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Deadlines? We don't need no stinkin' deadlines

22 Aug 2007
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Push almost came to shove this morning as we raced right past the deadlines that Production Manager Matt Hurd (that's him to the right) had set in stone for us yesterday, definitive lines that we absolutely could not cross -- no way, no how -- in completing our Pro coverage from the Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals.

Here's a portion of his e-mail from yesterday, under the subject line "Worst case for shipment of issue 33," from which we all got a huge laugh:

Below is the information from Conley for shipping ND and keeping our scheduled deadlines for press time and delivery of issue 33.

COVER: Must be to Conley no later than 9:45 a.m. on Wednesday. We will keep our normally scheduled press time with the printer. This means all who are involved with the cover would need to be here early on Wednesday.

[... snip ...]

All of these times must be met or we will not make the noon shipment on Friday.

Thanks, Matt

That's 9:45 a.m. California time, 12:45 in Reading. Considering that the first cars weren't scheduled to hit the Maple Grove Raceway quarter-mile until 6:30 our time, and that the first of the remainder of Pro eliminations, beginning with the semifinals, were slated for 7:15-ish, we felt confident. Quick math deduced that meant the finals would roll into the beams around 8:30 a.m. our time, leaving us an hour and change to pick the cover subject, design the cover, write the blurbs, and get it on its way. No problemo.

That was a swell plan, except that extra track drying was required and that the Pros didn’t hit the track for the first time until much, much later than planned … at, oh, about nearly the time we expected the finals to be running. I love it when a plan comes together.

9:45 came and went, and with no audiocast to listen live (the broadcasting device – and the announcers – had left the track the day before), we tracked the results through a variety of methods. Rob Geiger was burning up his cell-phone minutes with ND reporter Brad Littlefield and Auto Imagery's Dave Kommel to keep NHRA.com updated while Ted Yerzyk, who does PR for the Powers team, kept me up to speed via instant messenger. I was then relaying the action to Kalitta team rep Todd Myers, whose team was anxiously awaiting news of the Top Fuel final, where a win by Fuller would keep Dave Grubnic in the Countdown field.

My phone kept ringing and Matt kept snorting about deadlines, and, sure, Matt stands about six-foot-17 (give or take an inch), but he's really a bit of a pushover, so we did. (Just kidding, big guy; we tried, we really did.)

So we switched to Plan B, which we had set in place the day before by selecting at least one good image of some of the 12 Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Stock Motorcycle semifinalists and the two Top Fuel finalists. We had been receiving some images from the photo staff in Reading via memory cards and e-mail, so we had a good selection to choose from.

As the minutes rolled past and we waited for the printer to pull the plug on our press time, we briefly contemplated building a series of covers featuring each of the Pro winners, complete with their own distinct blurbs, and transmitting them all to the printer and calling them at the last second to tell them which to use.

That immediately made me think of the infamous "Dewey defeats Truman" headline fiasco where, during the 1948 presidential election, the staff of the Chicago Daily Tribune, based on early returns, thought that Thomas Dewey would defeat Harry S Truman and printed their morning edition with that infamous headline, which spawned the even more famous photo of Truman displaying the incorrect newspaper.

So, to cut the thick deadline tension, after Herbert whipped up on Fuller, I rushed back to my computer, cranked up Photoshop, and whipped this little altered version around the staff e-mail. Funny stuff, I think.

We had to wait for the rest of the Pro finals to be completed – which weren't until after 10 a.m., according to my text-message logs – before settling on Herbert and getting to work on the design and blurbs. Staff photographer/resident Inspector Gadget Richard Wong responded to my early artistry with his own version of the infamous picture, though clearly his Photoshop skills are inferior to mine. (Note how I even "wrinkled" the headline to reflect how Truman bent the paper while holding it yet Wong couldn't even connect poor Harry's left finger; let's not even talk about the shoddy cloning job on the background.)

For the record, the cover zoomed off into cyberspace at 11:45 a.m., a full two hours after the "no later than" time Matt had mandated. We're still laughing (but only on the inside).

Meanwhile, back at the Reading Ranch, Brad and Kelly were busy revising the stories they had written Tuesday night. We had decided that, because Wednesday's forecast still included a chance of rain, they would write their stories that night as if no racing would get in Wednesday morning. If we completed the finals, they could simply rewrite their lead paragraphs and make other adjustments to their stories and get them to us ASAP to begin the laborious copy-editing process.

The two diligently cranked out their stories under the immense pressure and e-mailed them to us, then no doubt collapsed in a heap. They'll finally fly out of Philadelphia tomorrow, a week after they arrived.

Around here, the afternoon's atmosphere resembled an old-style newsroom, with people dashing about yelling things like "Pro Stock story just got here" and "Funny Car captions are ready!" as we raced to beat the copy deadlines.

All in all, our staff did an amazing job, considering that we've never been in this exact situation. I've been here a long, long time and been through just about every pressure-packed situation – news stories being pulled at the last minute, ads falling out that needed replacing with instantly conjured editorial material, electronic pages disappearing from hard drives, and so on – but this was a first. I'm proud of our gang.

The thrash also will serve as good practice for the U.S. Nationals, where, for the 20th straight year, we'll be producing the Daily DRAGSTER on-site, which means more hourly-deadline journalism. It's a fun challenge each year to produce it and always nice to get up the next day and have it as your morning paper.