By LARRY WOODY
I'm not sure they keep NCAA and NASCAR statistics for jokes and pranks, but if they do, my old pal Jim Freeman surely holds the record in both categories.
Jim, a Murfreesboro native and returned-home resident, died last Sunday at 73 after a lingering illness. For some 40-odd years (some odder than others, Freeman would say) he was both a press-box cohort and one of my best friends.
From 1969-79 Jim served as Sports Information Director at his MTSU alma mater, then became Public Relations Director at Daytona International Speedway and later Talladega Superspeedway. I covered both MTSU and NASCAR during the "Freeman Years."
Nobody was better at his job. Jim had a knack for turning work into fun, and told more jokes than Henny Youngman.
If raucous laughter suddenly erupted at one end of the press box, you knew Jim Freeman was on the premises. He would wind his way down press row, working the crowd like a vaudeville comedian.
Jim would often make himself the butt of the joke:
He said he had been married so many times that he had developed a rice allergy; he numbered his ex-wives like Super Bowls (Wife XIV); he once saw a bumper sticker that read, "Honk If You've Been Married to Jim Freeman."
Jim said one of his spouses went to the doctor for a routine checkup and when she returned home she boasted that the doc had complimented her on her buxom figure.
"Oh really?" said Jim, adding mischievously: "Did he say anything about your fat [rear]?"
"No," replied his wife, "he never mentioned you."
This was all part of the shtick, of course; although matrimonially-challenged (as Freeman put it), Jim doted on his kids and grandkids.
MTSU's nationally-acclaimed track coach Dean Hayes had a photograph of two star hurdlers displayed on his office wall. He came in one morning and found his prized photo replaced by one of Freeman and partner-in-pranks Jim Simpson -- in identical hurdling poses.
Once at an OVC basketball tournament, the participating teams were presented gifts of expensive leather boots. Later back in the motel, MTSU coach Jimmy Earle opened his box to show off his prize boots -- and discovered they had been replaced by a pair of worn-out old brogans.
"Flake!" yelled Earle.
Flake was Earle's nickname for Freeman. And no wonder. Freeman's pranks on Coach Earle were legion and legendary. Freeman once sneaked into Earle's hotel room and dumped talcum powder into his hair drier. That afternoon when Jimmy was getting dressed for that night's game, he stepped out of the shower, grabbed the hair drier, and pointed it toward his wet head.
He was covered in talcum powder.
As PR director at Talladega, one of Freeman's duties was to make sure the pace car was ready to go at the start of the race. One Sunday noon the pace car sat parked and waiting on the front stretch as drivers were being introduced on-stage. Suddenly the pace car took off down the track.
Freeman was stunned -- what the heck was pace-car driver Elmo Langley doing?
Then he glanced over and saw Elmo standing on the stage, looking as bewildered as everyone else. A fan -- perhaps a tad over-served -- had hopped in the pace car and taken off for a joy ride around the sprawling 2.6-mile track. Around and around he went, darting and dodging past scurrying security officials as the crowd cheered and hooted.
For years Freeman gave a hilarious account of the incident -- which finally ended when a squad of sweating, red-faced, highly-peeved Alabama State Troopers finally cornered the pace-car culprit in a fourth-turn roadblock. It wasn't very amusing for the culprit.
On the job Freeman was the consummate professional, but when the last story was filed and the final ink-stained wretch trudged out of the press box, Jim would be ready to play. The neon glow beckoned. There were jokes to be told, yarns to be swapped, pranks to be pulled.
Jim always reminded me of colorful old racer Coo Coo Marlin of whom it was said: "He never won a race but never lost a party."
Jim didn't lose any parties either, and in the process he won a flock of fun-loving friends -- from Murfreesboro to Daytona to Talladega and points in-between.
Jim Simpson and I visited Freeman a couple of weeks before his death, and for two hours we sat in his hospital room and re-told old tales and relived old times. When we left, my eyes were watering and my ribs were aching from all the laughter.