Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Nice guys

The other day, I ran into two guys at the local park. One of them knew that I was a writer (we'd talked before), and they asked me about my career.

It turns out that both of them were racing fans, and one of them has been to as many Cup tracks as I have. So they got me talking.

They were the first fans ever to ask me about nice guys. Who were the nice guys you talked to when you were covering NASCAR in the 1990s and early 21st century?

The Labonte brothers, Terry and Bobby, are right there. Kyle Petty, when he was in a good mood. Jeff Gordon, easy. Mark Martin. Sterling Marlin. Ricky Rudd. Rick Mast.

It's easier to name good guys than jerks, but every driver can be a jerk when he's stressed. Mark walked away from me the first time I tried to talk to him. The next 15 or 20 years, he was as good as gold. He might have been my favorite guy to talk to.

I had a bad time with Dale Earnhardt when I tried to talk to him, in 1990, and it wasn't until '91 that I actually got an answer out of him. Then over the next several years, Dale would either be friendly with me or he'd ignore me. There was little common ground. He could be nice, if he was in the mood. But he was rarely in the mood.

People think of Bill Elliott as a good guy; after all, he was the most popular driver several times. My first interview with Bill was contentious; it started out like he was in fight-or-flight mode; he eased at the end and he actually thanked me for talking to him.

Bill was kind of like Earnhardt. If he was stressed, he'd walk away from you or be gruff.  If he wasn't, he'd sit and chat. Yes, Bill could be a good guy, or not.

The Bodine brothers, Geoff and Brett, were two of my favorites. They knew me, and I got to know their families a bit from calling their homes. Both seemed genuinely happy to see me at tracks, and both were great, and willing, talkers.

I remember one day I was walking through a garage area during practice, and Brett was heading out on the track. When he got to me, he slowed down to a near-stop and waved broadly at me (I'd covered him extensively when he'd driven for Hoss Ellington). He wanted to make sure I saw the wave, and, strangely, it's one of my favorite memories of racing.

There's also Davey Allison. A lot of reporters didn't like Davey because he was often short with them. Davey also drove for Hoss (he didn't remember me from there, though), but I really got to know him after his wreck in the all-star race at Charlotte in 1992. Through his PR guy, I got his home number, and I talked to Davey's wife, Liz.

Davey also gave me his shop number, and I'd leave my name and number on his answering machine. He'd call me back, and we'd talk for an hour. Sometimes it was an interview; other times it was just BS. When he had time, we even talked a time or two at the track.

It hurt when he died in 1993.

The final nice guy I'll mention is Neil Bonnett. Neil was still trying to come back from a 1990 wreck at Darlington when I got to know him. I interviewed Neil by phone in early 1994, and we enjoyed the interview immensely. Later, he called me back, and it was obvious he was rummaging through the garage for pictures and other stuff.

Before we hung up, he asked when I was coming to Daytona. I told him, and he said for me to come by the 51 truck, and we'd go out for dinner. He wasn't there when I got to the track; he died earlier that week in practice.

Later, I wrote a column about Neil, and I ended it by saying racing lost its best friend in Neil Bonnett.

He might have been the ultimate nice guy, although that reminds me that Benny Parsons and Buddy Baker were tremendously nice guys, too. Same with Ned Jarrett and his son Dale. Ned was right up there with Neil. (All of them were close.)

I give up. There were so many of those nice guys. I might have missed a dozen or so.

CONTACT: Email me at tgilli52@gmail.com or nc3022@yahoo.com. Also, my Twitter handle is EDITORatWORK.


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