Interview of a lifetime
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- It's my earliest memory as a young race announcer. I was 23, nervous and full of ambition -- perhaps too much.
The "men who run by the grace of God and 800 horsepower," that's what purists call the NASCAR Modified Series, were well into the Connecticut Classic 150 at Stafford Motor Speedway. As the open-wheeled ground pounders circled the half-mile nearing the checkers, two cars crashed in turn three. Emotions ran high and post-wreck sparks ignited; the two incensed drivers exchanged words and even bumpers after the crash.
Not giving the situation a second thought I instantly grabbed the wireless microphone, broke into a full sprint and caught up with one of the embattled drivers. Breathless and excited I asked the obvious -- what happened?
What transpired on the other end of the microphone was unexpected and this na´ve track reporter was completely unprepared for it. In a profanity-laced tirade that driver lashed out at the other -- Ed Flemke Jr. He was incensed and not censored. For that he was fined and to my recollection suspended from the next event.
That driver was Tom Baldwin.
Later that night, track owner Jack Arute Sr. sat me down. He wanted to discuss the interview. Convinced I had just lost my job, I sunk down in a chair awaiting my fate.
Surprisingly, though, Jack liked my question. He said it showed guts. Vividly I remember him saying with a chuckle, "You would have never asked that if you knew who Tom Baldwin was."
That story was among my first thoughts when I learned Baldwin was tragically killed this week in a racing accident. I share it with you, not to disparage the memory of a good man but to give you an understanding of who he was and how many people he touched.
Looking back, Jack was probably right; I would've been pretty intimidated. Baldwin was a very big man with an even bigger personality. During an emotional interview Saturday even his son Tommy Baldwin Jr. said his father was "ornery."
Tommy did put things in context though, asserting that his father's intensity stemmed from his passion. That passion was obvious to anyone who ever had a single conversation with the man. Baldwin Sr. was consumed by racing and was never shy about sharing his opinion on developing issues in the sport. His love for racing took a back seat to only one thing, how proud he was of his son.
Perhaps that's the reason why Tommy Baldwin Jr. is still in Michigan this weekend attending to crew chief duties for Kasey Kahne. As an impressionable boy Tommy learned the trade tinkering around his father's shop. He quickly developed a knack for set-up and strategy working on his father's car. But the most important thing he learned from his dad was work ethic.
"He'd be pretty disappointed if I went home right now," Baldwin Jr. said. "Hopefully we can get a win for him."
The potential Cinderella finish Sunday isn't a complete fantasy. Kahne and Baldwin finished second at Michigan in June.
Few things would be a more fitting tribute to Baldwin's memory than Kahne getting his first career Nextel Cup win. While his familiar 7NY was always Baldwin's top priority, anything Tommy junior worked on was a close second.
Recently Baldwin helped coach Kahne as he prepared for a promotional exhibition modified race, which was held at Thompson Speedway, the same Connecticut track where Baldwin lost his life.
Undoubtedly Kahne will carry that memory forever. But he's not the only one who Baldwin impressed upon. Tommy Jr. estimates between 30 and 35 current Nextel Cup team members can be linked to his father's race car.
In Feb. 1997, after winning a modified race at the New Smyrna Speedway in aggressive fashion, Tony Stewart was asked about his propensity for using the bumper. Sarcastically, but affectionately, he said he learned that by watching Tom Baldwin win the CARQUEST 300. That event, televised from Stafford in 1996, was Baldwin's last win.
From Long Island to Richmond, from Loudon to New Smyrna and at every modified bullring along the way there will be stories told about the late Tom Baldwin. Not just this week but for years to come.
During our countless conversations, Tom Baldwin always provided insight, opinion and unsolicited guidance. Never once though did he ever mention that first interview. While reporters wrote that I should have let him cool off before the interview, Baldwin never questioned my judgment. Would I do it again? It's hard to say but one thing's for sure: It has left the most lasting memory of any interview I've ever done.
Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.
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