May 27, 2012
By Kim Roberson
It is always sad when a familiar face in NASCAR decides to hang up their helmet and retire. Sometimes it is a forced event, due to illness, injury, or lack of support. Sometimes, the person involved realizes it is time, and wants to move on to do things they have wanted to, but have just never had the time.
Next weekend in Dover, we will say goodbye to Dr. Dick Berggren. Berggren, who has been broadcasting from pit road since Fox took on the NASCAR broadcasting contract in 2001, has decided when Fox ends their run covering the series next weekend, he will hang up his headset and microphone and move into the next phase of his life.
For fans like myself, who have only known the man nicknamed “Dr. Dirt” as one of the best reporters on pit road, it has been interesting to find out exactly how this 70-year old from Connecticut who looks more like a college professor than a racing buff ended up covering the sport.
It began, like most racing careers do, with the draw of a local garage, and the sounds of engines overriding the sounds of teachers.
“I couldn’t have cared less about school, especially with a couple of garages on my way home to stop at,” explained Dr. Dirt. “I didn’t do homework, didn’t study and didn’t pay attention in class. Only around 20 of 616 students in my graduating class had a lower grade point average than I. All I wanted to do was to be involved in racing.”
However, even back in the day, it was not cheap to race, so Berggren realized he needed a job to pay the bills. No job he could find with only a high school diploma would do that, so it was time to find a way to get into college with a less than stellar high school record.
“I finally found a new (college) that would take anyone who could pay the tuition. My parents paid the bill and I was on my way. With the motivation to do well so I could race, I paid attention, did my homework and focused on my education. I earned terrific grades in college -- good enough to get into Tufts University’s graduate school on a full scholarship, where I earned an MS and then a PhD in psychology. And then I got a job that paid well enough that I could afford to race.”
Yes, Dr. Dick does actually have a doctorate degree. AND he became a college professor -- although his love of racing eventually ended that career.
After graduation, Berggren began teaching at an all-women’s Catholic college in Boston – and spent weekends racing on dirt tracks around the northeast. After one such weekend, he didn’t even have time to stop at home and drop off his car and clean up, and instead drove to work his mud-covered truck with the sprint car still on the back.
“I parked the rig, which had my name on it, in the faculty parking lot,” Berggren says. “It was there about 10 minutes when I was paged to the president’s office. Sister wanted to know what that ‘thing’ was in the parking lot. She explained to me it had to be off college property immediately. Well, I wasn’t about to park my race car on a Boston street. So, I disobeyed the college president and left the rig in the faculty lot all day. I knew my teaching job was over.”
Berggren moved on to splitting his time between racing, working as a local track announcer, and doing some local TV. But it was a deal with God as his race car headed towards near devastation during a race in Boone, Iowa, that brought Berggren permanently out of the driver’s seat and into the media full time.
“In one of my heats, I got turned at the end of the backstretch -- the highest-speed part of the track,” Berggren explained. “So many people were in the pits, they had overflowed to an area that wasn’t separated from the racing surface by anything other than a dirt bank. When I got turned, that’s where the car headed. I tried to head hard left, kept my leg in it hoping the car would straighten out and go back down the track. It didn’t.
“I hit that dirt bank and saw hundreds of people scatter as I headed for them,” he continued. “I’m not a religious person, but in the car that night, I said a prayer as the car hit the dirt bank. ‘God, if you get me through this without hurting anyone, I won’t do this anymore.’ I closed my eyes, hit the bank, flew through the air and crashed into the pits. As soon as the car stopped, a guy stuck his head in the window and asked if I was OK. With my eyes still closed, I asked how many people were under the car. ‘You didn’t hit anyone,’ he said. I climbed out and that was it. You don’t go back on a promise like that. It’s hard because I’ve been offered rides in cars I dearly would like to race. But I won’t.”
With that, Berggren ended a 20-year racing career that had put him in the seats of everything from sprint cars to supermodifieds. He was elected to the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 2002, just one of many honors he has received over the years.
Besides his work on Fox, Berggren founded Speedway Illustrated, where he still works as a writer. But his new passion is in the form of a way to pay tribute to the men and women who helped build racing as it is today the northeast.
“There is no museum of Northeast auto racing open to the public in general and which displays the area’s racing history,” Berggren said. “The Northeast has a rich racing history that deserves to be saved and displayed. We’re fund raising and accumulating things to display. Getting the museum up and running is a big job and it’ll take a lot of my time.”
That museum is being built on the grounds of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he already has acquired an agreement with the speedway, tax-exempt status from the IRS and the support of a powerful Board of Directors.
Oh, and don’t think he won’t be spending even more time at the track -- just not necessarily the big tracks with the famous names and fast cars.
“After the FOX portion of the year ends, I’ve always traveled to local tracks where I still enjoy sitting in the stands with a hot dog in one hand and a beer in the other, watching the local heroes,” Berggren said. “I can’t get enough of local-level racing so I’ll do more of that now.”
All the best to you, Dr. Dick, as you move on to this next phase in your long and wonderful life. Here is hoping we get to cross paths again someday soon.
Follow Kim on Twitter: @ksrgatorfn
The thoughts and ideas expressed by this writer or any other writer on Insider Racing News, are not necessarily the views of the staff and/or management of IRN.