When I started covering motorsports for the Martinsville Bulletin 52 years ago (good grief!), I was very fortunate to have someone who served as my mentor.
He was the late Dick Thompson, a former sportswriter for the Roanoke Times who became the public relations director for H. Clay Earles and his Martinsville Speedway.
Naturally, as a rookie writer for the Bulletin’s sports staff of three, it was inevitable that I was going to cover NASCAR events at the speedway – one that was steeped in history and tradition.
I had never seen a NASCAR race. I didn’t know any drivers. I had only heard of Richard Petty. Events at Martinsville were among the biggest in Virginia, not to mention a small city in the Southwestern part of the state.
Thompson knew this and took me under his wing. He told me about the history of NASCAR and Martinsville Speedway. He lined up my first interview with a driver, Buddy Arrington of Martinsville.
Then as I timidly began to cover my first NASCAR Winston Cup Series race, the Old Dominion 500, Thompson introduced me to several drivers and then set up an interview with Earl Brooks.
“He’s been around a long time and is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet,” Thompson said. “He’ll answer your questions and help you out.”
Brooks was everything Thompson said he would be. He answered every stupid question I asked and gave me tremendous amounts of guidance and information.
As the weekend passed, I felt less intimidated about what I had to do. I won’t say my racing copy was award-winning by any means, but it was at least marginally competent.
Afterward, Thompson said to me: “The real thing about writing in NASCAR is not to just report who won the race or the other news. That’s important, sure, but there is something else.
“You talked with Earl. He gave you information. He told you stories. Every single driver and crewman at every single track has a story. They are all personalities and some are characters.
“Tell your readers their stories. That’s what they really want.”
Less than a year later, again at Martinsville for one of its semi-annual Sportsman-Modified doubleheaders, I learned exactly what Thompson was talking about.
I met a short, stocky driver who had a cigar constantly in his mouth. He was always smiling. He was an outgoing personality with a rousing sense of humor. He would end every conversation with loud laughter – echoed by everyone else…
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