Higgins looks back at the early days of racin’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 16, 2013

SALISBURY — For any fan of good, old-fashioned racing, the kind they did in the moonshine-hauling days, Tom Higgins is a name they know.
Higgins was a longtime sports writer who covered his first race in September 1958 at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway. After much prodding from friends and fans, he has collected some of his columns, mostly from the early days of racing, hence the title, “Racing Into the Past: Tales from the Glory Days of Stockcar Racing: 1950s & 1960s.”
Legends like Junior Johnson, Lee Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Curtis Turner make their way through Higgins’ memories on these pages, especially Johnson, a convicted moonshine runner always larger than life who did incredible things on the racetrack — things that just don’t happen on modern tracks.
Higgins captures Junior’s enthusiasm for speed well. He tells the story of Junior’s appearance at Daytona in a Chevy, when everyone else was running faster, more powerful Pontiacs. Junior then had a discovery that has changed driving of all sorts from then on. In his slower car, he fell in behind the faster racecars, and quickly latched on to Cotton Owen’s bumper and stayed put. “Junior had discovered the phenomenon of the aerodynamic draft!” Higgins writes.
Junior tells the story to Tom: “The back glass popped out of Bobby’s (Johns) car and flew into the air. The sudden change in the airflow around Bobby’s car caused him to spin into the grass along the backstretch. By the time he got straightened out and back onto the asphalt I was long gone…Gone with the wind!” And Junior, in his slower car, won the race.
That’s just one of the good, old stories in this collection. You can hear Higgins telling tales as you read of now defunct, but exciting tracks, wild races, wild antics and his own journalism journey. Higgins worked in Asheville, Winston-Salem, Durham, and even ran the little weekly paper in his hometown of Burnsville, the Yancey Record, before going back to the big leagues.
Higgins joined the Charlotte Observer in 1964, and in 1980 became “the first ‘beat writer’ to cover every race on the grueling NASCAR Cup Series tour, a task he continued until taking early retirement in 1997.”
But, as readers of the Observer, and its racing website, Thatsracin.com know, he kept writing as a freelancer. He’s earned dozens of awards, including being named national motorsports writer of the year three times.
“Racing Into the Past” is a flavorful memoir of a sport that is still gaining fans. The nostalgia in the pages will surely make even a neophyte race fan smile. It should be required reading for those who only know the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Burton or Matt Kenseth.
Higgins will talk about and sign copies of his book on Friday, June 21, Arts Night Out in downtown Salisbury at the Literary Bookpost, 110 S. Main St.