“I very quietly went down and bought a ticket for two weeks and sat in the grandstands. I learned cars, I learned drivers, I learned crew chiefs…They thought I was Mr. Wizard,” said Mark Garrow.
It was 41 years ago in Stafford Springs, Connecticut and the Rutland, Vermont native was preparing for what would become a defining moment on the road to his career as a NASCAR media personality and radio announcer.
Garrow was the third announcer of five to audition for the job at Stafford Motor Speedway, a beacon of New England Motorsports.
“Sometimes in life you take an opportunity, put a little hard work, a little extra work into it, and that paves the way for success,” he recalled with a slight southern drawl of a transplanted Vermonter who’s been living down in North Carolina for the last 35 years, where NASCAR’s capital has been established with dozens of race team garages, the Charlotte Motor Speedway, and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
And pave the way for success, it did.
The following year, he was hired to go down to Daytona, Florida for media coverage of NASCAR’s annual, season-opening Speedweeks.
“The rest is, they say, history. I’ve now done 40 years at NASCAR’s top level,” he said.
Mark Garrow’s introduction to racing is unlike any other. When he was just an infant, his father, Tommy, was hired as the flagger at Claremont Motorsports Park for $75 a night.
“Initially he turned them down … Dad didn’t have any interest in being flagman but he needed the $75. He just had a new baby so he went up there.”
Garrow attended his first race when he was just a year old, father in the flag stand and mother in the scoring tower. Garrow would nap in the truck until the races were over.
Tommy Garrow did not have experience as a flagger, but he did have a valuable skillset for the rugged and rowdy early days of auto racing.
Tommy Garrow was a prize fighter.
“Beat ‘em up in front of God and country until they understand there’s a new sheriff in town. They can’t beat up the flagman anymore, they can’t beat up the promoter anymore,” Garrow recalled of the terms of his father’s employment.
As Garrow got older, he had “free reign” of the racetrack and ran around the pit area and grandstands during his childhood.
A Vermont Golden Glove champion, New England Professional welterweight champion and all-Marine Corps boxing champion, Tommy Garrow laid down the law at Claremont for 18 seasons, and that’s how Mark first got into racing.
Tired of Dad calling me “Mary”
Racing was only half of the life and career Garrow now knows. Tommy Garrow also played a part in Mark’s intro to radio and media where he has made his living covering NASCAR for four decades now.
“Dad was trained by the same people who trained Rocky Marciano. He fought in Madison Square Garden, Boston Garden … It was sort of in the Garrow family DNA,” Mark said.
One of his uncles was an all-Navy champion, another all-Air Force.
Initially, Mark may not have fit the family mold.
“[Dad] would call me Mary instead of Mark. He always considered me kinda soft,” Mark said.
When Garrow was 15, a man came to Rutland to start a boxing team to fight for the Vermont Golden Gloves and Garrow decided it was time to shed the feminine moniker.
“I had been really tired of my dad calling me Mary all those years,” he recalled.
One morning when Tommy Garrow picked up the Rutland Herald, he learned he was the new Rutland boxing coach, and his son was one of the fighters.
Mark had volunteered them both.
Tommy coached Mark to five Vermont Golden Glove championships, a New England Golden Glove title, an AAU title, and a bout at the national Golden Gloves in 1975.
“I got to meet Ray Leonard before he was Sugar Ray. Thank Goodness he was not in my weight class,” Garrow laughed.
During his boxing career, Garrow also attended then Castleton State College. His English professor scoffed at his barbaric weekends in the ring, calling names like “knuckle-dragger,” and “Cro-Magnon Man,” while the school president commended his fighting and appreciated the notoriety he brought to the school, as evidenced in notes he left Mark in his mailbox.
“So, I got both directions, I got both pro and con when I was at Castleton while I was boxing,” he said.
From punches to the mic
It was after a fight one night that Garrow became acquainted with the owner of Rutland radio station, WHWB AM/FM. The station owner was interviewing the young fighter for the radio and noticed something different about Garrow.
“I had been interviewed after a fight by a gentleman by the name of Frank McCormack, who owned the station, and said that I didn’t sound like a typical boxer and I told him I could always talk,” Garrow said.
Being on the radio was never a consideration for Garrow growing up, but the airwaves were about to change his course for good.
Garrow quickly became well-acquainted with the radio and quickly ascended the WHWB ranks to the role of sports director.
“I was aware of Mark when he won the Golden Gloves a few times,” said Jack Healy, thinking back on his first few run-ins with Garrow. Healey is a 20-time winner of the Vermont Sportscaster of the Year honor, a Vermont Broadcasters Association Hall of Famer, and a Vermont Principals Association Hall of Famer.
“He did work with us on football games and basketball games, and he did color with us at times. Mark actually took over for me on WHWB and ended up doing the play-by-play football and basketball and went on from there,” he said.
While at WHWB, Garrow was also hired to be the announcer at Devil’s Bowl Speedway where he began to gain experience as a live race broadcaster and expanded his skillset beyond the stick and ball sports. He sent a tape to Motor Racing Network, with a letter he drafted with help from Castleton professor Keith Jenison, but he was not hired.
“I just thought that was that,” he said.
That was anything but that.
The disappointment was short-lived, as the Stafford Motor Speedway opportunity followed shortly after.
The Daytona and NASCAR opportunity after that.
“I’m sitting in the tower at Daytona doing a race down there going ‘how in the world did I get here?’ I have no idea how all this happened!”
You knew they were risking their lives
Garrow recalls being in Daytona in 1984 during the Busch Clash when Ricky Rudd crashed his Wrangler Jeans sponsored #15 car in a spectacularly violent roll and thinking he may be headed home sooner than anticipated. Garrow was beginning to get to know the drivers on a more personal level, and Rudd was one of them.
“I didn’t come down here to do this and watch friends get killed,” he said.
Rudd survived and spent the rest of 1984’s Speedweeks in a racecar with his swollen eyes taped open.
But it was far from the last sinking feeling in Garrow’s gut.
Garrow worked with Coca-Cola’s involvement in racing, which allowed him to get acquainted with drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Adam Petty, and Kenny Irwin.
All three were killed in race cars in a span of just nine months from May of 2000 to February of 2001.
“You got to know these guys and you knew they were risking their lives all the time,” he said. “We were killing a lot of young drivers and it was a really peculiar time … It’s reality on steroids in racing sometimes.”
Garrow likened the deaths to losing family members and loved ones. He said the combination of racing’s added danger and closer relationships with the drivers is part of that family dynamic.
“You’re emotionally invested in the sport, which puts you emotionally invested in the people,” he said. “You know that this guy is married. You know this guy has kids. You know lots of things about his personal life and his family.”
Garrow has won more National Motorsports Press Association awards than anyone in radio, including five nods for Broadcaster of the Year, and the first ever Award for Excellence, named for the late Barney Hall in 2002.
“Barney was my mentor when I first went to Motor Racing Network,” Garrow said. “And I don’t think that without his mentorship that I would have made it as far as I did and as long as I did.”
Garrow carried the glass trophy throughout the following NASCAR cup series schedule that year hoping to get a photo op with Barney and the trophy.
“I begged him, please take a picture with me…I never could get that rascal to do it,” he recalled.
He was inducted into the Castleton University Athletics Hall of Fame in 2012 for his seven boxing championships and lengthy career in national broadcasting.
“Mark is an awesome guy,” said MRN broadcaster Dave Moody. Moody came from the Green Mountains, like Garrow, and started at Barre, Vermont’s Thunder Road International Speedbowl before moving south to work at NASCAR’s top level.
“He’s just a pro. He’s been at it for a long, long time and he’s at the top of his class.”
So what is Mark Garrow’s secret to success?
“If you work your job like every day is the last day you’re gonna have that job, you’ve got a pretty good chance of holding on to it,” he said.