Tom Higgins, a legendary newspaper reporter who brought life to NASCAR in the pages of the Charlotte Observer for 33 years, died Tuesday morning. He was 80.
Higgins was a larger-than-life character at the Observer from 1964-97, covering the rise of stock-car racing and its cast of colorful characters as the uniquely Southern sport gained national attention. He suffered a stroke in August 2017 — four days after his 80th birthday — and family members said his health had slowly spiraled downhill in the ensuing 11 months.
“He passed away peacefully,” said Higgins’ daughter, Heather Higgins. “He is suffering no more.”
Although no official records are kept, several Observer editors told Higgins over the years that they believed he had more actual words published in the newspaper than any other writer. It was not unusual 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 in NASCAR history during the 20th century.
While doing all that, Higgins also covered the outdoors for the newspaper — that was the job the Burnsville, N.C., native was originally hired for in 1964. The son of a game warden, Higgins retained his mountain accent and booming voice throughout his career, making his an unmistakable voice in every press room he entered as well as in every column he wrote.
While he knew nearly every star NASCAR driver well for a four-decade span, Higgins said in a recent interview he was most proud that he had tried to treat all people fairly.
Said Higgins: “There is an old saying in the Blue Ridge Mountains: ‘Don’t throw anybody in the creek.’ That means don’t do them dirty; don’t hurt them in any way. I heard my daddy say that so many times. And I think that, other than in one or two instances, I was pretty much able to do that.”
In 2015, Higgins became the fourth recipient of the Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR Media Excellence. He was honored during that year’s NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony and was featured in an exhibit at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte.
“Tom knew every inductee into the NASCAR Hall of Fame personally, so it’s only fitting that he join them,” Mike Persinger, the Observer’s executive sports editor, said at the time.
A born storyteller, Higgins never graduated from college but could spin a yarn even out of moments he didn’t remember firsthand. Of his birth, he said: “I was born in our house. There was no hospital in Burnsville — you had to go to Asheville. Mommy and daddy didn’t have money for that, so a country doctor delivered me in the living room.”
But he was best at describing the events that he saw in person, making you feel the speed and danger of NASCAR. He called stock-car racing a “hairy-chested sport” and was both entranced by and concerned about its dangers – Higgins took every racing death hard, and in his era there were more of them than there are today.
The Observer was the first newspaper to cover the entire stock-car racing season at the sport’s highest level, which meant sending Higgins to hundreds of races around the country (and once even to Australia). In 1980, he became the first newspaperman to ever travel to every race on NASCAR’s top circuit.
“Tom Higgins was the ‘Fatherlode’ of stories on the phenomenal rise of stock-car racing and its oversupply of characters,” said Max Muhleman, a former sportswriting colleague of Higgins in the 1950s and ‘60s when they were both among the first daily newspaper reporters covering the earliest days of NASCAR. Higgins, Muhleman added, was an “everlasting blessing” to NASCAR’s history who told “particularly funny stories, ‘tears-down-your-cheeks’ funny stories. ... If you never laughed with Tom, in person or in print, you missed something special.”
O. Bruton Smith, the executive chairman of Speedway Motorsports and the subject of many Higgins stories over the decades, said in a statement Tuesday: “Tom was an absolutely great writer. I read all of his stories. I always enjoyed when he called me..... Talking to Tom was always one of the most positive things of my day. Everyone who followed racing will remember Tom Higgins. He was an expert storyteller who had an excellent sense of humor and a genuine appreciation for stock car racing.”
Even in his final years, Higgins retained an almost photographic memory of personal favorites like the 1958 Southern 500 (“I swear to God, the press box in Darlington was nothing more than a chicken coop on stilts”); the 1979 Daytona 500 (Higgins believed it had the best post-race fight ever) and the 1984 Firecracker 400 (in which Richard Petty got his 200th and final win in NASCAR’s top series in front of President Ronald Reagan). He also still remembered the feeling he had in 1957 of seeing a race car in action in North Carolina, a thrill that he would remember for the rest of his life.
“The first car I ever saw going around the track was a blue No. 42 Plymouth - Lee Petty,” Higgins said. “And I couldn’t believe a car could go that fast or that a man would be crazy enough to drive it.”
Getting to Charlotte
Higgins got his start as a sportswriter covering fast-pitch softball on a part-time basis for the Canton (N.C.) Enterprise. His first goal had been to be a pro baseball player. However, Higgins said: “I couldn’t solve the aerodynamics of a curveball.”
After working for a succession of other North Carolina newspapers, he retrieved a letter on Christmas Day 1963 from Ron Green Sr. — another future Charlotte Observer sportswriting legend who at the time was the sports editor for the rival Charlotte News. Green wrote that he maybe shouldn’t be telling Higgins this because he didn’t need more competition but that the rival Observer was soon going to have a job opening for an outdoors writer.
“I damn near jumped up and clicked my heels,” Higgins said in a recent interview with the Observer, “and I thanked Ron every time I saw him after that.”
“No need for him to thank me,” Green said in 2017. “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.”
Higgins loved breaking news and would drop everything when another story called — he would say that this is one of the reasons that his two marriages both ended in divorce.
But the stories he most remembered in his later years were about people, not topics. In the 1970s, for instance, he once drank a “Billy Beer” with Billy Carter, brother of the president, at the White House.
“Terrible beer,” Higgins said, “but good company.”
‘I shore ‘preciate it’
Higgins counted both Dale Earnhardt Sr. and his father, Ralph Earnhardt, as friends, as well as a number of other famous racers who respected Higgins for his work ethic and for covering the sport long before it went national.
As NASCAR Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett once said at an awards banquet in 2011 in a story that was later recounted by ESPN: “Tom was the voice of the sport when it came to the written word. My driving career goes all the way back to 1953. When I started winning races a few years later, you would go to Victory Lane and then go to talk to the media — we called it the press back then. It would be the track public-address announcer and Tom Higgins.”
As Richard Petty once told the Observer of Higgins: “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.”
Burned out by the near-constant travel and shaken by the deaths of many close friends in NASCAR — a number of them in racing accidents — Higgins retired from full-time work at the Observer in 1997 at age 60. He continued to contribute to the paper’s coverage on a freelance basis for more than a decade after that, however.
In his final column as a full-time Observer employee in 1997, Higgins reflected on how lucky he was to have had the life he wanted and thanked the newspaper’s readers. He concluded the column this way: “As they say back in the mountains of my native Yancey County, I shore ‘preciate it.”
Higgins is survived by two children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are incomplete.