We have always known around The Charlotte Observer that Tom Higgins is a hall of fame storyteller.
On Friday, NASCAR made it official.
Higgins, a larger-than-life character for half a century at our newspaper and still a contributor to our pages, was announced Friday as the fourth recipient of the Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR Media Excellence. Higgins will be honored during NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Jan. 30, 2015, and 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,” said Mike Persinger, the Observer’s executive sports editor.
The Observer was the first newspaper to cover every race in NASCAR’s top series. And for decades, Higgins was a star in NASCAR’s pressbox. He loved to laugh, loved to listen and, most of all, loved to tell stories.
“You knew when he was in the press box or the media center, and you knew when he was in the paper,” Persinger said.
Somebody better cut off Higgins’ microphone at a pre-determined time at the hall of fame induction ceremony in 2015. Otherwise, we will all be sitting there for another hour listening to Ol’ Tom talk about once having a beer at the White House with first brother Billy Carter in 1978, or watching Richard Petty lead a conga line of dancers in 1992, or seeing driver Harry Gant catch 19 rainbow trout in 19 casts during an Alaskan fishing trip in 1985 and then wade back onto shore, yelling, “I’ve got to get out of this water. They’re a-chasing me!”
On second thought, though, don’t cut off the microphone. Higgins at full throttle is one of life’s singular pleasures.
“One of the things that makes Tom special is that he is a natural storyteller, a skill that came in handy covering NASCAR,” Persinger said. “Writing about the pioneers of a sport that was intensely of the Carolinas and the South, Tom saw history firsthand and gave the characters life on the pages of the Observer.”
Higgins’ deep admiration for both the sport he covered and the men who built and raced those cars seeped through all of his writing. As Higgins once described the 1958 Southern 500 in Darlington, S.C., which was the first major stock-car race he covered: “Storybook stuff, only it was real. I never imagined that cars could go so fast, or that men would be crazy enough to drive them.”
By the time I arrived at the Observer in 1994, Higgins was already a local legend. He had grown up in the job, and NASCAR had grown up along with him. Once just a good ol’ Southern boy covering good ol’ Southern boys on dirt tracks around the South, Higgins had been sent as far away as Australia on assignment as NASCAR’s popularity skyrocketed.
As NASCAR hall of famer Ned Jarrett once said at an awards banquet in 2011 in a story 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. That was usually it.”
Higgins helped tutor me in the sport. Walking through a garage with Higgins was like having an all-access pass at a rock concert. He knew everyone, and everyone knew him. The Earnhardts, the Pettys, the Frances, the Bakers – Higgins was on a first-name basis with all of NASCAR’s first families.
And when tragedy struck the sport, as it did with some regularity during NASCAR’s earlier, more dangerous days, Higgins took the losses very hard. Those were his friends.
Always, with myself and others, Higgins was generous with his time. I didn’t know a lug nut from a spoiler at the beginning, but Higgins never made me feel foolish about it.
Higgins officially retired from our newspaper in 1997, but he has never totally left us. He has continued to write online and in print for both our racing and outdoors pages – he was originally hired by the newspaper as an outdoors writer, and his father had been a game warden.
When I wanted to take a couple of my boys fishing on Lake Norman in 2010, I asked Higgins to recommend a local guide. Not only did he hook me up with a great one, he also came along on the trip.
“I just love to see kids catch fish,” he drawled, and we caught a boatload that day.
But for most longtime Observer readers – and now forever in NASCAR’s hall of fame – Higgins’ name will be synonymous with racing. As Persinger said: “I was lucky enough to work with two legends of journalism early in my career, two men who always made me look better as an editor because they always had the goods. Ron Green Sr. was one. Tom Higgins is the other.”