[Editor’s Note: This is part one of a three part series.]
At the time, I was in way over my head. Pleasingly, though, I was oblivious to that so I just kept sputtering along, doing the best I could. And it was working.
At 19, I was practicing newspaper journalism and tapping out obituaries on an old Royal electric typewriter. If I got lucky, Jean, who used a sleek IBM Selectric, would go to lunch so I’d run over to her desk and whip out two obituaries, rapidly.
“Jesus said, ‘Let the dead bury the dead,’” I announced to a coworker as I put the dust cover on the old Royal. “I prefer cheering to tearing up and dying off.”
With those words, I became a sports writer. Granted, I barely knew much but I learned all the game rules and so much history that I can still tell you how much money Yankees player Mickey Mantle made in 1968 and quote biographies of John Heisman and Dr. James Naismith.
There was plenty of joy in those early years. It was exciting to attend college bowl games, sit in a press box for the Atlanta Braves with men reporters more than twice my age, and to interview Hall of Fame coaches Bobby Dodd, Vince Dooley, Frank Broyles, and racers Richard Petty and Al Unser.
One man I met in those early days quickly turned from friend to a powerful mentor. To this day, I think of him as a beloved favorite Uncle.
I don’t remember the exact moment or the particular situation that brought me into Gordon Pirkle’s world. Normally, I can recount thoughtfully such key meetings. It seems that Gordon was always there though I know he wasn’t. Then as now, my days brighten immensely when I see him.
Gordon, in the 1980s, had no idea what the good Lord Almighty had in store for him. How accidentally, he would think of a gimmick – just come to him clear out of the blue – that would make his business, the Dawsonville Pool Room, world famous and raise Gordon to iconic heights from the red dirt back roads of his hometown in the Appalachian foothills.
George Elliott and his race team of sons Ernie, Dan, and Bill were trying to take on the big guys and big money of NASCAR stock racing. Like me, they appeared to be in over their heads – at least, in the beginning, but this would change quickly. We mountain people are stubborn, unpleasant at times, resourceful, and it never occurs to us that we can’t fit in just fine wherever we go. Petty chuckled the first time he saw their humble car and ragamuffin crew in Rockingham, North Carolina.
In short time, no one laughed anymore. Dawson County, Georgia, a moonshining capitol of historic proportion, had turned out another set of formidable stock car racers. These men would set speed records never imagined (or equalled). So, Detroit began sending engineers with master’s degrees, hoping to learn what the mountain boys had figured out before MIT or Georgia Tech could.
It began as just a story of local color. But steadily, it grew to one of national curiosity and, since us mountain people stick together, I always had the inside scoop thanks to George Elliott who taught me the technicalities of racing and Gordon Pirkle who schooled me in its history. These two men had known each other all their lives. They had mutual trust and respect for each other and their neighbors which made them akin to a set of favorite college professors.
I have never met a man kinder to everyone than Gordon. He was critical in contributing to the legacy that became a cottage industry for Dawsonville, Georgia. While the Elliotts made history, Gordon made hamburgers, keeping the endless trail of reporters happy with homemade food and the old racing stories he dramatized.
Next week, we’ll look at Gordon’s place in history.
[This is the first of a three-part series. Sign up for Ronda’s free weekly newsletter at www.rondarich.com.]