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Reporter left mark on sport he loved

David Poole didn't know me, but I knew him.

It was hard not to know Poole if you're ever been anywhere near the media center at a NASCAR racetrack, listened to his radio show or read his articles and columns.

Poole, who died of a heart attack this week, was a fixture on the NASCAR circuit. A large man with a voice and passion to match, he was one of the sport's biggest proponents - and one of its biggest critics.

A few years ago I began covering the Atlanta races for the Daily Post. A lifelong race fan, my first time at the track with nearly unlimited access to the pits and garage was akin to a Braves fan getting to sit in the dugout during the game.

But my wonderment was soon tempered upon entering the infield media center for the first time. Here were a couple hundred professional writers and photographers, all dedicated to the coverage of the sport. To count myself among them, I wanted to prove I belonged. I wanted to learn how these people did what they did, so I did something I sometimes have a hard time doing: I kept my mouth shut and listened.

It didn't take long to spot the guy in charge, and it wasn't any of the people wearing Atlanta Motor Speedway badges. It was Poole, the NASCAR beat writer from the Charlotte Observer.

Poole was loud. He was cantankerous. Argumentative. I didn't exactly form a nice opinion during my first few minutes in the same room with him.

But over those three days, I found some other words to describe Poole: passionate, opinionated, talented writer, expert, professional.

If other reporters had a question about something, they asked Poole. If they needed an opinion, they asked Poole. If they disagreed with his answer, they had to be ready to back it up.

If the media center got too loud, Poole said, "shut up," and everyone did.

I quickly found out that among the other reporters, one needed no descriptive words to differentiate him from some other David. If someone said the name David, it was a given that you meant David Poole from the Observer.

That even applied to drivers. He was the only print reporter who was consistently addressed by his first name by people like Tony Stewart and Jeff Burton. Yet despite being known by everyone, at every press conference I attended with him he followed the rules, always stating his name and affiliation prior to asking his question.

Every time I went to Atlanta, I made sure to listen to whatever Poole had to say and the questions he asked. When my dad and I used to go to Charlotte for the Memorial Day weekend race, I always picked up an Observer and hunted his byline.

Poole did what a reporter should: he told me things I didn't know. And he proved that racing is much more dynamic than just cars going around in a circle.

And despite such access to the insiders, he never shied away from standing outside and looking in with an objective view. Indeed, one of his last columns for thatsracin.com was hypercritical of the events at Talladega Speedway this past weekend. Carl Edwards' car went airborne on the last lap, crashed into the catch fence and showered fans with debris, resulting in seven injuries.

In the aftermath, Poole wrote:

It seems we've decided we can live with that much damage being done to the sport's customers for "good racing."

How many people have to be listed in "guarded" or "critical" condition before we say that's too much? Is it lead changes? If we have fewer than five fans hurt for every lead change, is that acceptable?

Does somebody have to die before we've decided we don't have control?

Poole didn't die in a crash or in the stands, but maybe his passing will cause the NASCAR people who've voiced such sadness at his loss to listen to his final plea.

Making the sport safer could be Poole's finest legacy and NASCAR's greatest tribute.

E-mail Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays.