Tom Higgins is 80 years old now, and the stroke he had in August has slowed him down considerably. He spends his days in a hospital bed at a rehabilitation center in the Charlotte area, with the TV usually tuned to the news or a football game.
Tom’s body has started to betray him. He’s not going to be able to live alone anymore. But his mind is still sharp, and the memories of the hundreds of NASCAR races he covered for the Observer still unfurl themselves each day in high-definition detail.
“Pull up a chair,” he drawls to me each time I visit. And what comes after that – well, you never know.
Sometimes it is a story about drinking a “Billy Beer” with Billy Carter at the White House. (”Terrible beer,” Higgins says, “but good company.”) Sometimes it is a rundown of the best fights in NASCAR history. Sometimes he talks about Zorro, the beloved rescue dog that he had to find a good home for because he can no longer take care of him.
“Did I ever tell you about the 1958 Southern 500?” Tom asks me. “What a race that was.”
No, I say, and we’re off.
Inside Tom’s mind, the rough-necked gentlemen have started their engines. He mutes the TV.
Tom’s voice – that legendary voice that from out of the North Carolina mountains that lit up press boxes, garages and pit stalls for years – revs up. He pronounces the word “interesting” as if it the letter ‘t’ never existed. All his stories are “in-neres-ing” in some way.
“I swear to God, the press box in Darlington was nothing more than a chicken coop on stilts,” he begins. “They handed me a new pair of goggles when I arrived, and I soon found out why.”
‘Lord, the cast of characters’
Higgins worked for the Observer from 1964 to 1997. Several Observer editors told him over the years that they believed he wrote more words for the newspaper than anyone in history. I believe this to be true, because for decades Higgins covered both NASCAR and the outdoors. The son of a game warden, Higgins was originally hired by our newspaper as an outdoors writer.
It was not uncommon for Higgins to have four or five bylines in a single day’s newspaper. His personal record was 12. He had a front-row seat for nearly every big moment as NASCAR transformed itself from a regional sport contested on red-clay dirt tracks into a national sport that made drivers into celebrities.
“I liked the people most of all – and that’s what I miss most,” Higgins says. “I met so many characters. I enjoyed writing about the personalities and the color and the history of it far more than the actual racing. Lord, the cast of characters was just beyond belief.”
Higgins never graduated from college – back then, you didn’t need to if you were going to work at a newspaper. He grew up in Burnsville, the youngest of four children.
“I was born in our house,” Higgins says. “There was no hospital in Burnsville – you had to go to Asheville. Mama and Daddy didn’t have money for that, so a country doctor delivered me in the living room.”
Higgins played basketball and baseball at Burnsville High and played some basketball at Brevard Junior College for his two years there – although his grades there left something to be desired.
“I didn’t graduate from Brevard,” Higgins says. “And I never went back to college even though Mama pitched a fit – she had heard a lot of stories about hard-drinking newspaper hellions.”
An assist from Ron Green
For as long as Higgins remembered, he wanted to be a pro baseball player or a sportswriter. “I couldn’t solve the aerodynamics of a curveball,” Higgins says, so that left only one other choice.
His first sportswriting job was a part-time one in which he covered fast-pitch softball for the Canton (N.C.) Enterprise. Yes, such a job existed – a high-quality fast-pitch softball game drew between 500-1,000 people in those days. He did well enough with that to work for a succession of other North Carolina newspapers, covering all sorts of sports.
On Christmas Day 1963, Higgins went to his post-office box and retrieved a letter from Ron Green – another future Observer sportswriting legend who at the time was the sports editor for the Charlotte News. They were acquaintances. Green wrote that he shouldn’t really be telling Higgins this – he really didn’t need the competition – but the rival Observer was soon going to have a job opening for an outdoors writer.
“I damn near jump up and clicked my heels,” Higgins says, “and I thanked Ron every time I saw him after that.”
“No need for him to thank me,” Green says when I call him on the phone later to relay this story. “To me, Tom was the perfect fit for both that outdoors job and then NASCAR, too. People liked him. They told him stuff. He worked so hard and he broke a whole lot of stories.”
‘Where the sun don’t shine’
Higgins did not grow up in a stock-car family like so many inside the sport do. The first race he ever saw was a race that he covered. But at the Observer he soon added NASCAR to his duty list – a “hairy-chested sport” in those days, Higgins says, that he would grow to love.
With the Observer, he would become the first newspaperman to ever travel to every race on NASCAR’s top circuit, in 1980.
By the time I arrived at the Observer in 1994, Higgins was a rock star, and walking around a NASCAR garage with him gave you an all-access pass. He knew everybody and helped me tremendously, but at that advanced point in his career he did not suffer fools gladly.
A young public-relations person once came between Higgins and a well-known driver he wanted to interview in the early 1990s. Higgins was used to simply going up to drivers in the garage and asking them for an interview, like he did in the 1970s and 1980s. The drivers basically never turned him down. So he did not much like dealing with PR reps as go-betweens.
“Go tell your driver I need to speak to him,” Higgins said.
I don’t think that’s possible, the PR rep said. He’s too busy.
“What could he be doing?” Higgins thundered. “The track is closed. You go tell him that Tom Higgins wants to talk to him.”
The PR rep did and returned awhile later, making the errand last far longer than Higgins imagined it should have.
You can maybe have five minutes with him, the PR rep said. But you only get to ask three questions.
By this point, Higgins was fed up.
“You tell him to take his five minutes and three questions and stick them where the sun don’t shine,” Higgins growled, and then he walked away.
The caution laps
Higgins retired from our newspaper in 1997, although he still contributed occasionally to our pages for many years after that. Married and divorced twice, he has two children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
He had his stroke on Aug. 13, four days after his 80th birthday. He awoke, alone in his bed, to find that his left leg wouldn’t work. His body has never quite recovered.
Since then, Higgins has been either in a hospital or a rehab center. He soon plans to transfer to another rehab center, this one better suited for long-term care.
For a sportswriter who won countless awards and is prominently featured in several exhibits at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, life can feel more like a series of caution laps these days compared to the full-throttled exuberance of Higgins’ youth.
Still, Higgins has his friends and his family, and all of his visitors, and fine care from the nurses he charms each day. And, of course, he has his memories.
A few days later, Tom and I are visiting once more. He tells me about the fight at the end of the 1979 Daytona 500. And about Richard Petty’s 200th win in 1984. And about the time Junior Johnson – the legendary NASCAR driver and owner who Higgins and close friend Steve Waid once co-wrote a book with – couldn’t figure out how to open the gas cap on his new Mercedes.
For a second, the conversation wanes.
“Did I ever tell you about the 1958 Southern 500?” Tom asks me.
“No,” I say, because I want to hear it again.
Want to write to Tom Higgins?
If you are a fan or friend of former Observer sportswriter Tom Higgins and want to send a note or a card to him, there are two ways to do so. Either email Scott Fowler at email@example.com and he will forward those emails directly to Higgins, or else write Higgins in care of this address:
The Charlotte Observer
550 South Caldwell Street
ATTN: TOM HIGGINS