Out of the blue one day, I got an email from an old, beloved friend from my NASCAR days. In the days when first I met him, Jim Freeman was the public relations director at the Talladega track. That was when the publicity at all the tracks was run by men, some college-educated, some not, who were amicable, back-slapping and well-liked.
They worked hard to beg attention for a sport that few media outlets cared about so when the reporters did show up, they made them feel at home, almost smothering them with Southern hospitality. They inched their way, little by little, to big papers like USA Today, the Washington Post and the New York Times sending out reporters. USA Today was the first to step up and commit, sending Jerry Potter, a good friend of mine, to cover the beat on a regular basis. The others mostly visited only for the Daytona 500.
Men like Freeman, though, were the masterminds of showing stock car racing to the rest of the nation. I remember once when I was in Jackson, Miss., covering a Georgia-Ole Miss football game, I was surprised to find Freeman in the press box, assisting the Ole Miss sports information folks.
"What are you doing here?" I asked.
"Well, we need to grow our media west of the Mississippi so I volunteered to do this ballgame to meet reporters that I can invite to Talladega."
Smart thinking, I thought. After the game ended and my stories were filed, Freeman and I decided to hang out. A legendary story was born that night where the joke was on me. You’ll have to get Freeman to tell you about it and I will assure that he will — it’s a favorite of his.
Which brings me to this: Freeman and his cronies were among the best storytellers I ever met. I first learned storytelling at the knees of my parents but I got a Ph.D in it from the guys in NASCAR. To this day, I believe no one can tell a better story than Richard Petty or Darrell Waltrip. Back then, everywhere I went, there were stories to entertain — in the garage from the likes of David Pearson and Bobby Allison to the media center where Freeman and his cronies held court. It was a blissful existence.
Freeman is retired and now lives in Murfreesboro, Tenn. On a recent trip to visit the Waltrips in Franklin, I stopped to have lunch with him. I knew I would be completely entertained and I was not disappointed.
He commenced to telling stories in that patented, good-ole-boy way that his generation tells tales. I was captivated.
"Hey, remember when the guy stole the pace car in Talladega?" I asked.
He rolled his eyes. "Boy, do I."
I was in the air conditioned press box during that oppressively hot July day. The race was getting ready to start so the cars were pulled up into position and the pace car was idling, ready for the driver to get in and take the field around the track. I just happened to be looking in that direction when, suddenly, a shirtless, long-haired guy darted out from pit road, jumped in the car and took off.
Now, Talladega folks — make that all Southerners — love a runaway renegade so a huge cheer went up from the crowd. Motorcycle cops took off after him but he had his foot to the metal and he wasn’t slowing down. There, live on CBS, the pace car bandit had his fifteen minutes of fame. Finally, they pulled two big wreckers across the track and stopped him. The crowd booed as the officers pulled him from the car and hauled him away.
Aw, I miss those days. And those kinds of stories, the likes of which are being lost to a society too refined and too plain boring.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of What Southern Women (That Every Woman Should). Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her weekly newsletter.