The good ol’ boys.
Back in the 60s and 70s, they were the heart and soul of stock car racing. Raising their cans of beer at storied tracks like Darlington, they hooped and hollered for legends like Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison.
Back then, NASCAR also had fans in places like the nation’s capital. But I can flat out guarantee you it was nothing like what took place last night at Olsson’s Book Store in D.C.’s Penn Quarter. A diverse crowd of about 60 packed the place, four and five deep in the standing areas, to listen to Liz Clarke, sportswriter for the Washington Post and author of One Helluva Ride: How NASCAR Swept the Nation.
Clarke grew up in the D.C. area, dreaming of working for the Post. Hearing nothing but no, she took writing assignments in Charlotte and Dallas. Returning home with an impressive resume, she landed the gig with the Post. Clarke still covers motor sports but also writes about other sports including the Redskins.
The author read a short excerpt from her book, an emotional description of Dale Earnhardt. If you’re not familiar with NASCAR, it can not be overstated the impact “The Intimidator” had on racing before he was tragically killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001. Clarke, who got tears in her eyes at one point, related how when Earnhardt’s car, number 3, came out of the tunnel at races, and on to the track, everyone in the grandstands stood. A large portion cheered and raised three fingers while the others booed and raised one.
Clarke befriended Earnhardt, but not before getting the psych test some athletes give reporters, a way of sorting them out and trying to understand their motivations. She said it wasn’t easy but once the door was open, she had the inside track on stories. Petty, the King in his time, was super nice from the beginning as are most drivers. This access and piece of mind helped her write the book.
Although NASCAR doesn’t have the same PR problems other sports suffer through, there have been some rough bumps for both the sport and those who cover it. In the late 80s, popular racer Tim Richmond contacted the HIV virus. Clarke related how the big boys who run NASCAR told her they did not like the fact that she wrote a story on Richmond, at a time when rumors were swirling on how he might have contacted the disease.
What these sports executives don’t seem to realize sometimes is that reporters can be their biggest boosters. NASCAR has gained fans thanks, in part, to writers like Clarke.
Buy the book bubba, and pass me the wine and cheese.