Who we are as writers is a direct result of who we are deep, deep down inside as people.
Of course, a lot goes into making us who we are. For me, it’s the entirety of those life experiences that cause me to strive to be a better person tomorrow and vow never to return to the circumstances in which I found myself during those long ago yesterdays.
One night in particular changed everything for me. It was the night I hit rock bottom, the end of my rope, the worst night out of many, many bad ones. It was late Friday, October 2 and the earliest-morning hours of the following day in 1992, and I was in the media parking lot of North Wilkesboro Speedway.
I’d gone through the agony of a divorce back home in Nashville, and after my ex-wife remarried, my son Richard was calling another man Daddy. That was a pain unlike anything I’d ever experienced, even more than the breakup of my marriage.
I’d moved to North Carolina a few weeks before, trying to find my way into the wondrous world of NASCAR. I had no real job, no money and very nearly no home. I was being paid nothing for the stringer work I was doing — nothing for the stories I filed, no expenses, no nothing. The only thing I received was a press pass.
Having covered a race in Martinsville, Virginia the week before, I wound up sneaking food out of the press box for dinner and sleeping in my car. The plan was to do the same the next weekend in North Wilkesboro, but when I arrived, it didn’t take long to figure out that meals wouldn’t be provided to the media until race day on Sunday.
It was Friday morning, and I had not a cent to my name. Panic set in. I was devastated. Scared. Hungry. And worst of all, completely alone. There was nowhere to turn. More than two decades have passed since that day, and even now, I can smell the personal-sized pizzas other reporters were able to buy from the concession stands.
After practice and qualifying that day, I waited until every other media member left the grassy parking lot behind the frontstretch grandstands. No way did I want them to see me setting up shop for the night in my car, and in that car in particular.
The next twelve hours or so were the longest — and emptiest — of my life. I cried that night, not knowing how things were going to turn out. I was more than 400 miles away from anybody I knew well enough to ask for help. I tried to pray, but had no eloquent words. There weren’t even any complete thoughts … all I could manage was the same basic phrase, over and over again.
Oh, God …
I was scared and saw no way out of the fix I was in.
Oh, God …
Oh, God, please …
Oh, God …
Sleep was next to impossible. As soon as day broke, I washed off, changed shirts and walked to the garage. Not long afterward, I ran into Deb Williams, the editor of Winston Cup Scene.
In the NASCAR world, Winston Cup Scene reigned supreme. It was The New York Times, Washington Post and Sports Illustrated of NASCAR, and its writers were the best of the best. Deb let me know a story I’d written was going to run in the next week’s issue. It wasn’t a full time job, but it was at the very least an opening. Maybe I did belong. Maybe.
I headed to the press box overlooking the track, and it was there that I encountered Jerry Lankford, a reporter for the local newspaper in Wilkes County.
“Rick, I don’t know why I didn’t tell you about this yesterday,” he began. “The family that owns the paper I work for owns another one not far from here, and they need a sports editor. Would you be interested?”
Before I could stop myself, I bellowed, “YES!!!” I didn’t ask about the details, because they didn’t matter in the least. I didn’t ask where the paper was located — it turned out to be in a little town in the mountains of North Carolina called Sparta — or how much it paid. All I cared about was that it was a job, and even better, it was a job with an established newspaper.
Just a few days later, I had my interview. By the time I made it back “home” to the motel where I was staying, I had a call that I’d gotten the job. I was officially the sports editor for The Alleghany News. I started on October 15, 1992 and almost exactly two years later, I landed my dream gig when I was hired as a full-time staff writer for Winston Cup Scene.
Amen … amen … and amen!
Some would call it a simple coincidence that I’d learned of my story running in Winston Cup Scene and the job possibility on the morning after such a terrible, dark, lonely night. No. No way. God heard the simple prayers I prayed that night, and He honored them.
I’ve never forgotten that night. I certainly never want to go back to those kinds of circumstances again, but I don’t want them to slip entirely from my mind, either. I want to remember the bad times so I can rejoice all the more in the good. I want that kind of raw emotion to be present when I write.