Tom Sorensen

‘It’s only booze.’ A story to remember about Tom Higgins and a few NASCAR greats.

NASCAR drivers and crew members deeply respected Tom Higgins, especially his contemporaries, recalls retired Observer columnist Tom Sorensen. They understood that he understood them.
NASCAR drivers and crew members deeply respected Tom Higgins, especially his contemporaries, recalls retired Observer columnist Tom Sorensen. They understood that he understood them.

Tom Higgins, 80 years old and the Charlotte Observer’s longtime NASCAR and outdoors writer, died Tuesday. Tom had a stroke August of 2017, and never came all the way back.

To remember Tom is to remember images and stories about Tom. Here’s a story.

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I didn’t know NASCAR. I was new to the sport and to the South, the region in which it thrived. I knew who Richard Petty was. I knew little else.

After covering my first race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Tom was nice enough to invite me to a party at his house. Drivers were there, among them the late, and ever so talented, Tim Richmond. I remember talking to Richmond, who is from Ohio, and he talked about how NASCAR would be big there.

Tom summoned me into a room where he and several others were on their knees. Tom was at the front, and as they knelt, Tom chanted. It was as if they were all paying homage to a pagan god. They were paying homage – to the moonshine they were about to drink. Tom might have transported it to Charlotte from the mountains in which he was raised. I declined to join them.

“Come on,” I told Tom. “It’s only booze.”

Five minutes later, Tom yelled my name. I walked into the kitchen, and he handed me a glass of moonshine.

I smelled it, and realized the only way I could drink it was to guzzle it. The hooch needed to be down my throat before I changed my mind or tasted it. I had to drink it. I liked Tom, and wanted to play by his rules.

I guzzled. The alcohol is the first and last I could feel in my toes.

“It’s only booze,” Tom said.

JuniorJohnson2012
Legendary NASCAR driver Junior Johnson (right) was among the drivers that Tom Higgins (center, behind Johnson’s arm) introduced to retired Observer columnist Tom Sorensen. Above, Johnson and Higgins sign autographs for fans and to help promote the Stocks for Tots Foundation. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Tom introduced me to the great Junior Johnson, and we went to Junior’s house in the foothills, where he regularly made breakfast for visitors. I’m still full.

Tom introduced me to so many drivers, and if he said I was OK, they believed it. Drivers and crew members deeply respected Tom, especially his contemporaries. They understood that he understood them.

When a driver suffered a tragic accident, Tom hurt as if he was a family member. They made showing up at the race track and writing about racing tough for him – tougher, I suspect, than most of us knew.

Tom was an intermediary, a connection between those that went three wide in a corner and those that watched from the grandstand, infield or living room.

Fans might see a race. But the result was not official until they read what Tom wrote about it.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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