Rock bottom came for me on October 2, 1992 in the media parking lot of North Wilkesboro Speedway.
There was nothing left to lose back home in Nashville. I'd gone through the agony of a divorce, 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, and my job prospects were going nowhere fast. I was working as a telemarketer, a "profession" I absolutely despised with every ounce of my being.
I'd moved back to North Carolina a few weeks before, trying once again to find my way into the wondrous world of NASCAR. I had no job, no money and very nearly no home. I was being paid nothing for the stringer work I was doing for the newspaper in Columbia, Tennessee -- nothing for the stories I filed, no expenses, no nothing. The only thing I got out of the deal was a press pass.
Having covered a race at Martinsville 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.
I'd met fellow reporter Jerry Lankford in the Bristol press box several weeks before, and I asked him if I could borrow a quarter to make a phone call. I had not told Jerry anything about my circumstances, but I guess he sensed them. Jerry gave me two dollars, and that's what I used to buy my dinner that night ... a small bag of potato chips and a Baby Ruth candy bar.
After practice and qualifying that day, I waited until every other media member had 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 ate the potato chips slowly, one at a time. After they were gone, I chewed every bite of the candy bar until there was nothing left to chew.
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, and I was more than 400 miles away from my son. 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 ...
Chips and a candy bar are no way to live.
Oh, God, please ...
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. They were, in many ways, my rock stars -- Deb, Steve Waid, Joe Whitlock, David Green, Gary McCreadie, Gene Granger, Ben White and even the folks who freelanced for Scene like Mike Hembree and Ray Cooper.
More than two years had passed since I first contacted Deb and Steve about the possibility of writing for them, and for more than two years, they'd put me off. They'd finally consented to let me file a story on Robert Callicutt, a gasman for Richard Petty's team who'd been badly burned during a pit stop. Filing a story is one thing, but actually seeing it in print is another matter entirely.
Deb told me my story was going to run in the next week's issue. It wasn't a full time job, it was just one story, 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 again saw Jerry.
"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 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 drove from Gastonia to Sparta to interview for the gig. By the time I made it back "home" to the motel, I had a call that I'd gotten the job. It was mine. I was officially the sports editor for The Alleghany News. I started on October 15, 1992, twenty-two years ago tomorrow.
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'd heard the words of Psalm 30:5b many times before, but that day, I lived them.
Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.