Over thousands of backstretches and hundreds of checkered flags, David Poole made himself into more than one of the nation's leading authorities on NASCAR. He became a part of the sport he loved.
“David Poole was as much a fixture in this sport as the actual cars themselves,” driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Tuesday. “He was a one-of-a-kind individual and an extremely talented writer.”
Poole, who covered racing for the Observer, died of a heart attack Tuesday at his Stanly County home. He was 50.
A native of Gastonia, N.C., Poole became the Observer's NASCAR writer in 1997. He built a national following through ThatsRacin.com and a daily program he hosted on Sirius NASCAR Radio.
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The National Motorsports Press Association four times named him its writer of the year. He wrote about the sport with the enthusiasm of a fan and the critical eye of a journalist.
“He could be controversial from time to time but he always wrote and spoke what he believed,” said Richard Childress, president and CEO Richard Childress Racing. “He didn't pull any punches with anybody and that's what people respected about him. He was good for the sport.”
To honor Poole, Sirius plans to broadcast a tribute this morning. NASCAR plans a moment of silence before Saturday's race at Richmond.
“He was truly one of the nation's best and he always wrote what he believed,” said Bruton Smith, chairman and CEO of Speedway Motorsports. “Whether you agreed with him or not, he made us all think, and that's what the best writers do. He cared about what he did and had a passion for his work. It came through in what he wrote every day.”
In announcing Poole's death to a hushed newsroom Tuesday afternoon, Observer editor Rick Thames called him “the best in his field, there's no doubt about that.”
Thames said: "David Poole was the fans' reporter, always covering NASCAR with their sensibilities in mind. Their passions were his passions. Their values, his values. If that occasionally clashed with the powerbrokers of the sport, so be it. David told it like it was. And by doing that, he made the sport richer and more genuine for all who love it."
As word of his death spread, tributes poured in from throughout the NASCAR community.
“So sorry,” a reader named Scott wrote on one message board. “I've been ragging on Poole for years through e-mails and his blog. One thing about him, he would always answer back.”
“I listened to him every day on Sirius, even this morning, in all his glory ranting, like only David could, about Talladega!!!” Leslie from Arlington, Tenn., wrote. “His honesty and truth were greatly cherished.”
After dramatic weekend crashes at Talledega – one of which sent two spectators to hospitals – Poole criticized the track's design in a column headlined “Will it take a death for Talladega to change?”
“It seems we've decided we can live with that much damage being done to the sport's customers for ‘good racing,'” he wrote. “How many people have to be listed in ‘guarded' or ‘critical' condition before we say that's too much?”
Roger Curtis, president of Michigan International Speedway, said Poole “made our sport better by expecting as much out of us as he did himself and, believe me, he was never shy about holding us to his standard.”
“David's stature and influence put him atop his profession, and his talent and colorful personality will be greatly missed not only at Daytona but other race tracks across the country,” said Robin Braig, president of Daytona International Speedway.
A big heart
Poole graduated from journalism school at UNC Chapel Hill in 1981. He took a job at the Virginian Pilot in Norfolk but was there just two months when he got a call from the Gastonia Gazette, where he eventually became sports editor. In 1989 he left for a newspaper in Palm Beach but returned a year later for a job at the Observer in part to be closer to his family.
After taking over the motorsports beat from Tom Higgins a few years later, it didn't take him long to make his mark.
“I'd go in restaurants in Mooresville and people would say, ‘Did you read what Poole wrote today?'” Higgins said. “And I'd say that's the first thing I read.”
Early last year, Poole told the story of Wessa Miller, a Kentucky girl with spina bifida and a passion for Dale Earnhardt. He recounted how in 1998 she met her idol at the Daytona 500, a race Earnhardt had never won. She gave him a lucky penny, which he glued to his dashboard before going on to win his first 500.
A few months after he wrote the story, Poole learned that Wessa's father faced unexpected heart surgery. Poole started an account called “Pennies For Wessa” to help the family through its troubles.
“My fondest memories of David will always be his unconditional desire to help those in need,” said Mike Davis, a spokesman for JR Motorsports. “Nobody had a bigger heart. He used his platform as a tool to positively influence those less fortunate, and that is the David Poole I will always remember.”
The racing community came together Tuesday to pay tribute to a writer they saw as one of their own.
“Without driving a car or turning a wrench, David Poole was a racer,” said team owner Rick Hendrick. “He will be sincerely missed.”
Staff writer Jim Utter contributed.