Farewell to Dean McNulty, the ‘Dean of Speed’

Written by Norris McDonald

In this industry, it’s often out of sight, out of mind. A reporter, a columnist, a feature writer or a photographer stops working and they might have written millions of words over a lifetime in journalism and even been “must reads” in their day and yet when they die, they’re lucky to get a couple of paragraphs of tribute in the paper.

A few weeks ago, a guy named Clarke Davey passed. He’d been managing editor of the Globe and Mail and publisher of the Vancouver Sun, Montreal Gazette and the Ottawa Citizen. He’d once shut down the two Southam-owned Vancouver papers for nine months in a showdown with the unions. The unions blinked. He was a talented, very powerful man in Canadian newspapers who’d been retired for some time and the Globe and Mail saw fit to devote a whole 10 inches to him.

Not Dean McNulty, who died last Monday (April 29) at age 70 of leukemia. He hadn’t typed a word in more than two years and yet the reaction to his passing was as if he’d just written the entire centrespread in the Sunday Sun. James Hinchcliffe and Scott Goodyear both said wonderful words about him in a tribute posted on the website by writer Marshall Pruett. The Sun’s other sportswriters, as well as Bill Pierce, the sports editor who’d come up with his nickname, the “Dean of Speed,” also paid tribute.

(Photo Caption: Competitors in print, friends on the road. A few years ago, the Toronto motorsport press corps (at the time) met in Indianapolis for dinner. From left: Stephanie Wallcraft, Wheels; Dean McNulty, Sun; Jeff Pappone, Globe and Mail, Stuart Morrison, now Haas F1 communications manager; Norris McDonald, Toronto Star. CREDIT: Unidentified waiter at McCormick and Schmidt’s Seafood and Steaks restaurant, Indianapolis.)

Dean, along with nine other Canadian media giants, was honoured by the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame at a gala celebration in February. It was announced at that time that he and the others were being welcomed into the Hall, with the formal induction planned for early 2020. I’m so glad, all things considered, that Dean knew he was being recognized for the years of work he’d put in writing about everything from small Ontario speedways to the Daytona and Indianapolis 500s. I was fortunate that he and his wife, Roxanne, were at the same table as my wife and me.

In recent years, the number of employed motorsport reporters in Toronto has dwindled. Jeff Pappone, who wrote wonderful articles for the Globe and Mail for years, was unceremoniously let go one day. Andrew Ross used to do great stuff every week in the National Post’s Driving section until some new managing editor went through the paper and decided Andrew’s stories should be in the Sports section. One problem: the Sports editor didn’t want them so Andrew found himself right out of the paper. If it wasn’t for Toronto Star Wheels, a weekly publication in a daily environment, my motorsport coverage wouldn’t be in the Star. Dean was the last of a vanishing breed of beat reporters whose job, every day, was to research and write about the sport.

He didn’t want to retire in 2016. He told me he wanted to hang in because, “If I go, the Sun won’t replace me. I really want to stay working because, otherwise, there won’t be any regular racing coverage in the Sun.”

But then his brother died, and that got him thinking. Then his son died, and that sealed the deal. He and Roxanne sold their house in Bowmanville and moved to the Ottawa Valley to be near their grandchildren. And then he was diagnosed with leukemia, which finally got him.

Dean and I had a kind of sibling rivalry. I loved the guy – but we were competitors and so while we were newspaper buddies, we didn’t socialize away from the job very often. Hardly ever, in fact. I regret that. I still think that everybody is going to live forever, starting with me, and I’ve been cooking up some journalism ideas in recent months and I was going to ask Dean to be on the team. He’d told me in February that the leukemia seemed to be in remission, so I let my guard down. Another sad lesson learned.

He did have an advantage over the rest of us, in that while he was on the job he got to travel to many of the big NASCAR and IndyCar races that the rest of us couldn’t. We’d all make it to Indianapolis, one way or another, and to Montreal for the Grand Prix. But other than that, he was flying while the rest of us were grounded.

But this was the most wonderful thing about Dean McNulty. He never lorded that advantage over anybody. There was never any of the “I’m going to Dover and you’re not” snootiness that other writers – political writers, in particular – exhibit on occasion. Instead, he would take his assigned seat at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park for the Speedfest, or IMSA, or whatever, and he’d call everybody together and tell us the gossip from the NASCAR garage, or the rumours around the IndyCar paddock. And he’d deliver a punch line and chuckle with glee along with everybody else. He really was a treasure.

Dean didn’t always write about the motor sport. He was a news reporter and editor in his younger years and it was only after he arrived at the Sun in 1979 that he started to branch out. Dan Proudfoot preceded Dean on the motorsport beat there and tells this story.

“Back in ’98 or ’99, I don’t remember off the top, I suggested Dean do a NASCASR column to run along with my general motorsport stuff. At the time he was a general news desk guy but I’d come to know his enthusiasm for stock cars from our many conversations after I’d covered the Daytona 500 or races at the Glen.

“Scott Morrison (sports editor at the time) went for the idea and, from then on, Dean was a force. In fact, he thrived. He covered soccer as well as racing for awhile and was extremely readable.”

And that brings me to one of my favourite Dean McNulty stories.

He’d gone to cover a soccer press conference. Soccer wasn’t the big deal around here then that it is today and so there was frequently a stand-offish-ness exhibited by the participants when it came to dealing with the press. So Dean, to get the ball rolling, asked the subject of the press conference a question that experts of the game might have considered naïve. The condescension was dripping off the reply. Dean was fast on the trigger.

“Listen you!” he hissed. “It’s my job to ask the questions and it’s your job to answer them. SO ANSWER THAT QUESTION!!”

I can see him now – chin out and eyes blazing. There was no condescension shown him after that.

Pappone, who’s a member of the Board of Directors of the Hall of Fame, represented the Hall at the funeral in prior. After it was over, he sent me the following note:

“It would be difficult to find someone who loved his job or motorsport more than Dean. He travelled constantly through the racing season and never failed to smile and laugh no matter how grueling it became.

“Dean also cared about the next generation when it came to drivers and reporters. So many young racers in Canada saw their names in print because of Dean, which helped them push their careers forward and find success. And young reporters on the racing beat could always count on a kind word or helpful tip from Dean, myself included.

“His greatest professional love had to be covering races in his own backyard in Bowmanville at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. He simply adored being at that track. I have to thank CTMP co-owner Ron Fellows for bestowing Dean the honour of Grand Marshal for the 2016 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Chevrolet Silverado 250 race weekend. I don’t think Dean could have felt more honoured.”

Well said, Jeff. And thank you, Dan Proudfoot. By the way, Dean: you were right. You retired and the Sun stopped covering auto racing on a regular basis. Not much makes it into the papers these days except the Maple Leafs, Raptors, Blue Jays (let’s hear it for that kid Guerrero, the superstar with the – what is it? seven hits?) and FC, which is maybe one of the many reasons they’re all having trouble keeping their heads above water. But I digress.

So long, old friend. As Chris Economaki would write, R.I.P.