published Sunday, May 16th, 2010

Greeson: Lightning's son helping NASCAR

Before Michael Mauldin became a music mogul, he was a bona fide gearhead.

"I had my chores around the house," Mauldin said of his childhood just across the state line in Murphy, N.C., "and when I washed dishes, I always imagined they were parts of the engine I was cleaning. When I would put them away, I was putting the engine back together. I have always loved cars and I can remember thinking forks and spoons were push rods. It sounds crazy now, but it got me through my work."

Mauldin dreamed of a career in racing. His would be more than just a fast-paced life: It was to be a life with speed just like that of his father Lightning, a truck driver who raced cars at tracks such as Cleveland Speedway around the region.

Michael is there. Finally.

Mauldin, who in 1998 became the first black president of Columbia Records, is working with NASCAR and Atlanta Motor Speedway to expand its reach and connection with younger fans.

Coincidentally, Mauldin got his big break because of a car. Well, it was a van, actually -- a Ford Econoline "with a couch in the back."

After moving to Atlanta in the early 1970s, Mauldin was the lead singer for "The Other Side." One weekend, members of the group Brick needed help getting equipment to their next gig. Enter Mauldin, who hauled the gear and became a fixture behind the scenes.

"I got 10 or 15 bucks and a cheeseburger," Mauldin recalled of that first trip to Savannah. "Who knew it would become this?"

He quickly went from transporting equipment to setting up shows and managing acts. He spoke proudly of his ascent and not surprisingly used racing terms to describe it.

"We didn't have a lot of roadies or people like that," Mauldin said. "And that was one of the things I took pride in. We were fast. If someone broke a string, we'd have it replaced before the next song. We wore black T-shirts and tried to move from one group to the next faster than anyone.

"We were like a pit crew setting up stages."

He was managing a Diana Ross show at the Omni in 1982 when a group of kids were invited on stage to dance. Mauldin's 10-year-old son -- Jermaine Dupri -- was among the group and stole the spotlight. Dupri followed in his father's footsteps, becoming one of hip hop's biggest icons after founding So So Def Records in Atlanta. Between them, Mauldin and Dupri have been instrumental in the careers of some of music's biggest stars, ranging from Mariah Carey to Usher to Destiny's Child to Alicia Keys.

"There's something to be said for that," Mauldin said about the father-son connection. "Look at the Mannings. Their dad was Archie, and they were a family of quarterbacks. Jermaine and I have been blessed."

Music success is not the only bond between Michael and Dupri.

"Jermaine definitely loves cars -- he has a slew of cars," Mauldin said. "He's not really into NASCAR, though. Kids today would rather see the fastest Ferrari than just look at NASCAR. We have to cast a wider net for the youth in a certain way. That's what I'm trying to do now with the programs I'm doing.

"NASCAR fans are great and they're young at heart, but the sport needs to embrace new fans and let them grow up with it like I did."

That early love for cars in general and NASCAR in particular was given to Mauldin by his father.

Lightning Mauldin drove a truck by day and was known on occasion to run moonshine on the weekend, and in Murphy being Lightning Mauldin's eldest son meant something. Being Lightning's boy meant speed. It meant a respectful reverence of automobiles. It meant NASCAR.

"I've been going to NASCAR races since I was 5 or 6 years old pretty regularly," Michael said. "If we weren't at the track, we were listening to it on the radio.

"Considering where we grew up and who my dad was, it didn't surprise a lot of folks."

Mauldin has settled into the branding and management side of the entertainment industry. He has a music management company and Mauldin Brand Agency. His latest venture with Atlanta Motor Speedway -- which includes a new Web site (www.fastlife360.com) and this summer's debut of FastLife Fridays at the track that will feature an array of activities and attractions designed for all ages and audiences -- is part of his circular journey.

Much like a race track, life is speeding back to the start for Mauldin. He fulfilled his childhood dream and is part of the racing world. He spends a lot of time on his farm back in Murphy -- in part to spend time with his dad, who is battling lung cancer -- and commutes to Atlanta. He's still striving to go as fast as possible as his life comes full circle.

This next time around, though, can be at a little slower pace. Call it a victory lap.

about Jay Greeson...

Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...

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