When I started covering motorsports for the Martinsville Bulletin 52 years ago (good grief!), I was very fortunate to have someone who served as my mentor.
He was the late Dick Thompson, a former sportswriter for the Roanoke Times who became the public relations director for H. Clay Earles and his Martinsville Speedway.
Naturally, as a rookie writer for the Bulletin’s sports staff of three, it was inevitable that I was going to cover NASCAR events at the speedway – one that was steeped in history and tradition.
I had never seen a NASCAR race. I didn’t know any drivers. I had only heard of Richard Petty. Events at Martinsville were among the biggest in Virginia, not to mention a small city in the Southwestern part of the state.
Thompson knew this and took me under his wing. He told me about the history of NASCAR and Martinsville Speedway. He lined up my first interview with a driver, Buddy Arrington of Martinsville.
Then as I timidly began to cover my first NASCAR Winston Cup Series race, the Old Dominion 500, Thompson introduced me to several drivers and then set up an interview with Earl Brooks.
“He’s been around a long time and is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet,” Thompson said. “He’ll answer your questions and help you out.”
Brooks was everything Thompson said he would be. He answered every stupid question I asked and gave me tremendous amounts of guidance and information.
As the weekend passed, I felt less intimidated about what I had to do. I won’t say my racing copy was award-winning by any means, but it was at least marginally competent.
Afterward, Thompson said to me: “The real thing about writing in NASCAR is not to just report who won the race or the other news. That’s important, sure, but there is something else.
“You talked with Earl. He gave you information. He told you stories. Every single driver and crewman at every single track has a story. They are all personalities and some are characters.
“Tell your readers their stories. That’s what they really want.”
Less than a year later, again at Martinsville for one of its semi-annual Sportsman-Modified doubleheaders, I learned exactly what Thompson was talking about.
I met a short, stocky driver who had a cigar constantly in his mouth. He was always smiling. He was an outgoing personality with a rousing sense of humor. He would end every conversation with loud laughter – echoed by everyone else involved.
He reminded me of that uncle you saw only at Thanksgiving who said to you, “Hey! Pull my finger!”
His name was Rene (pronounced “Ree-Nee “) Charland and he was from Agawam, Mass.
When we met for the first time, I was caught up in what he had to say, all of which reflected his sense of humor. I thought he was good column material – make that great column material. The readers were going to love this.
Charland spun the tale of a driver he called Nutsy Fagan.
“Nutsy is one of the greats,” he said. “He’s a legend out of his hometown of Shakearag, Conn.”
Charland went on to say that Fagan won so many races that driving bored him.
“So he formed his own team and decided he’d hire not one, but a group of drivers,” Charland said. “Some of ‘em are Red Fescue, Chester Drawers, Claude Bawls and Red Ruffansore.”
At my typewriter, I spread the word. The “legend” of Nutsy Fagan permeated the weekend. The Bulletin’s gossip column declared it unique that “A driver competing this weekend at the speedway has the name Nutsy Fagan.”
Thompson, always one to play along with anything that broke the mold, told his boss Earles what was going on. Never one to back away from a stunt, Earles immediately notified public address announcer Lewis Compton to page Nutsy Fagan to the tower.
Compton’s voice boomed over the microphone: “Nusty Fagan! Nutsy Fagan!” Please report to the tower!”
Poor Compton was forced to deliver the same message five more times in a single day. The laughter from the pits grew louder each time.
I was so caught up in it all I came up with an idea. I asked Thompson if it would be all right if I presented Charland with a Nutsy Fagan memento during pre-race ceremonies. He readily agreed.
On the day before the race, I somehow found a local screen printer. I gave him a ridiculous request: Could he print three T-shirts and give them to me in a matter of hours?
As I expected, he refused me with a snort.
“Hey, it’s for Martinsville Speedway,” I said.
That changed his attitude immediately. “Whaddya want?”
I told him I wanted a light blue shirt with a picture of Woody Woodpecker with a cigar in his mouth. I stressed the importance of the cigar. I got the shirts.
During pre-race ceremonies, I stood at the start-finish line with a T-shirt on a wire hanger. Charland, smiling and chomping on his cigar, stood with me.
“Rene,” I said over the p.a. system, “Nutsy is happy with the way you have spread his legend, and he wanted to give you something. So, here’s a special t-shirt just for you.”
“Thanks, Steve,” Charland said. “I appreciate this. And could you tell Nutsy I need some shorts?”
I felt proud of all of that. I had done something enterprising. I had written about a personality. I had told his story.
As I soon found out, I had not completely told Charland’s story – not by a long shot.
I discovered he was much more than a comical personality. As a driver, he was a titan.
He won the national Sportsman Division championship four times in a row from 1962-65. The class was the predecessor of the NASCAR Busch Series, now known as the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
For this accomplishment, Charland earned the nickname “Da Champ,” which became more familiar than his real name.
He tried his hand at NASCAR Grand National racing [now known as the NASCAR Cup Series], competing at Daytona International Speedway in the Daytona 500 and the Permatex 300 but eventually gave up asphalt for dirt track racing by 1967. Among many other triumphs, he won the Modified point title at the Track of Champions (Fonda, N.Y.) in 1970.
His last Cup start came on July 14, 1971, at Albany-Saratoga Speedway in Malta, N.Y. Driving for John Keselowski, the grandfather of current Cup star Brad Keselowski, Charland wound up with a 31st-place DNF.
He was, of course, always into pranks. A classic stunt came after women were finally allowed into the pits at Fonda.
For Charland, that created the start of what he called “goose season.” I’m sure you know what that meant. No female was safe.
It is estimated that Charland won a remarkable 700 races during his career.
There are many, many more tales of Charland’s achievements and robust sense of humor. I know some of them have been chronicled in books and I am certain his fans and friends from the Northeast could almost endlessly regale us.
Charland died at age 84 on Sept. 30, 2013. He passed away in a nursing home after years of declining health.
I betcha the nurses in that home learned what “goose season” was all about.
About the author
Steve Waid has been in journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing. For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”
In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.
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