Barney Hall passed away yesterday from complications following a recent medical procedure. He died in his hometown of Elkin, North Carolina, where he was born and lived his entire life. Barney was a small-town boy in the purest sense of the term, and the values he learned in a town that rarely topped 4,000 residents served him well in his 83 years.
Barney knew everyone, but his circle of true friends was relatively small. He made a living with his voice, but was shockingly shy and soft-spoken. It took time to get to know Barney, but to be his friend was well worth the wait. In his career as a broadcaster, he earned enough awards and honors to fill a dozen mantels.
He was one of a handful of broadcasters good enough to be identified specifically with his sport. Like Vin Scully in baseball or the late Dick Irvin in hockey, Barney Hall was NASCAR.
But as I mourn Barney’s passing today, I don’t think of the awards and honors.
I think of Barney Hall, the man.
Barney was born to call stock car racing. From his early days on a tiny Elkin AM station to the modern era of NASCAR, his smooth-as-silk baritone and understated style served as safe harbor in a sport awash in hyperbole. He began as a public address announcer at local, North Carolina short tracks, and soon graduated to the PA microphone at Bristol Motor Speedway, pulling down the princely sum of $75 for a weekend’s work.
When Bill France, Jr., needed voices to broadcast the inaugural Daytona 500 on a daisy-chain network of southeastern radio stations in 1959, Barney was one of the first to sign-on. His voice became instantly familiar to race fans across the south – as comfortable as a favorite pair of slippers -- and when the Motor Racing Network was chartered in 1970, Barney was there as its lead turn announcer.
Pick a landmark moment in the history of the NASCAR since then, and Barney Hall was there to provide the sound track.
In an era when drivers and media members traveled together, shared hotels and patronized the same after-hours establishments, Barney was the ultimate NASCAR insider. He traveled with Hall Of Fame driver David Pearson for many years, riding shotgun in Pearson’s private airplane and eventually becoming an accomplished pilot himself. His relationship with flight service meteorologists around the country made him the go-to guy for the latest race track weather forecast, and his stories of NASCAR “back in the day” were poignant, gripping and often hysterical. Dinner with Barney Hall, especially on a night when he could be convinced to indulge in an amaretto sour or two, were events not to be missed.
MRN president David Hyatt called Barney "perhaps the most trusted reporter of his day.” And in all our years working together, I never knew him to break a confidence. When controversy reared its ugly head – as it often does in professional sports – crewmembers, fans and members of the media would flock to Barney in search of the inside scoop.
“What’s really going on, Barney?” they’d ask.
“Aw, it’ll all come out in the wash,” he’d reply, before slowly meandering away. Another secret kept safe, forever.
I learned a lot from Barney about how to operate in the NASCAR garage, how to cultivate relationships and treat people properly.
“You talk to a lot of people,” he told me, many years ago. “I see you in the garage. People tell you things because they trust you, and because they know you won’t throw them under the bus to get a scoop.
“That’s a good way to do business,” he counseled. ”A scoop lasts 24 hours, if you’re lucky. But if you ruin a man’s deal by talking about it too soon, he’ll never tell you anything again.”
Barney brokered dozens of deals over the years, matching at-liberty drivers with team owners in search of talent.
“You really should go talk to that guy,” he’d say. And in a matter of hours, the deal was done.
Barney’s impeccable advice made him a mentor to many of us who make our livings covering NASCAR. His soaring example made us better, more conscientious broadcasters; better prepared, always thinking of the listeners, always striving for more.
In recent years, the steady encroachment of age and illness made life on the road difficult for Barney. Commercial air travel – exhausting for people half his age – took a heavy toll, as did separation from his beloved Karen; his chief organizer, supporter, cheerleader and the love of his life for the last 35 years.
Barney’s impossibly high standards made him his own worst critic, and in recent seasons, he complained privately that while he knew exactly what he wanted to say, the connection between his brain and his vocal chords had slowed. The same words that had flowed so effortlessly -- for so long -- now came more slowly. Or sometimes, not at all.
Most of us barely noticed. Barney’s “bad broadcasts” were still 50-percent better than we mere mortals could muster. But to him, it was an unconscionable decline. In his final season of 2014, Barney would often seek me out after a race, apologizing for what he considered a sub-par performance.
“You bailed me out a few times today,” he’d say. “Thank you for that.”
My response was always the same.
“Barney, you’ve bailed us out for 50 years. If I can throw you a line every decade or so, it’s the least I can do.”
Barney called his final race in July of 2014 at Daytona International Speedway, a fitting farewell for a man who – by his own count – broadcast 154 race events at “The World Center of Racing.” In 2003, he missed his first Daytona 500 broadcast when his beloved mother passed away during Speedweeks. When we traveled from Daytona Beach to Elkin to attend her wake and comfort him in his time of grief, Barney was predictably apologetic, feeling he was “letting us down” by missing the biggest race of the year.
Barney, you never let us down. Not once.
You were our anchor, our leader and the man we relied upon – in good times and bad – for more than half a century. You steered our ship through sometimes angry seas, charting a course that was unfailingly professional, compassionate, correct and sincere.
You taught us to pull together, covering each other’s mistakes and making the next man in line look better; all for the good of the broadcast.
You taught us the value of truth, honesty and respect. Of gentleness, humility and humor.
You taught us to be better broadcasters, better people and better friends.
We will never forget you – or the lessons you taught – so long as the roar of racing engines can be heard on the radio dial.
Thank you, Barney Hall.