Remembering Denny Darnell

The dean of motorsports public relations died Saturday, leaving a lot of friends, a lot of memories.

Remembering Denny Darnell

Editor’s note: I was no kid when I started covering professional motorsports, but even then I was a little intimidated by the big, seemingly gruff, even-then white-haired guy named Denny Darnell, who seemed to be running things, whether I saw him in the NASCAR or NHRA press rooms. So I kept my distance. That was my loss. By the time I got to know Denny, I realized I had missed out on years of friendship with one of the true good guys in our business, a genuine professional whose personal motto always seemed to be Do The Right Thing, And To Hell With The Consequences. Denny had a personal compass, and that’s what it pointed to.

We liked, and occasionally disliked, the same people. We respected those who earned it. We appreciated hard work, and were angry when it wasn’t properly rewarded. Every time I saw Denny, a fellow Tennessean, I got a wordless lesson in how a man is supposed to shake your hand. Even after he retired a year ago, we kept in touch. One of the last emails I got from him: “It’s been a pleasure working with a true journalist.” I emailed back: “Coming from you, that means a hell of a lot.” I meant it. I’ll miss him very much.

Someone who knew Denny far better than I is Scott Sebastian, presently Vice-President of Public Relations and Marketing for, who worked directly with Denny. In the photo above, the guys in the white shirts – not sure I ever saw Denny in anything but a white shirt are, from left, Sebastian, fellow PR pro Jimmy White, and Denny Darnell, with, of course, Brad Keselowski after he won the NASCAR championship. Below, Scott shares his memories of Denny Darnell. RIP, buddy.

- Steven Cole Smith

Goodbye, old friend The motorsports industry lost a true friend Saturday afternoon when the news arrived that PR veteran Denny Darnell had passed away suddenly in Virginia. Denny was a great friend, mentor, confidant and I miss him dearly. I was blessed to have worked alongside him for seven years (2008-2013), managing motor sports public relations for Chrysler, via its Dodge, Ram and SRT brands. I was honored to call him a friend. I was privileged to call him my boss.

Denny will mostly be remembered for his public relations leadership with RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company, leading the explosion of news coverage for NASCAR in the 1990's. In his tenure with Chrysler, he never wanted the glory, only the respect that his team was recognized for in their hard work and efforts in managing news process. He valued the process, respected the people and was prideful in the product. Denny was a legend in motorsports public relations.

I think about Darnell PR disciples Rob Goodman, Paul Kelly, David Hart, John Ewert, Jimmy White and Ryan Barry, who shared Denny's passion for journalism, the media and the process of "doing it right." Denny was a tough son-of-a-bitch. And for those who were on the wrong side of his opinion, you understood his passion and desire about why character and credibility were so important in managing the media.

Denny never walked into a room: He kicked the door down and took charge. Hundreds of folks like me who have had the pleasure to work alongside of Denny understand how difficult words are to come by right now. Quite simply, Denny Darnell was a true son, father and grandfather who shared his passion for life through his work and set a standard of excellence for all to aspire.  Denny was a friend, a mentor and an inspiration for those who shared his love for journalism and public relations.

Do it right. Be accurate. Respect the trade.  Denny demanded it and there was no argument otherwise.

I think about veteran writers David Poole, Monty Dutton, Louis Brewster, Jim Pedley and next-generation scribes Nate Ryan, David Caraviello and Jim Utter, who all were called to a "sermon of Darnell" about how things needed to be done in covering the news. From his thick Tennessee accent that stuttered and stammered nearly every opening sentence to his "caution on the freeway" bursts inside the media center, Denny loved his work, his colleagues and most of all, his family.

Tonight I think about Rob Goodman, John Ewert, Jimmy White and David Hart and many others whose talents were shaped and molded by the "The General."

I'm saddened that he will never again eat at Sambo's or gobble down one more double-double, animal style from In-N-Out. 

I will miss our Sunday walks down pit lane and lunches in the Dodge motor coach with Howard Comstock, arguing about why he believed Steve Spurrier was the best game-day coach in college football. 

I think about Chad Willis and Jimmy Holder and all the Sprint folks who worked along side Denny at RJR, whose lives were guided by his leadership.

I'm saddened that colleagues Debby Robinson, Nancy Wager, Judy Dominik, Dan Zacharias, Matt Fancett, Lisa Hughes Kennedy, Pam Jansen, Marc Spiegel and other PR friends will never share more trackside tales. 

But most of all I think about his wife Jean and his son Trey, the two loves of his life that will never hear an "I love you babe" and "I love you son" after every telephone call. 

Rest in peace, boss. Thank you for your love, guidance and friendship. We all are going to miss you.

- Scott Sebastian 
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