When I stood up to ask my question, the eyes of nearly 300 journalists from all over the world had turned my way. Being a nervous college student anxious to ask a question to a famous race driver is one thing. But I was nervous about asking a question to that famous race driver …. in front of all those media personalities … as a person who stutters.
But I was on an assignment, and I’d never let my stutter get the best of me. So I shot up my hand.
It was 1986, and I was a college student at The Ohio State University, in Columbus, Ohio. I’d made the nearly 2 1/2-hour drive over to Indianapolis that day to interview Columbus-area driver Bobby Rahal after his qualification run at the world famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I was a journalism student who was there on assignment to come back to OSU with a feature story on Mr. Rahal.
And so my hand shot up.
Almost immediately, I felt that similar wrenching in my chest. That tightness and panic stricken “what do you think you are doing?” kind of wrenching fear, where a person who stutters would just as soon crawl under his chair than have to speak. But I had a job to do, so when I was recognized by a public relations person from the Speedway, she came to me with a polite smile and handed me the microphone so that I could ask my question.
The eyes of every major motorsports media journalist on the planet, and Bobby Rahal himself, turned my way as I stood up to ask my question. I was shaking so much, I nearly dropped the microphone. A momentary screech of feedback somehow caused me to cower into an even worse state of fear than I’d already managed to reach.
And then I spoke.
To be honest, I have no idea what question I was going to ask Bobby. How’d you decide on a car set-up for your run? Had you expected to qualify higher than fourth in the 33-car field? What’s your favorite breakfast cereal? I have no idea. Nobody knows.
They don’t know, because when I tried to speak …….? Nothing. Not even a block…nothing at all…. came out.
After several attempts, I lowered my head, handed the mic back to the same lady (she was now trying her best to smile, but I could tell that she was dying a little bit along with me), and I sat down.
If I could’ve crawled under my chair, I would have.
Instead, I just sat through the rest of the 10-minute press conference feeling ashamed.
And then I felt angry.
‘You’ve come all this way, to do an interview with one of the area’s best race drivers, and THIS is what you do instead?’
I mentally beat myself up over what had transpired, and then I decided that I’d approach Mr. Rahal after his press conference and try to at least explain what had happened.
So, when the final question had been asked, and as Bobby and his team manager got up to leave, I weaved my way through the throng of reporters and found myself in between the press conference door and their path to it.
“Mr. Rahal, I-I’m s… I’m s-s-s-s………um, I stutter. I’m doing a story for The Lantern n-n-newspaper at Ohio State, and I need to interview you, if you don’t mind.
“I d-don’t stutter at a k-keyboard,” I told him.
That drew a hearty chuckle from Rahal, his manager and everyone within ear shot of me. And Rahal said that it took a lot of guts for me to even try.
(The eventual 1986 Indy 500 winner was telling me that I had a lot of guts. I thought that was astonishing in its own right.)
He invited me back to his team mobile home, and we did almost a 45-minute interview there. Maybe if I hadn’t stuttered, the interview would’ve been shorter, who knows? But what I do know is that I didn’t let my stuttering stop me from doing my job, and more importantly, from ruling my life.
Stuttering is embarrassing. But it shouldn’t be something to determine what you can or can’t do in your life. I still get the occasional high school student who will get a wry know-it-all expression on his face when I’m interviewing him for a story. It’s as if he suddenly feels he’s better than me.
I just smile, explain to him that I happen to stutter. And I explain to him that when I sit down to write the article, “I never stutter on a keyboard.”
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