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THIS JOB IS A TRIP

While Tom Jones is on vacation, we've asked our beat writers to help fill the void. They will offer a taste of a reporter's life on the road. Today it's motorsports writer Brant James.

It might as well have been the open ocean at night, a frigid wind churning the waves to froth. Such was the pitch of my panic that night of Feb. 24, 2001 at the corner of Broad Street and doom, Philadelphia, 8:30 p.m.

The death of Dale Earnhardt in the Daytona 500 six days earlier had sent Times motorsports writer Kevin Kelly to North Carolina with the cortege and the story. Thing was, Kelly was also the backup Lightning writer and the two-games-in-two-days swing through Philadelphia and Buffalo was suddenly uncovered.

The first Lightning game I ever covered would be on the road, and damned if it didn't end in a scoreless tie. A sadistic theme was begun.

Much of my morning in the First Union Center had involved receiving assurances from press box personnel that I could catch a cab to the nearby airport after the game, even though the Philadelphia Wings indoor lacrosse team was to play a game there that night. After filing, I trundled down curbside with my backpack and luggage, overcoat stupidly packed as I didn't expect to be in the 15-degree air very long.

After several hopeful minutes of watching cabs circle outside the parking lot, then continue down Broad Street, I began dragging base camp further toward the entrance, until a matter-of-fact attendant in a day-glo ski cap curtly informed me that taxis wouldn't come inside because they'd have to pay (enter subtext: idiot!).

So outside and down the street I went. Every second or third lamp was burned out or broken, creating tiny little islands of visibility under the ones that actually worked in the winter gloom. My flight to Buffalo left in about an hour and 10 minutes by this point. The cold and the panic of planning my explanation for missing a 1 p.m. game in Buffalo was beginning to get to me. So were the quick-stepping passers-by who kept looking over their shoulders. The sparse number of taxis that passed either would not stop or their drivers clicked their dome lights to "out of service'' as I all but lunged onto their hoods.

After almost a half hour, frozen and frazzled, I spied what appeared to be a parked police car three blocks down at an intersection. Off I went, luggage in tow.

It's a disconcerting feeling reaching to tap the window of a police car when the officer who does not see you coming. I rapped once and recoiled. Down came the window with a crack as it snapped the bond of frost holding it fast to the frame.

"You lost,'' he asked, or rather inferred.

"Sir, you have to help me,'' I said. "I'm from out of town, covering the Flyers-Lightning game. I need to get to the airport or I'm screwed. Is there anything you can do to make one of these cabs stop?''

"You a sports writer?''

"Yes, I am.''

"Get in.''

Wasn't expecting that. My first thought upon slinging open the back door of the cruiser was, "hey, the back seats are molded plastic. And look, they have little notch cut in there for when they're handcuffed behind their backs.''

The next was "what the hell just happened?'' And finally, "please, no murders for the next 15 minutes.''

Between the shrill crackle of the cruiser radio, the officer, intrigued by his catch, chatted about his brother who makes a yearly tarpon fishing expedition to Clearwater, how he'd like to retire in the area, and the Eagles. I just hoped to keep him talking in case something important blurted over the radio.

A few minutes later, the cruiser hugged up to the curb at Philadelphia International. My flight only about a half hour from takeoff, I threw my shoulder into the door. Of course it didn't open. The officer hopped out, pulled it wide and asked only "put me in your column sometime'' though he'd never given a name.

As I pulled my bag from the car, I noticed the lengthy queue of travelers at the automatic door and how their gaze had settled curiously upon this idiot without a jacket who was obviously in the process of extradition. Thankfully, they made way as I strode for the door. Finally, Philadelphia cooperated.

Best airport

Birmingham, Ala.

Worst airport

Atlanta.

Favorite sport to cover

Racing.

Favorite sport to watch

College football.

One athlete you've never interviewed but want to

Hank Aaron.

Favorite event you've ever covered

Cal Ripken passing Lou Gehrig by playing in his 2,131st consecutive game.

Three best road cities

Atlanta

The capital of the new South gets all the cool concerts that avoid Tampa Bay, and apathetic locals always leave plenty of tickets available.

Phoenix

Nothing like a sunset over the mesa.

Calgary

A Rocky Mountain paradise without all the Americans.

Three worst road cities

Dover, Del.

One highway, two malls, too long a stay.

Newton, Iowa

Doverites make fun of it.

Talladega, Ala.

Newtonians make fun of it.

Three favorite stadiums/arenas

Churchill Downs

A cathedral.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway

A cathedral, but louder.

The Saddledome, Calgary

Loyalty personified in the stands and Ring of Fire at 130 db.

Three least favorite stadiums/arenas

Veterans Stadium, Philadelphia

A concrete, urine-stained drain pipe to hell.

Talladega Superspeedway

200,000 campers, 100,000 campfires, 10 weeks off your life.

Phoenix International Raceway

An inadequate eyesore that ruins its pretty surroundings.

Three favorite people you've covered

Cal Ripken Jr.

The genuine article.

Mario Andretti

Living history (right).

Vinny Prospal

Still has the little kid spirit in a pro athlete's body.

Three favorite restaurants on the road

Hot and Hot Fish Club, Birmingham, Ala

A nice Five Points spot where all the food is grown on the restaurant's farm - and no barbecue sauce anywhere.

Barton G's, South Beach

Swordfish comes lanced on a saber.

The Cattleman, Fort Worth

Meat, big slabs of meat.

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