Clinton, South Carolina, Tuesday, July 31, 2018, 3:27 p.m.
When I arrived as a cadet on the NASCAR touring troupe in 1993, two men were responsible for my relatively quick acceptance.
One was Mike Hembree, then as now one of the best. I was fortunate. Mike and I were already friends. When I had worked in the Sports Information Office of Furman University, NASCAR had shared Mike with the Paladins in his duties at the Greenville News.
The other was Tom Higgins, “Pappy,” larger than life and damned large in life. He and I lost our fathers at the same time, and one day, in a media center, we walked about our dear old dads and what they had meant to us, and from then on, he made sure I was in the fraternity of racing scribes. Steve Waid and Tom were running buddies, and Steve is hurting now and always will a little at his loss. Tom and I were friendly, but I wanted to avoid being too close because I didn’t want to rely too much on Tom for acceptance. I wanted to make my own name.
The quick acceptance, though, was crucial. At the time, the racing media was dominated by giants such as Higgins & Waid, not to mention other extraordinary writers: the gruff, eloquent Gerald Martin, folksy Benny Phillips, all-knowing Bob Moore, the well-connected newshen (Dan Jenkins’ term) Deb Williams, the perspicacious Jim McLaurin, the hilarious Larry Woody and his foil Joe Caldwell, the self-assured Ed Hinton, the cynical Ben Blake, the aggressive Mike Mulhern, the persistent Bob Zeller, the courteous Bill Luther, the irreverent Clyde Bolton, the oracle of common sense Conner Gilbert, underappreciated Al Pearce and others I’m shortly going to regret omitting.
They were all hard to beat and harder to outwrite. I felt great pride to circulate among them. I don’t feel nearly as accomplished today. Newspapers were important then, and NASCAR was important to newspapers. A multitude of papers – Atlanta, Charlotte, Daytona Beach, Orlando, Greenville, Spartanburg, Columbia, Florence, Chattanooga, Nashville, Knoxville, Birmingham, Raleigh, Winston-Salem, Roanoke, Richmond, Newport News, High Point, Kannapolis, etc. – sent beat reporters out to track the racers.
After Jimmy Dutton died, a significant regret was not being able to regale him with tales from the road.
Once in New Hampshire, David Green and I picked up Tom at the Bay Side Inn to go to supper. He climbed in the back of David’s rental Taurus, and we started out when Tom demanded that the car be stopped.
“By God, I lost my ass betting on them dogs.” A greyhound track was near the track. “Sorry, boys. I’m a-going to win that money back.”
I expect he did, and if he didn’t, the next day he said he did.
Tom had a booming voice, the kind that immediately turned heads and commanded authority. He was an outdoorsman of renown. If God had ever decided to play Daniel Boone in a movie, He would have sounded like Tom.
The man who succeeded Tom at the Charlotte Observer, David Poole, told a famous story about the time Michael Waltrip survived a crash at Bristol that appeared sure to be fatal. David was on the desk when the phone rang.
“David Poole, Observer Sports.”
“David,” Tom intoned somberly, “Michael Waltrip’s dead.”
“Oh, my,” David said.
“Nope, never mind,” Tom said. “He just climbed out the car. I’ll talk to you later.”
Tom loved the women, he did. He used that voice to good effect, sitting in the press box on race morning, watching them through his binoculars in their halter tops and floppy hats.
“Merciful God, boys! I want you to look at that filly coming yonder!”
He was courtly, charming and chivalrous in the presence of women, though. It was a different age.
I loved playing golf with Tom. For some reason, I played well when he was along. The same was not true with Poole, who loved golf as much as any man I ever knew. If Poole was playing badly, he’d combust. I once saw him berate a woman raking leaves in her yard because she happened to be standing near the errant location of one of David’s shots.
“What in hell are you looking at?”
Hembree and I made an excuse and left at the turn.
David is gone, and so, too, is Tom. The last race I described in David’s company is a distinct memory.
Tom’s suffered a stroke some time back, and Waid had been keeping many of us up to date on his condition. The word came today that he had succumbed just shy of age 81.
His life was long and productive, crowded with enough vivid adventures to sustain any man. I am more happy at his relief than saddened at his death. His impact on the hereafter will, I expect, be profound. Maybe he’ll tell God some Buddy Baker stories. God will then summon Buddy. Hilarity will ensue.
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