Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to shed some light on his or her career path. Up next: Holly Cain from the NASCAR Wire Service. These interviews are recorded as a podcast but are also transcribed below for those who prefer to read.
What does your job entail now?
I am a writer for the NASCAR Wire Service. I work out of the Daytona Beach office and I help do all of the previews that go out on the wire for the Cup races and to a certain extent, the statistical previews for the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series races. So during the week, I provide all of the advance information we send out to over 100 different outlets across the country to be able to use in their newspaper, magazine, whatever their outlet is.
So as coverage has been lessened across the country, NASCAR has stepped up with its own service to provide content to outlets that might want racing coverage, essentially. And you’re doing that.
Absolutely. And then Reid Spencer covers the actual races on the weekend, and sometimes I will go out and help as well. I also get to do some IMSA things, which I love because that was kind of my start in racing.
I’m interested in your career path. Let’s just start with the beginning. Did you grow up thinking you wanted to do something in media, like be a reporter?
Oddly enough, I did. My whole entire life, that’s all I wanted to do. I can remember back when we had huge tape recorders and I would simply read the newspaper into the tape recorder and pretend like I was doing the evening news.
My father (Ed Cain) was a sportscaster and a newscaster, so I get that part honestly. And my mom taught high school English for almost 40 years. So if you think about those two things, journalism makes sense. But I definitely took after my dad and always was doing that.
Where was he a newscaster?
He worked all over the place. He did New York Islanders hockey, he did the Minnesota Twins, the Minnesota North Stars when the hockey team was still called that, and then he worked in Seattle for many years and covered the SuperSonics when they were there, the Mariners, the Seahawks. So he had worked all over the country.
Did you tag along to some of the events when you were growing up?
A couple of the things, I would. I would go to some of the football games or the hockey games. My parents have all sorts of photos of me with the players. I have a photo of me with O.J. Simpson.
Probably the coolest thing that really inspired me with my father was when he was 22 years old, President Kennedy was shot and he was working at a small radio station in Florida. He actually drove to Dallas and was standing in the police department building right alongside Lee Harvey Oswald — and actually asked a question — when he was killed. My father is in movies and he’s in all sorts of clips and photos from that. So that was a really neat thing to see what kind of a journalist he was that he would pick up and go, and then as it turned out be feet away from one of the biggest stories in the history of our country.
My father as a young reporter standing right there as Oswald shot. https://t.co/L9IfObIcgq
— Holly Cain (@_HollyCain) October 26, 2017
What did he say over the years about that moment and being there when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot right in front of him?
Well, it was a very career-defining moment for him. He was only 22 years old, right out of college when he did that. What it always showed me was you have to go get the story. You can’t sit in a press room and expect it to come to you. He just was a shining example of what to do journalistically and was there to help me for many years.
So did you go to school for journalism and get on that career path from the start?
I wrote for the elementary school newspaper, the junior high, the senior high, the college newspaper. So I was one of those people. I wanted to do journalism, and I wanted to do television journalism. But back when I graduated in 1989 — I went to the University of South Florida in Tampa — it wasn’t such an easy path for a woman to be on television in sports. That wasn’t the way to do it.
I was told you need to get really good at writing about it and show you have the knowledge, and once you have the knowledge, we can put you on television. It wasn’t, “We’ll put you on television and we’ll help you from that point on,” it was, “You show us that you know the sport, you know how to ask questions, you can do interviews and write stories and know proper news judgment.” As it turns out, that wasn’t the path I took; I wasn’t on television that way.
But I love it. I love my career. I tell my kids all the time: “How lucky am I that I’m doing something I still love, to this day, every day?” I love working.
After you got out of college, what did you start out covering or doing?
I did not take a job in sports right away. I took a job at a little newspaper in Florida up in the panhandle. I lived with my best friend in Tallahassee — she was at Florida State — and where I worked in Marianna was an hour on a different time zone. So that was kind of weird; I’d go to work in one time zone and come home and be on another. But (that job) really helped me decide I was not cut out to be a news writer.
I can remember I had to go do man-on-the-street interviews. So I went to the local Winn-Dixie to do it, and I was just interviewing anyone who would stop and give me the time of day. I interviewed these two gentlemen, and they were kind of flirty with me — so much to the point where it was uncomfortable for me. They’re like, “We just live at blah blah blah, real close to here, you’ve got to come.”
Part of it was I had to take their photograph to include with their man-on-the-street question. So I get back to the office and turn in the photos I took and I start writing. The editor comes up to me and says, “Holly, did you not see the front page of the paper today?” I’m like, “Yes…” He said, “You see these two men on the front page for robbing a bunch of pharmacies in the area? These are the two guys for your man-on-the-street.” I said, “Well as a matter of fact, they told me where they live!” So I told my editor and they called the police and arrested them.
Needless to say, I was not cut out for the hard news. So I went back and took a job at the Sebring News-Sun in Sebring, Florida, which is about an hour south of my hometown of Lakeland. And that’s where my career really took off with sports and certainly with auto racing, as you would imagine.
No wonder you have an affinity for sports cars, then, being near the Sebring track. At that point, were you thinking covering racing could be a profession, or was that still not clear?
It definitely wasn’t clear. I was still in my 20s, and racing was just one of the things I covered. Looking back at my career now, I’m glad I had racing as a steady part of my job as a sportswriter. I worked for the small Sebring newspaper that only came out twice a week, and then I got hired at the Tampa Tribune.
While I was at the Tampa Tribune, I got to cover the New York Yankees — they had their spring training in Tampa. Back before the Tampa Bay Rays existed, we kind of adopted the Yankees. George Steinbrenner lived in Tampa. And it was really kind of neat. I can remember George Steinbrenner returning my phone calls at home. Or I would call and he’d take my call right away. It was amazing.
So I got to do that, as well as the Tampa Bay Bucs and really a whole lot of general assignment things. But the one thing that carried throughout my career was covering racing. Back then, a lot of IMSA, the GTP program, and then I’d go up to Daytona for the 500 and all that.
How long were you at the Tampa paper? Were you thinking you’d work there for life?
I was there 11 or 12 years. So I spent quite awhile there. I was really fortunate. I had other papers reach out to me with fantastic opportunities. I loved working at the Tribune. I had a job offer from another paper that was bigger than Tampa, another big city in Florida. But I loved the people I worked with so much. My co-workers used to laugh at me: They’re like, “They can’t give you any more money, but they gave you a better typewriter and a desk by the window, and you turned down whatever the difference was in money to stay because of the people.”
But I always did want to see where I could go. I didn’t get married young. I was always very open to things. So I was lucky to have another opportunity at the Dallas Morning News.
At the time you went to Dallas, I believe that was at the peak of their sports department. It was the top sports section. They had, what, more than 150 writers or something?
Oh, we had a huge staff. The sports section was like a book. It was great. We had all these general assignment reporters that could go and do anything, and if you could sell it was an interesting story, you could go and do that. We had all these fabulous columnists. Still to this day, I see them around the country and all the different things they’re doing. Dave Smith was our sports editor at the time and it was really a time of great opportunity.
It was a very rigorous job. The way it was run, you showed up and if you had a mistake or a typo, you had to answer to absolutely everything your column. You had to explain why you wanted to write this story versus that story. It was very good like that, but it certainly snapped you into some fabulous journalism.
What did you cover when you were in Dallas?
Texas Motor Speedway had just opened the year before, so I was doing that and I was primarily the motorsports writer. I had a whole page every week that was all motorsports. I loved it. I did the NHRA — they had two races in Dallas at the time — and the IRL had two races there. That’s when Tony Stewart was racing in the IRL; there were some absolutely fantastic races on that big oval. And NASCAR obviously was there, and they were still trying to get a second race. I was writing that story every year, I remember.
Back then when the sports section was so huge, were they embracing the racing and motorsports type of stories?
They did. They liked it. It was still a relatively new regular beat to the paper. They were very interested in the drivers and their backgrounds.
I also covered the Dallas Cowboys — I went to their away games and wrote sidebars for their games. So that was neat to be a part of, although that was kind of on the downswing of the Emmitt Smith/Troy Aikman days. They were just finishing up, so it was that weird time for the Cowboys. I lived in Valley Ranch across the street from the Cowboys’ complex, and I was supposed to be ready to run over there if I ever needed to because there was constantly coaching changes — Barry Switzer was the coach one of the years I was there. Again, it was great. I felt so lucky to be part of all that.
So you ended up going to Seattle next, is that right? How did that come about?
I ended up getting married, and the person I married was in the United States Army special forces, and they were based in Seattle. I had just accepted a job with USA Today and was going to go out there, and then was engaged weeks later. I had to call USA Today back up and say, “I’m going to be unable to take this job, as it turns out.” I had to live in Seattle, and you had to live in Maryland or Virginia if you worked for USA Today.
So I went west and really had a fantastic time getting them to start thinking about motorsports. It wasn’t something huge on those newspapers’ radars, but I convinced the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to hire me. I did general assignment work, but it also turned out to be the same time a kid named Kasey Kahne was coming up. Greg Biffle was coming up. Derrike Cope had won the Daytona 500 and he was from a small little town right by where I lived. So I was able to pull that off.
The fact NASCAR was on the rise at the time — you just went to the editors and said, “Hey, I just moved here. I have experience. I can help you guys.” And they were accepting of that?
They were. And it wasn’t just NASCAR at that point, either. I would cover Portland for IndyCar. But definitely NASCAR was the primary thing I feel like I was part of the change there. They had local short-track racing and Kevin Hamlin, who is the spotter for Alex Bowman now, he was out there just tearing it up. He was one of the stars on the local short tracks at the time. So it was a good time for me to be there in terms of having racing coincide with people out there in the Northwest.
When did you leave Seattle and what was after that?
I left in 2003 and took a job with AOL Sports.
This was the start of FanHouse?
Yes, FanHouse. At the very beginning. That was absolutely wonderful, too. I got to dictate what the coverage was going to be and do takeout (feature) pieces. I got to go out and spend a week in El Cajon (Calif.) to do a big Jimmie Johnson feature. That was amazing to meet the people, to see the house where he grew up, to do all this behind-the-scenes (Johnson background) no one had done before. So that was one of my most special things.
I covered the Indy 500 with Chip Ganassi (in 2010). I was in his pits when Dario Franchitti won, and I remember thinking, “OK, so this is how this story is going to be,” but he said, “No, we’re taking a plane and we’re flying up to Charlotte. We’re going to go up to the 600.” And Jamie McMurray almost won that race. I think Kurt Busch won and Jamie finished second to him. And after that, we flew back to Indianapolis later that night.
So you did the Double.
I did the Double. It was a lot of fun. I feel so fortunate for the opportunities I’ve had. And I’m not just saying that. You can see I get really excited talking about it.
So AOL FanHouse was either really ahead of its time or too ambitious. They hired a bunch of writers and then it all just folded, right? There wasn’t a lot of warning. Am I getting this right?
There was a text message that we all needed to be on a conference call in 20 minutes. They went a different direction. Interestingly enough, a whole lot of people who I had worked with in Tampa and Dallas had taken jobs with it as well. So it was kind of cool. I knew all my co-workers already.
So you lose your job. What’s your reaction? What do you do? You had kids…
I was Mom. I was president of the PTA and all those things. But I still loved writing and I still loved covering the sport. So I would freelance and do whatever I could, write big takeout pieces. And then eventually, I was offered a job with the new NASCAR.com, when they rebooted that whole thing. That turned out to be a really fantastic opportunity.
You were a reputable voice they could bring in, along with Kenny Bruce.
And David Caraviello was there as well. So the three of us were the main journalists for NASCAR.com at that point.
How was it being able to work for them and not feeling like things were going to change at the drop of a hat like at AOL?
That was definitely a better feeling, a lot more comforting for me. They gave us a really great platform. They really redid the platform. What I appreciated the most was it wasn’t just, “Tell us what happened the race,” it was “Tell us about the people in the race. Tell us about the crew.” They let us do feature stories, longform stories. Because I really believe that’s how people learn about the sport even more. Obviously the racing is important and that’s what it’s all about, but I’ve always appreciated the behind the scenes and I feel like readers do, too.
You obviously had a high-profile battle with breast cancer during this time. I know you kept trying to do as much writing as you could and kept plugging away. I’m not sure I would have been able to do that. You were doing chemo and writing at the same time. Why was it so important for you to keep working?
To be perfectly honest with you, it was a way to feel like I was going to make it, that things were somewhat normal. My cancer was Stage 3 and I’m HER2-positive, which is an extra enzyme of bad luck that only one in 10 people have and makes it even harder to recover. It’s just kind of an extra thumb in the side to the treatment.
But at the same time, friends of mine like Steve Byrnes were going through (cancer treatments). It was really bizarre how we call had this going on at the same time. Then Sherry Pollex was diagnosed. The three of us would often joke — we would be texting and it’s “I’m in chemo” and “I’m in chemo (too).”
But I remained so strengthened by them, and I was so grateful to NASCAR.com for not just letting me go because of all the extra medical issues. They were so good to me and so supportive, and so were the readers and the people we work with. It makes me emotional because sometimes you don’t find out how fantastic your friends are until they’re put to the test after you’re put to the test.
I feel like you having gone through this long, hard battle has given you a different outlook on life. What perspective did you gain during that time?
I think you probably hear this from a lot of cancer patients on appreciating the day, every day. My children were in junior high/middle school at the time, and I never wanted them to worry. I eventually got so sick and I had many complications arise out of it, so it was kind of hard to completely shield them.
But I tried so hard. I felt like the best part of it is knowing you just have to dig deep and you have to let the little stuff go. You can’t get upset about it. I am just so thankful to have every day.
I would go to bed at night and pray to God that I wasn’t going to die. And I really mean that. I’m not just saying that. Those would be my prayers all day long. “Please, God — let me see my son graduate. Let me see my daughter graduate.” Things like that. And it just changes your entire perspective.
But it also helps you appreciate the joy in life, too. And like you said, I do look at things (differently); I don’t get all crazed out by little (things). It also helps you really to appreciate the people around you and recognize your friends. I’m very blessed. Very, very blessed by the friends and people in my life.
So in that regard, does it frustrate you when you see other people have those gripes about things that don’t seem to matter as much? I was just complaining about the WiFi earlier.
I think to myself, “At least you didn’t have to find out like I did that it’s OK.” (Laughs) Just look over at me, I will give you the peace sign and tell you it’s going to be all right.
It would be nice if people like myself could remind ourselves of that and appreciate that every day without having to go through what you’ve gone through to gain that perspective.
I hope so. One thing I try and do on my Twitter account is I always try to find something positive. You will rarely if ever see (negativity). I always try and share that. It’s easy to go one way or the other, but going positive not only helps you, but the people you’re around. I don’t mean for this to sound trite, because I genuinely believe that. I’m always the girl who was giving the peace sign my whole life, and I really mean it. Especially now.
This is a tough time to get into journalism. Do you think there’s still a path for people have a career like you have? And where should they start these days?
I’m kind of torn on it. I obviously see the way social media has gone, and it’s (about) the quick hit. Frankly, you don’t even need to have studied journalism to do some of the quick (pieces) that are sent out that way.
I do believe there is something to be said for the art of writing, for the art of asking people and doing interviews instead of you making an assumption. Talk to the person, interview them. And don’t just talk to the one person; you want to talk to several others about that person.
I know it’s an art that’s being lost. But I feel like the best are the ones who go about things like we used to and had to. I love the fact though that people want to come in and tell stories, but that’s what they’ve got to do — tell stories. It should never be about the journalist. It should be about the subject you’re writing about and telling the story about. That’s going to be the important thing, because I think now it’s a little easier for that to get lost in it all.