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Fri, Oct 24, 2014

WOODY: Carver built racing empire from ground up

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Joe Carver, who died last month of cancer at age 76, never won a stock car race.

As far as I know, he never even got behind the wheel. But, it was Carver and a handful of other dedicated men like him who helped turn NASCAR into one of the nation’s premier spectator sports.

The greatest race in the world doesn’t mean a thing if nobody knows about, and it was his job to spread the word.

Carver was a racetrack public relations person, starting out at Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway in the 1960s, and eventually, moving to Langley Speedway in Virginia. After retiring, he spent his final years in Concord, N.C., occasionally assisting some of the racing teams in that area.

He understood the power of the press. He realized that media coverage is the life-blood of every sport.

Back in the early days, the media tended to give stock car racing a short shift, and Carver was determined to see that didn't happen.

In the late-1960s, I was going to college and working part time at The Tennessean. One afternoon, the sports editor called me into his office and told me to go to the fairgrounds and interview Richard Petty.

I had two questions: Where is the Fairgrounds? Who is Richard Petty?

I’d never been to a racetrack or seen a race.

"Ask for Joe Carver," the sports editor said. "He’ll help you out."

I did, and a lifelong friendship was born.

Carver introduced me to Petty and walked me through an interview, in which he asked most of the questions. Later, as I typed the story, Carver hovered over my shoulder offering gentle suggestions.

The first racing story that carried my byline was written mainly by Carver.

Joe had the instincts of P.T. Barnum.

He knew what would generate the public’s interest and was constantly hustling story ideas to the Nashville media.

Once, a few days before a big race at the fairgrounds, he called the newspaper and asked me to come out and interview a driver he had brought in for some pre-race publicity -- some guy from North Carolina named Dale Earnhardt.

I explained to Carver that I was stuck in the office. Back then, I worked on the copy desk, in addition to writing, and I didn’t have time to go out to the track. Carver said that was no problem – he would bring Earnhardt to me.

Shortly afterward, Carver escorted a reluctant Earnhardt into the sports department.

Earnhardt slumped into a chair and – prodded by Carver – and mumbled through an interview. In then ensuing years, Earnhardt and I became good friends, and he would often joke about getting “dragged around” by Carver.

Carver also served a stint as Darrell Waltrip’s PR person. (I once asked him what his title was, and he laughingly replied, “servant.”)

The likeable Carver often ran interference for the sometimes-acerbic Waltrip. Whenever he peeved some thin-skinned media type, Carver could smooth things over.

Carver was a goodwill ambassador for racing. He was easy going, with a terrific sense of humor. Everybody liked him and liked to work with him. He devoted his career to drumming up publicity for the sport on every level – from Saturday night fender-benders to the big league Cup Series.

In those early days, PR people had to hustle to sell racing, and nobody did it better than he did.

He suggested story ideas to the press, and nudged reporters into doing them. He brought the media and drivers together. He made covering racing fun.

He was more than my mentor; he was my friend. I’ll miss him, and so will the sport he helped build.

Part of NASCAR’s problem today is that it doesn’t have more Joe Carvers.

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Joe Carver, NASCAR, Racing, Sports
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