It’s been some time since I’ve published anything in this space. I refrained from writing here in deference to my friends over at Bleacher Report, for whom I’ve been writing a regular NASCAR beat over the past year. But, that ends this week and I shall turn my attention back here.
Like many of my friends in the media and throughout the NASCAR and racing community in general, I was deeply saddened by the news of the passing of Denny Darnell. When he announced his retirement earlier this year, we exchanged emails and wished each other well. He was such a good guy. When I was battling cancer, his notes were always like a whiff of hot rubber from a race car that had just come off the track. They were a quick snapshot from someone I knew had written it to me from the front lines of the racing business while I lay in a hospital bed with a chemo bag attached to my arm.
Although I only knew Denny for a comparatively short time, we were good friends. We were not such good friends when we first met. And the story of how our friendship began is one that I always have loved to tell.
It started when he threw me out of the media center at the U.S. Nationals, the most prestigious drag racing event of the year.
Back in 1997, I was writing for one of the earliest motorsports news sites on the Internet, GoRacing.com. I was not only the main writer, I was the editor-in-chief and I took photographs, as well. We had a small staff of writers that covered the main motorsports here in North America, but I took a special interest in both Indy Cars and NHRA drag racing. It was in my attempt to cover drag racing that I met Denny.
Darnell ran the communications effort for the NHRA back then. I wasn’t sure what his affiliation was with the organization—whether he worked for the NHRA or R. J. Reynolds, the company that made Winston cigarettes, the title sponsor of what was then the NHRA Winston Drag Racing series.
Denny was very good at what he did and under his reins, the NHRA received a good deal of media coverage. But, then like today, it was mainly local newspapers (USA Today was just beginning to gain an audience) and local television and some specialized national television coverage.
I was able to get a credential for NHRA events as an Internet journalist only because the company that owned GoRacing.com that I worked for, also did the website for the NHRA. As an Internet pioneer, it was a strange time with limited phone lines available to me for use to file my work. I worked closely with Compuserve motorsports editor, the late Mike Hollander, who like me was an Internet pioneer and who helped me considerably.
Having a media credential at the prestigious U.S. Nationals didn’t mean I had a seat in the media center. Darnell had made sure that the limited space in the tower at the starting line that housed the media center was delegated to the newspaper reporters that had come to cover the event. Any left over seats were then assigned to the public relations person from selected drag racing teams. It made for an interesting mix of media and pr that was strangely incestuous.
My seat? It was in the room next to the deadline media area, alongside where the media was being fed. I didn’t complain. It was a seat and I had access to a phone line that was pretty good and my Internet speed was fast.
My view of the track however, was quite poor and while I could hear the cars, I couldn’t see the starting line and by the time my line of vision was able to see them, they were near the finish line. I guess that was OK, but I had hoped for something better.
I would often wander into the deadline room to get a much better viewing experience. From there, you could not only see the staging lanes where the cars were being pushed up to the starting line, but you had a view of the entire track. It was first class media room access whilst I had economy class. Darnell would let me walk freely around the media center, but he always kept a close eye on me. He had probably been thinking that this guy is making this Internet stuff up and he’s just angling for a free ticket to the event. He was partially right there, as I did enjoy the perks of journalism like the free tickets and free food..
On the day before the final elimination rounds, I had been hanging out with the writers from the Indianapolis Star and USA Today. They had the best seats in the media center, on the front row. The writer for USA Today was another old friend, Erik Arneson, who is now the VP of Media Relations for Fox Sports 1 in Charlotte and he’s written some very good books on drag racers John Force and Darrelll Gwynn as well as a wonderful bio of the legendary Mickey Thompson.
I was never trained as a journalist, but I can offer that I learned from working alongside some of the best in the business!
One of the writers from the Indy Star suggested that since the seat where I was sitting had been assigned to one of their writers who would definitely not be attending the final eliminations rounds, that I should move my computer to that seat and work from there on the day of the final eliminations.
The writer whose seat I would be using? Robin Miller, who now writes for RACER and appears on NBCSN’s Indy Car coverage. At that time he was a motorsports writer for the Indy Star, primarily covering Indy Cars. I guess he would show up at the U.S. Nationals once and a while.
So, on the day of the final eliminations, I showed up bright and early before anyone else and parked my stuff on the seat in the front row. It was spectacular. I would get to experience the biggest NHRA event of the year from the first class seats. It was bound to make my writing better. Hell, at that time, even the smallest things made my writing better.
As the room filled up with journalists for the big day of the finals, there I sat with the big kids for a chance to work alongside some real professionals.
Before the first pair of Top Fuel dragsters even got to the staging lanes, a very loud voice that could be heard over the rather loud din of the media room caught my attention.
“Margolis, what are you doing?” it said. it was Darnell. I turned to answer but before I could, “Get up from that seat and sit back where you are supposed to sit,” Darnell boomed out.
“But, I was told that I could sit here today,” I replied.
“By who? Not by me. Get your stuff and get back where you belong,” Darnell continued.
He wasn’t being very nice about it. And here I was, sitting amongst the big kids and Darnell was exposing me for who I was, just a lowly Internet journalist who was sneaking around, pretending to be a professional.
I walked over and tried to explain the situation, that Miller wouldn’t be there and that one of the Indy Star writers offered the seat to me. Darnell told me that the seat wasn’t the Indy Star writer’s to give up and that he, Denny Darnell, was in charge of everything in the room and if he wanted to give that seat to someone to use, it would be his choice to make.
“And you’re not going to get that seat,” Darnell said in a large voice. “Either get back to where you’re supposed to sit or get your stuff and get out.”
He was making clear to everyone there that this was indeed his media center and that he was in charge.
I went back to my now illegal seat in the front row and packed up my stuff.
As the then, editor-in-chief of GoRacing.com, I made the executive decision that my website was not going to give any more time or space to any motorsports organization that had a jerk like Darnell in their employ. And then to the dismay of the public relations representatives, who were losing a journalist who had offered them all the online space they wanted (back then, Internet sites weren’t made to look like today’s exercises in pop journalism) for their drivers and more importantly their sponsors, I walked out of the media center.
I think I heard a few claps from a journalist or three who actually supported my stance against the tyranny that Darnell used to run his media center.
Now, I’m not writing any of this to tarnish his reputation or to be negative in any way. I will admit, it was a difficult moment for both of us, as Darnell would later tell me. But, he ruled things with an iron fist and to his credit, the NHRA got more than its fair share of the media spotlight back then. Maybe even more than it does today.
Two years later, I ran into Darnell at the Daytona 500. It was a bit awkward at first, but by that time, he’d left the NHRA and was working in NASCAR. Things were different. I was now working on a nationally televised motorsports television show, Motorsports Weekly, as a producer and on-air talent. Darnell and I took a long walk through the infield of the Speedway that afternoon and we talked about a lot of things, none of them racing.
I had long since left the anger of being embarrassed and humiliated by him in my rearview mirror. And he was very different and very apologetic. He admitted that he felt that I was just trying to get into the race for free and that I had no intentions of writing anything, much less have anyone read it.
But by 2000, the Internet had exploded and it was the new medium and he acknowledged that I was indeed one of the pioneers of the medium and that I had deserved a lot more respect. And he apologized, of course.
It was the start of a long and enjoyable friendship with the man. We always joked about the U.S. Nationals episode. Over the years, he was also a trusted source for real news and information. His birthday was the day before mine and it always gave me the opportunity to remind him that indeed he was still seven years older than me.
It is a terrible sadness to think that he had to leave this life at such a young age. The world has lost one of the truly great southern gentlemen in Denny’s passing.
I am a better person having known and befriended him.