsports acquaintances. His address is: WilliamBrodrick@aol.com. Also, click here for his website.Follow @JerryBonkowski