07/30/04 — OPINION -- Howell had a true passion for racing

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OPINION -- Howell had a true passion for racing

By David Williams
Published in Sports on July 30, 2004 1:55 PM

When I first arrived at the News-Argus as a sports writer, I had set myself some goals -- the kind any sports fan would have set if he were handed a dream job.

With this occupation comes credentials -- free passes for events that people want us to cover and write about.

I could see myself going to the ACC Tournament, or courtside at N.C. State and Duke and Carolina as the basketball wars of Tobacco Road heated up. I wanted to be at Carter-Finley Stadium or Kenan Stadium for a few good ol' football battles, or down at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for East Carolina University and the party that follows Pirate football.

And I wanted to go to a NASCAR race.

I was never really a fan of the sport, but I wanted to go and get a taste of what it was like at Charlotte, or Richmond, or Rockingham or Darlington.

So far, I have never been to a race. With schedules, family and the day-to-day commitments of life, I have not found time to attend.

But it's not as if Jerry Howell didn't try his best to get me to go.

Jerry, who wrote the News-Argus' Pit Stop column faithfully for years, was a true ambassador of the stock-car world -- he was Goldsboro's ambassador. He knew every wrench-turner, every crew chief, every driver and every owner in every garage at every NASCAR track up and down the eastern seaboard. He went up and down the garage area and all over the infield, usually with a camera in his hand or slung around his neck, trying to uncover every aspect of the sport he loved and put it into perspective by the written word or the visual image.

Jerry was passionate about communicating the love he had for racing into every column he wrote and every photo he took. He wanted the reader to see that he loved his work -- and he wanted very much to get you to love it, too.

Jerry demonstrated that to me a few years back, when he was trying to get me to follow him to a race. We finally agreed that I would spend that weekend with him at Richmond, watching the Busch Series and Winston Cup Series races at Richmond International Speedway.

We planned it for a few weeks. When the assigned weekend came, something came up that kept me in town -- a hurricane that was roaring just off the coast.

Friday came and Jerry was waiting for me at the office. "Jerry," I said. "I just can't go. That storm is going to wipe out all the action this weekend, anyway."

Jerry sighed and gave me an understanding look. "O.K.," he said. "But there will be racing this weekend. And I'm going to see it."

The storm hit -- damaging North Carolina before sweeping into Virginia and blacking out most of the state. But while the Busch race did indeed get wiped out, Winston Cup Sunday arrived and the race went on -- with Jerry in the pits, as usual.

He saw that I did not get it, but he appreciated my trying to understand it -- the passion for racing that he shared with so many others. And Jerry was the rare bird that could express that passion to the reader in his column and with his photos.

He was not a professional journalist, but he represented the trade with honor and dignity and covered the sport with due respect and appreciation for what he was watching.

Jerry always appreciated a good seat, and he had good seats all the time for all the action. The local legend is that NASCAR's press credentials issued to our paper had Jerry's name on them for so many years that when one of our senior staff tried to get credentials for an upcoming trip, NASCAR informed him that Jerry Howell owned those credentials, and he would have to get them from Jerry if he wanted them.

He represented us well around the circles of racing journalists. And he brought to his readers a lot of information -- not so much because he considered it his duty, but because Jerry loved to let the true fan know as much about the inside of the racing world as he could demonstrate.

If only we all shared Jerry's passion in our own undertakings.

Jerry passed away Tuesday after a battle with cancer. He will always be remembered as a man who cared enough about the sport he loved to try and deliver it to as many people as he could. And while I never comprehended the depths of his love for racing, I always appreciated his desire and devotion to it.

God Bless, Jerry.