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Archive for October 2009

Dick Thompson’s Philosophy On PR

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DickTheManThompsonI shared a great honor today with two of my predecessors.

Chris Browning, president of Rockingham Speedway, Chuck Martin, marketing manager with Carter Bank & Trust, and I all were asked to be pallbearers for Dick Thompson, the former vice-president of corporate communications at Martinsville Speedway. Dick was 74.

What we all have in common is that we worked under Dick’s tutelage. Chris came first, then Chuck and me. We had the opportunity to learn from the best. Today, we had a chance to trade stories and share some of the fun that Dick created. We stood graveside with some of his children and told stories. He would have loved it.

Our conversations have led me to write a little about Dick’s philosophy on PR.

Now, Dick grew up the son of Eugene “Pappy” Thompson the long-time sports editor for the Bristol Herald Courier. He was proud of his dad’s legendary status in Tennessee. Dick had his first reporting job as a teenage. After college, he became a sports writer and even had a short gig in TV before landing at the Roanoke Times.

Dick was a stick and ball sports guy who was thrown into the world of racing and NASCAR by the Roanoke Times. He also wrote a racing column that was well known throughout racing. H. Clay Earles, owner of Martinsville Speedway, recognized his talent and knowledge and asked him to be only the second PR guy in racing back in 1966.

By the time I started working at Martinsville Speedway, Dick had been there for 28 years. I had been a newspaper writer and photographer for seven years. He told me when I started that PR was really no different than working at the newspaper.

“Just think about the information that you need to write a story and give it to them. Make it easy for them. Write it like they would write it,” he said of the racing writers. “All you have to do is make it interesting enough, they’ll run it. Write about something no one else knows.”

One of the more memorable things he ever told me was, “If they don’t have it, they can’t run it.” For seven years, I lived by that philosophy.

That’s what made Dick so successful. He was a storyteller.

I started working at Martinsville Speedway in 1994 seven days before the spring NASCAR Winston Cup race. I had four days to figure out what was going on before NASCAR biggest series was at the track.

My first day on the job Clay Campbell, the speedway’s president, told me I had an interview with WDBJ 7 in Roanoke at 10 a.m. the next morning. I’m sure I looked dumbfounded. I remember asking him, “Are you sure.” Clay said something to the effect that you’re the PR guy and that’s what you do.

The next thing I did was go to Dick and asked him, “What am I suppose to say. I’ve only been here for five hours.”

Dick laughed and told me that it was no big deal. Just tell them how beautiful Martinsville Speedway is. Tell them how great the racing is. Tell them tickets are still available and, if you can, mention how good the hot dogs are.

“You can do it. Don’t worry about it,” he said.

Funny thing was the interview went just fine and the reporter seemed to lead me into saying everything that Dick told me to tell him. To this day, I think it was a set up to see if I could stand in front of a camera and spit out the words. That’s the kind of teacher Dick was. He stayed clam and would set you up for success.

Dick spent his time at Martinsville Speedway creating an image of the half-mile paperclip shaped track that made people want to be there. He always called it “beautiful Martinsville Speedway.”  He talked about the amenities that H. Clay Earles created. It was the image of the pond with geese and ducks and the train rolling down the backstretch during the race and the great view you have from anywhere at the track. He created an image of Martinsville Speedway that made people just want to come to try one of the “famous” Martinsville Speedway hot dogs. I have to say, I do love them and ate four this past Sunday.

Dick always told me to make sure we had something in the local papers the Sunday before our race. Mr. Earles wanted to read about Martinsville Speedway the weekend before the race. We would always have a few tickets remaining and a friendly reminder in the paper was important.

Being a true media guy he never really pulled for any particular driver. When asked whom he wanted to win a race he would say, “whoever will make the best story.”

In PR guy form, first on his agenda each day was picking up a biscuit and sweet tea at Hardees’ and he’d sit in his office and read the newspaper. After that, most mornings I’d go into his office and we would discuss whatever happened in sports or on TV the night before. He got me hooked on the X-files. I took a week’s vacation one year, at the time I was single, and he gave me about 60 episodes of X-files he had recorded. I watched them all. Years ago, my wife and son gave me all nine seasons on DVD, and I still watch the show regularly.

I always loved it when my extension would ring and in his quiet but distinctly baritone voice he’d say, “come here,” with a laugh. I knew he had a new joke. It was awesome when Clay Earles and Clay Campbell were there and they started telling stories. Mr. Earles, that’s what I always called him, and Dick would get started and it could go on for an hour. It was OK to blow an hour if you were sitting with the “boss”, (which we also called Mr. Earles and later Clay) Dick and Clay.

You never knew who might be sitting in Dick’s office that created part of NASCAR’s history. Sometimes it was guys who I had only seen photos of or heard about.

Having been a race fan since I was a kid, I always felt like I was in the presence of racing’s royalty as I sat there and listened to the stories. The fact is, I was.

Dick loved the first lap of the race. He told me, “The day I no longer get a tingle seeing the checkered flag drop, I’ll know it’s time to hang it up.” Despite his retirement after close to 40 years at Martinsville Speedway, I don’t think that day really every came.

I knew exactly what he was talking about. During my later years at the speedway, one of my duties was organizing the pre-race activities. As soon as whoever said “Gentlemen, start your engines,” I would go through the finish line gate, and walk though the crowd stopping to thank people for coming. That was very important to me. By the time I would get to the first turn, the green flag would fall and I would start to shed tears. I think I understood what Dick also felt. You work for six months for that one moment. You look at the crowd that you worked so hard to give an exciting day of racing, and all of a sudden it was overwhelming. I would eventually compose myself and walk up to the pressbox named after Dick and take my seat along side my mentor. To this day, I still love the first lap of the race. I haven’t missed one since I left the speedway.

There is no way to know how many people got their start in racing or found a better job because Dick would put in a good word for them. Steve Waid is an example. Steve got a job as a sports writer at the Martinsville Bulletin back in the early 70’s. Dick took him under his wing and taught him a lot about racing. He introduced him to drivers, gave him great story ideas and made sure he had everything he needed. Steve, to this day, has made his career in motorsports jouralism and has worked for NASCAR Scene for the past  26 years.

Waid wrote the foreword in Dick’s 2004 book A Funny thing Happened On The Way To The Checkered Flag…

In the foreword he said, “Thanks, Dick, for teaching me to have fun with racing. And now, dear reader, Dick gives you a wonderful opportunity to do the same thing.”

Racing was fun for Dick. He created the speedway souvenir race program for each race. One of Dick’s signature items that always appeared in the program was joke photos. He’d have a couple of pages in the program of photos from previous races with a cutline that says what they look like they might be saying.

On the cover of his book is a photo of Richard Petty in Victory Lane, after a win, with his dad, Lee Petty, standing off to the side kissing a girl right on the mouth (it was prevalent, back in the day, to have pretty girls in victory lane representing sponsors). He has Richard saying, “Uh Dad, Hey Dad. She’s supposed to kiss the winner. Dad? Hey, Dad.”

Dick’s book is a collection of stories from all his years in racing. It’s a hoot to read.

By the way, Precision Publishing in Charlotte, North Carolina, publishes the book. It is listed as unavailable at Amazon.com and the only place I know of right now that you can buy the book is at Clarence’s Steak House (one of Dick’s favorite places) in Ridgeway, Va., about two miles south of Martinsville Speedway. I gave my only copy to Associated Press writer Hank Kurz, Jr. last spring and made it a priority on Wednesday to get another copy.

If you find stupid errors in my writing just know that Dick is no longer here to edit my mistakes. That’s one of the reasons I loved him. He made me look better than I actually am.

He always told me, “It’s hard to edit your own copy, because you know what it’s suppose to say.”

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Written by stevesheppardphotography

October 30, 2009 at 6:20 pm

Posted in My personal stuff

My Traveling Companion Dick Thompson

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Dick Thompson was my traveling companion during my days at Martinsville Speedway. His funeral is tomorrow.

Dick was the vice-president of corporate communications, and I was the senior director of corporate communications. We were PR guys.

Every year we would go to races at Daytona, Rockingham, Darlington, Bristol, Richmond and North Wilkesboro when it was still running NASCAR races. Sometimes we would fly, but most of the time we drove the pace car so we could do the parade lap before the race. I think the parade lap, of other track’s pace cars, is probably a thing of the past now, but it was fun to make a lap around other tracks.

Friday’s at 9 a.m. was the usual departure time for other race venues. However, we usually didn’t actually get out of town until about 9:30 because Dick would have to stop at Hardee’s to get a large sweet tea for the road. We would always have to stop again to pick up a second tea somewhere along the way.

Some hotels we stayed in were better than others. For the Darlington race, we stayed at the Swamp Fox Inn.  It’s pretty much what you think it might be by the name. It was $25 a night normally and $79 on race weekend. The rooms had a bad smell in them and I was always glad when Dick lit up one of his Winston’s because the cigarette smelled better than the room.

We stayed in a really nice place in Johnston City, Tennessee. There was a mall next door, a Morrison’s cafeteria just down the street and a movie theater behind the hotel. That was like heaven for Dick.

Our regular routine was to drive straight to the track on Friday, stay in the media center though qualifying, check into the hotel, eat at the cafeteria and then go to a movie. On Saturday, we would go to the track, hang out in the media center, watch the race from the pressbox, go back to the hotel, eat at the cafeteria and then go to a movie. See a pattern here. Sunday’s we would go to the track early, drop off some copy about Martinsville Speedway to the track announcer, hang out in the infield and media center, watch the first 25 laps or so from the pressbox and head home. We had a lot of time to talk and get to know each other. It was an opportunity for me to learn PR.

The reason we did all of that was because Dick believed if we were seen it would remind the racing writers of Martinsville Speedway and maybe they would do a story. We chatted with the media and when we got an opportunity we would mention something we were doing in Martinsville. We were friends with the media, but we were also trying to stir up story ideas.

Walking around the infield with Dick was like getting a living history lesson. He knew everyone and they all loved him. He would stop and talk to Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip and every other big name in the pits. What was really interesting was when we might run in to someone like Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Barney Hall, Ned Jarrett and others who have been part of racing over the years. Dick was friends with them all, and I had the opportunity to listen to their stories just because I was with Dick. He loved telling the stories.

Dick had been around for a long time too. He covered racing for the Roanoke Times before he came to Martinsville Speedway in 1966. His dad, Eugene, was the long-time sports editor of the Bristol Herald Courier.

Sometimes a fan would mistake him for Benny Parsons. He would go along as if he was and just laugh about it when the fan left. He was always nice to the fan and said after one mistaken identity in Daytona, “Benny would have been proud of that performance.”

Dick loved the movies. He knew about all the movies currently in theaters and he always picked the films we would see. He kept a list of his favorite 100 movies.

Every year when we were at Daytona for a week, we would leave the track and go to Disney or Universal Studios. We would go to the shows and do some of the rides. We were two grown men just having a blast at a place built for kids.

In Daytona, we always ate at Steak & Shake for lunch. One of the last times that I saw Dick, I bought him some chili at Steak & Shake and dropped it by his home.

More tomorrow…

Written by stevesheppardphotography

October 29, 2009 at 6:52 pm

Posted in My personal stuff

My Mentor, Dick Thompson, Passed Today

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I have been out of NASCAR racing for eight years. I was Martinsville Speedway’s Director of Corporate Communications for seven years. I attended H. Clay Earles funeral. I attended Dale Earnhardt’s funeral.

On Friday, I will be at my best friend’s funeral, during all of those years, Dick Thompson. Dick died today.

I have to say up front, I love Dick Thompson. He is the kindest, gentlest, loving, sweetest, caring man I have ever known. He also defined public relations in NASCAR.

It’s now time to qualify everything I write. Let’s take my father (Isaac Sheppard) out of the conversation. At the same time, I will apologize to everyone who did something for me after my father’s death in 1999. I never wrote thank you notes because I rejected the fact that he ever died. I had special stationary printed just to send out thank you notes that were never written. I could not admit it happened. Dick Thompson was there, and I remember stopping to hug him on the way out of the service.

Dick Thompson was like my second father. I loved him as if he was my father. We basically spent most of our waking hours together for seven years. We worked together, traveled together, he told me stories about racing and treated me with absolute respect. He was my mentor and my teacher. He not only taught me about public relations, he taught me life.

Over the next few days, I will write about the man, the myth’s he created and the love he had for his family. I will write about his patience after his wife’s stroke and his perseverance through cancer. I plan to do this because I want anyone who is willing to read to know what a special person he was.

Written by stevesheppardphotography

October 28, 2009 at 8:25 pm

Posted in My personal stuff

…And More From Martinsville Speedway

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Here’s a few more. All the photos from Sunday’s race were shot with an Olympus E-3 and 50-200mm lens with 1.4 extender.

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October 26, 2009 at 10:33 am

Posted in Sports

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More From Martinsville Speedway

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A few more photos from high atop my perch at the Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway. That’s the King Richard Petty speaking to the crowd in the first photo.

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October 26, 2009 at 10:22 am

Posted in Sports

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Martinsville Speedway Sprint Cup Race

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I was working off the top on the first turn grandstand on photographer’s row yesterday at the Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway. Here is some of what I saw. Wish I had one of those hot dogs (fourth photo) right now. I only got to eat four yesterday.

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October 26, 2009 at 9:55 am

Posted in Sports

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A Few More Trucks With The E-P1

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I shot the truck race on Saturday at Martinsville Speedway with the Olympus E-P1 and 17mm lens. Here’s a few more photos to go with the previous post.

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Written by stevesheppardphotography

October 26, 2009 at 9:39 am

Posted in Olympus E-P1, Sports

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