Neal Thompson

2007 Season Neal Thompson

Neal Thompson was born (1965) and raised in New Jersey, outside New York City. After graduating from the University of Scranton, he began his award-winning journalism career as a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. For the next 15 years, he worked at newspapers up and down the East Coast - specializing in profiles, narratives and investigations - at such papers as the Roanoke Times & World-News in southwest Virginia, the St. Petersburg Times, and the Bergen Record in northern New Jersey. That was followed by nearly five years at the Baltimore Sun, where he covered the military and began researching Light This Candle. As a freelance journalist, he has written for numerous national magazines, including Outside, Esquire, Men's Health, Backpacker and the Washington Post Magazine, and newspapers such as the Christian Science Monitor. Thompson teaches creative non-fiction at the University of North Carolina-Asheville's Great Smokies Writing Program. Thompson and his wife, Mary, were married in New York City in 1994 and have two sons, Sean and Leo. The family - along with dog, Frankly - now lives in the mountains outside Asheville, N.C., where Thompson is researching and writing his third book, the story of a high school football team in New Orleans.


Light this Candle: The Life & Times of Alan Shepard, America's First Spaceman (2004)

Driving with the Devil: Southern moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR (2006)

Hurricane Season: A Coach, His Team, and their Triumph in the Time of Katrina (2007)




The old man has seen a lot. Sometimes too much. Police in his rearview mirror. The inside of jail cells. Friends and family lowered into the ground. Race cars carving deadly paths into crowds. He’s seen stacks of money, too-some coming, some going.


Those visions, those memories, all link into a story. The real story.


The old man sits behind his orderly desk sipping a Coke, almost as if he’s waiting for someone to come through the door and ask, “Tell me what it was like.” It is the start of the twenty-first century, but he is dressed in the style of an earlier era: white shirt and narrow black tie, a gray jacket and felt fedora on a nearby hook-the same uniform he’s worn since FDR’s first term, except for summers, when the fedora is swapped for a straw boater. Raymond Parks is a creature of habit. He doesn’t need to be here each day. With moonshining profits earned as a teen, he bought liquor stores, then vending machines, which funded real estate deals and other sources of income (some legal, some not quite). Far from his squalid youth, Parks is worth plenty, more than he could have imagined. He’s sold off most of his empire-the houses, the land, the nightclubs, the vending machines, and all of his liquor stores except one. Still, he arrives each morning to putter around the office, make phone calls, check his accounts.


Next door, customers trickle into the one package store Parks has kept, the one he’s owned for two-thirds of a century. They buy flasks of Jack Daniels and fifths of Wild Turkey from a brother-in-law who has worked for Parks since World War II. Even now, it’s an ironic business for a teetotaler who-as a so-called moonshine “baron” and “kingpin”-used to make, deliver, and profit nicely from illegal corn whiskey. Outside, crews of Georgia road workers jackhammer into his parking lot, part of a road-widening project that brings Atlanta’s Northside Drive closer to the bespectacled old man’s front door each day.


Parks is ninety-one, though he looks two decades younger. In his twilight years, this office has become a sanctuary and the place he goes to rummage through the past. The room contains the secrets of NASCAR’s origins. On cluttered walls and shelves are the dinged-up and tarnished trophies and loving cups, the yellowed newspaper articles, the vivid black-and-white photographs of men and machines, of crowds and crack-ups, which tell part of the story of how NASCAR came to be.


Copyright © 2006 by Neal Thompson