First you notice his eyes. They are piercing, steel blue. They bore in on you as he talks. It's as though he's searching you for signs. For a glimmer of understanding. Or an opening.
This is Bill Wildt--the man who chucked his job and sold a home to finance his crusade. He's going to solve a problem. This problem's repercussions extend beyond the American sports establishment into the school system, family life, foreign trade, and freedom of speech--all of which Wildt covers in a ten-minute discussion. No, make that soliloquy. When you get into a discussion with Bill Wildt, he talks. You listen.
Bill Wildt is the one-man dynamo behind the Motorsports Advancement Crusade. He is also the star of a cable television show in the Chicago area. "I can't walk into the Jewel or K Mart or any shopping mall without people stopping me and telling me they watch the show all the time," he says matter-of-factly.
You may have seen the show on the city's cable access Channel 19. Wildt, an engaging fireplug of a man, interviews off-road racers or speed-shop owners. Or he'll chair a debate on motorcycle helmet laws, or give lessons on automotive welding. Sound scintillating?
The show, Motorsports Unlimited, is seen in some 110 communities in Illinois and Wisconsin. Mark Schaefer of WBBM TV called it the most watched cable show in Chicago a few months back. Untold thousands of people in the area have clicked past the show. Who knows how many of them have sat bolt upright in their chairs and clicked back?
"What I'm most pleased about is the number of times people say, 'I see your program all the time. I don't care about motor sports but I always watch.' You know," Wildt confides, "it's with a nudge and a wink."
So what's the big deal? Perhaps you've clicked past Channel 19 yourself. Perhaps you've wondered why two grown men are having a discussion about midget cars while surrounded by smiling women dressed in bargain-basement Las Vegas show-girl costumes. That's Bill Wildt's show.
"The public has the remote control in their hand and they can watch Wheel of Fortune or Monday Night Football in a second," Wildt explains. "If you want to talk to them, you have to compete. That's one of the reasons we do this thing the way we do it. [The networks] can do everything better than we can. We're always going to have that 'cable' look. How do we get people to watch?" Wildt doesn't wait for an answer. "Using the girls on the program has been absolutely delightful. It's proven to be a way of competing."
Wildt's assistant and companion, Chris Schutz, herself one of the "girls," agrees. She says there's a woman who works at Continental Cablevision in Elmhurst, one of the many systems that carry the show, who has told Wildt countless times that the girls are superfluous. Sometimes, when this woman feels particularly combative, she says their presence is insulting to women. The show, this woman says, is interesting enough without the girls.
Schutz shakes her head and laughs. "Yeah, like everybody wants to see Bill," she says sarcastically.
Viewers may not be tuning in to see him, but in truth the show is all Bill. He is the man who supplies the girls with their costumes. He controls their appearance from the tops of their feather headdresses to the points on their stiletto heels. There are outfits for eight girls in a closet in Wildt's house, Schutz says. They include dangling rhinestone earrings, red bow ties, red spandex tank suits, boys' size small yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the Motorsports logo, and the aforementioned feathers and heels.
Wildt writes every word heard on the show (except those of his guests, of course). He sets up all the shots, he hawks the show to new cable systems, he edits, he operates the camera for insert shots, he sets up the colored backgrounds, the list goes on and on.
The look of the girls is his vision of beauty. The show is his medium to carry his message to America. Every penny spent on the show comes out of his pocket. The logo even reads "Bill Wildt's Motorsports Advancement Crusade." It's his lonely battle.
Wildt is fighting the domination of Chicago's airwaves by the Cubs, Bears, Bulls, and White Sox. He's tilting against the power wielded by the big-money chiefs of the television networks and the major newspapers. He's trying to stand tall in the face of the economic and technological might of the Japanese. And he's arguing with the Internal Revenue Service.
The problem is this: no one's paying enough attention to motor sports.
"I've raced since I was 13 years old," Wildt says. "Having been in it all my life, I was well aware of the things that were contributing to the demise of motor sports. At some point in your life, you have to decide 'Am I gonna do something about it or should I just shut up and forget it?' In my case, I was probably the most likely candidate to try to do something."
Wildt decided six and a half years ago to give up his normal, middle-class life to save the country from the extinction of racing. At the age of 40, he quit his job as O'Hare airfreight supervisor for United Airlines and sold a two-flat he'd bought to help him through his retirement. He took that money and started Bill Wildt's Motorsports Advancement Crusade.
The crusade was created to alert the American public to a serious downward trend in the fortunes of auto racing. There were more than 2,500 racetracks in the country in 1953, Wildt says. Today, there are fewer than 800. "When I first started as a youngster, I raced at Oswego Dragway--that's gone. U.S. 30 Dragstrip--that's gone. Soldier Field--now it's a football field. (A board speedway was built in Soldier Field in the 1940s; one race there drew 80,000 people.)
Wildt threw his fortune, his heart, and his soul into the crusade. Eventually his wife, a victim of multiple sclerosis, divorced him. His ardor for the crusade was the final blow to an already crumbling relationship.
Wildt admits it's tough for most of us to get excited about the plight of auto racing. "It is very difficult to be sensitive to something you don't feel. I wish I had been smarter in the 60s. I was a young man during the marches in Selma, Alabama, the civil rights movement and all of that. I remember pondering as I watched it on television, 'What's all this about? Everything seems OK to me.' That's how consciousnesses are raised. Someone has to jump up and shout and make you sensitive to the issues," he says.
Now it's the crusade's turn to jump up and shout. The loss of the tracks means much more to the nation than just disappointing some kid eager for a race. "Should we as a society be surprised that we have to go to foreign shores for technical excellence in automobiles and motorcycles?" Wildt asks. Fewer tracks means fewer arenas for the technically inclined to hone their skills in America, he says.
"Is that important? One out of every six jobs in this country is related to the automobile industry. I am greatly concerned about it. I may be the only one," he laughs.
"When I was a youngster, it was generally presumed that a man could make a living, be able to purchase a home, and the wife would raise the children. Now it seems we've got Mommy and Daddy working at Wendy's or Burger King or some other minimum-wage job in order to support that home and the children are being raised in day-care centers. I'm a little concerned about a country that raises its children in day-care centers.
"Suppose you're a six-year-old kid. He's looking around at life, pondering his future. What does he want? The same thing every other young male wants: big cars, broads, and money. [Here Wildt apologizes for talking in "blue-collar terms," but after all, he says, it is our blue-collar people at risk.] He says, 'How can I get that? Maybe I'll be a football star. No, I'm not that physical. Maybe I'll be a rock musician. Maybe I'll be a movie star.'
"Now I ask you, what six-year-old is going to say [again, he apologizes] 'I think I'll spend my life fuckin' around with cars and be a financial bust-out'? We don't offer much of a future for the technically inclined. We have to be manufacturers of significant products."
Our system of public education only makes matters worse. "When you move through that system, what kind of activities are identified with sports? Baseball, basketball, and football," says Wildt, who likes to answer his own questions. "Are the Japanese smarter than we are? Or does it have to do with where society places its emphasis?"
The question Wildt faced in the early days of the crusade was how to wake America up. He put out a newsletter and had a few articles published in magazines like Boatracing and Midgets and Minisprint Racing News. The Tribune even printed a "Point of View" piece he wrote. Still Wildt was frustrated. "Television works," he says.
He knew then, though, that it wasn't working for him. "When the sports news comes on television, what do they tell you about? Day after day, seven days a week, four times a day, 365 days a year, what they tell you about is the activities at Comiskey Park, Wrigley Field, and Soldier Field. All of these operations are private businesses. It doesn't make a difference if it's the Cubs, the White Sox, or the Bears, there are some very rich people getting richer," he says.
These "privileged few" are the beneficiaries of a communications system that discriminates against all others, Wildt argues. "My free speech is minuscule compared to Johnny Morris's free speech," he says. He made several complaints to the FCC, all to no avail. The question haunted him: "How do we get our share?"
He devoted himself to investigating the broadcast industry in hopes of finding some little crack through which he might sneak. Finally, he came upon cable television public access. By law, he discovered, cable television companies must often provide equipment, studios, training, and access channels for the residents of the communities they serve. "I knew right then and there if I'm going to solve this problem, I'm going to bring it to America's attention by devoting all of my time and resources to making the television show go," he says.
In the studio, Bill Wildt is a maestro. Not one detail escapes his notice. On a recent night I sat by while he orchestrated the efforts of four technicians and six girls, all volunteers, to shoot inserts for the next week's show.
Before the shoot began, Wildt spent a lot of time making certain that a deep blue backdrop reflected light just so, that the hanging logo wasn't the tiniest millimeter crooked, that the entire set was up to his exacting standards. It was an opportunity for me to chat with some of the volunteers.
I struck up a conversation with Pat Mora, a stage mother. She accompanies her daughter Carinthia to every shoot, she said. Carinthia is the youngest of the girls and the only one to satisfy the dictionary definition of the term. She is just 14.
Carinthia is tall and fetching. She is trying to become a model and has had a tad of success--a catalog here, a TV commercial there. One day, Pat told me, Carinthia's booking agent called and told her about Wildt's show. She'd never heard of it, but they took a chance and went to a Sunday afternoon location shoot at his house. Pat and Carinthia stayed the entire afternoon and haven't missed a taping yet. "I held one of the girls' baby the whole day," Pat said.
The whole experience has been generally good for the Moras. "This is a great opportunity for her to be seen," Pat said, but she does have a slight reservation. "It is a little mature because of the costumes," she whispered.
Wildt knows a secret that brings out the best in the models, according to Pat. "He tells them that they can't make mistakes. All a pretty girl has to do is smile. Bill's good for their egos."
The best part of the job is that Carinthia won't miss a day of school--she'll begin her freshman year at Hinsdale South High School this fall, Pat beamed. With that she went back to reading a copy of the National Enquirer--by the time the night's shoot was finished, she had read it from cover to cover.
Carinthia and the rest of the models filed into the greenroom. They'd been dressing in the women's washroom down the hall.
Most of the models, I learned, answered an ad Wildt placed in Audition News. "The first time we put in the ad we got over 60 responses," Chris Schutz said. Even though they don't get paid, the models are extremely loyal. Said model Angie K.: "If you could add up all the hours I've ever put into this show it would be a million billion."
Chris and Angie bragged that they learned to weld during a special show shot in Wildt's garage.
The exposure has been good. Angie said she was recognized by the attendant at a gas station she stopped at not long ago. Nanette LaFrance-Smith said the same thing happened to her. Not only that, Nanette said, but a man once called the crusade excitedly and left his number for her. When she called, he told her that he was a former coworker and it was a great kick to see her on the show.
But enough of this. Wildt came into the greenroom and gently but firmly said "It's time, girls."
Three of the models--Angie, Sherry Lee, and Kristin Johansen--immediately sat down between the camera and the deep blue background. They assumed something called the "S pose": all three sat as close as sardines, their heads and upper bodies tilted left, while their legs were bent and pointed to the right--you know, an S. As the models positioned themselves, Wildt climbed a stool and, for the first of countless times during the session, readjusted the Motorsports Unlimited logo.
Then he came down and cast a critical eye on the three. "Tuck those legs up, Kristin," he said. "Hands on your upper thighs. Point your fingers. Close your thumbs, Sherry Lee." Finally, Wildt stepped into the tableau and physically moved limbs and heads himself. None of the models seemed to mind.
When Wildt was satisfied, he went behind the camera and framed the shot. Then he was ready. "OK girls. Remember, fingers pointed. Big bright smiles! Warm it up! Arch your backs. Puff it up a little bit. Ready?" Then the models took turns reading Wildt's insert copy off the teleprompter: "Hi! I'm Sherry Lee. Welcome to..."
Next, Angie did a reading alone. As she took her place before the camera, Wildt jumped up to readjust the logo. Carinthia called out to Angie, "Do your famous pretzel." Angie, it seems, is the pose savant of the group: they marvel at her ability to invent poses. "We're going to do a famous Angie pose but not that one," Wildt said. Angie giggled: "I forget all the poses that I do!"
The pretzel looks like a yoga position. Nanette demonstrated it: she sat with her spine ramrod straight, crossing her left foot over her right knee, holding her left shin with crossed hands. "At one location, we were doing this pose and a guy passed by and said, 'Oh, Indians,'" she laughed.
Wildt didn't like the light angle on Angie. After pondering the problem for a few seconds, he bent over and placed one hand on her posterior and the other on her knee, lifting her backward. "Don't worry, he does that all the time," Chris Schutz said.
Before he went back behind the camera, Wildt tugged and smoothed Angie's tank suit. "My favorite part of the job," he grinned.
The taping session lasted from 6:30 until 9:30--all for perhaps four minutes of airable tape. Wildt is a perfectionist.
He is also a combatant with the IRS. Wildt has hoped to achieve not-for-profit status for the crusade since its inception. He hasn't got it yet. He sued the IRS in tax court. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that the judge ruled that the crusade would eventually subsidize Wildt himself. His request for charitable exemption was denied.
Wildt, still supporting himself and funding the show through the proceeds of the building he sold more than six years ago, is getting worried. He can't get foundation grants without the exemption, and the $10 and $20 donations he'd hoped would be the financial backbone of the crusade haven't materialized. When asked how much time he has before his money runs out, Wildt answers quietly, "A little less than a year."
He drops into an uncharacteristically discouraged tone. "It shouldn't be this hard. It shouldn't have to be hardheaded Bill Wildt having to sacrifice everything I've put together," he says.
Then the optimist returns, stating what may be his mantra. "We will win," he says.