Atlanta was special, with us getting our first win in nearly four years. It was emotional, cathartic, rewarding, and exciting. Topeka was special, as well, but in a sort of "I can't believe what my eyes are seeing" rocket-ship sort of way. It was impossible, in many ways, but it happened right in front of us, especially in our Funny Car class. "There's another one" was a common comment, after any one of what seemed like a thousand three-second runs over the course of three days. For the record, I think it was actually a total of 15 three-second runs made over three days, and that's other-worldly.
It's probably fitting, though, because Heartland Park was the venue that gave us the first four-second pass and the first 300 mph pass in a Funny Car, and they happened on the same weekend back in 1993. As you surely know (and don't call me Shirley) Chuck Etchells was the first in the fours, and Jim Epler clocked in over 300, on a weekend where the cars were running into a stiff headwind out of the south. I remember. I was there.
This time, the threes were being presented like free cups of water being handed to marathon runners. Cruz Pedregon started it, in Q1, with a 3.979 that only got the ball rolling later that night. In Q2, Alexis DeJoria, Chad Head, and Jack Beckman added their names to the Topeka 3-Second list. Wilk dropped a cylinder early and had to lift, so we sat 11th and we were looking up at a preliminary Top 12 ladder that already had four threes and eight 4.0s (with our 4.061 only being better than Matt Hagan's 4.064 in 12th.)
On Saturday, it was basically nuts. And, it all happened in just one session, since the low clouds that had threatened us for a day and a half finally manifested themselves as rain and Q4 was washed away. Wilk kicked it off.
The run looked good to us, back at the starting line, and as I held the camera to my eye I was internally thinking "keep going, keep going" and then it sashayed a little at the top end and I actually had time to think "Oh great, that's going to cost us" before I heard the guys screaming behind me. 3.971 at 322.58 mph. Right there on the scoreboard. Amazing. And yes, the speed was a career-best, as well.
Wilk's all-time best going into this weekend was 4.013, set at Bristol last year. To get into the threes he needed a hundredth and a half. Why bother? He just jumped right over the 4.0s, the 3.99s, and the 3.98s to put what was almost a 3.96 on the board. Crazy.
And yes, as I typed that paragraph I had to go back and edit to put 3s at the beginning of a lot of those numbers. Just like I had to re-issue my Saturday night update because my fingers haven't yet learned how to type an e.t. that starts with a three. Made the same mistake again, in my Post-Event Report, but by then I was tired of the corrections so I just left it there as a reminder to me to pay better attention. Big dummy.
Before Q3 was over, Wilk had been joined by Ron Capps, John Force, and Jack Beckman to post threes in that session, and the ladder looked surreal, with seven (count 'em, seven!) drivers in the threes and five more in the 4.0s. Just for posterity, I feel the urge to write it all down. The top seven Funny Car drivers in the Topeka field were: 1. Chad Head (3.967) 2. Tim Wilkerson (3.971) 3. Cruz Pedregon (3.979). 4. Ron Capps (3.989) 5. John Force (3.990) 6. Jack Beckman (3.991) 7. Alexis DeJoria (3.994)
Matt Hagan was in the No. 8 spot with a 4.000 that must've seemed downright slow.
When we were getting ready for Q3, and we looked at the qualifying order at the time, our 4.061 in 11th was well behind Ron Capps' 4.038 in 10th, and our comments in the pit were along the lines of "We're going to go out there and make a fantastic lap, like a 4.039, and not even move out of 11th." Well… We made a fantastic lap, and it moved us all the way up to second, behind only Chad Head's stunning 3.967. Pretty amazing.
And here's what's also amazing. The racing surface had not been touched by a tire since last fall. The Heartland Park infrastructure, from the grandstands, to the bathrooms, to the concession stands, to the Media Center, had been locked up tight with the lights off. Heck, the city of Topeka sent the fire department out just to turn on the hydrants. And yet, through amazing hard work, dedication, and diligence, everything was just fine and the track surface was far more than that.
We always talk about how the Safety Safari is the best in the world at what they do, and all you have to look at is the qualifying sheets and eliminations ladders to see the proof of that. They took the greenest possible track and gave us Earth-shattering records. I'm actually shaking my head as I type this, because it's hard to believe.
We survived the overnight deluge and then had to wait through the lightest little drizzle you've ever seen (we couldn't race, but you could stand there and barely get wet) on Sunday, but again the Safety Safari got the job done time after time and we got the entire race in. Those men and women deserve a standing ovation.
When we did get out there (and believe me, just about everyone was on laptops or smartphones checking alternate flights and hotels if we had to stay over) the goosebumps continued. Wilk waited a long time to run his first three, but he didn't wait long to run his second. In round one, the LRS car ran 3.984 to beat Tony Pedregon, and that was good for lane choice over Del Worsham, who had run 3.988. Fast Jack ran 3.984 to join us.
We ran great against Del, but our 4.005 (which would've reset Wilk's career-best had we not run the pair of threes) came up just short of Del's 3.984, and yes that means there were three 3.984s in the first two rounds. Threes everywhere! Jack, who was on a three-second roll, added in a 3.972 for good measure
John Force added a 3.997 in the semis, and then guess what Jack ran in the final… Go ahead, guess. Yep, 3.984, the fourth one on the day, and Jack had two of them. He also won the race, and I'd say by any possible measure he absolutely deserved to.
So is this the new normal? Well, threes are certainly less rare than they've been since Hagan ran the first one, and Wilk's run in round one was the 50th three ever posted, but this was a perfect storm of conditions, both on the track and in the air. On Memorial Day weekend in Topeka, it can easily be in the high 80s with stout humidity, where 4.10s still look great and can win you the race, but we had complete cloud cover and cool "Where's my jacket?" temps on one of the smoothest and fastest tracks on the planet. And it was a three-fest.
Now, as the summer heats up, the three might go back into that rare almost-extinct zone again until the fall. We'll see, and we'll understand that the weather will have everything to do with it, but I don't think we'll see the likes of Topeka 2015 for quite some time.
It was truly something special, and here's hoping we get to do it again at Heartland Park next year, and every year.
As for me, I stayed until the final round, late in the day, and then drove over to the Hilton right by the Kansas City airport and spent the night there. In the morning, it was off to said airport and up to MSP, so that I could spend one short night in Woodbury. Up early on Tuesday morning, I caught the early flight to Spokane and here I am. Today, the Washington state high-school golf tournaments begin, and we have the girls Class 2A tourney going on right in our backyard, at MeadowWood Golf Club. Tournaments are fun, even from inside the house, because it's the only time we see spectators following the golfers. It's mostly families and boyfriends, but I've already seen a few photographers as well.
And, looking ahead, this weekend is going to be another special occasion. As it turns out, my esteemed mentor and editor, Phil Burgess, is a big fan of the Eagles (the band, not the birds, but I suspect he's a fan of the majestic birds as well, right?) He was looking at their tour schedule for this summer and wanted to turn a concert into a short vacation with his wife Marie, and he noticed that they're playing here in Spokane on Friday night. Much merriment is planned.
They fly in on Thursday afternoon, and once they get checked in at their downtown hotel I'll drive over and pick them up, for a quick tour of the Wilber/Doyle mansion before dinner is served at our favorite bistro, Hay J's, right here in Liberty Lake. On Friday, Barbara has to work at least part of the day, but I'll head back downtown to escort them on a walking tour of the city, including Riverfront Park (the site of the 1974 World's Fair), Spokane Falls, and some historic old buildings. Then, we'll get in my car and drive around to see some more sights like the South Hill, Cliff Drive, Manito Park, and maybe even Spokane County Raceway, just to tie in the drag racing angle (I wonder if that would make this tax deductible?). Then I'll get them back to their hotel with time to spare before they walk over to the Spokane Arena for the show. It would be utterly appropriate if an actual Bald Eagle would fly overhead during that walk.
Saturday is going to a big BIG day. We'll start early and head for Wallace, Idaho. I've mentioned Wallace on here before, but we've not yet been there and this is a great excuse to do so. It's an old silver-mining town (and the mine is still active) but mostly it's just a charming quirky historic town over by the Montana border, about an hour from here. Every building in downtown Wallace is on the National Historic Register, and because of that they and to elevate I-90 and have it go over the town, instead of through it.
There's museum in Wallace that was an actual working bordello right up until the late 1980s, when the Feds came to town to shut it down. The working girls had only minutes to flee and the museum has kept the place just as it was when that happened. Should be interesting. And, we plan to take the tour of the silver mine as well, before we drive back over to Coeur d'Alene for the rest of the day.
If we have time, we'll take the 90-minute boat tour, because that's a great way to see Coeur d'Alene and the lake, and then we're planning dinner at Cedars, the floating restaurant I took Barb to for her birthday. Should be every bit of a big day.
Getting it done in Topeka
And as far as Phil and I can recall, it will be the first time we've ever socialized outside of a drag racing setting. I've only known him for about 23 years, so I guess it's about time.
What a whirlwind couple of weeks this has been. I stayed out on the road for two solid weeks, and during that time my itinerary looked like this: Spokane - Minneapolis - Woodbury - Greenville - Lavonia - Commerce - Greenville - Minneapolis - Woodbury - Kansas City - Topeka - Kansas City - Minneapolis - Woodbury - Minneapolis - Spokane. No wonder I'm tired.
During that stretch I watched us win five consecutive eliminations rounds and one race. We didn't just dip a toe into the three-second pool, we jumped in with the biggest cannonball you could imagine. And we've finally begun to make people take notice that Wilk is not just a "hot weather tuner" when it comes to winning and going fast.
As Brad Littlefield wrote in his recent "Tuesday Morning Crew Chief" column at NationalDragster.net: "Wilkerson's performance was akin to an accomplished knuckleballer who started throwing 100-mph fastballs midway through his pitching career." Couldn't have said it better myself.
Threes for everyone!
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!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.