Motorsports journalist chats about her 40-year career as a sports reporter

Deb Williams & Tony Stewart, Martinsville, Oct. 2016 (4)

Deb Williams, a veteran motorsports journalist, talks with NASCAR driver Tony Stewart in October 2016 at the Martinsville Motor Speedway NASCAR race in Ridgeway, Virginia. Photo by Susan DeVault

By Marquis Holmes, SPJ Region 3 fall student intern, senior at Kennesaw State University majoring in journalism; editor-in-chief, KSU Sentinel student newspaper

“My sister wanted me to cover politics,” said Deb Williams as she remembrances on a conversation with her sister, a retired history professor at North Carolina State University.

Deb Williams formal

Deb Williams

When her sister suggested moving to Washington, D.C. and reporting on Capitol Hill, Williams response was “Why? I don’t like politics!” Williams said her sister told her she was wasting her talent working as a journalist covering motorsports. 

“I like racing. I like sports and it’s where I am happy,” Williams said to her sister. Forty years later her career covering motorsports has made her name popular as a sports reporter and her experience holds an extensive resume in the journalism field. 

Williams, a veteran motorsports journalist, has freelanced since 2008 for racintoday.com and espnw.com, but in the height of her journalism career she was the editor of the NASCAR Winston Cup Scene for 17 years and and a former reporter at United Press International between 1979 to 1984. 

Among a multitude of awards in her career, Williams has recently been awarded the 2017 Joe Littlejohn Award last January for her outstanding service as secretary-treasurer to the National Motorsports Press Association. She has also been previously awarded twice the Writer of the Year for the NMPA and also the Henry T. Macklemore Award, as she is the first woman to ever win both.

NASCAR Died

From the left, Dale Earnhardt, Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison. Supplied photos

Her journalism career led her to cover several major stories ranging from the coverage of the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division’s 1983 deployment to Island of Grenada defeating a communist uprising on island to interviewing the actor the late Burt Reynolds as well as covering Richard Petty’s 200th NASCAR career victory. She said that her long career has given her the opportunity to report on endearing friends including those she has lost over the years including Dale Earnhardt, Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison.

Deb Williams interviews NHRA's Matt Smith

Williams interviews NHRA’s Matt Smith, a Pro Stock motorcyclist, at a media function prior to race at the zMAX Speedway.  Photo supplied

During her 10 years as editor of NASCAR Winston Cup Scene, her reporting efforts took her across the country to various races for 27-30 weeks a year. Now as a freelance reporter, she said that her weeks are not as structured, and she likes it that way.

“My sister is a person that has got to have a specific schedule every day and I have discovered that doesn’t work for me because invariably, something is going to come up that’s unusual and you got to change everything to make it work,” Williams said.

“That’s one thing about the news business, whether you’re in hard news or whether you’re in sports writing. You got to be able to be flexible because if you’re not flexible, you can’t do it.” – Deb Williams

Williams said that you can never learn too much about anything, for “well-roundedness” as a journalist is critical.

For example, she shared a story about when she was taking a Geometry class in school and how it didn’t make much sense to her at first until she went through Formula Four Driving School.

“When I went through Formula Four Driving School and they’re going over diagrams about apexing a corner and showing why you need to take a corner a certain little way, suddenly Geometry makes sense to me,” said Williams.

Deb Williams talks with Mario Andretti

Deb Williams chats with Mario Andretti at the NMPA Hall of Fame ceremonies when Andretti was inducted into the hall of fame in 2014. Photo supplied

When giving advice to the next round of motorsports journalists, she said she highly emphasizes the importance of maintaining your professionalism at all times.

“I can remember when I covered the University of North Carolina during football season, and Rick Ruler, who was the sports information director, would come on and announce in the press box, ‘Remember, if you’re in the press box, you will be asked to leave if you cheer,” Williams said.

“It can take you years to build a good reputation. It can take you a split second to lose everything you worked for,” she said.

Deb Williams signing books

Deb Williams signs books for her work, “The Evolution of NASCAR: A Historical Collection” at the Bridge Ridge bookstore in Waynesville, North Carolina.  Photo supplied. 

Robert Griggs, former owner of Griggs Publishing Company, said William’s reporting reputation was so immense that he once created a short-lived publication solely to enlist her as a reporter.

“I thought the world of her then and I think the world of her now,” Griggs said.

Williams grew up as an underling of her father, a machinist of 45 years and motorsports enthusiast, inheriting his love of racing at a young age. Growing up, she said she wasn’t happy with the racing reports of her daily paper, the Asheville Citizen, finding several inaccuracies consistently. This led her to making the decision at 13-years old to become a motorsports writer.

“I was always fascinated that these people could take their minds and their hands and build these cars and these engines to make them perform the way that they perform.”  – Deb Williams

As a high school student at Pisgah High School and college student at Eastern Tennessee State University, Williams held a weekly column in her local Waynesville newspaper, The Mountaineer, which she reported on current school events and sports. She also served as sports editor and law enforcement reporter for the newspaper.

Williams also served as the sports editor at the ESTU student newspaper, the East Tennessean, and as a student assistant in the sports information office, as well as produced ETSU’s first women’s athletic brochure. Williams was also president of ETSU’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, then Sigma Delta Chi.

She has been a member of the National Motorsports Press Association for decades and recently joined the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association in 2018. 

Marquis Holmes mug short

Marquis Holmes

Marquis Holmes  is a senior at Kennesaw State University majoring in journalism and emerging media with a minor in military leadership. He is also editor-in-chief of the Kennesaw State University newspaper, the Sentinel. Holmes is the fall intern for SPJ Region 3. He will be graduating in December 2018. marquisrholmes@gmail.com 

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