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Column: My days brighten immensely when I see Gordon Pirkle
Ronda Rich
Ronda Rich

At the time, I was in way over my head. 

Pleasingly though, I was oblivious to that, so I just kept sputtering along, doing the best I could. And, it was working.

At 19, I was practicing newspaper journalism and tapping out obituaries on an old Royal electric typewriter. If I got lucky, Jean —  who used a sleek IBM Selectric —- would go to lunch. So, I’d run over to her desk and whip out two obituaries, rapidly.

“Jesus said, ‘Let the dead bury the dead,’” I announced to a coworker as I put the dust cover on the old Royal. “I prefer cheering to tearing up and dying off.”

With those words, I became a sports writer. Granted, I barely knew much, but I learned all the game rules and so much history that I can still tell you how much money Yankees player Mickey Mantle made in 1968 and quote biographies of John Heisman and Dr. James Naismith.

There was plenty of joy in those early years. It was exciting to attend college bowl games, sit in a press box for the Atlanta Braves with male reporters more than twice my age, and to interview Hall of Fame coaches Bobby Dodd, Vince Dooley, Frank Broyles and racers Richard Petty and Al Unser.

One man I met in those early days quickly turned from friend to a powerful mentor. To this day, I think of him as a beloved uncle.

I don’t remember the exact moment or the particular situation that brought me into Gordon Pirkle’s world. Normally, I can thoughtfully recount such key meetings. It seems that Pirkle was always there, though I know he wasn’t. Even today, my days brighten immensely when I see him.

In the 1980s, Pirkle had no idea what the good Lord almighty had in store for him. He never imagined that he would think of a gimmick, out of the blue, that would make his business, the Dawsonville Pool Room, world-famous. Little did he know, he would raise himself to iconic heights from the red dirt back roads of his hometown in the Appalachian foothills.

George Elliott and his race team of sons — Ernie, Dan and Bill —  were trying to take on the big guys and big money of NASCAR stock racing. Like me, they appeared to be in over their heads in the beginning. 

We mountain people are stubborn, unpleasant at times and resourceful. It never occurs to us that we can’t fit in just fine wherever we go. Petty chuckled the first time he saw their humble car and ragamuffin crew in Rockingham, North Carolina.

In a short time, no one laughed anymore. Dawson County, a moonshining capital of historic proportion, had turned out another set of formidable stock car racers. These men would set speed records never imagined or equaled. So, Detroit began sending engineers with master’s degrees, hoping to learn what the mountain boys had figured out before MIT or Georgia Tech could.

It began as just a story of local color. But steadily, it grew to one of national curiosity. And, since us mountain people stick together, I always had the inside scoop thanks to George Elliott, who taught me the technicalities of racing, and Pirkle, who schooled me in its history. 

These two men had known each other all their lives. They had mutual trust and respect for each other and their neighbors, which made them akin to a set of favorite college professors.

I have never met a man kinder than Pirkle. He was critical in contributing to the legacy that became a cottage industry for Dawsonville, Georgia. While the Elliotts made history, Pirkle made hamburgers, keeping the endless trail of reporters happy with homemade food and the old racing stories he dramatized.

Next week, we’ll look at Pirkle’s place in history.


This is the first of a three-part series. Sign up for Ronda Rich’s free weekly newsletter at rondarich.com.