That I experience them now is unavoidable because they involve Martinsville Speedway.
My first occupation in newspapers was as a sports writer for the Martinsville Bulletin. I stumbled into the job.
I walked into the newspaper offices, met the managing editor and asked him if he needed a sports writer. He said yes. I was hired after 20 minutes.
NASCAR racing at Martinsville Speedway was the only professional sport the city had – as it is today.
Martinsville was a half-mile track built in 1947 that, in time, played host to NASCAR competition on its Grand National (much later Sprint Cup), Late Model Sportsman (now Nationwide Series) and Modified circuits.
As a rookie on a small staff – three – the task fell to me to cover Martinsville’s races.
I might as well been asked to translate the Koran.
When I set out to report on my first NASCAR race, needless to say, I was lost. My experience? I had heard of Richard Petty. That was about it.
I was told to contact Dick Thompson, the speedway’s public relations director. I was assured he would give me advice, guidance and all the information I’d need.
I learned that Thompson came from a newspaper background. He had been a sports writer for the Roanoke Times and had been tapped by Martinsville President H. Clay Earles to be one of the very few full-time PR directors then employed.
Thompson knew what sports writers needed because he’d been one. He made all information easily available to them and did more, much more. He was soon recognized as one of the best in the business.
So he certainly knew how to indoctrinate me into stock car racing, which he did. But he did more.
Thompson not only gave advice and direction that allowed me to write competent stories for the Bulletin, he also taught me how to go beyond simple reporting and best serve the readers.
He instilled in me something I have never forgotten. He said it was important to report the news, which is something he knew I had to do. But he also said anyone could do that.
He stressed that what takes more dedication, effort and talent, and ultimately is more compelling, is to tell stories about the people in racing. Let readers know who they are, where they came from, in what they believe and what they care to express about the issues of the day.
In other words, he said, always try to give the readers something they can’t find anywhere else – be original. And that can be easy because very person in racing has a story.
I always tried to follow his lessons and, fortunately, I had my successes.
I experienced enough of them, I think, to be hired by the much bigger Roanoke World-News after a year at Martinsville. It was, in a two-paper city, the afternoon edition and has been gone for years.
I continued to cover motorsports in Roanoke, but now, things were a bit different. The paper had – gasp! – expense accounts and company cars.
The big thrill for me was that I was now able to cover more races than ever. There was Martinsville, of course, but there were also Richmond, Bristol, Darlington, Rockingham, North Wilkesboro, Atlanta and, if I got lucky and the bean counters approved, Daytona.
I also had a traveling partner. He worked for the sister paper at that time, the morning Times. His name was Bob Adams and rest assured, his knowledge of NASCAR, and the contacts therein, were far, far greater than mine.
His nickname was “Boomer.” Reckon that was because he had both imposing size and voice. I also have to think it was because of his prodigious appetite.
I once asked him, “Boomer, how far is it from Roanoke to Daytona?”
He answered, “About 11 Dairy Queens.”
Once, Boomer, at the Gangplank restaurant in Florence, S.C., ate over 400 steamed shrimp. Thompson counted ‘em.
Boomer could have held me in complete disdain as a rookie beneath his attention. He never did. During our travels we always talked, laughed and spent time together away from the track.
He gave me advice and taught me lessons.
When we went to Martinsville, we had our jobs to do but we always found time to spend with Thompson and Earles, who also were, at several races, cocktail (not Thompson – drinks for him were tea and Pepsi) and dinner partners.
Boomer and I weren’t stupid. We always knew that our cordial relationships with Earles and Thompson could have been cultivated for a purpose, which was to make us, shall we say, allies and provide as much positive news as possible.
However, we became convinced it was never that way.
There were two important reasons. First, we all genuinely liked one another and enjoyed our company.
Second, at no time were Boomer and I asked specifically to write something in a positive light for, or in favor of, Martinsville Speedway.
I recall all of this because, at a very early stage of my career, I was fortunate. I had positive influences where I might not have had any.
I might not have been shown any direction, any friendship and, ultimately, any motivation to provide readers with the best I could offer. But I did.
So again excuse me for a personal indulgence, but when I return to Martinsville, I am always reminded of how much the speedway, and two of its most important and influential people, has meant to my career.
Clay Earles passed away on Nov. 16, 1999. Dick Thompson departed on Oct. 28, 2009.
“Boomer,” I know you are still out there, buddy. “Nutsy” says hello and thank you.