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Tom Higgins put ’shine on the NASCAR experience

Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.

Tom Higgins comes from a different time. It was a better time. There were fewer meetings.

I covered my first NASCAR race with Tom in the early 1980s. I was new; I didn’t know him or his sport. I asked lots of dumb questions and received lots of informed answers. He had a party after the race and I drove from Charlotte Motor Speedway to his house.

Here’s how different a time it was. One of the drivers, like me a transplant from the Midwest, was there – Tim Richmond.

At the race Tom and his buddies had talked incessantly about moonshine. Finally the talk grew old, and I said, “C’mon, it’s just booze. How different can it be?”

Alas, I would find out. I had just walked into the party when Tom summoned me to the kitchen, which was packed with people. A ceremony was going on, everybody dropping to a knee to offer tribute to the great and powerful moonshine.

This was new; I’d never seen anybody drop to one knee to offer tribute to PBR.

Tom lit the moonshine and immediately there was fire. Even Heineken couldn’t do that.

I was called to the front of the room and Tom filled a small glass and told me to drink it.

“Now you’ll see how different it is,” he said.

I don’t even drink whiskey, but had no choice. I drank the ’shine in one massive sip and could feel it in my throat, esophagus, larynx, stomach, knees, shins, toes and assorted organs I had not previously been aware of.

Obviously I couldn’t gag. Charlotte was my new town, racing a new sport, and I wanted to be accepted.

NASCAR belonged to the South then, and even though I clearly was not from around here, Tom gave me a chance and because he did everybody else did, too.

To thousands of readers, Tom Higgins was NASCAR. They’d watch the race from the grandstands, or from their living room. But the results weren’t official until they read Tom.

Over the years Tom answered more dumb questions from me than, probably, anybody he’d ever worked with. He was always gracious. He introduced me to many insiders, among them his friend Junior Johnson. We had breakfast with Junior up in the foothills, a ritual in those days. Junior is one of the great drivers and racing minds ever, and his respect for Tom was evident, as was Tom’s respect for Junior.

Driving down an empty two-lane to a NASCAR interview a few months ago I called Tom for advice. He’s been out of the sport a long time but he knew what I needed and who I needed to talk to, and told me.

Tom deserves an award for all the help he’s given me. He deserves this award, too.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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