The news hit Jimmie Johnson like a sledgehammer to the knees. Johnson was taping a radio spot at the Performance Racing Network in Charlotte Tuesday afternoon when he got word that David Poole, who for my money was the top motorsports writer in the country, died of a heart attack at the age of 50 early this morning.
"David was the one writer who I felt I had to actually win the respect of," Johnson told me over the phone Tuesday afternoon. "And man, he didn't give it to me. I had to earn it. And it was very, very hard. All the drivers read him."
Indeed, as my friend, ESPN.com writer Ed Hinton, told me this afternoon, Poole was "like the school newspaper for NASCAR." The lead motorsports writer for the Charlotte Observer, Poole was to NASCAR what Peter King and Chris Mortensen are to the NFL. Put simply, he was the most authoritative voice in the sport.
The Observer was the first paper in the country to dispatch a fulltime writer to cover NASCAR. Poole considered the Observer the paper of record for the sport, and it was a responsibility he took seriously. He had been on the beat for 13 years, writing for the Observer and, more recently, doing a five-times-a-week radio show on Sirius from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. ET. I was a guest on Poole's show several times, and I always marveled at his seemingly bottomless pit of passion for NASCAR.
I haven't talked to Tony Stewart today, but I'm sure he's as upset about Poole's passing as anyone in the sport. Stewart, you see, had a special relationship with Poole. Nearly every time Stewart walked into the media center over the last few years, he'd spot Poole and ask him where the media buffet was. Poole, by his admission, was overweight. And Stewart, who's also battled weight issues, loved to poke fun at Poole, often joking that they should join forces and be teammates in an eating contest. But know this: Stewart only kids with those whom he respects. And in my eight years on the beat, I can report that I never once heard a driver say he didn't respect David Poole.
My own experience with Poole is a little like Jimmie Johnson's. When I started covering the sport in 2001, Poole was professional towards me, but hardly warm. But then, as we started seeing each other in places like Martinsville, Va., and Bristol, Tenn., and Homestead, Fla., we became friends, if for no other reason than it seemed like every track PR department seated the writer from the Observer next to the one from Sports Illustrated.
And whenever I asked Poole a question, he would always -- always! -- stop writing, consider what I was asking, and then give a thoughtful response. Just three weeks ago I queried him about Kurt Busch, wondering what I could point to in a story for SI that explained his recent turnaround in performance. Poole, as always, guided me in the right direction.
I chatted with my buddy Marty Smith, a NASCAR reporter for ESPN, this afternoon about Poole. "I went years without asking a question at press conferences because of the chance that David would disapprove," Marty told me. "David had this way of shaping opinion like no one else in the sport. He was like the Pied Piper of the media corps."
Indeed he was. A four-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association's George Cunningham Award as that organization's writer of the year, Poole is survived by his wife, Katy, sons Matthew and David, daughter Emily, and grandson Eli. Like everyone else who's involved with NASCAR, I will miss him.