Jan 31, 06:03 PM
Recently I was able to spend some time with a man who has been involved in the world of racing in many ways. Erik Arneson, Director of Media Relations at SPEED, has done everything from motorsports reporting to authoring books about famous drag racers.
I learned a lot from talking with him, and I am sure that anyone reading his replies from this interview will find them as interesting as I did.
JAW: I understand you were born in Takoma Park, MD. Is this area famous for anything? Now that you are living in NC, do you cheer for the Ravens or the Panthers, or another team; or aren't you into football?
Erik: Although the hospital was in Takoma Park, near Washington DC, I grew up on the Severn River near Annapolis, Md an area rich in history, great seafood and beautiful waterways. In fact, as a kid, I thought more about my first boat than my first car. When it comes to football, believe it or not, I am a lifelong Miami Dolphins fan. My father took me to a Baltimore Colts game in 1972 and they were playing the Dolphins. Miami had a great team that year started collecting their football cards and have been a fan ever since. I do, however, cheer for the Panthers and my son, Jaret, is a huge Jake Delhomme fan.
JAW: What were your favorite possessions when you were a little kid?
Erik: My fishing pole and my crab net I was on the water every day the weather allowed.
JAW: We have a lot of pets. Did you have any pets when you were young? How about now?
Erik: Always had dogs growing up, had a guinea pig, fish, hamsters, a mouse and of course, we brought home dozens of box turtles, lizards and anything else we caught. Now, my kids have a hamster and we are shopping for a dog.
JAW: When you were in high school, were you the nerd, the bully, the hot guy, or something else ? What was your hairstyle then? Is it the same now?
Erik: Wow, I was a little bit of everything ... Senior class president with good grades, played varsity sports, but got in my share of trouble too. Voted "Most School Spirited" and was sports editor for the school paper. Went to Cocoa Beach High in Florida, so school had a real easy-going beach attitude ... didn't seem to be as many clicks as other schools. If the weather was good and the surf was up, there were a lot of empty chairs in the classrooms. As for hairstyles, quite a few mullets and a lot of sun-streaked surfer mops, but mine wasn't anything special a lot shorter now.
JAW: Did you work at any jobs while you were in school?
Erik: First paycheck came as a bag boy for a Winn Dixie grocery story in Cocoa Beach when I was in 10th grade I made a whopping $3.35 an hour and I think my first check was for about $30.
JAW: What did you do when you graduated? What college did you go to?
Erik: Went to Brevard Community College and the University of Alabama Roll Tide!
JAW: How did you become an employee of USA Today? Did you use computers to be the sports page designer?
Erik: My first newspaper job was with Florida Today, another newspaper started by Al Neuharth, the gentleman who started USA Today. I got a lot of good experience there and then moved back to Maryland and went to work at USA Today in Virginia, first as an agate editor, answering phones and coding up sports box scores ... the design work came later, and yes it is done on a computer. The last one I worked on was the CCI system from Denmark.
JAW: Not only did you hold that position, but you also were a motorsports reporter for that newspaper for eight years in the 1990s. Did you cover all types of racing, or just NHRA?
Erik: The motor sports editor at the time gave me the opportunity to write about whatever I wanted ... I just happened to enjoy drag racing. I really love the idea of having to perform under such pressure, when one mistake sends you home.
JAW: What racing personality did you interview that you consider the most significant during that time? Who was the most fun?
Erik: Most significant, without a doubt, was Darrell Gwynn. He's become a true friend. Shirley Muldowney and John Force were both fun interviews for different reasons. John is just out of control with everything he does, including interviews ... and Shirley gives you the most honest interview in the business.
JAW: Did you ever meet or interview Dale Earnhardt?
JAW: Did you ever have anything happen to you while you were a reporter that was fun or frightening at any of the tracks?
Erik: The first time I got to stand at the Christmas Tree between two Top Fuel dragsters was an amazing experience. To feel that power that close to you and to be standing right there when they launch 6,000-HP, it's a feeling you don't soon forget.
One time at a NASCAR race in Daytona, I was leaving the track in a rental car and I pulled up along side Richard Petty, who was on a scooter. I offered to race him and we both laughed as he grabbed his hat and hit the gas.
And here are two very unique and enjoyable experiences (and ones my brothers are very jealous of):
While doing PR for Clear Channel Motorsports, I was given the opportunity to drive the famous monster truck "Gravedigger" ... even got to crush a couple of cars very cool!
And just a few weeks ago, I got the chance to participate in the Jeff Gordon Driving School ... I drove the No. 15 NAPA car of Michael Waltrip at 140 mph around Lowe's Motor Speedway.
JAW: What was the worst accident you ever witnessed?
Erik: Champ Car driver Greg Moore's death at Fontana the most violent thing I've ever seen ... I was working for Mercedes at the time and Greg was one of our drivers.
JAW: What's the craziest thing you ever saw a fan do?
Erik: Fans NEVER surprise me ... they can be incredibly rude or incredibly nice. They feel a very personal connection to their drivers and their sport and when you are that emotionally attached to something, anything can happen. You'd never seen anyone camp four days to see a football game, so racing fans are hardcore, unpredictable and a whole lot of fun for the most part.
JAW: I had trouble wearing earplugs when I was at Bristol Motor Speedway for a race. They weren't comfortable to me. Did you wear earplugs when you were at racetracks?
Erik: I wear them for the nitromethane cars at drag races and I wear them at small NASCAR tracks ... I don't like them either.
JAW: We have a lot of exciting NASCAR trading cards, as well as an autographed card by Joe Amato. I have a leather racing jacket that I have some autographs on. Do you have an item of racing memorabilia that is really important to you?
Erik: When I wrote my first book, Darrell Gwynn had the cover art blown up real big and framed it it means a lot to me, mostly because it came from him. I also did Jimmie Johnson's PR when he did his first three Cup races, so I have some things from that time. Jimmie and his family were great to work with and I still enjoy seeing him at the track.
JAW: I have read that you won the NHRA Media Award in 1998. What did that mean to you? Did you win a trophy or plaque for that? Where do you keep it?
Erik: It meant a lot ... I worked hard to transition from a layout person to a reporter, and it was confirmation that I was doing a good job. I got two plaques one stayed at USA Today on display and the other is on the wall next to my desk at home.
JAW: Do you prefer NHRA racing over stock car racing?
Erik: Yes for the reasons stated above. Incredible pressure to perform in such a short window of time ... if you make a mistake in stock car racing, you have 300, 400 or 500 laps to make up for it ... if you make a mistake in drag racing, you pack up your stuff and go to the next race ... you have less than five seconds to get your job done. However, I certainly respect what they do in stock car racing and enjoy being at any race at all.
JAW: You were a motorsports PR manager for CMI/Cotter Group for three years. What did you do?
Erik: Represented different motor sports clients Mercedes-Benz, NASCAR, Clear Channel Motorsports (Supercross, Monster Trucks and IHRA) and Speedvision (before it became SPEED).
JAW: Did you have anything to do with the Hayride 500 that the Cotter Group held for the Hurricane Floyd victims, or any other of the hayrides?
Erik: Absolutely. I rode around the state of North Carolina with the company owner, Tom Cotter, and set up dropoff sites at Lowe's stores for Floyd relief in Eastern Carolina (I wasn't there for the first two Hayrides). We'd go to a different site, climb up on a 18-wheeler trailer and hang relief banners, give the volunteers supplies, help them get organized and then pack up and head to the next site. Very cool experience and Tom and I remain best of friends. Very big-hearted guy who I have learned a lot from. Very cool that you remember those!
JAW: You were also a PR accounts manager for NASCAR, Lowe's Home Improvement Centers, and Speedvision. Does that mean you were a big cheese at those places?
Erik: Not really ... I simply wrote and distributed the racing material to the press for those companies. Sat in on some high-level meetings and had some input, but certainly wouldn't say I was a "big cheese" "medium cheese" maybe.
JAW: I understand that you are a motorsports business columnist for NorthEast Business Today. Does that mean that I could ask you about the economics of racing today, or get some interesting statistics from you? Where could I get an issue of this publication?
Erik: It was a small start-up publication here in the Charlotte area. A lot of the racing teams and racing businesses are in what they call the "Northeast Corridor," and area just above the city. To be honest, I'm not sure it is still in existence.
JAW: Not only have you done that but you also are a NHRA columnist for RacingOne.com, and have written two books: 'Darrell Gwynn At Full Throttle' and 'John Force The Straight Story of Drag Racing's 300-mph Superstar'. When you are writing, do you need privacy and quiet? Or can you write when there are all kinds of noise and activity around you?
Erik: I need as little distraction as possible and I often do my best writing late at night or early in the morning.
JAW: Do you have anymore books coming out?
Erik: The Force book is brand new in stores later in February. Hope to find another project soon. I really love to write.
JAW: You have a wife named Sandy, and four children (Eileen, Kyle, Jaret, and Dakota). Has it been an interesting experience having four kids?
Erik: Yes, especially because of the age differences. My oldest is 23, my youngest is five ... but, I wouldn't change a thing. They make me a better man every single day.
JAW: With all of those people in your house, is it ever quiet?
Erik: No that's why I find myself writing at 3 a.m.
JAW: How many bathrooms do you have?
JAW: If your children are still at home, do they ever bug you? Are you a patient father?
Erik: My oldest is out and my teenage son "bugs" me on occasion, but I am a very patient father ... I'd choose being with my wife and kids over anything in the world.
JAW: What is Sandy's favorite food? Are you taking her to dinner for Valentine's Day?
Erik: Her favorite food is strawberries and I am making special arrangements to come home from advance work in Daytona to be home for Valentine's Day. Special dinners are traditionally at a place in Charlotte called The Melting Pot.
JAW: Does Sandy ever get mad if you want to go golfing or fishing?
Erik: Never ... the kids activities always come first, so when I sneak off for myself, she encourages it. She's a wonderful partner and my absolute best friend.
JAW: Every time we go to the beach, I want to go deep-sea fishing but we can never work it out. Have you ever done that? Was it fun?
Erik: Did it for the first time two years ago with my two brothers and my dad off the coast of St. Augustine caught a lot of fish and I can't wait to do it again. I still love being on the water.
JAW: I am thinking of becoming a chef. What fancy food have you eaten that I could prepare for you when I am officially a chef?
Erik: I love crab cakes order them whenever they are on the menu at a good restaurant. Best I've ever had are at a place called Mike's in Maryland.
JAW: I am graduating from high school in May. Do you have any advice for me?
Erik: Don't be afraid to screw up. Eat life in big bites and enjoy every part of it even the failures. I lost two friends when we were teenagers and I think of all of the things in life they didn't get the chance to experience good and bad and use that as constant motivation. I make sure I don't take a single moment for granted and I really try to learn all the time. Be a better person today than you were yesterday.
JAW: I ask this of every person that I interview: May I send you some information about Tourette Syndrome?
Erik: Certainly, Joshua.
Thank you, Erik Arneson, for sharing some of your life with the cawsnjaws.com readers.