NASCAR Hall of Fame: Higgins set standard with full-time coverage

Tom Higgins had only traveled west of the Mississippi River once when he was called into a meeting in The Charlotte Observer newsroom during late 1975.

It was a meeting that would change Higgins’ life – as well as one that would alter how NASCAR was treated by the news media.

At the time, Higgins was the Observer’s outdoors and motorsports writer. He typically covered at most 16 races a year – two each at Carolinas tracks Charlotte; Darlington, S.C.; Rockingham and North Wilkesboro, in addition to Martinsville, Va.; Atlanta; Bristol, Va.; and Daytona Beach, Fla.

Observer editor Dave Lawrence asked Higgins if he was interested in covering every race on the schedule – all 30 of them.

“We’re seeing there’s an enormous amount of interest happening in the sport,” Higgins remembered Lawrence saying. “And we should be there for it.”

Higgins accepted the increased role, becoming the first reporter from a daily newspaper to cover every NASCAR race, a grueling pace he kept up for the next 21 years.

But it’s for more than longevity that Higgins will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Friday for the 2015 Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR Media Excellence. Higgins will be honored during the ceremony and featured in an exhibit at the Hall of Fame in uptown Charlotte.

Higgins, 77, retired from the Observer in 1997. He’s the fourth recipient of the Hall’s media award, joining late broadcaster and writer Chris Economaki and broadcasters Ken Squier and Barney Hall, for whom the award is named. Higgins continues to write for the Observer on a part-time basis.

During an era preceding the Internet and social media, Higgins’ race-to-race presence over more than two decades made him the sport’s top source for news and storytelling.

“He was in that one place all those years and he covered (racing’s) good, bad and indifferent,” said Hall of Famer Richard Petty, NASCAR’s all-time winningest driver. “He was very well respected with the racing crowd, from the Allison (family) all the way to Jeff Gordon. He probably covered more racing than any one individual.”

Higgins became friendly with many drivers, crew chiefs and owners he covered, most notably Neil Bonnett, Dale Earnhardt, Buddy Baker and Waddell Wilson.

He first met Earnhardt in 1975 almost by chance. Glancing over the entry list for that year’s World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Higgins noticed the name of a rookie named Dale Earnhardt, and wondered if he might be the son of Ralph Earnhardt, a driver from Kannapolis whom Higgins knew and had covered.

Higgins drove to the track that afternoon, where a standoffish Dale Earnhardt was testing.

“He didn’t want to have anything to do with me,” said Higgins. “All I got out of him was ‘Yep, nope and I don’t know.’ ”

But Higgins wouldn’t be deterred. He softened up Earnhardt by doing what he does best. He told Earnhardt a story about a race he covered in Asheville. The quarter-mile Asheville track at the time was built into McCormick Field – the city’s minor-league baseball stadium – and Ralph Earnhardt had turned Banjo Matthews’ car over in center field.

“Dale looked at me and said, ‘I’ve never talked to anybody who was at the race. Tell me more!’ ” said Higgins.

Thus began a friendship that lasted for more than 25 years.

“I’m grateful I wasn’t on the beat when Dale was killed” in 2001, said Higgins. “I would have covered that story to the best of my ability, but it would have been a bit too much to deal with.”

Higgins said the death of Bonnett in 1994 played a role in his decision to retire in 1997.

“That deeply affected me,” Higgins said.

He also met and interviewed dozens of famous people away from racing, including Rev. Billy Graham, Elizabeth Taylor, Joe DiMaggio and Michael Jordan. His job carried him to places as far off as Australia, where he once covered a NASCAR exhibition race.

But most important to Higgins, who grew up in the mountain town of Burnsville the son of a state game warden, was his reputation as NASCAR’s most reliable and consistent reporter of news for 20-plus years.

“Tom was always a fun-loving guy, but he took his job very seriously,” said Ed Clark, president of Atlanta Motor Speedway and a former media relations director at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Since he wrote for the Observer, he felt like he shouldn’t be beaten on any story. That was one of the reasons why he was so good. He was all business when it came to that part of it.”