As part of NASCAR’s takeover of Charlotte over the next two weeks, they are going to celebrate some of the biggest heroes of the sport. The spanking-new Hall of Fame is set to induct its first class of honorees - Dale Earnhardt, Big and Little Bill France, Richard Petty and Junior Johnson.
While all of the drivers I grew up cheering for - Cale Yarborough, Bill Elliott and Davey Allison - definitely played a part in my wanting to make a career in racing, their influence doesn’t compare with that of Tom Higgins.
I mean, I ended up as a writer, not as a race car driver. And reading Higgins had a lot to do with that.
If you don’t know who Tom Higgins is, you should. Higgins covered NASCAR full time from 1957-1997, beginning with the first NASCAR event he ever attended at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway.
Lee Petty won that race by 10 feet over Buck Baker nearly two years before he won the first Daytona 500. According to Higgins, he was then hooked. Higgins spent 34 years of his career working at The Charlotte Observer.
For me, in the days before the instant gratification of the Internet, there was nothing better than grabbing The Observer when I got to my grandma’s house on Monday afternoons and scouring the sports section for anything that Higgins had written.
There was no sportswriter - then or since - who knew the people he covered better than Higgins. He could get the most reclusive drivers to tell him things that they wouldn’t tell their mamas. He understood the little nuances that made drivers, owners, crew chiefs and race fans tick.
When writing, he captured the details that made a story great – and which ones needed to be left out. He was never sensational or betrayed a confidence.
And no one could weave a yarn like Tom Higgins.
He had a way of making the reader feel like they knew the drivers that they saw on TV every week. His writing was insightful, funny and always well-crafted. I can go read some of those stories from years ago and get a real feel for what those bygone days of stock car racing - or playing golf or going fishing with NASCAR’s biggest names - were like.
I had the pleasure of meeting Tom Higgins this past weekend at Rockingham Speedway. I have been around racing for a few years, but Higgins retired from covering the sport full time right as I started, so I had never actually met him.
How much do I think of Higgins? I also got to spend some time with Junior Johnson and Bill Elliott last weekend at Rockingham, but I am writing about the sportswriter this week.
Higgins is the writer that I have always wanted to be. He is a storyteller and historian. There are very few people who have the understanding of how the sport got to where it is today than Higgins and can articulate it the way he can.
I got to spend about 20 minutes in the media center at the speedway with Higgins (and veteran reporter Steve Waid) and don’t think I have laughed that hard in a long time.
He tells as good of a story as he writes. A huge smile never left my face or his. I could have spent hours listening to Higgins regale the room with stories about long-gone racers and race tracks.
Before he left to cross the track to watch the races, he insisted on getting a picture with my twin brother and me to send to his twin grandsons in Texas. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get the photographer to e-mail me a copy of that picture.
Higgins still writes a blog for The Observer’s racing site, ThatsRacin.com, (disclaimer: I am an occasional contributor to the site). He write of such names as Petty, Johnson, Yarborough, Pearson and Earnhardt and still weaves those fantastic yarns.
His forays into blogging limit him to 54 holes and only one fishing trip a week. In the mean-spirited world of Internet sports journalism, you won’t find anything quite like it.