Acclaimed actor Burt Reynolds died Thursday at 82. He leaves behind a rich portfolio of memorable roles in film, and his historical influence on the stock-car racing community continues as an enduring legacy.
Reynolds headlined several automotive-themed movies — “Stroker Ace,” “Smokey and the Bandit,” and both “Cannonball Run” movies — where cars shared the stage with him and his co-stars. But he was also part of a star-studded NASCAR team ownership group that fielded entries through the 1980s.
“Burt was as much of a showman as anyone in Hollywood,” NASCAR legend Richard Petty said Thursday in a statement released by his team. “He had his own signature look, style and charisma. He made himself stand out, and the times I met him, he was as nice as a person you could meet and talk to. He will be missed by many.”
Reynolds partnered with stuntman-turned-producer/director Hal Needham and fellow actor Paul Newman, an accomplished racer in his own right, to form Skoal Bandit Racing ahead of the 1981 season. The team’s name borrowed from the smokeless tobacco sponsorship and the “Smokey and the Bandit” movie title.
Stan Barrett, also a longtime stuntman and land-speed record holder, was the team’s first driver. The car was initially numbered 22, a nod to a jersey number Reynolds sometimes wore as a running back during his college football playing days for Florida State.
“I’ve never owned a race car before, but I love stock-car racing and I sure envy Stan Barrett,” Reynolds told the Palm Beach (Fla.) Post in January 1981. “When Hal Needham and I put this new race car idea together, we tossed around all kinds of notions, but it was obvious from the beginning that we would wind up with a stock car and that it would be a ‘bandit.’ Then when Paul Newman, who’s a winning driver, heard about our idea, he wanted in, too, and the thing just snowballed from there.”
Harry Gant replaced Barrett as the team’s driver midway through the 1981 season. The team changed to No. 33 and forged a long-running combination that gave Needham and Reynolds nine victories from 1981-89. The car’s distinctive green-and-white paint scheme often sported “Burt & Hal’s” on the fenders or roof pillars.
Reynolds’ involvement in racing added a dose of show business to the NASCAR circuit. In return, Reynolds and Needham brought stock-car racing to the silver screen with “Stroker Ace,” a campy comedy that debuted in July 1983.
“He’s hot on the track … and off,” was the tawdry tagline from the movie, which was adapted from the William Neely novel “Stand on It.” The film was shot on location at a handful of NASCAR tracks and featured cameo appearances from several drivers, including Gant, Dale Earnhardt, Terry Labonte, Cale Yarborough and Tim Richmond.