Monday, May 04, 2009

Observer motorsports writer dies at 50

Editor's note: Posting live content and commentary from a good race weekend without the contributions of our colleague and friend David Poole doesn't feel at all right. We all miss him and our hearts will continue to be with his family and many, many friends.

We've posted a lot of the tributes written in recent days, audio files and slideshows, along with information about and links to his favorite charities.

We've also put up examples Poole's best work in a section we've named In Memory of David Poole. No, not all of his fine columns and articles appear there. (We'd like to see the server that can handle all of that!)

If there's something you'd really like to see that you can't find there, please drop us a line by way of the site's feedback link. Poole would have insisted we try to find it and, with that in mind, we'll make every effort to help get it for you.

In some cases, what you're after will be in our database and we can add it to the tribute section as production time allows. Other pieces could be in the Observer's archives and would involve some digging. For those, there would be a small fee.

News obituary from and The Charlotte Observer, April 28, 2009

Over thousands of backstretches and hundreds of checkered flags, David Poole made himself into more than one of the nation's leading authorities on NASCAR. He became a part of the sport he loved.

“David Poole was as much a fixture in this sport as the actual cars themselves,” driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Tuesday. “He was a one-of-a-kind individual and an extremely talented writer.”

Poole, who covered racing for the Observer, died of a heart attack Tuesday at his Stanly County home. He was 50.

A native of Gastonia, N.C., Poole became the Observer's NASCAR writer in 1997. He built a national following through and a daily program he hosted on Sirius NASCAR Radio.

The National Motorsports Press Association four times named him its writer of the year. He wrote about the sport with the enthusiasm of a fan and the critical eye of a journalist.

“He could be controversial from time to time but he always wrote and spoke what he believed,” said Richard Childress, president and CEO Richard Childress Racing. “He didn't pull any punches with anybody and that's what people respected about him. He was good for the sport.”

To honor Poole, Sirius plans to broadcast a tribute this morning. NASCAR plans a moment of silence before Saturday's race at Richmond.

“He was truly one of the nation's best and he always wrote what he believed,” said Bruton Smith, chairman and CEO of Speedway Motorsports. “Whether you agreed with him or not, he made us all think, and that's what the best writers do. He cared about what he did and had a passion for his work. It came through in what he wrote every day.”

In announcing Poole's death to a hushed newsroom Tuesday afternoon, Observer editor Rick Thames called him “the best in his field, there's no doubt about that.”

Thames said: "David Poole was the fans' reporter, always covering NASCAR with their sensibilities in mind. Their passions were his passions. Their values, his values. If that occasionally clashed with the powerbrokers of the sport, so be it. David told it like it was. And by doing that, he made the sport richer and more genuine for all who love it."

As word of his death spread, tributes poured in from throughout the NASCAR community.

“So sorry,” a reader named Scott wrote on one message board. “I've been ragging on Poole for years through e-mails and his blog. One thing about him, he would always answer back.”

“I listened to him every day on Sirius, even this morning, in all his glory ranting, like only David could, about Talladega!!!” Leslie from Arlington, Tenn., wrote. “His honesty and truth were greatly cherished.”

After dramatic weekend crashes at Talledega – one of which sent two spectators to hospitals – Poole criticized the track's design in a column headlined “Will it take a death for Talladega to change?”

“It seems we've decided we can live with that much damage being done to the sport's customers for ‘good racing,'” he wrote. “How many people have to be listed in ‘guarded' or ‘critical' condition before we say that's too much?”

Roger Curtis, president of Michigan International Speedway, said Poole “made our sport better by expecting as much out of us as he did himself and, believe me, he was never shy about holding us to his standard.”

“David's stature and influence put him atop his profession, and his talent and colorful personality will be greatly missed not only at Daytona but other race tracks across the country,” said Robin Braig, president of Daytona International Speedway.

A big heart

Poole graduated from journalism school at UNC Chapel Hill in 1981. He took a job at the Virginian Pilot in Norfolk but was there just two months when he got a call from the Gastonia Gazette, where he eventually became sports editor. In 1989 he left for a newspaper in Palm Beach but returned a year later for a job at the Observer in part to be closer to his family.

After taking over the motorsports beat from Tom Higgins a few years later, it didn't take him long to make his mark.

“I'd go in restaurants in Mooresville and people would say, ‘Did you read what Poole wrote today?'” Higgins said. “And I'd say that's the first thing I read.”

Early last year, Poole told the story of Wessa Miller, a Kentucky girl with spina bifida and a passion for Dale Earnhardt. He recounted how in 1998 she met her idol at the Daytona 500, a race Earnhardt had never won. She gave him a lucky penny, which he glued to his dashboard before going on to win his first 500.

A few months after he wrote the story, Poole learned that Wessa's father faced unexpected heart surgery. Poole started an account called “Pennies For Wessa” to help the family through its troubles.

“My fondest memories of David will always be his unconditional desire to help those in need,” said Mike Davis, a spokesman for JR Motorsports. “Nobody had a bigger heart. He used his platform as a tool to positively influence those less fortunate, and that is the David Poole I will always remember.”

The racing community came together Tuesday to pay tribute to a writer they saw as one of their own.

“Without driving a car or turning a wrench, David Poole was a racer,” said team owner Rick Hendrick. “He will be sincerely missed.”

Staff writer Jim Utter contributed.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Some Talladega options apparently aren't open

Why is the idea of changing the track at Talladega Superspeedway so absurd?

All day on Monday, a lot of the same people who said they would look at all options to make things as safe as they can be at Talladega were also saying that altering the configuration of the race track isn’t an option.

“It goes without mention that the most exciting races we have today are both at Daytona and Talladega,” Sprint Cup Series director John Darby in a NASCAR teleconference about Sunday’s last-lap wreck in the Aaron’s 499. “That’s a big part of our sport, and those two tracks have been a big part of our sport for many, many years. There’s more value in continuing our safety efforts at those tracks than turning those two very historical, very exciting race tracks into parking lots.”

“For some reason, there is always a temptation to sensationalize the wrecks at Daytona and Talladega way beyond what happens at Lowe’s Motor Speedway or Atlanta Motor Speedway or any of the other tracks that we race on,” Darby said.

Let me ask you something. How is it possible to “sensationalize” what happened Sunday?

A 3,400-pound car driven by Carl Edwards came frighteningly close to flying into an area where hundreds of people could have been killed.

Is that in any way an exaggeration of what happened? I don’t think so. Is it possible to overstate the potential harm something like that could do? I don’t know how you could.

Then Darby, a man I respect and like very much, turned into a good little NASCAR/International Speedway Corporation soldier. ISC owns Talladega. The Charlotte and Atlanta tracks are owned by Speedway Motorsports. His implication is that the media give Bruton Smith’s company a pass while picking on poor olISC and its two biggest tracks.

Well, while we’re on that subject, let me ask a question.

Why did nobody at NASCAR ever say reconfiguring Texas Motor Speedway wasn’t an option when the drivers were complaining about it in 1998? What actually happened was NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. came to Texas on the morning of the track’s second race and took up a spot in the garage area so reporters could come find him. He told them SMI had better fix the track or lose the one Cup date it had, let alone asking for a second.

Let me flatly say two things.

First, if SMI owned Talladega then NASCAR would have forced that company to plow it up and rebuild no later than 1987, when Bobby Allison crashed in almost exactly the same way Edwards did Sunday. There’s no chance NASCAR would have tried as many things to change the cars and the rules to continue racing at Talladega if its sister company didn’t own the joint.

Second, there’s no way anybody – ISC or SMI or anybody – builds a track today and makes it a 2.66-mile trioval with high-banked turns. The track is an anachronism.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Let's not miss the point on Talladega insanity

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- A lot of people are going to spend a lot of time this week arguing about the wrong things after Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.

It has already started.

Within an hour of the checkered flag falling, I had two e-mails from fans telling me what happened on the final lap was caused by the yellow-line rule that prevents cars from going too far to the inside to make passes here.

I am sure others also will debate whether Brad Keselowski was far enough inside Carl Edwards' car that Edwards shouldn't have made the block that led to the wreck that led to Edwards' car nearly going into the frontstretch grandstands. Or whether Edwards was entitled to make the block in his effort to win the race.

None of that is the real issue. It's not even close.

Why is there a yellow-line rule? Why are there restrictor plates? Why does NASCAR beat its chest about how it's going to police the drivers from being too aggressive, even though it never lifts a finger to actually restrain the lunacy that goes on in its races here?

Why must a driver spend more time looking in his mirror to see what's happening behind him than he does looking at where he's going? Why must drivers block all over the race track, swerving from lane to lane hoping to deny those behind them a place to go with the momentum they've built up? Why must a driver slam the guy in front him and implore the guy behind him to ram him in the rear bumper in a 195-mph game of bumper cars?

All of those are symptoms or lame attempts at treatment for the real sickness. The real problem here isn't the cars or the rules or even the drivers who do exactly what they're expected to do even though what they're doing is abject insanity.

The real problem is the same as it has been for the 40 years this track has existed. From the very first weekend of racing held here, when speeds were too fast for tires to withstand and anybody with any regard for what's really safe would have called off the race, the problem is and always has been this race track.

It was crazy -- and I mean that word literally -- to ever let things get to a point where Bill Elliott could run 215 mph here. It was crazy to react to Bobby Allison's wreck into the fence, one that looked entirely too much like the wreck Carl Edwards had here Sunday for the comfort of anybody with good sense, by trying to write rules and change the cars to make this place safe. It's crazy to ask drivers to participate in the kind of racing that goes on at Talladega today and it's crazy for them to willingly do so.

It's also sad that fans who profess to love this sport and the people who compete in it not only tolerate this madness, but embrace it and celebrate it.

Instead of talking about how "cool" Sunday's race was with all of its wrecks and the near disaster that happened on the final lap, fans ought to be screaming their demands that NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation do something to make this race track safe to race on.

If you want to talk about the problem, that is the only conversation worth having.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Wherever the "line" is, this goes over it

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Lowe's Motor Speedway has been known to get a little outrageous with its promotions sometimes, but the one the track announced late Saturday goes over the line.

Beginning at noon on Monday, the Charlotte track will sell tickets to the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race on May 16 and the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24 at a special price.

A total of 1,000 combined tickets for those two races will be sold at a price equal to the number of cars involved in the biggest wreck in Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.

So if there's a 15-car wreck at Talladega, the Charlotte tickets will go for $15 each. Get it?

Now I suppose it could be argued that the best thing for fans would be for there to be only one-car incidents in the race at Talladega so Lowe's Motor Speedway would sell 1,000 tickets for $1 buck each.

But the very idea of tying ticket prices, even for a quick promotion, to the number of Sprint Cup drivers who get involved in a wreck at a place as scary as Talladega can be rubs me the wrong way.

You can tell me to "lighten up" if you want to, but I don't see the humor in what Matt Kenseth went through in his car in Saturday's Nationwide Series race. Kenseth wasn't hurt and everybody is thankful for that, but that doesn't mean anybody should be making light of what happens when cars start slamming into each other at 190 mph.

"The talk around the Talladega race is always about 'The Big One,' "said Marcus Smith, president and general manager of Lowe's Motor Speedway. "But Sunday, if only a few drivers get caught up in the biggest wreck, the deal on Monday is that much sweeter. Plus, it gives the fans a chance to save some real money on another 'Big One,' the 50th running of the Coca-Cola 600."

Fans have to call (800) 455-FANS or go to the Lowe's Motor Speedway ticket office to take advantage of the offer beginning at noon Monday.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Drag racing pioneer Chet Herbert passes away

If we're lucky, people come along in our lives and provide us with inspiration. They make us want to do what we know will be hard to do but that we also will be worthwhile if we can accomplish it.

Doug Herbert, the drag racer who lives in Huntersville and has his Top Fuel shop in Lincolnton, grew up with such a man living right there in his house. Chester "Chet" Herbert, Doug's father, passed away Thursday in California at the age of 81.

Chet Herbert grew up in Southern California in the age of the hot rod, when the sport of drag racing was just being invented as an organized way to do what people like Chet Herbert were already doing.

When he was 20, Chet Herbert was stricken with polio. He lived the rest of his life in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. The operative word in that previous sentence is "lived." Despite what polio did to him, Chet Herbert never stopped living.

"When my dad was 12, my grandma bought him a trumpet and hoped he would learn to play it," Doug Herbert said. "He traded the trumpet for a Cushman motorscooter and it was life in the fast lane ever since."

As Chet Herbert spent six months in an iron lung in a hospital in 1948, he started figuring out ways to make better parts for racing in his head. When he got out of the hospital, he developed the first roller camshafts. He was among the first to try nitromethane as a fuel after reading about how the Germans used it to power torpedoes in World War II. Nitro is still used in Top Fuel and Funny Cars today.

Chet Herbert was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1993.

“My dad was my hero," Doug Herbert said. "He taught me so much about how to be a strong and determined person. Despite the fact that he had polio and was in a wheelchair for much of his life, he never let that stop him from doing anything. He proved to everyone that he could accomplish whatever he set his mind to; which taught me that, no matter how tough something may seem, if you fight hard enough, you can overcome it.

"I always looked up to him. I’m glad I had the opportunity to follow in his footsteps and be involved in a sport that he helped to invent."

After Doug's sons, Jon and James, were killed in an automobile crash in January 2008, he and his father started working on a project together -- a streamlined car in which Doug Herbert wants to set a land speed record at better than 500 mph later this summer on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

"Some of my best memories with my dad were made over the past year," Doug Herbert said. "We had grown much closer since my boys died. ...I will miss my dad very much. I am lucky to have many wonderful memories of him that I will always cherish.”

Chet Herbert is survived by his wife, Leanne; his son, Doug; two daughters, Heather Herbert-Binetti and Tracey Drage, and a sister Doris, who as editor of Drag News, was also inducted into the Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1993.

A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m., Saturday at Covenant Presbyterian Church, 1855 Orange Olive Road, Orange, CA 92865. A private, graveside family service will be held that afternoon at 2 p.m. at the Fair Haven Memorial Park in Santa Ana, Calif.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Doug Herbert's Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe (BRAKES) program that promotes safe driving among teenagers. Send donations to BRAKES, 1443 E. Gaston St., Lincolnton, NC 28092 or go online at

We know where now, but the question is what

NASCAR announced officially Thursday that the Sprint Cup Awards Ceremony is moving from New York to Las Vegas. After being at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Manhattan each year since 1981, this year's championship celebration will be held Dec. 4 at the Wynn Las Vegas hotel.

That's great. Las Vegas is a place where a lot of fun things are always happening. The Cup awards ceremony could be great there. But a change of venue is not what that event needs most.

NASCAR said it doesn't yet know -- or at least it isn't ready to announce -- what format the banquet will take. Specifically, we don't know yet if fans will be allowed to be part of the champion's celebration.

“I can’t say enough about the warm reception from Las Vegas,” said NASCAR chairman and chief executive officer France. “Las Vegas really made it a priority to get the awards ceremony moved there. We were able to come to an agreement on reasonable room blocks, banquet facilities, and approvals to hold fan activities on the famous Las Vegas Strip.”

I don't really have a problem if the ceremony itself is invitation only for the top drivers, their teams and their sponsors the way it was in New York. I'd prefer it if fans could come, too, but that's not a make-or-break thing.

The ceremony will be a success in Las Vegas only if there are events surrounding it that fans can take part in. NASCAR said the "Victory Lap," where cars parade on city streets, will return in Vegas, and that's good. The logistics of that just got out of hand in midtown Manhattan.

I've said this before and it still holds true, but the NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards Ceremony should copy everything it can from country music's "Fan Fest" in Nashville. Make it a weeklong party where fans get several chances to meet the sport's biggest stars. Have some fun with it. Do some things that could be memorable. The biggest thing that was wrong with New York is that NASCAR acted like it was staging a cotillion where everybody was being graded on his or her manners. It's a party, not a church service.

NASCAR also announced that it will combine the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series banquets into one event at the Loews Miami Beach on Monday, Nov. 23, the Monday after the season-ending championship weekend at Homestead Miami Speedway.

That date makes a lot of sense and I have no problem with combining those two series into one event. The only drawback is that it means that only the top five in each series -- instead of the top 10 in each -- will be honored at the banquet.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Talladega outrage!

It's an outrage. An outrage!!!!

Talladega Superspeedway wants to break a world record this weekend. It plans to ask about 125,000 people to do "The Chicken Dance," which would nearly double the existing record of 72,000 set at a fair in Canfield, Ohio, in 1996.

The record attempt is being sponsored by KFC, and the animal rights advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has a problem with that. PETA said it will ask the folks with the Guinness Book of World Records not to certify the record because of its issues with how KFC treats chickens.

Isn't that the dumbest thing you've ever heard?

No, not the PETA part.

People who don't want to eat meat don't bother me. I figure it's their loss. More for the rest of us who don't mind being at the top of the food chain. (Besides, how exactly would a company that's in the business of killing chickens so people can eat them ever get on PETA's good side?)

The outrage here is that Talladega Superspeedway has the gall to ask 125,000 good, decent NASCAR fans to actually do "The Chicken Dance."

If you're not familiar with "The Chicken Dance," congratulations on a life well-lived. It's a pox (pun intended) on humanity. Announcers as minor league baseball games and racing short tracks have been inducing crowds to participate in it for years, and that's bad enough. But the idea of 125,000 doing at one time is mass humiliation.

"If this record is allowed, it could encourage other animal abusers to attempt silly feats that make a mockery of animal protection," Tracy Reiman, executive vice president of PETA, told the newspaper in Birmingham.

The species being mocked in "The Chicken Dance" isn't chickens. You don't see chickens doing the Electric Slide, the Macarena or, God forbid, the Shag do you?

I have to be honest. I smell a rat. I know how people who work for race tracks think. I would just about bet you that somebody from Talladega Superspeedway sought out PETA on this one.

By making sure PETA is lined up against the record-breaking effort, the track allows fans to mask their shame of participating as an act of defying the unpopular animal rights group. Stand up to PETA! Make a fool of yourself! That will show them!

Don't fall for it, folks. "The Chicken Dance" is neither poultry nor is it dance.

What it is is an outrage.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Earnhardt Jr., Mears go on probation

First, NASCAR said it wasn't going to do anything to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Casey Mears for their postrace bumping incident following Saturday night's Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix.

Then, on Tuesday, NASCAR changed its mind. It decided to do nothing.

Actually, it decided to do the same nothing it did to Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch after almost exactly the same kind of incident at Bristol last year. So, for the sake of consistency, instead of not doing anything it did nothing.

OK, technically NASCAR did something. It placed Earnhardt and Mears on probation for six races. The probation begins with this weekend's race at Talladega.

What does probation mean? Effectively, nothing. Actually, all it does is back NASCAR into a corner if Earnhardt or Mears commits some other kind of "actions detrimental to NASCAR" during the probation period.

If a driver on probation misbehaves, does that mean he gets a double dose of punishment for the second act? Nobody's sure, because probation pretty much means anything NASCAR wants it to mean.

When NASCAR said it would take no action against Earnhardt and Mears, though, that was pretty hard to justify. The Edwards-Busch circumstances at Bristol involved a battle for the lead, so its consequences might have been more profound than the Mears-Earnhardt collision that sent Earnhardt's fading Chevrolet into the wall. But the postrace hi-jinks, with Earnhardt turning Mears on the cool-down lap and Mears bumping Earnhardt in retaliation as they went toward the garage, still violated Section 12-4-A (actions detrimental to stock car racing; hitting another competitor’s car after the race had concluded) of the 2009 NASCAR rule book.

Edwards and Busch got six-race probations last year at Bristol and now this latest incident has drawn the same sanction.

That seems fair, I guess.

But it's hard to say it's better than nothing when nothing really is exactly what it is.