Memories of Captain Herb highlight final Labor Day race weekend at AMS
A banner at the United Against Mouth and Throat Cancer tent, an organization that provides free screenings in the Atlanta Motor Speedway Fan Zone outside the Hampton, Georgia track, had a banner that read "Remembering Capt. Herb Emory." That was a theme for the entire NASCAR race weekend at AMS.
Conyers driver Chris Cockrum piloted the No. 87 Advanced Communications Group Ford in Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series race. Track President and GM Ed Clark and his staff arranged for a display case with Captain Herb's WSB Skycopter Lounge hat to mark his spot in the AMS Media Center, which they also named after the late Marcy Scott. TEAM Georgia, the safe and sober driving coalition Captain Herb helped found, presented his wife Karen with a community service award named after the late champion of safe driving. Several fans showed up with "Captain Herb Memorial Ride" t-shirts from the May event in the Captain's Douglas County community that raised money for Toys for Tots.
Emory, as many Atlantans know, died of a heart attack while helping at the scene of a crash in front of his house in April. WSB listeners, people from the Atlanta community, and straight up people we had no idea knew about Captain Herb poured out support and continue to in the months since that tragedy.
But we hadn't had an Atlanta race weekend since his passing - and it was hard sitting in the Marcy Scott Media Center next to a space with a clear box that used to be filled with his bellowing laugh and big smile. Seeing the empty space next to the fence outside of the Media Center, where the WSB tent used to proudly sit each race day morning, signaled the end of an era. We didn't do a racing show this weekend, but instead decided to remember Captain Herb's legacy with a series of reports and interviews with some luminaries from the long-running "Allan Vigil Ford 120," which eventually changed names to "The Speedshop." (These reports ran through the weekend on News 95.5/AM750 WSB and you can listen to them all in links at the end of this post).
Captain Herb's race show stood out for several reasons. It highlighted Georgia-based racers, covered some local short tracks, and had that old school personality that new era radio and racing lacks. Captain Herb played pranks on the air, but just as easily made new drivers to the scene feel at ease. Instead of clicking off the same vanilla, polished interviews that many pull off so well, he would inject his affable, mischievous personality into them and bring out that certain guest's own character.
That personality extended into the nickname business. My nickname is "Fireball". Jason Durden, a longtime fixture on Speedshop, is Jason "Banjo, Spongebob Squarepants, Dale Jr." Durden. Performance Racing Network booth anchor Mark Garrow, who delivered the "FastCar Newsdesk" for several years already had the nickname "Guru" - but Captain Herb had to assign his own moniker.
"He'd call me 'The Doctor of Love' and we had fun with that," Garrow laughingly reflected, also saying he enjoyed the mix of people whom Captain Herb's smile and authenticity drew into that WSB tent each race weekend.
Atlanta Journal Constitution motorsports writer Rick Minter gave insightful racing analysis on Speedshop for many years and says that Captain Herb was so enthusiastic and credible about racing, because he took an announcing job at the now-closed Seven Flags Speedway in Douglasville.
"That showed he was true to the roots of racing. A good, all-around motorsports enthusiast," Minter says when reflecting on the show. "He made just as sure Dixie Speedway was covered as he did Daytona International Speedway or Atlanta Motor Speewday." And when fans tuned into Speedshop, they knew exactly where each driver stood with him. "He didn't make any doubt about who his heroes were and who he didn't like. He was like the number one fan in Atlanta. It's almost like a 110 appliance plugged into a 220 outlet when the show came on the air. You can't not be excited when he's that excited." Minter also says that Captain Herb was ahead of his time in comparison to other local media in covering the local ties to a national sport.
Captain Herb's appreciation for the Georgia drivers was a staple of Speedshop during race weekends. Former NASCAR driver Bill Lester moved east from California to race in the Camping World Truck Series in the 2000s. Captain Herb reached out to Lester, inviting him to the annual Toys for Tots drive he hosted at Fred's BBQ House in Lithia Springs and often put him on or mentioned him on his show. This flattered the new guy in town.
"He kind of brought me under his wing," Lester, now an Arkansas resident, says. "I'm surprised that anybody took notice." Lester says that friendship put him at ease in his new world of stock cars in a new part of the country.
In 2006, Lester became the first black driver to start a Sprint Cup Series race since the 1980s, making his debut at his adopted home track AMS.The WSB tent outside of the Media Center was one stop on Lester's crazy morning on that historic day and he says he's so thankful for all Captain Herb and the AMS staff did to get the word out about his feat.
Georgia resident Rex White won the 1960 Sprint Cup Series championship and will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015. Many greats of White's era are either dead or forgotten. But Captain Herb never forgot the driver of the famous No. 4 "Gold Thunder" car.
"He was always great to talk to. He always made it so easy to be interviewed," White said just before an appearance at the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame display at AMS over race weekend.
Bill Elliott is the most renowned of the Georgia drivers. Elliott remembers fondly shooting the bull with Captain Herb and seeing him at Allan Vigil Ford, a dealership and sponsor they both shared. "The Speedshop" saw its prominence when Elliott's career was in its doldrums in the late 1990s. Elliott says that didn't turn Captain Herb away from Driver 94.
"He was always a friend, someone to talk to, someone to bounce ideas off of."
Elliott is the 1988 Sprint Cup Series champion and will be inducted with White into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. When asked what Captain Herb would think of seeing both drivers go in at once, White summed it up best - though stammering a bit.
"He'd be flabbergasted." Indeed he is looking down with a smile.
Elliott's 18-year-old son, Chase, is blazing a winning trail in his rookie NASCAR Nationwide Series series. His success has been supreme in 2014 and he fittingly won his first-career NNS pole Saturday for his first NNS race at AMS. He finished 5th. Elliott took his first victory in the series on April 4th at Texas Motor Speedway. He won again the next Friday night at the circuit's toughest track, legendary Darlington Speedway. Captain Herb died the next day, April 12th.
"I think that was special," the older Elliott says. "I'm sure [Captain Herb] had that in his head with whatever else he had going on that day."
David Ragan has been the banner carrier for the Georgia gang in recent years, with two wins each in both the Sprint Cup and the Nationwide Series. Captain Herb befriended him as a teenager running Legends cars and Bandeleros on AMS' quarter-mile track and interviewed him at the media days the track would set up.
"We've got a long history. Some of my first interviews were with Captain in the late '90s," Ragan told me in his team hauler before Sprint Cup practice Saturday afternoon. He said he missed Captain Herb not just for his racing show that he had each week and also each Atlanta race weekend, but for shows elsewhere. "I even thought about it at Bristol. He'd always come up and do a little Saturday show." Ragan, like Captain Herb, never forgot his local racing roots and always made a point to stop by the WSB tent for his ritual race morning Speedshop appearance.
Captain Herb's impression on Ragan was so deep, that the Captain's locally famous "Mayberry Patrol Car/Aunt Bea" Ford Galaxie - a replica of the one on "The Andy Griffith Show" - made Ragan want his own. "I specifically looked for one and bought one just because of Herb." He wanted it so much he specially ordered it and had it shipped from Kansas.
As Ragan's career progressed and he moved to North Carolina, Cockrum and his family became close friends with Captain Herb and made regular appearances on Speedshop. The Cockrum family was so impressed by Captain Herb's outreach, they carried "CaptainHerb.net" - the Captain's homepage for racing and traffic news and community events - on the rear bumper cover of his Camping World Trucks and his Nationwide Series car in the few races he was able to run. Cockrum invited Captain Herb and Karen to Daytona to see the No. 07 Advanced Communications Group truck back in February.
"I can say I took this man to his final race," Cockrum told WSB, while choking up in his race team's hauler before Nationwide Series practice Friday. He showed up in a beautiful car with a "WSB blue" background and "WSB gold" accents and lettering with some red, soundboard-light graphics on the back. Cockrum says it had to happen that way. "When he passed away in April, it really rocked my world. So I automatically circled this date."
The sight of the car moved Karen Emory to tears, as Cockrum and his family hugged consoled her and Durden, who accompanied her to the race and has been a staple for her since the love of her life's passing. Before Saturday's race, just before TEAM Georgia and Durden presented Emory with the "Captain Herb Community Service Award," Emory took a pin she had earlier removed from Captain Herb's old leather bomber jacket and pinned it on Cockrum's driver's suit. "Something that's been on a jacket for 20 or 30 years...I couldn't think of a better person to receive something from than Captain Herb," a sweat-drenched and exhausted Cockrum said after Saturday's race. He finished laps down in 29th, driving an ill-handling machine for backmarker team Rick Ware Racing. But the rookie kept the car out of trouble, so the crowd could see the "Remembering Captain Herb" lettering circle 1.5-mile AMS track again and again.
The staff at AMS helped handily in promoting Cockrum's being in the race with the "Herb car." But they dealt with a big gap and loss of their own. The aforementioned Marcy Scott was the engine behind the marketing and promotions staff, processing hundreds of requests by the vast media presence at the track and arranging events and marketing to spread the word about the races. Those that worked with her will never forget her drive and passion and those new to the game will always remember it with the Media Center in her name. Doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer a few years ago, but she overcame that and seemed well. Then the cancer showed up again in her brain last year. She passed away in November and missed last year's race, even though she begged for Clark, her boss for eight years, to participate. He explains her impact.
"She was so much a part of our race weekends - the promotion, the planning, and the execution. We miss her - we think about her daily."
Much like Captain Herb's untimely death, Scott's drew the sympathy from many areas, especially the full-time national media, whom she helped facilitate their coverage needs. Sporting News reporter Bob Pockrass, widely known as the hardest-working reporter in the NASCAR media corps, reflected on Twitter about how she forced him out on the dance floor at the NASCAR banquet a couple of years ago. She was more than a hard worker, she was a friend and mentor. She certainly worked hard to make sure we could pull of our show on WSB and had to shoosh us more than once when we would cut up in the back of the Media Center.
Clark also had a longtime friendship with Captain Herb...about 23 years (the length of his time at AMS) to be exact.
"This is the first NASCAR weekend that I'm experiencing without him" he somberly reflects. "He was a friend not only to us, but to so many in the entire Metro Atlanta area."
Besides holding his place in the Media Center, Clark took the remembrance a step further and had "Capt. Herb" painted in the infield grass. That gesture was a total surprise to us at WSB and to the legions of dedicated Captain Herb fans who saw it from the grandstands.
"Herb may not be with us here physically, but he's a part of this weekend, just like he always has been."
That Captain Herb grass painting had a great seat for the whole weekend - especially its ending. Sunday's Cup winner Kasey Kahne saw his win and ticket to NASCAR's Chase slip away after a late caution. But another caution allowed him to catch up and have a chance to race hard with Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin and take that needed win, the biggest of his career. He did celebratory burnouts right next to the grass tribute. That's a way to cap it off.
Summer storms threatened all AMS weekend, but barely slowed any on-track activities - a big relief for a track that has suffered both weather and ticket sales problems in recent years. NASCAR is moving the track's Labor Day race to Darlington and AMS will now assume the 2nd race date of the season on March 1st. Fittingly, this short tradition ends in a time of remembrance for the passing of a titan in the Georgia racing community and another staple in the circus that is NASCAR. To Captain Herb Emory and Marcy Scott - Godspeed to you from Georgia's altar of high speed.
Remembering Captain Herb audio: