Thomas Bowles · Wednesday April 29, 2009
In four years of covering the NASCAR beat, I never “officially” met David Poole. But you don’t have to know him to understand.
The word is beloved, and the year is 2006. I’m asked to speak for a documentary about the past, present, and future of NASCAR. The producer, a friend, chooses three writers to be his main analysts; David Poole and I are among the chosen few. The day he interviews Poole down in Charlotte, I get a call.
“You won’t believe what happened,” he says. A full-fledged television crew – some of which had been in the business 20 or 30 years – spent the day acting like five-year-old kids with a ticket to Disneyworld. They shake Poole’s hand, ask for an autograph, grab a favorite story – and walk away with the type of feeling you’d only think was reserved for racers like Earnhardt and Gordon.
“They were absolutely in awe of this man,” he continued.
They weren’t the only ones.
The place is Lowe’s Motor Speedway, and I’m in over my head. Sitting in the media center covering the 600, it’s the first time I’ve gotten the chance to cover a race at the track. Day after day, the press room lines up a who’s who of NASCAR personalities: Everyone from Jimmie Johnson to Michael Waltrip comes to the mic, on a weekend where news bursts from the pipes like a leaky faucet.
For every single person, every single time, David Poole is ready with a question. And out of respect, he gets first crack three times out of four. It’s to the point that drivers, media, even the guy holding the microphone to let writers speak know exactly where to turn and who to acknowledge before Poole even raised his hand.
Did I always agree with what he said? Journalists rarely agree on anything. But five days and sixty questions later, I learned a whole hell of a lot.
The word is power, and the year is 2007. It’s five days after the first race at the “new” Bristol, and one of our writers here at Frontstretch puts out an article critical of Poole’s opinion of the race. Satirical in design, suffice it to say Poole wasn’t happy the editorial staff let the column run – he thought a line between personal and professional was blurred. The writer was keeping me posted on an email exchange when one day, there’s a special one addressed solely to me.
The subject line read “A question on your policies,” and the author was David Poole.
“Do you make it a general practice at frontstretch.com to allow your contributors to question the professionalism of journalists?”
At 26, I remember physically shaking as I read those words. That’s how much respect this man commanded in his field; a negative opinion, and suddenly the very growth and reputation of our site was on the line.
It took a full day for me to craft a response. We’d exchanged some emails back and forth – unfortunately, to say we agreed to disagree was putting it mildly. He left with a sour taste in his mouth, and for months I fretted over what that may mean for the Frontstretch.
Two years later, I thank him – for while I still disagree, that incident taught me more about being a managing editor than anything else.
The word is respect, and the time is December 2007. I’m in the midst of doing an interview during Banquet Week in New York City. Gathering some quotes for Sports Illustrated, I’m knee-deep in an interview with Jeff Burton when David Poole walks up behind me. He’s got a microphone in his hand, a smile on his face, and suddenly Burton’s in a whole ‘nother place.
“Hey, man!” he says, a frown turned into a smile. Five seconds later, I’ve gone from a guy with a pad to a rock in the way to opening his heart somewhere else.
That’s true emotion towards a man who really knew the drivers he quoted.
Truth be told, I don’t know the “real” David Poole … that’s for family and friends of the man to share with you. But there’s no question in understanding what his death means for the NASCAR community. In a world where access is increasingly shuttered and the lines between amateur and professional are blurred, Poole stood out as an unquestioned leader of journalism in this industry. So few are the men and women in this sport that bridge the gap between passionate storytelling and true connection to their subjects – but for Poole, that was an art he perfected.
Of course, he had strong opinions … and you might not have always agreed with what he wrote. But for the best of writers, the power of the pen is just as poignant as the action on the track. Opinions have meaning when not hundreds, but millions, of people read your columns and listen to your voice on the radio. For Poole, he was the media’s version of Dale Earnhardt for this sport, one of the few individuals whose litany of journalism awards and pointed commentary could lead the forefront for joy, sadness, and change.
Now, that powerful voice is gone, and that means all of us working this industry need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. There’s a hole in the media center that needs to be filled by all of us, to ensure fans remain as connected to the sport as they did when they read something with Poole on the byline. In an era where we’re losing connections to our past left and right, this one hurts just as much as we look towards an uncertain future of how stock car racing will connect to the nation at large.
David, rest in peace.
Time for the regular version of this column …
Did You Notice? … Certain drivers always have a knack for getting into each other on the race track? I was reminded of that at Talladega this weekend, when the two biggest wrecks not involving a flip into the catchfence were caused by two pairings who always, always end up involved in the same darn crash.
Example 1 was on Saturday, when Matt Kenseth got flipped by none other than his own teammate – and eventual winner – David Ragan. But that’s just the latest in a Ragan-Kenseth history that includes:
2008 Daytona 500 — Kenseth feels he has a winning car before Ragan bumps into him coming out of four; both drivers wreck and lose their chance to contend at the finish.
“I got tight on the bottom or bottomed out and shot straight up the track,” Ragan said of that wreck. “By the time I lifted, I drove straight up the to track into him [Matt Kenseth] and pushed him into the wall.”
Not surprisingly, Kenseth doesn’t speak to his teammate for several days.
2008 Fall Richmond Race — Battling for a spot in the Chase, Ragan drives it a little too hard entering turn 1 on lap 122, losing control and turning sideways – right in front of Kenseth. Both drivers pile hard into the outside wall and spend the rest of the day struggling to simply finish the race. The crash put Kenseth on the borderline of missing the season-ending playoff; in the end, he finished 39th and was forced to count on a rough day by Kasey Kahne in order to make the postseason. Meanwhile, Ragan struggled to 32nd and wound up missing the Chase by nearly 100 points.
“I can’t remember ever spinning out going into a corner,” Kenseth said afterwards. “If he wouldn’t have spun in front of us, it would have been a different day.”
2009 Nationwide Race: Talladega — Saturday’s wreck was the most vicious to occur in the 312-miler, caused when Ragan attempted to bumpdraft Matt Kenseth at a bad angle down the backstretch. “You can’t just hit somebody when they’re turning,” Kenseth said. “The cars just aren’t stable enough for that.”
A few hours later, Roush joked that Ragan could pay for Kenseth’s car to be rebuilt since, after all, he won the race. But you wonder if deep down, the two of them have got to be getting a little frustrated. As a driver said to me recently, you can only apologize so many times …
Moving onto Sunday’s race, Kenseth was the center of attention again; but this time, it’s for his seemingly magnetic attraction to Jeff Gordon. On Lap 8, the two touched down the backstretch in a “that’s racin’” type incident that adds another chapter to their long history of beating and banging:
2006 Food City 500 — Gordon hits Kenseth leading into the final lap, causing the No. 17 to retaliate and spin out Gordon in their battle for third. Gordon responds by jumping out of his car and shoving the 2003 champ in the middle of pit road.
“I moved him, but I didn’t wreck him,” Gordon said. “But he came down into [turn] 1 … and just wrecked me.”
2006 Chicagoland — Just four months after the earlier incident, Gordon gets his payback, spinning out the No. 17 car for the win in the final laps. Kenseth goes on to finish 22nd, struggling for the next month before back-to-back wins at Michigan and Bristol that August.
“That wasn’t an accident,” Kenseth said of the incident. “He just ran over me.”
2008 Las Vegas — Kenseth and Gordon stage a furious battle for second on a late-race restart, one that ends with both cars wrecked on the backstretch after the two make contact coming off of turn 2. It wound up being one of the hardest hits of Gordon’s career — there was no SAFER barrier on the inside wall — but Kenseth’s anger may have been just as intense.
“Jeff is kind of famous for laying back and NASCAR has a rule that you can’t lay back more than a car length or you can be black-flagged,” Kenseth explained. “But it’s usually not enforced, so I saw him laying back, I knew he was gonna get a run on me… so I laid back so he wouldn’t pass me. We came off two and I was up as high as I thought I could get… and Jeff just came across. Whether it was on purpose or not, it just kind of wiped us out.”
2009 Aaron’s 499 — Well, no one can accuse Gordon of laying back on this day. Trying to poke his nose to the outside heading into turn 3, the two drivers touched and set off a 14-car melee that eliminated a good quarter of the field from contention.
Jeff’s take? “I was actually working well with Matt (Kenseth) getting up to the front through the middle. I don’t think that wreck was caused by over aggressive driving. I mean, every race and every wreck I look to see what I could have done different. [But] looking back on it, I wish I would have just stayed behind Matt.”
Hmm … considering the past history here, if I were Gordon I wouldn’t feel comfortable being within 50 feet of the No. 17. But hindsight is 20/20 …
Anyways, I bring these things up because, believe it or not, rivalries do still exist in this sport … it’s just that there aren’t the juicy physical catfights after the race to help boost their promotion. But not everyone in the garage gets along like superglue these days; and one hopes that with the momentum of 57 lead changes at Talladega, there’ll be a short track slugfest Saturday night at Richmond that’ll bring one of these rivalries back to the surface, building some momentum our 2009 season oh so desperately needs. They may take the racing out of the CoT, but NASCAR will never be able to take away the simple “coincidence” of two drivers finding each other on the track at exactly the wrong time.
And as for Kenseth … he’s certainly got some sort of magnetic attraction to these things, doesn’t he? Kenseth-Ragan, Kenseth-Gordon, Kenseth-Carl Edwards … you wouldn’t expect that out of a shy guy from Wisconsin now, would you?
Did You Notice? … Junior’s heartfelt admiration of his driver? Many fans have felt that I’ve piled on top of Earnhardt this year, and while I disagree there was something in his teleconference Tuesday that really struck me in a positive way. It happened when somebody asked if Earnhardt had talked to his protégé in the days following his first Cup win…
“There’s a part of me that’s real happy for him, proud for him, and I feel like that I’ve helped him get to this point in some way,” he said. “But the other side of you wants to let him experience it solely on his own and let him answer all the questions for himself, because he earned all the credit he’s getting for that win and for his ability to run well.”
“I don’t want me or Rick [Hendrick] or anybody to get in there and try to steal any of his thunder, or take any of the attention away from where it belongs right now.”
In other words, Junior is well aware of how his fame and fortune has the potential to overshadow Keselowski with a couple of choice comments. So, he’s content to keep his enthusiasm private while allowing his driver to simply soak it all in on his own – refusing to take public credit for his development.
“You have to imagine how amazingly driven he was to be sitting there in that position at the end of that race,” was all he’d say when pressed on the issue. “If you know Brad at all personally, you know that’s all he does, is think about racing 24/7, what he can do. So, he’s almost over-analyzing himself at times. I have to kind of tell him to stop thinking so much about it.”
So much has been said of Junior’s on-track performance this season, and I still struggle to understand why it’s so bad. To be honest, I don’t even get his strategy at the end of the race on Sunday, pulling away with Ryan Newman in a two-car draft so far away from the rest of the field Junior would have no momentum or sidedraft from anyone else to make a last lap pass. But those issues on the track are one thing … off it, Junior’s strong personal qualities remain the reasons more than any other he has millions flocking to his fan club each season.
Did You Notice? … This disturbing trend recently of owners limiting schedules in the Truck Series in order to focus their efforts elsewhere? TRG Motorsports and Key Motorsports are the latest to pull back, attempting to pool their resources towards the Cup and Nationwide teams they’re trying to grow, respectively.
In one sense, that’s great for the sport because that adds to the diverse groups of owners in these top two series. But who are the Truck owners coming in behind them as replacements? Just like for drivers, the Trucks can be a great proving ground for them to learn the ropes and build a foundation as they march towards the Cup level. With ratings for the Truck Series still growing in the face of declines elsewhere, it should be a pretty attractive series for them to get their start … so why is it not happening?
Well, the biggest reason still comes down to cost. One team owner told me recently that even with the new pit crew rules, it remains ridiculously expensive to run a team for a full 25-race season. Engine deals and small purses apparently remain the biggest problem for a division that could be thriving under the right circumstances. Right now, it costs a few million dollars to run a competitive Truck Series program. You can win that amount of money in the Cup Series by finishing 43rd every week; however, in the Truck Series, last place wins you an average of a little over $10,000 per event – and that’s not even going to cover expenses when you’re traveling across the country with a dozen people.
Of course, race tracks can always offer bigger purses if race fans would only open up their wallets. Fans always say that Truck racing is the best type of competition they see out there today – so why aren’t they attending the races? At some point, people are going to need to put their money where their mouth is or this division is going to wind up being in serious trouble.
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