Thursday, December 31, 2009

As each year closes, it's become a tradition to remember those we have lost in the previous 12 months.

As a NASCAR PR guy, I'd often worked with the late David Poole of the Charlotte Observer and SiriusXM Radio. When I began researching remarkable NASCAR fans to profile in "The Weekend Starts on Wednesday," I came across a stunning story David wrote about Wessa Miller, the so-called "Lucky Penny Girl." When David passed away, I wrote the following piece for NASCAR.COM (April 29, 2009). I believe it's appropriate to re-post it today, as we look back on 2009, and wish all departed souls a peaceful journey.


I'll always remember my first time in a NASCAR media center about seven years ago, completely green and alien to the sport.

In reading about NASCAR to prep for the new job, the name "David Poole" kept popping up. And there at the track, the first reporter I recognized was the man who had penned many influential articles shaping coverage of the sport. I stuck out my hand and introduced myself as NASCAR's new business PR guy in New York.

"If there's anything you ever need, about sponsors, the business of NASCAR, whatever, feel free to give me a shout," I eagerly offered.

If I had had a tail, it would have been bushy.

There was a pregnant pause, we're talking third trimester. David gave me that Poole Look and barked, "Who do I talk to about racin'?"

I felt about one inch tall, and retreated with that formerly bright tail tucked between my legs. Poole clearly was not interested in relationship with a neophyte from the sport's New York business office.

That made me all the more determined to win him over. And in pitching stories to Poole through the years, I did.

Poole didn't always agree with my e-mailed solicitations. In fact, I can think of no human being who took greater joy in puncturing balloons. But we developed the kind of cautious mutually respectful relationship you sensed he had with a lot of people.

Once in a while Poole would say, "that's a pretty good idea." And sometimes, "Andrew, that's the stupidest thing I've heard all day."

I was lucky. Sometimes it was the stupidest thing all week. Once it was the stupidest thing all year. I didn't feel too bad since it was early in the season and the year was relatively young.

That gorgeous bluntness was what a lot of people liked most about David. He suffered no fools and made crankiness appealing.

But I sensed Poole trusted me, despite my Gotham City geographical handicap, and that became clear when he'd call for "off the record" chats to go over his annual "most influential people in NASCAR list." Based on our conversations, when Poole added a name or two, and moved around a few others, it was pretty rewarding.

I was fortunate to spend time with David in Bristol in March while working on a chapter about Wessa Miller for my book on remarkable NASCAR fans. Wessa, you may remember, was the 6-year old girl with spina bifida who gave her lucky penny to Dale Earnhardt. He secretly glued the coin to his dash and went on to win the 1998 Daytona 500 on his 20th try. Dale then brought the family to Bristol and quietly, without fan fare or photo opps, bought them a new Chevy van, which they still use to get Wessa to doctor's appointments.

Ten years after Earnhardt's 1998 Daytona 500 win, planning for his lead season-opening story, David remembered the "Lucky Penny Girl."

"Anybody who's been in a journalism class has heard of the 'Where are they now?' story," he said. "I was gonna do that story with Wessa."

And how. David totally nailed the tale of the "Lucky Penny Girl" in the Charlotte Observer.

Reader response to the front-page story was so strong, Poole created a special charity, called "The Pennies for Wessa Fund." Money raised would assist the Millers with medical bills, travel expenses to faraway doctors and home renovations for Wessa's special needs.

Poole also engineered a trip for Wessa and her family to come back to Bristol Motor Speedway, where Earnhardt had hosted them in 1998, to shoot a special NASCAR Angels segment.

An online auction also raised funds for the family. One item for bid was a lunch and race shop tour with David Poole. David laughed when I called it "A Day of Masochism." One gentleman bid nearly $1,000 to spend a day with the sport's biggest curmudgeon. It was not to be.

Five weeks ago in Bristol, sitting in a news conference with Wessa Miller and her parents Booker and Juanita, David had switched seats to become part of the story. Instead of asking barbed questions, David was giving the answers. He relished talking about "Pennies for Wessa" and the journalistic mechanics of what may turn out to be his most famous story -- tracking down Wessa by way of an Internet search for a professional wrestler, speaking with Wessa's mom Juanita for two hours that first night, then walking downstairs to declare to his wife Katy, "If I can't write this story, take me off this job."

"You're not supposed to be part of the story," Poole said. "But sometimes the story becomes part of you. Every one of us has good days and bad days. A good day for the Millers is when nothing really bad happens. The things they deal with on their good days would be a pretty bad day for anyone else. But they look at every single day as an absolute gift. If all of us thought like that, it would be a much better world."

Though they didn't always agree with every one of David Poole's strident opinions, a lot of NASCAR fans would say he made the world better.

It turned out David Poole's heart was as big as his opinions after all.

What strikes me is this: Just as the "The Lucky Penny Girl" in NASCAR lore showed the softer side of crusty old Dale Earnhardt, so too will she continue to shine a light on the secret gentle side of David Poole.

If anyone wishes to donate to the fund David created for little Wessa Miller, who is now 17, that's as fine a way as any to remember him. Just visit

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Celebrating Christmas with 97% Enthusiasm

Two people in the NASCAR industry wished me a “Happy Hannukah” this season. It happens just about every year.

How the last name “Giangola” can be mistaken to be Jewish is beyond me. But I don’t mind one bit.

When someone assumes a person is Jewish, certain stereotypes are at play. Being dumb or a failure aren’t among them. Folks are sizing me up as a smart, successful guy. Even if that’s widely off the mark, I’ll take it. Hey, Jesus himself was born, raised and died a Jew. Count me an unofficial member of the Tribe.

A few years ago, walking with a friend past a half-lit menorah, she wished me a happy Hannukah.

“Uh, my name ends in a vowel,” I said. “Isn’t that a clue I’m an Italian Christian?”

She answered, “Well, you know, you work in the New York office, so I just thought…”

Now that cracked me up. Jerry Seinfeld couldn’t have written that. I work in New York, therefore I am a Jew.

Which brings me to the unique Christmas gift I received this year: Turns out, I am Jewish. Well, a wee bit. I'm not doused in the Manischewitz, a la Victory Lane; it's just a schpritz.

You see, my brother James, who lives in Brazil and could be considered loveably eccentric in some ways, recently had a DNA test to determine his ultimate roots. I could have saved him the time and money . Go far enough back into investigating your respective family trees, and all human beings hail from a nice couple in West Africa.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t get to James in time. He turned over his blood, and the tests came back: the Giangola’s are 3% Semitic (or as the nice official scientific-looking pie chart says: 3%, ASHKENAZI JEWISH.)

I’ll now accept the Happy Hannukah greetings, mention my brother’s blood test, and hum a song ever-present in the malls this time of year such as “White Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland,” “We Need a Little Christmas,” “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” or “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” All written by Jews.

A year from now, next to our tree, you’ll see the menorah many assumed I’ve always had.

Indeed, we are much more alike than different.

Peace and goodwill toward you all, whether a tree or line of candles lights up your living room. Shalom and Amen.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My Dad Writes Rubbish

It must have been satisfying in so-called Days of Old when an author packaged his manuscript, trudged to the post office, mailed the pages to the publisher, and began thinking about his next book.

In early July, I hit "send" on the digital manuscript to "The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans" (no mailing a big burly package anymore). That feels a lifetime ago. Since then, it's been a classic "hurry up and wait" scenario -- late summer, into fall, and now the cold blunt days of winter, I've been chomping at the bit get this thing "out there." A bale of books -- my book -- left a port in China on a freighter steaming our way just last week. The book will be on the shelves in early February; the task of promoting it in a very crowded, skeptical and unforgiving marketplace is only beginning.

We'll lean on the latest tools in "vertically integrated," "user generated," "direct to consumer," "social networked" communications. I have no idea what half that crap means, and it's a miracle I've gotten this far into the first blog without the words disappearing as a result of pressing the wrong button, sending me flying into a violent tirade. You know, I'm likely to hit a stray key because I'm typing in bed, horizontal. The marketers would say the channel remains vertical. Whatever.

My publisher, Motorbooks, the world's largest producer of books about cars and racing, was nice enough to set up Facebook and Twitter pages for me. (I can barely work the toaster oven so this is greatly appreciated.) They've also teed me up for this Blog, which I hope will allow me to meet more amazing NASCAR fans and tell the stories of their love affair with this great American sport.

In one day, our Facebook page has drawn about 100 "fans,"which is very exciting since not a page of prose exists yet in the marketplace. Some of these folks came after my spunky daughter joined (because, she wrote, her dad had written some "rubbish"). Gaby's friends saw that and became a fans of "The Weekend Starts on Wednesday," believing it's a plan to shorten the school week by extending the weekend.

My goal isn't that ambitious; it's merley to continue to celebrate and pay homage to the wonderful, giving, generous, amazing people who make NASCAR a big part of their lives.

I hope the fans of NASCAR, and even some who don't follow it, can visit this blog and our Facebook page, and share their photos and feelings about the sport...and the fans who make it go. (The FB page is

The marketers are wont to talk about community, another overused word. But NASCAR really is a community -- a group of like-minded people sharing common values and sensibilities. This Blog is another community fans can come to. If you know of any who are remarkable and noteworthy in their own right, please let me know. Perhaps we can share their stories, too.

In that respect, maybe things are better today. Authors in times past didn't have the chance to stay in touch with the people in their book while adding new layers to the story. In that way, technology blesses us.

So welcome to "The Weekend Starts on Wednesday blog." Hopefully, it will be a long and interesting ride, and no one will get car sick.