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That was specialWednesday, May 20, 2015

First of all, I suspect I don't have to inform you that we won the race on Sunday, at Atlanta Dragway. I'm thinking that word probably leaked out and has, by now, made the rounds. As much as I wanted to jump right on this blog as soon as the race was over, that wasn't really possible because winning does a lot of things for you and they're all good, but for a PR rep it adds a whole new layer of stuff that keeps you hopping like crazy. And it's a great kind of crazy.

I had plenty to do at the track, plenty to do as soon as all the Winner's Circle festivities and media interviews were over, then I had to drive up to a hotel in Greenville on Sunday night (missing out on dinner with the team, but the work came first for me). I made it there just in time to finish up the last few interview requests, answer the most critical of the thousand or so emails I received (still wading through all of those wonderful notes, and they keep coming) and then I had time to flip the TV on to watch the race itself, on ESPN2. It didn't start until 9:00 pm, and as I began to watch and unwind I felt one very obvious thing:  I was exhausted.

Four rounds of racing, all of the stress that comes with each one (especially the first one and the last one) and then all the stuff that happens afterward is like a huge injection of caffeine, all day long, and when it starts to wind down you feel like you could close your eyes and go right to sleep, but I wanted to make it to the end of the race show just to make sure it all really happened. It was closing in on midnight and I was actually watching the last few minutes with one eye, because I was the true definition of "half asleep" but I perked up when the Funny Car final came on and, sure enough, that Wilkerson cat won the race. It was the second time that day I saw it and lived it. Now, I have the NHRA YouTube video of it, so I can watch it over and over again. And, I have. Many times.

I'll just begin the story by mentioning a message I've been delivering through our PR platforms for many weeks. Despite the fact we came into that race in 12th place, we have a very good race car and we've been running very well. I think some people who only look at the standings were probably overlooking us a little, but this time around we made our point. They won't overlook us now.

On Friday, as you probably know, our first qualifying run was a bit of a debacle. The timing system was working just fine all day, until our pair came to the line and it failed, but only on one side of the track. Yep, our side. Imagine that. So, what was actually something between a 4.08 and a 4.10, showed up on the board as a 4.52, but the one person on our team who took that the best was Wilk. He knew what it ran, and he knew what it could run in Q2 on Friday night, so he calmed the guys down and got them back to work. And we ran a 4.048 to jump up to sixth place on the ladder.

On Saturday, we made two more great laps in much hotter and trickier conditions, and we proved we could get down both lanes. In all, we made four very good qualifying laps, but only three of them had accurate times associated with them. But then, just like in Houston, we qualified great but the ladder lined us up against another great team and driver. This time it was my old boss Del Worsham.

Every round out here is tough now, but somehow it just seemed right up our alley to qualify fifth and sixth at the last two races but then have to run Courtney Force and Del in the first round. Sorta like running fantastic against Ron Capps in Gainesville but losing by one 10,000th of a second. Some days you're the windshield and some days you're the bug.

I was pretty nervous going up against Del, because you just knew they'd get that yellow car sorted out and make a great lap, and after seeing that scenario up close in Houston, against Courtney, I would not have been surprised to see us lose by an inch again. I did tell Barbara, though, that "If we get by Del in round one, I think we're going to win this race."

Sunday morning seemed to last forever. I kept busy with social media and making runs back and forth from the Media Center to the pit, and finally (mercifully) the race began. We were sixth pair in round one, and by then we'd seen a whole lot of tire smoke and backpedaling, as everyone seemed to be having a hard time figuring out just what Atlanta Dragway was going to let us have.

As we pulled forward, the nerves began to mount. Like I said, I knew in my heart that Del was going to run great, so I figured it would take a flawless effort for us to win. I also figured that, if it was close, the way the breaks have been going lately it would really hurt to see us lose another one by an inch. It turned out I was right about the Del part, because he put a strong 4.106 on the board, but I didn't have to worry about the breaks, because Wilk basically stunned everyone in the house. Our 4.035 was a sledgehammer. It not only moved us on to the second round, it got the attention of every other team on the ladder, and it got us lane choice.

I think the 4.03 was really the crucial piece of how we won this race. Every team we faced on the day knew they'd have to push it to beat us, and they knew Wilk had not just a handle on things, but a firm grip on everything. And we got rolling…  4.085 against Fast Jack in round two, then that guy named Force in the semifinal where we ran a 4.163 at the hottest part of the day to take that win. When you're in the semifinal, it's kind of like a baby version of the final round, because the difference between losing there and getting the win is just utterly enormous. We had Ron Capps in the final, and just to make all of our nerves dance a little more, both teams had to really hustle to get up there in time. It was a thrash, but we made it and we were ready.

So, we hadn't won a race in nearly four years. We hadn't been to a final in nearly a year. A lot of our guys had never been to a final. And, the one stat that seemed to be impossible, Richard Hartman had never been a part of a win at an NHRA national event in his entire career. Not once.

I tried to stay calm, but frankly it was really difficult to inhale as the car began to stage. I know our guys wanted it so badly, and I wanted it just as much as they did. To work so hard, for so long, and not get the chance to feel that tsunami of wild emotions come over you when your car trips the win lights, well…  It's hard to fathom.

I held the camera to my eye as they staged, and frankly it was bizarre. I saw Capps smoke the tires hard around the 330 mark, and I could hear our guys yelling and screaming right behind me, but my job is to keep that camera rolling. It was all I could do to stay with it and keep it pointed in something approximating the right direction. And then the LRS car started to haze the tires a little, and when you're brain is working at hyper-drive that much, it all seems to be happening in slow motion. Tim kept his foot down, though, and just as the wave of fear about Capps coming from behind to overtake us began to percolate, the win lights came on in our lane.

And…  We. Went. Nuts.  If you've seen the celebration I think you'd agree that it was truly emotional for everyone, but it was better than that. It was pure unbridled joy. The pressure is ratcheted up so high, the stakes are so enormous, and when it happens it's instantaneous happiness. When it happens for the first time in four years, it's off the chart.

It was all blur for a while after that, but the best part for me was just watching the guys. It had been a long time, but the truth is I've done this many times. To watch this young team celebrate, and hug each other, and just never stop smiling, was priceless. Absolutely priceless. Winning made me happy, but what made me the happiest was seeing this hard-working team finally get the payoff. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

Oh, and guess what? No need to mount that huge social-media "get out the vote" campaign for the Traxxas Shootout this year. We're in it already, thanks to that win. But I still can't thank you all enough for what you've done for us the last two years. Believe me, people all throughout this sport know full well how impressive it was for us to get Wilk in the Shootout via those votes. Wilk's Warriors absolutely rule!


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Friday afternoon, about to embark on one totally special weekend
 
And Richard Hartman won a race. What's more brilliant than that?

Tim was effusive with his praise for all the guys, but he took pains to make sure he talked to the media about Richard, and what he's meant to this team. After all the photos were taken, Tim handed Richard the Wally. Now that's brilliant.

Dan Wilkerson was there, Richard's wife Tina and two of their three girls were there, Jim and Nancy Butler were there, Eric Buttermore was there, all of the Summit Racing Equipment guys were there, and I was there. I'm sure glad we did hospitality at Atlanta, because I would've hated to have missed that.

For the next 24 hours, at least, my phone never stopped blowing up. My email In-Box was overflowing, and both my Facebook and Twitter pages were exploding. And then, as a PR guy, I got the secondary joy of being the point person for a team and driver everyone wanted to talk to. We stacked up the interviews as best we could, and had Tim calling a wide variety of shows and reporters. All good. No, not all good. All GREAT!  It's great to feel that rush of busy PR activity again. It seemed like I didn't have enough hours in the day to do all of that and get ready for Topeka, but here we are and the interviews are probably over for now. My Topeka pre-race feature story is out, and this blog is about to be done.

And I can still watch the YouTube video. Over and over and over.  For the record, if you haven't seen it but want to, just go here:

https://www.facebook.com/NHRA/videos/10153320657276410/?pnref=story

That one was really special. I'm honored to have been a part of it. Way to go Tim, and way to go guys! One helluva team.

Wilber, out!

In the air again…Wednesday, May 13, 2015

I was going to headline this short little blog installment "On The Road Again" because that always makes Willie Nelson's voice pop into my head, but in the interest of fair reporting the only "road" I'm on is the one in the sky.

I don't write too many of these from the air, but I've been trying hard to keep with a midweek routine here, and I've already had a very busy few days of writing, with my Atlanta preview feature story and my "Behind The Ropes" column, which is actually not due until Monday but with a race weekend between me and that day, I thought I should get it done early. And if I must say so myself it's brilliant, but I'm slightly less than objective in such analysis.

Anyway, greetings from Delta 1484, at 33,000 feet somewhere over eastern Montana. My more precise location is seat 2-D, up front, and I just finished my hot turkey and tomato sandwich (on 12-grain wheat no less) so now I have my tray table free again and I can type. That's something else I rarely do. I almost never have my computer out during a flight, because I'm almost universally on my iPad during these trips, but I knew I'd want to put a blog together and there's no way I could do that on the iPad. Oh, I guess I could, but I'm not exactly the best typist when it comes to a flat surface with the image of a keyboard on it. I can email easily enough, but this much writing would be a challenge. Or at least a hassle.

So it's Wednesday, and I'm on my way to a race. What's wrong with this picture? Well, I needed to fly through MSP anyway, so I'll spend the night in Woodbury and then catch a 10:00 a.m. flight over to Detroit before I fly down to Greenville-Spartanburg. This year, that airport will be even more convenient than usual because we're staying in a totally new place. Ever heard of Lavonia, Georgia? It's just a few miles from the South Carolina border, but since Commerce and Atlanta Dragway are both about halfway to S.C., and Lavonia is only 29 miles to the track, we're staying there. It's just far enough away that the motels and hotels charge their normal rates, as opposed to those right in Commerce (who practice a form of extortion).

A little Breaking Benjamin music on the headphones right now, with the song "So Cold." I'm a huge fan.

And speaking of bands and being a huge fan, the Rush R40 tour has begun, celebrating their 40th year in the music-genius business. The reviews from the first two shows (Tulsa and Lincoln) were over-the-top raves, so now I'm all fired up to find a show I can attend. The general consensus is that this is likely to be their final full tour of "live" shows (that doesn't mean they'll never play in public again, but they don't plan to hit the road again for months at a time). Madison Square Garden and Toronto both fit into the racing schedule, and I can imagine how special seeing them in Toronto would be, but the aftermarket for tickets in those two places is through the roof. It looks like I might go to Newark… We'll see. When buying tickets from a reseller (like TicketsNow) it's kind of a supply-and-demand game you have to play. I can buy two tickets in Row 5-Center for Newark right now, for about $800. As the show date gets closer the prices will fall, but you sure don't want to miss out. It's just a question of when you pull the trigger.

And WOW, what a timing coincidence. Here on the plane I just got an email from Laura Yozamp, who was at the Rush show last night, in St. Paul. I was kicking myself last night, that I didn't think about that enough to book this trip one day earlier. I would've been there for sure. Ugh. Oh well, cool to get such a great shot of Geddy Lee, and Laura said the show was incredible. I know it was. And the hair on my arms stood up when I saw the shot, which rounds out a very small photo gallery today.

And now playing, a playlist I created for one of our long drives from Spokane to the Twin Cities, wittily entitled "Trip Mix 2" Now playing "Swerve City" by Deftones.

Hey, before I type another word I just want to say THANK YOU to the many hundreds of readers who either posted on Facebook or sent me an email about my last blog, in which I briefly outlined how the heck I got from childhood and baseball to about 20 years in drag racing. I'm excited to contemplate actually writing the book, and I'll have more details about that in the very near future. And no, it won't be a coloring book, although I guess I should hold onto that as a possible fall-back position.

Atlanta, eh? Well, Commerce anyway. My advice to anyone who is staring at the weather forecasts and fretting over them is "Don't worry about it." For one thing, none of us have any control over it, but more importantly this is the middle of May and Atlanta Dragway is in Georgia. There's no big weather system bearing down on the area, but it is getting warm there and it's always humid, so things pop up. I suspect we'll get it all in without too much weather drama.

I got an email from Del Worsham today, and that's coincidental because it seems like every time we go to Atlanta Dragway I see those photos of him when he won his first race. He was 12 at the time, which is truly remarkable for a Funny Car driver. OK, maybe 13, but 14 tops.

And my other favorite memory of Atlanta is when the CSK blue team, with Frankie Pedregon driving and David Fletcher tuning, won their first race as a group. Fletch got the perfunctory bath from a cooler full of ice water. We had to. It's a rule. That was a big day, and I still consider that win in my Top 5, I think. Indy and the Skoal "double-up" will remain No. 1 until I'm ever fortunate enough to win a race that clinches a championship.

Now playing, "Stardust" by Gemini Syndrome. I didn't say it was a "middle of the road" playlist.

On the home front, I'll admit it was really sad to leave the boyz this morning. I packed last night, and they were fully aware of the suitcase at the foot of the bed. Buster, my big fella, was super sweet this morning when we woke up, and by my side all morning as I got prepared to leave the house at 11:30. I gave him a hug to say goodbye and he couldn't have been purring any louder as he gripped my shoulder and tucked his head under my chin. Boofus, on the other hand, was pretty much just mad at me. He stayed in his bed by the fireplace, facing away from me and living room, and then gave me "that look" when I rubbed his head. Cat parenthood…

Their friend Nancy will be looking in on them multiple times a day, and they adore her, so they'll be okay. Barbara is currently in Cork (as in Ireland) after a few days in Oslo (as in Norway) and Dublin (also as in Ireland). I'm not going to bother flying all the way back out to Spokane between Atlanta and Topeka, so she's just going to fly back to the Twin Cities as well, and we'll spend a couple of days together there before she gets back to the boyz. The life we lead, right. It's complicated at times.


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Wheels up from GEG. A gloomy day in Spoke-town
 
Now playing, "Destroy The Obvious" by Evans Blue. Great band with a fantastic vocalist (Dan Chandler).

Okay, now I have to get this thing sent off to my mentors at NHRA.com, before they become unavailable for the day.

I can honestly say this about today's blog: Talk about a bunch of nothing! Sheesh. Well, let's get on down there to Georgia so we can create some new material. Like a Wally, or something like that.

Oh, there will be news once I get there. Tim decided to go with whole new look on our transporter, and it has been re-wrapped with an entirely new design. Doug Sholty designed it, and I've known Doug for a long time. He did a ton of work for us on the CSK team, including all of the really cool designs and wraps we did. Good guy, and very creative.

And… Huge congrats to John Force Racing and all my friends over there, on today's announcement that Monster Energy Drink will be the primary sponsor on Brittany Force's Top Fuel Dragster. That's very good for them, and frankly it's good for all of us. Great to have Monster back in our sport.

I'm over North Dakota now, and I think blogging in the airspace over this state is illegal, so I have to go. Thanks for bearing with me on this blog full of vapor…

And I leave you with "Nearly Lost You" by Screaming Trees.

Wilber, out!

Having two consecutive weekends off during what I now consider to be "the middle of the season" is a very strange thing. Right now, on this Wednesday after the first of those two blank weekends, I'm sitting on a sofa in the Twin Cities waiting to fly back to Spokane tonight. I better hurry up, too, because my flight is only 11 hours from now.

With this little pre-Atlanta hiatus, there's really nothing noteworthy to write about in terms of the race team, except for one exciting fact: Our transporter is being stripped and re-wrapped with all new graphics right now! It's a cool design, or at least it seems to be a really cool design when looking at the rendering, and I anticipate it's going to look even cooler in real life. Yes, there's still a race car in the design, and there's still a giant Wilk involved, but the new look is more corporate in appearance, which I really like. When you see it at the track or rolling down the highway, there will be no mistaking it for anything other than a race trailer, but it also plays up our very valuable marketing partners in a really effective way. Can't wait to see it.

So, with that lone bit of news out of the way, it's time to delve into a very long story that I'm asked about all the time. It's the single most commonly asked question I get at the track or via email, and no it's not "How are the boyz?" although that one is the second-most often asked. Okay, it's also not "Did you warm up yet?" which is by far the most common question, but that has nothing to do with this blog or with me. The question is "How did you end up doing this for a living?" or something along those lines. One day, and I hope it's one day soon, I'm going to put it all into words in long form, and it will end up as a book. It must be written, because the gems that represent the characters that have passed into and out of my 58 years on this planet are too rich to not mine, and the stories are too endless, and the places are too numerous. The last 20 years, here in my NHRA segment of life, are simply the latest incarnation of a charmed existence.

I assume that when people ask me how I ended up doing this, they're anticipating an answer that includes all sorts of things like relentless dedication, a carefully thought-out plan, and a life-long desire to be Public Relations representative for a Funny Car team. They would be incorrect in that assumption. It was more just a case of me following whatever new adventures presented themselves to me, often without even mulling it over for a minute. And here I am. It's such a crazy story even I have a hard time believing it. As for the young people who so often ask me for career advice, I feel compelled to give them a valid straight answer, and it's not "Just copy what I did."

When I write the book it will be detailed and vivid (I hope) but we don't have room for that here. Instead, this will be the short version. Back when I was in school, we would've called this the Cliff's Notes version. Do you remember Cliff's Notes? They were the "cheater version" of story outlines for students who didn't take the time to actually read the assigned book. If you prepared for a test via the Cliff's Notes version, you actually had a chance to pass but it was hard to get better than a C, although I don't recall ever using the Cliff's Notes version of any book. I just assume it would be hard to get better than a C. Trust me. The Cliff's Notes version of "A Tale of Two Cities" would've been something like "Obscenely rich French royalty treat the common people like pigs while they feast on the best of everything. Common people eventually get tired of it, rise up, and heads roll." Okay, it was a little more in-depth than that, but you get the picture.

So this is the short version of how I got here, my very own story as to how the dominoes fell in such a specific (yet random) order to have put me here, and I certainly hope it's not too boring in terms of material. Here goes, and feel free to bail out now if this doesn't seem like something worth reading (Run for your lives!!!)

The key point that makes all of this possible is the unavoidable fact that you cannot pick your parents. I was just lucky. Incredibly lucky. Like, amazingly lucky. In 1956 I was born as the fifth and final child in the Wilber family, the third son for Del and Taffy Wilber. My mom's real name was Edna Mae, and as a child she was adorably known as Eddie to her friends, but at some point the color of her hair earned her the nickname Taffy.

My dad was born and raised outside of Detroit (in Lincoln Park and Allen Park) and my mom was a native Texan, having been born in Del Rio and raised in San Antonio. They met during World War II, when Taffy worked at the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center, which is now Lackland Air Force Base. She was "Miss Air Force" at the time, and Big Del was a strapping 6'3" minor league baseball player. His job during the war was ostensibly a position as a "P.E. Instructor" but mostly he and a few big leaguers made up the baseball team for the base, keeping morale up by playing for the troops against teams from other bases or minor leagues. At the end of the war, the St. Louis Cardinals called him up to the big leagues and they bought a home in suburban Kirkwood.

Although Big Del would play only a couple of years with the Cardinals, and then later play for the Phillies and Red Sox before a lengthy career as a coach, scout, and manager, the Wilber clan always stayed in Kirkwood. Dad would simply leave in the spring and come back in the fall. We learned to cherish the winters, believe me.

All of us were athletic (my two brothers each earned Big 10 football scholarships and oldest brother Del Jr. signed with the Phillies to play baseball) but we were all also blessed with our mother's genes, and that was some very creative DNA. While I was growing up, Taffy worked for radio station KMOX in St. Louis, as a reporter and host of a show called "Taffy On The Town" before going to work for the Cardinals and then opening her own PR firm. She was a fabulous communicator and writer, and a determined buster of gender barriers. Also a great mom.

My dad's career meant that our family friends, the very people who would come to our house for parties, included people like Stan Musial, Marty Marion, and Jack Buck. Big Del's best friend from his playing days was a guy named Ted Williams. You might have heard of him. Ted was such a friend, he added Big Del to his coaching staff with the 1970 Washington Senators just to get him 90 more days of big league service time, which granted him a full pension. I spent that summer shagging fly balls during batting practice at RFK Stadium. It was an interesting way to grow up, believe me. The next four summers, I spent every day doing the same thing in Denver and then Spokane, as Big Del was by then the Senators' (who then moved and became the Texas Rangers) Triple-A manager. It was really too much fun. Those summers alone provide enough material to write a book. Maybe two.

Like my siblings, I attended Mary Queen of Peace grade school, a private school run by the nuns of the Sisters of Loretto order. When I was there, we still had plenty of nuns as teachers and for my first four or five years at MQP they actually wore the full black and white habits. As a group, they seemed very mysterious to a second grader. It was a terrific education, thanks to the likes of Sister Gertrude Marie, but even in my early years it was pretty obvious I was going to be a fine "liberal arts" kind of person but I certainly wasn't a math or science type.

Like my brothers, I then attended St. Louis University High, a Jesuit all-boys school in the city of St. Louis. Fortunately, the Jesuits and our other instructors held my hand enough to get me through those very challenging math and science classes, while I flourished on my own in terms of writing, speaking, and conceptualizing. Somehow, I managed to graduate.

I had been playing baseball since I was five, and after SLUH I accepted a full baseball scholarship to Southern Illinois University - Edwardsville, where I was lucky enough to be a part of two teams that advanced all the way to the NCAA Div. II World Series. I also majored in TV/Radio Broadcasting, because I was sure I'd play 10 years in the big leagues just like Dad, and then I could go right into the booth to do play-by-play. It was a heck of a plan. It was also the only one I had.

In college, where I could focus on my major and other classes I liked, I rocked. Dean's List every quarter. Straight A's most of the time. I also caught the eye of a few Major League teams and signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers after my senior year. After two years in their organization (Appalachian League and Florida State League) I was released but then immediately re-signed by the Oakland A's, who sent me off to Medford in the Northwest League. That lasted one season before injuries and a lack of talent ended my professional playing career, but the Toronto Blue Jays came to my rescue and offered me a scouting job. Four years later, it was finally time to leave the game (and the travel, and the mind-numbing job of watching far too many bad baseball games).

My sports marketing career kicked off with a job in the shoe biz (as opposed to show biz) with Converse. Basically, I handled some key retail accounts while I also signed college coaches and pro athletes to endorsement deals. Back then, Converse had Larry Bird and Magic Johnson under contract, so those were the kind of guys we'd get to hang with at our annual meetings. It was a fun job (one my brother-in-law Lonnie still wishes I had, since I kept the whole family in shoes for three years) but then my brother Del brought me into his sports marketing firm (DelWilber + Associates near Washington D.C.) and while I was there I was able to really work on my writing and marketing skills, although I still never even dreamed of doing PR. We had dedicated "real" PR people there, so instead of writing press releases I concentrated on proposals and marketing materials, for our client list that included IBM, Black & Decker, Chrysler, Audi, the NHL, and the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL).

Two years later, Del opened a satellite office in St. Louis and I happily moved "home" to work there. About a year after that, the MISL put an expansion franchise in St. Louis (the St. Louis Storm) and I landed the job as Vice President - Marketing. Again, we had a real PR person so I never thought of doing that. My P.A. announcer left after three games, though, so I added that to my resume' and had a ball doing it. I could draw out that "STOOOOOOORM GOAL" call for 10 seconds. And you can't even imagine how long I could draw out Claudio De Oliveira's first name if he scored the goal. It was epic. Also fun. And I learned that running a sports franchise could be stressful, but it could also be incredibly rewarding. When you walked out into the arena and saw 8,000 people in the stands, and you knew you led the way with your staff to putting them there, it would make the hair on your arms stand up.

Sadly, on the morning after our final game that year (the '89-'90 season) our Yugoslavian owner and our Yugoslavian coach sent their lawyer to our office at the old St. Louis Arena and he fired most of us. Bam. See ya later. Apparently they thought the team would make them millions. Turns out, indoor soccer was a lot like racing. The quickest way to become a millionaire was to start with 10 million and then own a team. I also never figured out why the country formerly known as Yugoslavia produced so many great indoor soccer players, but anyone who saw Stan Stamenkovic, Steve Zungul, or Slobo Ilijevski in their primes would remember them well.

I went back to Converse for a year, living in Dana Point, Calif. and covering eight states as a Promotions Director, so all I did was give shoes away and work with Magic and the Lakers every now and then. For the record, the NFL linemen I had under contract were consistently the nicest and most respectful athletes I worked with. You might find that hard to believe, but it's true. The Major League baseball players were a close second.

By this time I was about 35 years old, and I still had not spent one day as a PR person. Not one single day. Or, as Alan Reinhart would say "Not one dime" of my salary came from Public Relations.

After a year in So Cal, the old indoor soccer connection changed my life. The former Commissioner of the MISL, Bill Kentling, called me up and offered me an interview to be the General Manager at this place he'd just taken over as President. It was called Heartland Park Topeka, and I'd not only never heard of it, I'd never attended a drag race of any kind. Never. I knew names like Big Daddy and The Snake from the NHRA shows on "Wide World of Sports" but I'd never technically witnessed a race in person. Bill actually liked that, and I got the job. Was I a PR guy yet? Nope, we had the uber-talented Jade Gurss to do that, so I was still writing proposals, marketing materials, and advertising scripts. Jade went on to a stellar career and was Dale Earnhardt Jr's PR rep for many years.

After a year at Heartland Park, I was introduced to Bill Griffith, who represented Chuck Etchells and Mike Dunn.  Bill hired me and brought me to New Jersey, where for the first time in my life I actually began to write press releases, pitch stories, and build relationships with the media, the sponsors, and the drivers. At the ripe old age of 36, I was finally a PR guy. And I seemed to be a pretty good at it.

As naive as I was, though, I figured I was such a PR genius that I'd be able to have my own agency with my own clients and do it by myself, so after a couple of years I moved back to Kirkwood and into an apartment not far from my folks, who were still living in the same home I grew up in. I figured the free meals might be important, and they were. I had one paying client, and that was Ash & Worden Racing, in the Pro Stock class, with Lewis Worden driving the car. They paid me $600 a month. My Funny Car client, British racer Norman Wilding, couldn't afford to pay me at all. He couldn't afford to race, either, so I will always be remembered as the guy who paid his client to keep him racing. After a year of that, I was broke. I was a PR guy, but I was broke. It was a much tougher business than I had anticipated. Being raw, inexperienced, and naive didn't help.

And then the Kansas City Attack indoor soccer team called, just as I was staring at my bank account and credit-card bills while wondering how I was going to survive, and they offered me a job as General Manager of the team. For two years, I had a riot working with a great staff and putting the team on solid ground, while I was also able to dig out of the financial hole I'd put myself in. We increased every metric from paid attendance to sponsor income, and it was some of the most rewarding work I'd ever done. I wasn't a PR guy though. I had one of those on my staff. I also had a very talented professional P.A. announcer, so I didn't get to do that anymore, but I would do the color analysis on the radio whenever I traveled with the team. Bob Rennison, who is still a good friend and a great announcer, was the guy I hired to do our games on the radio, and it was Bob's first job as a paid play-by-play guy. Much fun. And, when the NHRA tour came to Topeka we sponsored a Pro Stock car. Yes, it was driven by Lewis Worden.

Then, right before the end of my second season running the Attack, Whit Bazemore called. My life and career seem to be full of those weird moments when the phone rings and I'm offered something I never dreamed of, out of the blue. I resigned as GM of the soccer team, Whit moved me to Indy, and I was the full-time PR rep for the Smokin' Joe's Funny Car team. Whit and I are good friends now, but back then (1996) it didn't take long for us to figure out that our chemistry didn't blend very well. Remember, I was never a science or math guy so chemistry was not my forte. I was a little bull-headed, a lot cocky, and way too sure of myself though, and by late in that season I decided to make a change.

The Indianapolis Twisters indoor soccer team was playing at Market Square Arena back then, and the franchise wasn't just bleeding money, it was hemorrhaging dollars at an alarming rate. They brought me in to save the day as GM, and it was back to soccer for me, right up until the local minor-league hockey team (the Indianapolis Ice) offered to buy us. I thought it was a great idea, and the Ice had assured me that I'd stay on as GM. The soccer owner agreed, we scheduled a press conference, all the local media came right to my office, and the owner proudly announced that the sale of the franchise to the Ice was formally……  Declined! And, the Twisters would be folding and would cease to operate, effective that very moment. I had no idea that was coming. Wow. (For the record, before that announcement I did have time to sponsor Norm Wilding at the U.S. Nationals that year, in the Indianapolis Twisters Funny Car. I have a photo to prove it.)

That was a fateful day in one bad way, while it was also a momentous day in so many other good ways. One of the first phone calls I made was to Del Worsham, and by the start of the 1997 season, I was his PR guy. The CSK deal was brand new and very small, and it was my responsibility to give them real value (return on investment) while we built and developed the deal into something bigger and better. 12 years later, when CSK was acquired by O'Reilly, we could look back and all be very proud of what we had accomplished. It was an amazing run, full of great people, fabulous friendships, and an office full of Wally trophies.

Plus, not too long after I joined Worsham Racing, my college roommate Lance McCord introduced me to a fascinating woman named Barbara Doyle, and soon thereafter my cat Shasta and I moved to North Carolina. A guy's life could not take a bigger turn for the better in any possible way. Had the Twisters stayed in business, I don't think there's any way the script would've been the same. The day the team owner stunned us all by folding the franchise, another door opened and both Barbara Doyle and Del Worsham were in front of me. I'm the luckiest man in the world.

After the CSK deal went away, I was lucky again. For the 12 CSK years, Barbara would often ask me who I'd want to work for if I couldn't work for Del, and I always said "It's a short list, and Tim Wilkerson is at the top of it." The weekend we announced the end of the CSK era, a number of teams talked to me and Wilk asked if I'd speak to him about joining the Levi, Ray & Shoup team. A week later I took him to lunch in Springfield and we shook hands on it. Now I'm in my seventh season with him and LRS. And I'm a PR guy.


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Taffy and Del Wilber. The lovely wife and the strapping ballplayer, out on the town.
 
I'm lucky enough to write, communicate, tell stories, create value, and build relationships. And I absolutely love what I do.

10 years ago I started this blog, but I wasn't sure I could make it last for a month, much less 10 years. And now I write a column for National Dragster magazine, I also write my "Bob On Baseball" blog for our family charity, the one that honors the memory of our wonderful late parents, and I've gone from being the naive "new guy" in this sport, the guy who saw his first drag race as the GM of a track on the NHRA Tour, to one of the longest-tenured PR people in the sport. I have to say that I really enjoy it when Dave Densmore comes to a race, because when he's not there I'm the PR person who has been doing this the longest with NHRA teams. Dens needs to attend more races, so he can maintain that title.

But the best news is the fact I get to work alongside some of the best and most talented communicators I've ever known. Plus, I get to sit near Elon Werner and simply bask in the PR glow he emits. The man is a legend.

And let's face it, I've had the impossible good fortune to have worked with Del Worsham and Tim Wilkerson since 1997. You could not possibly work for two better guys, and winning races with both of them hasn't hurt either.

I've met thousands of people I never would've met were it not for this blog. I'm friends with fascinating people who introduced themselves to me, because of this blog. My cats are famous because of this blog. And I get to write words for a living.

And you wondered how I got here…  Now you know the short version. You'll have to wait for the book to learn the rest. Gosh I hope this didn't put anyone to sleep.

And now I only have nine hours to go before my flight.

Wilber, out!

 

Not meant to be…Wednesday, April 29, 2015

As a former baseball player I have, over these many years, looked for direct comparisons between my original sport of choice and the one in which I've spent the last 20 years, that being drag racing (of course). There usually aren't that many, as I find our straight-line acceleration contests to be much more like golf or bowling than baseball, or any other sport. All you can do is put your best score on the board and see how it stacks up. You can't play defense, you can't come up with confusing plays or schemes, and you can't really even razz your opponent or try to get under their skin with jabs and late hits. But baseball? Not too many direct correlations. Except for one.

In baseball, you definitely need the breaks to go your way. As a hitter, it used to drive me insane when I'd finally snap out of a slump and hit four screaming line drives the next game. Four balls hit right on the button, as hard as you can hit them. And all four would be caught. You did everything right, as well as it could be done, but you hung another big fat 0-for-4 on the board. Meanwhile, some guy on the other team would go 4-for-4, and his four hits would consist of two broken bats, a fisted bloop over the second-baseman's head, and a 45-foot dribbler up the line that the third-baseman couldn't get to in time. Breaks. Sometimes they're really hard to come by.

Like in Houston. Wilk and our team would be hard-pressed to do any better than we did, on the track. Our four qualifying runs were 4.219, 4.041, 4.076, and 4.087. And the 4.21 we led off with was on pace to be about a 4.10 but Wilk lifted early when it put a hole out down-track. That's a 4-for-4 absolutely, and all drives into the gaps. Maybe we didn't hit a bomb of a home-run like Fast Jack did, with his 3.988 to take the pole, but we hit it right on the button all four runs.

We ended up fifth on the board, but only because of speed. Alexis DeJoria also ran a 4.041 but she ran 310.77 mph on her 4.04 and we ran 308.78 mph on ours. Yes, we ran 312.57 mph during Q3, but your qualifying speed is the number you ran on the lap when you set your low e.t., so Alexis got the fourth spot and we were fifth. For quite a while, that had us paired up with Bob Bode, and for just about all of qualifying Courtney Force and her team were really struggling to find the right combination. When Q4 rolled around on Saturday afternoon, we all figured there was still some shuffling to do, and with both Courtney and her dad down at the bottom of the sheet we were pretty sure they'd both provide the patented "Force Magic" and go from barely being in the field to being right at or near the top.

Courtney ran a few pairs ahead of us, and instead of jumping way up with a stellar run, she only improved a little with a 4.137, which moved her up just a couple of slots. Wilk, who must have numbers constantly spinning around in his head, immediately heard her time and said "That moved her up to 12th, didn't it?" It did. So on the basis of speed we were fifth. And then Courtney moved up, but only to 12th, setting up our first-round pairing. Remember that part about not being able to play defense? We could've used an all-out blitz right about then.

And yes, we still approached the first-round lap as we always do, just running the fastest we could in the lane we wanted to be in. And we did just that. Wilk hit another screaming line drive, with a huge 4.046 at 314.46 mph, and he did that after leaving the starting line with a slightly better than average reaction time. He's a very consistent .085 guy all day and all night, week in and week out, and his average going into Houston for this year was actually .088, but he got off the line with a .081 this time. Courtney was in a little deep, which makes all the times look a little different than they actually were, and her .066 got her off the line first, but despite the fact her 4.056 was technically slower, we lost by a foot.

Five great runs. Five line drives. And in the end, they all might as well have been caught because we went hitless on Sunday. I'm incredibly proud of the guys and the boss for putting those laps together, but I sure wish it would've worked out a little better for us. Just like losing by an inch during the semifinals in Gainesville, huh? Sometimes you just can't buy a break. Meanwhile, it's hard to go through eliminations at any given race without seeing at least one driver win a round or two with the drag racing equivalent of a bloop and a broken bat, smoking the tires one lap and being on the receiving end of his opponent's red-light foul on the other. Breaks are weird creatures and they capriciously go whichever way they want to go. When they're not on your side it gets a little frustrating, but all we plan to do is keep making good laps. At some point, we'll get on the right side of this deal. And if it takes a bloop to win a round, I'm okay with that too.

And did you hear about the Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher (Archie Bradley) who was hit in the face by a batted ball last night? I think he's okay, but it was a really scary scene that had both teams in shock until he got to his feet. The odd thing about that is the headline and story I saw, in an online newspaper story, in which the batted ball was called a "lined drive". So I've been involved in baseball since the day I was born, and I've never seen it referred to as a "lined drive" before. I've never seen such a hit called anything but a "line drive". Just when you think you've seen it all… I saw it in print and on the internet, so it must be true and it must be right! Huh?

And now I'm home in Spokane where spring has really sprung. Just a matter of days ago we went down to Walla Walla and marveled at how much further along their spring season was there, and on Monday I came back home from Houston to find all the trees blooming and the grass greening up fast. Bam! It's that point in the show where spring says "Pow" then drops the microphone as the confetti drops.

Golf Ball Alert! I should invent an "invisible dog fence" that sends an electrical signal to golf clubs. The strikers of errant approach shots might think twice about hitting their pitch shots off my yard if we did that! She hit a pretty nice recovery shot there, so I'll give her credit for that although she's going to have a long putt for par. And hey! Please replace your divots.

Yesterday was Barbara's birthday! I had a big bouquet of flowers (with two balloons, of course) delivered to her office, and the news of that delivery spread through Itron at the speed of light. Good husbands always embarrass their wives in their work place, right? And then last night we went to Cedars Floating Restaurant on Lake Coeur d'Alene, which was spectacular. So often, restaurants that are in unique locations rely on the view or the gimmick to get you in the door, and then they forget about the food. When I was younger, revolving rooftop restaurants were all the rage in big cities, and the rule of thumb quickly became "If it revolves, don't get involved". With Cedars being actually out on the water I was afraid of that, but the preparation and the flavors were incredible. What a fun night. And then we came back home and turned on the DVR to watch the latest episode of "Mad Men" on the big screen downstairs. Pretty close to a perfect night. Happy Birthday to my sweetie!

And, at some point yesterday I was researching something (I don't even remember what) on Google and one of the images that popped up was a set of photos of Boofus and Buster from when they were kittens and we'd just brought them home from the shelter. They both arrived with "kitty colds" we had to nurse them through, but it was such a delight to have them in our house when they were such goofy little guys. Now they're just goofy big guys, but seeing that photo (which was from this blog in October of 2007) brought back some great memories. Considering they're both here with me in my office right now, with Buster dutifully assuming his position as bodyguard, atop my printer, while Boofie sits on the window sill inside the blinds, watching birds, I figured I'd share the old "kitten pics" today, as well. Just to embarrass them. They're eight years old now, but still kittens at heart.


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It. Was. Packed.
 
Oh yeah, a couple of other things about Houston. It. Was. Packed.

Friday's crowd was one of those where you looked up in the grandstands and thought "Well, that's pretty good for a Friday" and it was. Saturday dawned really dreary and wet, and for a while I thought we might actually not get to run and we might do that with very few fans in the facility. But then, the front moved through and the sky turned blue (parts of it, anyway) and the people arrived. In droves. Wall-to-wall humanity, filling the stands and standing at the fences.

I got up early on Sunday morning and had the thought "I wonder if this is going to be one of those races where Saturday is our biggest day, because it's going to be hard to beat the crowd we had yesterday". And then I got to the track and saw the traffic, already backing up at 7:30 a.m.

And it backed up, and backed up, and basically became gridlock. I haven't seen anything like that in a long time, and frankly I hope the track does some research to see how they can improve that incoming traffic flow, because there were still cars stacked up trying to get in when round two (yes, round TWO) was getting ready to go.

My buddy Dennis and his wife Keena came over from their home in New Braunfels (between Austin and San Antonio) and he was texting me as they moved, inch by inch, into the parking area. They barely made it inside the gate before round one.

Well done Houston NHRA fans. Well done. And thank you all for your patience.

And now it's time for lunch… A guy needs priorities.

Wilber, out!

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