And what’s my definition of a journalist? Someone who is interchangeable among the media.
Yes, that means most of the "journalists" you encounter during your daily lives – the radio and TV reporters, the anchors, sports editors on newspapers, editors-in-chief of major magazines – aren’t, even if they like to call themselves that.
Like the late Pierre Berton, who wrote newspaper columns, books of Canadian history and magazine profiles, conducted interviews on radio and was host of any number of television programs – and he did much of that simultaneously – Berggren, who turned 70 last weekend, has a lengthy list of accomplishments in his curriculum vitae.
Besides being a writer and photographer (and a former college professor, by the way), he was the editor of Stock Car Racing magazine and the late, lamented, Open Wheel magazine before taking his talents and knowledge to television.
And do you know what sets him apart from most of the other reporters covering auto racing (and most other sports, come to think of it)? Like the original ABC pit road reporter and colour commentator, Chris Economaki, he actually asks questions of the people he’s interviewing.
I don’t believe I’ve ever heard Berggren start a question with the worst four words in the English language:
"Talk to me about . . ."
So where did Berggren (known for years as "Dr." Dick Berggren because of a PhD in psychology he earned at Tufts University in Boston) come by his knowledge of virtually every kind of car racing going?
Because he’s a fan, primarily, who inhales everything he reads or hears about the sport. Second, unlike most "journalists" covering racing, he’s been Out There: for more than 20 years, he raced stock cars, sprint cars and (regular readers of this column know what’s coming next . . .) supermodifieds.
In fact, Berggren was one of a number of owners and drivers – future NASCAR stars Geoff Bodine and Tim Richmond among them – who were caught out in the late 1970s (he was building one) when Oswego Speedway in northern New York banned rear-engine supers, a decision (along with one made by the U.S. Auto Club to ban rear-engine sprints and midgets) that had a profoundly negative effect on the progression of short-track oval racers to Indianapolis.
But I digress.
Berggren was inducted into the U.S. National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 2002 - he's also a proud member of other halls - and says that among the projects he’s got planned for his post-NASCAR career (as well as visiting as many short tracks as he can) is the building of an auto racing museum at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to celebrate the accomplishments of the racing community in the U.S. northeast.
Talking about accomplishments, I think his personal biggest and best was the founding in 1980 of the magazine Open Wheel. As I write this, I’m holding in my hands Vol. 1, No. 1 that is, as the cover says, "a collector’s first edition."
The cover photo was taken by Mike Arthur at Ascot Raceway in Gardena, Calif., and shows Ronnie Shuman in full flight in a sprint car on the dirt (which means sideways). Inside are features on Steve Kinser, Sammy Swindell, Gary Bettenhausen, Roger Penske’s racing operation and lots and lots of some of the greatest racing photographs you’ll find anywhere.
Berggren, in his job during the Seventies as editor of Stock Car Racing, had increased – over time – the number of articles and features on open wheel racing appearing in that publication. At some point, the people in charge of Lopez Publications, which published Stock Car and other titles, gave him the co-ahead and Open Wheel was born, first as a quarterly and then monthly.
I don’t have a complete collection, but I have lots and lots. And all of them, in one way or another, trigger a memory.
– Vol. 1, No. 3, published in early 1981, has a striking cover photo of the late Stan Fox at the wheel of his Pabst Blue Ribbon beer-sponsored midget. Several months later, at Indianapolis Raceway Park for the Night Before the 500 midget races, I got to meet Fox. I’d consumed a little too much of his sponsor’s product, though, and in my enthusiasm I made an offer to buy the car. He was very polite about it, but told me to get lost.
– The May 1994 issue has a photo of Mares Stellfox on the cover. She ran with the ARDC midget club. When I announced at Oswego Speedway in the Nineties, I was sometimes a wise guy. One night I was interviewing her and I said, "So tell me Mares, what’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" And she got me good. "Norris, " she said, "I might be a girl to you but when I put on my helmet, I’m one of the boys."
– In the May 1986 magazine, Berggren himself wrote an incredible story about an incredible racer named Jan Opperman who’d twice suffered grievous head injuries and was confined to his parents’ home, requiring constant care. Opperman was one of the most interesting people you’d want to meet - a pot smoker who was a serious Christian. Before his second accident, I saw him at a sprint car race at the New York State Fairgrounds. It was delayed by rain. To fill in the time, Opperman borrowed the infield announcer’s microphone and delivered a sermon.
– The November 1988 Open Wheel contains a pleasant surprise. There, on Page 16, is an article about Canadian supermodified racer Gary Morton by – wait for it – me. Over the years, I was fortunate to have three articles published in Open Wheel (one on Warren Coniam and another about one of the great women of our time, Proud Mary Copeland of Indianapolis, Ind., who is now Mary Walsh of Knoxville, Tenn., who held up the start of a midget race at IRP one night by – well, use your imagination).
But enough about me. The really great writers who appeared in Open Wheel were John Sawyer (his stuff brings tears to my eyes every time I read it; in what other publication could you read Sawyer writing about Langhorne Speedway, or Don Branson, or Eddie Sachs? Bruce Ellis, Andy Fuscoe, Terry Reed (he wrote a great piece about the widow of Jerry Hoyt, who was killed at Oklahoma City about two weeks after they were married, after only knowing each other for about a month; she still visited his grave every day – years later) and Al Stilley, who wrote so lovingly and well about Indy cars.
And yes, Open Wheel’s racing photography was breathtaking: how about Jim Hurtubise powering out of four at Terre Haute in 1976 (photo by Steve Ellis) , or Steve Chassey at Springfield in 1986 (photo by Don Figler). You could frame those pictures and hang them on the wall in your living room because they were art.
Sure, there were the really bad times, too, and Berggren handled those stories with dignity and grace. His farewell to supermodified king Jimmy Shampine, an innovator like no other who was killed in, of all things, a modified race, still brings a lump to my throat.
I could go on and on – but it’s time to stop, just as Open Wheel itself was stopped shortly after the turn of the century when the publication changed corporate hands and the new owners killed it off.
So when Dick Berggren walks away from Dover International Speedway on Sunday afternoon, after completing his last assignment for NASCAR on FOX, I hope there’s something else on his mind besides that auto racing museum in New Hampshire.
Yes, I know he’s got Speedway Illustrated magazine going, and probably a book or two to write (an autobiography would be nice) but unless there’s a non-compete clause floating around in a contract he signed somewhere, I think he should give serious thought to reviving that much-missed magazine.
How does Open Wheel 2012 sound, Dr. Dick?