Story and photo by Patrick Reynolds
“Get him an application!”
Did I just hear that? Really? Me? An AARWBA member?
The year was 2010. The place was the media center of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The voice belonged to Norma “Dusty” Brandel, president of the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association.
In January of this year, Brandel was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame as winner of the Squier-Hall Award for media excellence. She joined previous winners Ken Squier, Barney Hall, Chris Economaki, Tom Higgins, Steve Byrnes, and Benny Phillips as members of the Hall. Brandel was the first woman to receive a press credential to report from inside of a professional NASCAR garage area.
“I went to see the sportscar race at Glendale (CA), which was only about 10 miles from my house,” Brandel spoke of her first auto racing reporting gig in 1955 for the Hollywood Citizen News. “It was by accident. I just went to the race and I had a really good time.”
“I got to see a lot of sportscar divers like Phil Hill… Dan Gurney. I could go there because it was a sportscar race. I didn’t have any problems. I could keep my notes and it (writing her story) was easy,” said Brandel.
“On the west coast, I had no problem. I could go to the sportscar races, the drag races with no problem… it was only USAC at that time and NASCAR (that proved difficult to cover with no credentials).”
“You figure out a way… pay attention… write your notes… and do your story,” said Brandel. “The biggest challenge was getting in the pits and garage… to the drivers, both in USAC and NASCAR.
“In Indianapolis, my first year in ’63… once in a while you saw a boy scout go by with a teletype (with updated race scoring and news). He went to the guys, not the girls… GIRL,” Brandel said. “They didn’t make it easy (for her to cover a race).
“You guys (current racing reporters) don’t have to worry about the wives yelling over the fence ‘You can’t be in there; you don’t belong in there,’” Brandel said.
She reported on NASCAR events while not being allowed into speedway garages or press rooms. Her nickname “Dusty” was adopted as a gender-neutral moniker to help her cause.
Brandel received the first NASCAR Grand National Series press credential assigned to a female at Ontario (CA) Motor Speedway’s Miller High Life 500 in 1972. NASCAR Technical and Competition Director Bill Gazeway signed and presented her credential earlier in the race week, prior to much of the media, fans, and competitors’ arrivals.
That was a major chapter written in her pioneering story which Gazeway looked to keep out of the spotlight in ’72, yet was celebrated 46 years later.
My first credentialed year for the Indy 500 was in 2010 where I was introduced to Brandel and became closer to AARWBA.
Among the hundreds of journalists covering the 500 that year, I recognized Kathy Seymour from a casual conversation the year prior at what is now known as Lucas Oil Raceway.
Our present chat took place as Seymour sat next to Brandel in the Indianapolis media center. I was about to be told of Brandel’s presidency and Seymour’s vice-presidency of AARWBA and why they were not-coincidentally next to each other.
“Is he a member?” Brandel asked Seymour.
“Member of what?” I asked them both.
…and boom. Right there I stepped forward into an organization led by this duo along with a board of directors.
My relationship with Brandel developed over the years. We began with standard membership emails and communication.
I attended my first AARWBA media awards ceremony during Indy 500 weekend in 2011. This was also where I won my very first award from the organization. Brandel paid attention to me as I joined much of the AARWBA board members at their table for morning breakfast.
Feeling new, but not yet closely connected to these friendly people, both Brandel and Seymour made me feel welcome and not much like a new-bee.
Brandel was genuinely interested that I won some journalistic awards. I felt her sincerity as she described how glad she was that I was part of AARWBA, entered the contest, and earned recognition for my efforts.
Phone calls between her home in California and my home in North Carolina increased as months clicked by.
The following May she asked me to keep notes from AARWBA’s membership meeting in Indianapolis, thus appointing me to a role on the board as the association’s secretary.
During the summertime, our next phone call took place in my front yard as I was looking for an excuse to get out of trimming hedges.
Brandel asked to me to become more involved with AARWBA in 2012 when the position of chairman for the All America Team became vacant. AARWBA honors the AAT as drivers who are tops in American auto racing in various disciplines.
Much like my original AARWBA membership, my reaction was along the lines of “Did I just hear that? Really? Me? All America Team Chairman?”
An early exposure to the Team’s regard was watching Dave Despain speak about the AAT as a 1980s episode of Motorweek Illustrated on TBS aired from the ballroom where the awards dinner and ceremony were taking place. The exact location escapes my memory but the formality and weight of what the Team represented did not. Personally when Despain speaks reverently of a ceremony, that event carries some serious weight.
Now, Brandel asked me to be the chairman for nominations, ballots, voting, tallying, and results. She made me feel honored.
Our annual Indianapolis May face-to-face meetings through the years became punctuated with meals, drinks, laughs, and good times. My favorite Brandel story began like so many others, my ringing phone.
I was driving to the AARWBA media awards breakfast, at the time held at the Brickyard Crossing golf course adjacent to the Speedway, circa 2012 or ’13. Brandel’s name popped up on my cell’s ID screen.
“Hey there,” I said.
“Hey, are you coming to the awards breakfast this morning?” Brandel said.
“Yes! I should be there in about ten minutes,” I said.
“Great! (… A bit of a pause)… Would you mind being the MC?” she asked.
I could feel the smile form on my face as a stifled a chuckle.
“Sure! I’d be happy to,” I told her.
I parked at the Brickyard Crossing and walked into the pavilion. Brandel handed me a hand-written program outline. I looked it over for a few seconds, stepped up to the podium for a mic check, and just like that… I added “Media Awards Breakfast Master of Ceremonies” to my AARWBA resume.
Brandel was never one for tight planning.
In 2017 she entrusted me with the chairman duties for the AARWBA Media Contest to handle all entries, categorization, rules and guidelines, recruiting a judging team, and getting results back to her. Only a mere six years previously, I was part of my very first contest.
Looking back, Brandel has asked me to handle plenty for AARWBA, an association that I admired from afar for years. Now I feel honored that she would trust me with so much for an historic group.
Whether she realized it or not, her experience in the racing world is known and respected, even by a transplanted Yankee like me.
She has done so much for many. In January 2018 came a chilly evening in Charlotte, NC where Brandel was recognized in front of a packed ballroom and a large television audience. Also inducted into the Hall were Ray Evernham, Robert Yates, Ron Hornaday Jr., Red Byron, and Squier.
NBCSN’s Krista Voda said to Brandel on stage during the celebratory dinner, “Thank you. We’re (female journalists) able to do the job that we love because of the work that you did, that I know wasn’t easy back then.”
“It wasn’t easy,” said Brandel. “I’m overwhelmed… in near tears.”
NASCAR journalists from Shannon Spake to Jamie Little to Lee Spencer had mountains far less steep to climb in their careers due to Brandel’s tenacity.
Charlotte mayor Vi Lyles made time to locate Brandel, come up, and introduce herself. Being female, a woman of African-American heritage, and holding an elected office, Lyles herself knows a thing or two about breaking down barriers.
Through AARWBA, Brandel has taken the time to review my writing and been a tutor. Through AARWBA, Brandel has taken the time to guide me through running the organization and been my mentor. Through AARWBA, we have even had a few email tiffs- as good people sharing opinions and are truly and deeply invested in an organization’s future and improvement should have.
Brandel is now enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. I have witness racing giants become inducted. Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Ned Jarrett, Rex White, and Jack Ingram among others, are people who I have been privileged to have met, known, and spent time with.
However, Dusty Brandel is the first one whom I can personally state holds a closer title to me.
She earned her place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame alongside Hall and Squier through a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice. I can honestly state, without hyperbole, that my journalistic career in motorsports would not be as advanced as it is without Brandel.
I’m glad that I met Seymour at LOR, which led me to Brandel at Indianapolis, which led to her “Get him an application!” pronouncement. Being part of the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association has been very beneficial for me. I am but one more person that Brandel has helped and nurtured over the years.
Now anyone can see her story told in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
AARWBA is a respected and renowned group within auto racing circles. They united journalists together to improve the media’s working conditions at speedways. The healthy and comfortable conditions that we now enjoy were due to the work of AARWBA and other news organizations. Through determination, the groups broke barriers in order to advance and move forward.
It is appropriate the Dusty Brandel holds the office of AARWBA president. She has been breaking barriers and moving forward for decades.
Patrick Reynolds is a former professional NASCAR mechanic who hosts Speedway Report live on Facebook Mondays 7:30 pm ET/ 4:30 pm PT and uploaded on http://speedwayreport.com/ . Follow on Twitter @SpeedwayPat.