By CARA COOPER
Steve Waid never had any grand aspirations of being a NASCAR writer. In fact, when he was assigned to cover an event at Martinsville Speedway in 1970, he had never even been to a race.
“I had heard of Richard Petty and I had heard of Cale Yarborough and that was about it,” Waid said by phone Saturday.
Waid wasn’t even supposed to work for the Martinsville Bulletin. He came to Martinsville, the hometown of his now wife Margaret Bouldin, in the summer of 1970 after graduating from Old Dominion University. He was scheduled to leave for marine boot camp six months later, so Margaret’s father was going to get him a job at the American Furniture Company that he could work until he left.
But as he was driving into town, Waid said he passed by the Martinsville Bulletin office. Given his previous work as sports editor of the ODU newspaper, he decided to stop in to see if the paper was hiring sports writers.
“Here I am wearing a t-shirt and jeans, and I walk in and the first person I meet is the managing editor,” Waid said. “And I said, ‘Do you need a sports writer?’ and he said, ‘Yes we do, come on here in the back.’ So I took a spelling test and a current events test and got the job.
“It took about 30 minutes.”
Thirty minutes turned into a nearly 50 year career in sports reporting that culminated this week when it was announced Friday Waid is the newest recipient of the Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR media excellence. The award comes with an exhibit in the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a special recognition at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony next January.
Waid worked for the Bulletin for nearly two years, covering high school sports, Ferrum College athletics and NASCAR. College basketball was the biggest sport at ODU at the time, and that’s what Waid had hoped to cover when he began at the newspaper.
But given the paper’s proximity to Martinsville Speedway, his editor had other plans for him.
“Martinsville Speedway was a very, very important thing. And I was told I was going to cover it. I didn’t know anything about racing,” he said.
The first race he covered, Waid said he was “scared to death.” Sitting in the press box, he would bombard his seatmates with questions.
“It still was somewhat difficult for me to get a handle on what was going on,” he said. “One guy would lead the race and then the next lap another guy would lead the race. And I’d ask the guy next to me, what happened and he said, ‘The leader pitted, you fool!’
“There was a bunch to keep up with and I asked a lot of dumb questions, there no question about that.”
While the learning experience took time, Waid found an advocate in the Martinsville Speedway Public Relations Director at the time, Dick Thompson. Thompson knew the importance of local coverage of his racetrack, and knew the local writer had to know about racing. Thompson took Waid under his wing, showing him around the pits and introducing him to drivers.
“So with his guidance I was able to write my first story,” Waid said. “And I thought it was pretty good.”
Waid and Thompson’s friendship continued and grew beyond Waid’s time at the Bulletin, and Waid credits the late NASCAR media pioneer with helping him get his start in the sport.
For nearly two years Waid worked for the Martinsville Bulletin while also serving his time in the military. It was late 1971 when the Roanoke Times & World News asked him to come interview for a sports position. Roanoke covered Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia, giving Waid the chance to cover college basketball like he had wanted.
His first assignment was another unexpected one covering the Virginia Squires, an ABA team that played its home games in both Roanoke and Richmond.
“I thought, ‘here I go again into something I know very little about,’” Waid said. “I didn’t know anything about the ABA, never seen them play. They were pros. So I went up to the Roanoke Coliseum, saw the game and, this will date me a little bit, but the ABA team, the Squires, had a hot shot rookie by the name of Julius Irving.”
That same week, Waid covered a UVA basketball game, and fell in love with his new position at his new paper. Not only did he cover college basketball, but he also got to cover a college football game for the first time (ODU didn’t have a football team from 1941-2009).
Roanoke, however, brought Waid in to lead their NASCAR coverage, which he did for nearly a decade. His first race he covered was in “the big city of Atlanta.”
Waid initially had hopes of going to law school, and was accepted at a school in Baltimore, but turned it down because he fell in love with sports writing so much.
“After that first three days in Roanoke I knew what I wanted to do,” he said. “So I called Baltimore and said forget it. I’ve been chasing racecars ever since.”
FALLING IN LOVE WITH THE SPORT
While Waid may not have known much about racing when he first started covering it, he quickly learned how awe-inspiring seeing racecars compete in person really is.
“Personally it was a thrill to see cars going at the speeds they were going at. Faster and faster and faster,” he said. “I always told people you have to go to a race to appreciate the speed and the sound and the smell. Even if you don’t know anything about racing, just go.”
Waid’s first interview with a NASCAR driver was with the late Earl Brooks, a Lynchburg native who racked up 37 top 10 finishes in 262 career Cup Series races.
Their first conversation lasted more than an hour.
“He told me all kinds of stories about his days as a young man driving racecars and why racecars are built the way they are,” he said. “Basically that was terrific information for me and I got to thinking ‘this guy doesn’t know me at all, except he knows that I’m a rookie.’
“That’s the kind of experience you have with race drivers and I had over the years. It didn’t change until technology took over. You cannot really get that kind of accommodations today because they have so much to do.”
It was that experience with Brooks, and with nearly every driver he met thereafter, that made the biggest mark on Waid. What ultimately kept him coming back to each race was the people he met.
“I’ve found that racing drivers are the most accessible professional athletes there are,” he said. “They have no airs, there’s very little they won’t do for you. It’s easy to get a story from a race driver, very easy. They’re very accommodating and they always were, even for a rookie like me down there.”
Since leaving the Roanoke Times in 1981, Waid wrote for Grand National Scene, a weekly NASCAR publication, and he later became publisher of NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated monthly magazine. He remained with the magazine until his retirement in 2010. He served for 12 years as president of the National Motorsports Press Association, and also co-authored a biography on NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson.
Technology has obviously been the biggest change Waid has seen in his 48 year reporting career. Back then people would have to wait until the paper came out the next day for a full report on the races.
That technology has made the jobs fewer too, especially at newspapers where he got his start.
“Southern newspapers, southeast newspapers back in the day had racing writers. Every one had racing writers from Richmond to Daytona Beach,” he said. “Now, none of them have racing writers, and that’s all due to technology.”
But, while the way the sport is covered has changed, with media centers that bring drivers in to reporters, and immediate information at readers’ fingertips, the people in the sport haven’t.
“It’s still good. To me, they are still the best and most accommodating athletes,” he said. “They can’t do as much as they used to but they still are. And for me it made it fun. I enjoyed the sport itself. I enjoyed the competition but I can honestly say the thing I’ve enjoyed the most over the years has been the people.”
THE SQUIER-HALL AWARD
NASCAR created the Squier-Hall award in 2013 “to honor the contributions of media to the success of the sport.” The award is named for broadcasters radio broadcasters Ken Squier and Barney Hall. Waid said the honor is obviously the most significant accomplishment of his career.
“It means a lot. I’m very honored and I’m very humbled to receive this award because, to me, it doesn’t make me anything special but it makes me very appreciative because this award means to me that people took notes and they appreciated what I did. And that means a great deal,” he said.
While he’s won other awards in the past, Waid called the Squier-Hall “the highest one that can be bestowed upon you.”
It doesn’t mean he has plans to stop covering races though. Waid said he will be at Martinsville again this fall. He goes to about 10 races a year writing columns for the website PopularSpeed.com.
Not being in the trenches and filing deadline stories has, however, changed the way he attends races now, giving him more time to enjoy the atmosphere and catch up with his friends he’s made along the way.
“I enjoy just talking to people in the sport and knowing that I don’t have to really report on what they do,” he said. “I love doing that. But having the ability to just go and chat with Richard Petty about anything, politics, the whole nine, that’s great. It’s great to have a chance to do something like that. I do still participate in the sport but having the chance to do it the way I do it and more or less socialize with people instead of having to go and work, that’s a good feeling.”
The thrill of watching the cars speed by is something that Waid still loves more than anything. He suggest giving it a try. Who knows, others may find a love like he did that could carry them into a lifelong career.
“What I suggest you do is go down to the front grandstand and get as close to the flagstand as you can and stand there when the cars come roaring by,” he said. “It is an incredible experience. The rush of the wind, the roar of the cars and everything. It’s something you can’t experience watching on TV.”
This story first appeared in The Martinsville Bulletin.