Every summer during the heart of auto racing season, I think of the several years that I covered NASCAR and Indy car races as a sportswriter in the late 1980s.
The memories are not so much about the racing but instead about the off-the-track moments.
For example, the great Richard Petty was the nicest person one could meet, giving interviews and answering – no doubt – the same questions over and over to the thousands of writers who interviewed him throughout his NASCAR career.
Unlike other drivers, Petty always was gracious. Although, as a whole, NASCAR drivers were much more cooperative than the Indy car drivers. Perhaps that explains to some degree why NASCAR long ago leapfrogged the Indy circuit in terms of fan popularity.
There were other memorable moments during my time writing about auto racing, which mostly consisted of covering two NASCAR events and one Indy car event every summer at Pocono Raceway.
-- There was the time Susan Anton – then a big star in television – visited the press box at Pocono during an Indy car race. She was dating driver Danny Sullivan at the time.
Anton walked in and stood by the coffee table. Soon – faster than Sullivan could roar down the Pocono straightaway – about 10 writers scurried over to get coffee and a closer look. I was one of those writers, and I do not drink coffee.
-- Typically, the first summer NASCAR race at Pocono was held on the same day as golf’s U.S. Open. One year in the press box, we discovered that you could change the channel on the TV carrying the closed circuit broadcast of the race.
It wasn’t long before we had the U.S. Open on the TV, and it was on for a good 10 minutes before one writer complained that he wanted to watch the race. “Hey, put the race back on,” the writer bellowed. We had no choice but to comply.
-- Driver Cale Yarborough one year nearly won one of the NASCAR races at Pocono. Several writers, including me, surrounded his car when he stopped his car in the garage area after the race.
We wanted to ask him about the race, and we peppered him with questions as he jumped out of his car. Yarborough, though, had other things on this mind.
“Fellas, I’ll answer your questions, but first, where’s the bathroom?” he said, if I remember his exact wording.
We had forgotten that it had been a long 500-mile race and that nature was calling.
-- After a practice session at one of the first NASCAR races I covered, I tried to ask Dale Earnhardt Sr. a couple of questions for a story. I had not heard that the driver generally was uncooperative with writers.
So, I approached Earnhardt and asked a question. He gave a one-word answer and turned away and headed for his nearby team trailer.
I followed and kept asking questions. He kept supplying one-word answers or even grunts. And he kept walking to his trailer, soon reaching it and abruptly ending what can generously be called a one-way interview.
He should have been an Indy car driver, I thought.