My boss didn't think that fans would talk to me about this, but I was determined to try. I was also covering the race for the paper, so I flew to Indianapolis and hooked up with a friend who was using his personal car. This was the day before racing would start, so I figured my tough topic would be my big story for the next day's paper.
I didn't walk right up and accuse people of stupidity, with this story or one about a court trial. It's not my personality, and, frankly, confrontation usually doesn't work well.
At Indy, I'd start a conversation with a fan and soon get around to asking where he/she was going to sit on race day. They'd say in turn one, turn two, the backstretch or wherever, and I'd ask what they could see. "Not much," they'd invariably say. Some would explain that, sitting in turn one, they could see the entire frontstretch, plus turns one and two. The stands would block everything else.
That would be my lead-in. "Why do you come to a track where you can't see much? Why spend so much money on it?" Again, I wasn't being accusatory, just curious.
I talked to at least 20 people, and all of them laughed good-naturedly when I asked. They'd say they came to the Brickyard because of the history, to be with their friends, to walk down Gasoline Alley, to play the par-three golf course inside and outside the track, to visit the museum. Some went simply because it was a race on the schedule and they could get tickets.
I wove together a 28-inch story with nearly 20 voices that was my best story that year. I'm not bragging, just making a point. You can ask tough questions; it's all in the approach. I did it this way for dozens of stories in the 1990s.
I'd get confrontational if I needed to, perhaps after a driver's death on the track. But I found that a smile and a friendly personality — plus a genuinely curious manner — go a long way for a reporter.
More EDITOR@WORK blog entries
Blog entries from The Auto Racing Journal
(a book of great stories about the Intimidator)
(the book of great NASCAR stories)
More blog entries by Tom Gillispie
Anecdotes by Tom Gillispie