Matt McLaughlin · Thursday April 30, 2009
Things have changed so much in our sport the last few years, there’s not much left that’s stayed the same. But one of those things I could always count on for the past 13 years was logging onto ThatsRacin.com an hour or so after the race to get David Poole’s take on the event and other issues concerning the sport. I didn’t always agree with Poole, but his columns were consistently well-written, entertaining, and well thought out. And if you were going to argue with his opinions, you had to bring your “A” game, because whether I felt he was right or wrong, I always knew that Poole was writing after considerable thought, on deeply based beliefs… not playing to the grandstands or catering to NASCAR PR. He called a ball a ball and a strike a strike, and if he was occasionally wrong (in my opinion), I never doubted that he called things as he saw it. Win, lose, or draw on the issues, what I respected most about David Poole was he was one of those writers who you could tell sweated each word and phrase, wanting to write a great column that informed, amused, and entertained his readers. At his best, I’d almost weep with frustration wondering how I could ever do as good a job.
Sadly, that voice was silenced Tuesday as David Poole died from a heart attack at his home outside of Charlotte. From my early days on the Internet, there were four writers whose columns I could not wait to read and would actively seek out: David Poole, Ben Blake, Mike Mulhern, and Monte Dutton. Blake dropped off the radar in recent years after health issues, which left just three writers I’d stay up on Sunday nights wanting to see what they had to say. Back when I was at Speedworld, it was a personal challenge to me to get my column submitted and published before either Poole or Blake weighed in. Then, I’d crack a beer and lean back in the chair to see what my favorite columnists had to say — and what we agreed and disagreed on.
Now, only two of those four men are left.
I’m not here to claim David Poole was a great friend of mine. By chance, my Internet career started about the same time he became a household name thanks to The Charlotte Observer’s ThatsRacin site. We’d often exchange e-mails as we both explored the brand new topography of the still emerging Internet racing landscape, discussing its wonders and its challenges. Poole had risen to be a top ranked print reporter at a Southern paper in the heart of NASCAR country; I was strictly online in that era. As the years passed, on occasion Poole would write me or I’d write him when we had a sharp disagreement on a particular topic. But Poole’s notes were never angry, unkind, or accusatory. When he wrote to me, his tone was cordial. He simply wished to state that he felt I was wrong about something; he’d explain why, and give the basis for his opinion. It was all done in a gentlemanly fashion — and I tried to respond in kind. When his family members passed, I’d offer my condolences, and when my mom passed, David sent me a nice note filled with heartfelt compassion. When I suffered a severe health challenge due to a slip on some ice that almost cost me my leg, he also sent an encouraging note wishing me well.
I usually reviewed the books Poole wrote because I looked forward to reading them. When I gave a favorable review, he’d send a note to thank me and to discuss any issues I’d had with the tome. The few times we spoke face to face — I have my doubts he had a clue who I was except that I apparently had the right credential to be in the press box — the conversations were brief but equally cordial. Moreover, I can honestly say I have never talked to anyone in this business who had a bad thing to say about David Poole as a human being … and that’s a pretty great legacy to leave behind.
Poole had a SIRIUS Satellite Radio show, I am told. Sorry, but I’m one of those luddites that still doesn’t have a cell phone, much less a satellite radio. I’ve heard from a lot of folks who were passionate about that show, and I understand. Personally, I was a big fan of the short-lived SPEED program Pitbulls. Poole, Blake, and Mulhern were the featured analysts on the program, who apparently got the NASCAR brass’ panties all tied up in a wad because of their brutal honesty. Of the three, Poole was usually the least caustic towards the sport, which probably explains why he was the last one with a full-time major league gig. But if he was willing to defend NASCAR brass when he felt they were right, that made his occasional harsh criticism of the same men that much more painful. Balls and strikes, right? The balance of Poole’s reporting and opinions gave his voice weight, even in the halls of NASCAR’s corporate headquarters which often regards the media as flies circling the cow patty they are trying to foist off on the public as competition.
Poole’s last set of columns were highly critical of last Sunday’s Talladega race and the danger it posed to both competitors and fans alike. Hopefully, someone in Daytona Beach will listen because Poole wasn’t one to tee off on a ball just because he felt that his readers would cheer him on the bully pulpit. In a sad irony, the final piece he ever posted was titled, “Will It Take Death for Talladega to Change?” It was yet another Poole masterpiece: passionate, well crafted, and well reasoned. To add an added dash of unintended poignancy to the column, the ad atop it shortly before I got the phone call telling me that Poole was dead was from a life insurance company. Its tagline?
“Who will take care of your family if you die today?”
In his final commentary, Poole’s strongest point was that putting the fans in danger for “exciting racing” simply isn’t acceptable. And that doesn’t surprise me, because it’s another thing I respected about David Poole. He knew who buttered his bread… the fans. He respected them. He’d wade down into the swamp with them to talk with them in his blogs and in online forums. He’d take an occasional nasty comment about his weight (he was indeed an immense man), but continue on the high road, discussing the issues with them. He knew it was those same folks who read his columns and either agreed or disagreed with him weekly that kept him employed. It seems some of the TV folks feel now that they are the stars, on parallel with the drivers, and they can’t interact with the “drunken bubbas” that are the baseline support of the sport. In fact, you’d be shocked if you heard how some big name NASCAR writers really feel about race fans.
But Poole was never that way. He enjoyed bantering with the fans. He respected their opinions. He wanted to know how they felt about the sport and why — and that’s what I really respected. At the end of the day, he shared my opinion that NASCAR writers are nothing more than race fans with a really cool job that allows them to peek behind the curtain. To any new writers starting out on the NASCAR circuit, I’d suggest that same attitude be the bedrock of your work. Shy from that for even a moment … and you’ve gone from a writer to a whore.
One of the fans that most captured David Poole’s heart was Wessa Miller, the ill little girl who famously gave Dale Earnhardt her “lucky penny” in the leadup to Dale’s 1998 Daytona 500 win. Yeah, it was a nice story at the time and everybody wrote about it, but Poole made it a point to follow up on the family after the hubbub was over. He actively supported the cause, both through his writing and his own money. Yes, he was a great big man… but a little girl clearly touched his immense heart. Naturally, I’d leave the decision on what charities to give donations to in lieu of flowers to his family, but if you’re feeling a need to make a charitable gift in David’s memory right now, I’d suggest Pennies For Wessa. Ed. Note: The Poole family has indeed listed the Wessa charity as one they’d like fans to donate to.
While admitting he was opening himself up for ridicule, Poole once offered to pick up the winners of an auction in his own personal car to take them sightseeing around the NASCAR landscape, a ride that came with both lunch and dinner on his dime. Poole later admitted reporters are supposed to report on the stories, not become the stories themselves; but his passion to help one troubled family was just another sign that his actions backed up what his gifted words said.
Like most writers, Poole very rarely strayed into his personal life in his columns. But I do know this much — Poole married late in life and, in addition to his wife, he had several children that came with the deal he both doted on and loved dearly. His daughter was the one who found her stricken father and tried to summon help that unfortunately came too late.
In a sport that seems to want to eschew its Southern roots and isn’t very gentlemanly lately, David Poole was a true Southern gentleman. To David’s family, his myriad of friends, and his countless fans around the globe, I offer my deepest and sincere condolences. You are in my thoughts and my prayers, and I don’t mean that as a fill-in-the blank note of sympathy but as a genuine knees of my Wranglers crushed deep into the carpet sentiment. Reading Poole’s work and his occasional notes to me have made me a better writer — but I don’t pretend in this lifetime I will be able to match the work that is his legacy. Good on ya, David… and Godspeed.
Godspeed without the restrictor plates, of course.
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