NASCAR reporter shares stories from early years

NASCAR reporter shares stories from early years


by Rachel Clapp / NewsChannel 36

Posted on May 6, 2010 at 11:57 AM

Updated Monday, May 10 at 6:50 PM

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Tom Higgins loves to tell a story. Sitting in his Mooresville living room and listening to him is almost like a trip back in time.

He has covered NASCAR since 1958, about 35 years for the Charlotte Observer. He was a voting member of the first NASCAR Hall of Fame Class, but he himself has his own place in NASCAR's history.

As he thumbs through pictures, you cannot help but stop and listen.

"It was a lot more colorful it seems to me in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s," he said as we asked him about how the sport has changed.

Back then racing was all about the color and maybe a bit of the off-color. Higgins remembers one column he wrote that came from a conversation with Junior Johnson at Darlington.

He said to Johnson, "You are reputed to have the best eye for talent in racing. Who are going to be the next two or three great drivers?" And Junior said, "Why there ain't no doubt about it. Ralph Earnhardt's boy and that mouthy boy from Tennessee."

"I said, 'Waltrip?' He said, 'Yeah, that mouthy Waltrip,'" Higgins said. "Well, what's going to make Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip the two next great drivers? He said, 'They've got one great quality you to have to be a great driver.' Which is? 'They're both a-holes."

It's a conversation, Higgins said, wouldn't likely happen with drivers today.

When he wrote, especially in the early days, there wasn't the luxury of a nice media center.

"The press box was a chicken coop on stilts," he said, recalling the box in Darlington, S.C. "It was an open press box and it hung real low on the first turn. There was chicken wire to protect the press. It was as dangerous as it could be. It wasn't fancy by any means."

But, Higgins always seemed to get the story and feels like his journalistic style gained the trust of drivers.

"It's an old mountain saying: I never threw anyone in a creek just to get a bombshell story. There were other ways to do it. That's the way I preferred to operate," Higgins said.

Higgins was there for some of the sport's hardest moments -- deaths at the tracks. The death of Tiny Lund at Talladega, J.D. McDuffie killed at Watkins Glen and the death of his friend Dale Earnhardt.

Higgins had retired from the Observer by the time Earnhardt died and was thankful he didn't have to write anything more than a column about his friend.

"That was very difficult," he said.

From the hard stories to the ones he enjoyed: "There were times that were special," he recalls. "Seeing Buddy Baker win a race for the first time after trying so hard to follow his father. He finally won in Charlotte in '64, I guess it was. Then seeing Buddy winning the Daytona in 1980, knowing how much it meant to him."

And, of course, seeing Earnhardt's 1980 Championship.

"He tried every way in the earth to give it away," Higgins said.

Higgins earned his own awards. He won the NASCAR Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996.

But for Higgins, it's not about the accolades, but the stories -- the ones he loved to write and now loves to tell.

He gave a rousing laugh telling this story about Bill France, Sr., delivering the invocation at Daytona.

"He implored the Lord for everything you can think of and finally he quit praying and there was just silence for seconds and seconds, and finally people started giggling and thought, 'What's he waiting on?'"

France had frozen and forgotten how to end a prayer.

"Finally, he said, 'Sincerely, Bill France,'" Higgins said. "He came to his suite and he said to his wife, 'Damn it, Annie. What's the word you end a prayer with?' And she said, 'Amen, Bill. Amen.'"