Feature Story

Ode To The Storyteller

Journalists are storytellers with a flair for language and an insatiable curiosity. No matter the event, we all subscribe to the same directive: Ask the question and tell the story.

Most articles inform the reader of events that occurred. But a truly well-written article forces the reader to stop and think about the insight provided, and maybe alter or affirm their beliefs based on what they've read. Writing is a process, but it's also an art form. We work with words instead of oil. However, the creative process is the same.

While we may have assignments and directions from an editor, eventually every professional journalist winds up in the same place. We sit alone with a monitor and a keyboard. We have the information and our job is to tell you what happened. Whether it's Bob Woodward writing about Watergate, or Daniel Pearl writing about terrorism in the Middle East, or a motorsports journalist from North Carolina writing about a NASCAR race, words are the journalist's sharpest sword.

We are told from our earliest recollections: Write what you know. For David Poole, that venue was motorsports. He was born in Gastonia, North Carolina, just west of Charlotte -- the hub of NASCAR racing. He grew up watching the legendary battles between Richard Petty and David Pearson. But, as astute fans know, motorsports in North Carolina goes beyond the "big show." Dirt tracks line the Carolina landscape like bluebonnets on a Texas highway. They're not just part of the scenery. Rather, they're part of the culture. In the late-60's, one of the legends of those Carolina dirt tracks was Ralph Earnhardt. To a budding journalist in the grandstand, the drivers were more than just skilled competitors; they were storylines. And he would eventually be the storyteller.

Poole graduated from the University of North Carolina. He followed his dream to Virginia before joining his hometown Gastonia Gazette newspaper (before its name was altered), and then headed south to Florida, all the while keeping an eye on motorsports. In 1990, he returned to his native state when a job opportunity at The Charlotte Observer opened. Six years later, he became the newspaper's lead writer on NASCAR racing.

His writing attracted a loyal following, but it was the exponential growth of the Internet that put his name on NASCAR's national stage. Almost overnight, his readers were no longer confined to Charlotte and its suburbs. He wasn't just writing to NASCAR fans in towns such as Kannapolis, Statesville, Hickory, and Matthews. His new readers were in Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Miami --- even Long Island, New York.

His words and insight both educated and informed legions of NASCAR fans. An opinionated editorial column is designed to force the reader to take a position. His words could inflame, incite, and humor the reader. He was a master artist in his venue. The racetrack and its participants were his canvas. The keyboard was his paint brush. And no motorsports writer in the country could paint a better picture.

He wrote the book "Race With Destiny" about the transitional 1992 season when Alan Kulwicki claimed the championship. It was a year punctuated by the retirement of NASCAR's most successful driver, Richard Petty. It also saw Davey Allison overcome personal tragedy to challenge for the championship. And it saw the Cup series debut of a California-born/Indiana-raised driver who would go on to set some records of his own.

A few years ago, he wrote a book about Tim Richmond. Only David Poole could truly tell his story the way it was intended to be told. He handled the late driver's exploits with truth, honesty, and compassion. Despite the publisher's hopes, he didn't tell the story to sell books. He told the story so we would never forget. Decades after Richmond's death, the only thing left are the memories and the people who can tell the story. Through his words, David Poole made sure that Tim Richmond would never be forgotten.

He covered the greatest moments in NASCAR over the past 13 years. He was there to exalt when Dale Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500. The victory was a storyline in itself. When the 10th anniversary came in 2008, he could have rehashed what the victory meant to the fans. Instead, he detailed the story of Wessa Miller, who was 6 years old in 1998. She had given Earnhardt a lucky penny, which found its way to the dashboard of the winning car. Every Earnhardt fan worth their salt knows about the lucky penny. But they know about Wessa Miller's inspirational story because of David Poole.

He also covered the darkest moments in NASCAR. He was there to mourn when a Hendrick Motorsports plane went down on a foggy day in the Virginia hills. He treated the story like he treated everybody he came across. Truth, honesty, and compassion for the subject were his trademarks.

While NASCAR provided the storylines, his life away from the track provided fodder of its own. He put as much thought and effort into a recap of a Bristol race as he did into an online blog post about his grandson Eli. In October 2007, he arrived at the racetrack on Saturday instead of his traditional Thursday travel day. His reason was twofold: 1) He wanted to attend his 30-year reunion of his Hunter Hess High School class, and 2) He wanted to attend Eli's first birthday party. He wrote about Eli's sense of wonder and looked forward to seeing what kind of young man Eli would be. Sadly, he won't have the chance to find out. The motorsports community lost its most trusted voice. And a family lost a husband, father, and grandfather.

If you squint at the horizon, you just might be able to see that dusty dirt track in the shape of the old Richmond Fairgrounds. On the flagstand, Harold Kinder is reaching for the checkered flag. Dale Earnhardt and Tim Richmond are battling side-by-side into the corner. There's some contact on the track, but that's racin. David Poole is in the press box waiting to ask questions and tell the story. Someday we'll be reading his words again. What a story it will be.

Godspeed, DP.

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Copyright 2009 L.G.
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