WAID’S WORLD: A Knock At The Door In 1976 Created A Lasting Friendship
I first met him in 1976 in Florence, S.C., not far away from Darlington Raceway.
It was after a day’s hard work, created by the news that NASCAR’s “independent” drivers, those without factory backing and sponsorship, were going to revolt because they were unable to make a living. They were tired of losing money while others got rich.
I was in a cheap motel, which, in that era of limited expense accounts, was all I could afford.
I had finished a dinner of burgers and fries when there was a knock at my door. I opened it and there he stood.
He was a tall, heavyset, imposing figure. I knew him upon sight. I had heard of him. So had virtually everyone else.
He was Tom Higgins of the Charlotte Observer. If any man had a reputation as a journalist covering NASCAR that preceded him, it was Higgins.
I stood in the open door. I was wide-eyed with surprise. I said nothing.
His eyes were almost clinched shut. His facial expression was menacing.
He pointed a finger at me and said:
“You …. are riding with me.”
To which I replied, “Yes sir.”
He led me to his car. I got in the back seat behind him and his wife. We drove away from the motel.
We traveled through Florence, Darlington, Hartsville and all the farmland in the counties therein.
All the while he spoke of himself, where he was raised, his family, how he came to be a journalist, his early times at the Observer, his personal life, his success and failures – and his appreciation for what I had done.
I didn’t think much of it at the time, really.
I was working for Roanoke, doing my thing at Darlington when the news of the “independent” revolt broke out.
It was a major event. To put it in perspective it was just as strong as the debate in the NFL about kneeing during the National Anthem.
But its consequences were much more daunting. If the drivers who staged the revolution did so successfully NASCAR would lose the majority of its competitors.
Higgins was not at Darlington. He had chosen to forego the trip in order to be there when his wife was released from medical treatment. He wanted to bring her with him.
So when the news broke he was not there to cover it.
There was a cadre of journalists who, of course, were in competition with Higgins and the Observer. They were not about to let him have any part of the story.
To that end they confronted a Charlotte Motor Speedway official and told him that if, in any way, he informed Higgins of the details they would have his job.
It all happened in front of me. I was a relative rookie not fully entrenched with, or accepted by, my elder peers. I was ignored as someone of no consequence.
But they did not know that I had my own sources. I had gathered all the information. I was very fortunate in that the late James Hylton, the head of the revolution, was a friend who did not hesitate to tell me everything – in detail.
All of which I gladly reported and sent back to Roanoke. I daresay the Times/World-News had the most compete accounting of what had occurred.
I saw Higgins the next morning. He was fully aware of what happened. His own contacts and his reporting savvy had allowed him to print a truncated version of the events, but not in the detail provided by his scheming rivals.
I knew him only by reputation. I had never spoken to him. But I was driven by a strong sense of fair play.
I handed him several sheets of paper and said, “Here are all the details. I have information here that others do not. I was able to tap into sources at the core of everything. I have what others don’t.
“And I know what happened. Please, feel free to use this in any way you wish. To me, it’s only fair.”
I didn’t think much of it after that.
At least not until there came that knock at my door.
That night I learned that Higgins was a man who was not about to forget favors. He was not a man who would fail to express appreciation. He was not a man who was unable or unwilling to make new friends.
Of course I had no way of knowing where that knock on the door in 1976 would lead.
But it led to a strong friendship, a camaraderie that would span decades of travel, work, good times and bad.
It lasted until his unfortunate passing on July 31.
By that time what we were together had become a part of NASCAR lore.
We became known as Pappy and the boy.
It would have never been so if, in 1976, there had not come a knock on my motel door followed by those words:
“You … are riding with me.”
And oh, did we ride.
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