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ND has girl power, too

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

For a lot of drag racing fans -- like me -- working at National DRAGSTER would be a dream job, so it’s quite understandable that when we had a rare opening for a staff writer earlier this season, my mailbox was flooded.

We only advertised here on NHRA.com, because I only wanted to reach the true fans out there. Advertising on somewhere like monster.com would have no doubt created an avalanche of applicants, but not the passionate people we were seeking. There has always been a couple of schools of thought on the subject of hiring writers for specialty publications such as ours. The first school says you can teach people about the subject, but you can’t teach them to write well. The flip side favors passion about and familiarity with the subject and says that you can, over time, teach people to write well.

I’d say that our philosophy falls somewhere in the middle. I don’t want someone working for us who isn’t a big fan of drag racing in general and the NHRA in specific. The hours are too long and the deadlines sometimes too demanding for people who don’t live and breathe the sport. On the other hand, having SuperFan working for us doesn’t help if he or she doesn’t know a clause from a clutch or a period from a piston.

After a long and exhaustive search, we filled the spot in June with the hiring of effervescent Kelly Wade –- whom some of you may already have met in her trips to Bristol and Seattle -– who, as a mother of two daughters, is probably about as far from the public’s perception of a racing reporter as they come, but, as we expected, has turned into an excellent fit.

Traditionally, National DRAGSTER staff writers were cut from the same mold: Guys, like me, who had devoured Drag Racing USA, Drag News, Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, and National DRAGSTER throughout our teen years. Guys, like me, who staged full-on national events with our Hot Wheels cars and who not only played the Vallco Drag Racing game until the cards were dog-eared and the cars had worn grooves in the cardboard track but also kept meticulous stats and wrote race reports that we forced our parents to read. Guys, like me, who knew the sport chapter and verse and could tell you, without blinking, who won Top Fuel at the 1975 Winternationals or name Roland Leong’s list of drivers easier than they could name their own cousins. We were track rats from our earliest days, either as fans or -- in the cases of Todd Veney, Brad Littlefield, and John Miller -- as the kids of real drag racers, and this was our dream job.

But times change. When we hired Steve Waldron way back in July 1989 (our department has one of the lowest rates of turnover in all of NHRA), while he was certainly a casual fan of the sport, he brought to the paper a lot of publishing experience after serving as a sports editor for many regional newspapers.

When we hired Candida Benson in late 2000, she became the first female DRAGSTER reporter in the publication’s long and glorious history. As a former track publicist and former television news reporter, she also brought a unique set of skills to enhance the publication, and, despite breaking up what some racers might have thought was a Good Ol' Boys Club, she quickly and smartly earned the respect of the racers with her solid knowledge of the sport and determination to get the story.

Truth be told, women have long played major roles at ND. Our boss, Adriane Ridder, NHRA's vice president-publications, made NHRA history a few years ago when she became NHRA’s first female vice president but had been director of publications (pretty much parallel to my editorial director position, but managing boring stuff like budgets and staffing -- ha!) before that and a key member of the publications department since 1992. Our managing editor, Vicky Walker, has been my right hand for about 18 years (of 20 working at NHRA … I told you we were long-timers) and is responsible not only for setting and enforcing deadlines but also is the guardian of the rigid quality of our publication’s writing. Teresa Long, of course, has been our photo editor since the passing of Leslie Lovett in 1996 and has won over the hearts of the racers with her amazing presence and sharp eye.

All told, there are five women -– Adriane, Vicky, and Teresa, plus Membership Promotions & Marketing Manager Paula Gewertz and Special Publications Managing Editor Lorraine Vestal -- and three men -– me, Director of Advertising Sales Jeff Morton, and Production Manager Matt Hurd -- on the National DRAGSTER Management Council team that sets policy, resolves issues, plans strategy, and forward-thinks for the Publications department.

But why Kelly? Quite frankly, she outwilled the majority of her opponents -- and I’ll explain the use of that word in a second --outwrote the majority of them, and overwhelmed the staff with her can-do attitude. The fact that she lived about five miles from the office didn’t hurt either, considering the other “finalist” lived in Pennsylvania.

I’m not sure how other managers hire their people, but, quite frankly, I put our applicants through the wringer. I am so obsessed with protecting the sanctity of this publication that it takes a special breed to win me over. It starts with a cover letter that is neither too formal nor too loose that somehow shares a passion for the sport. I don’t remember how many résumés I received without a cover letter -- just an attachment to an e-mail with a brief “I’m applying for your open position” -- but if a quick peek at said résumé didn’t reveal a lot of hands-on experience, that person might as well have left the starting line with the brakes on.

Being the drag racing nut that I am, I chose the 16 best candidates -- which included a mix of publishing/PR professionals, enthusiastic hopefuls with a knack for wordplay, and some hunches -- and requested an article from them explaining why they should get the job. The “first-round results” were as different as the candidates, with some making their pitches in the form of a race story about themselves winning “the event” and others with tales of childhood hot rod dreams.

I chose the eight best and gave them a multifaceted set of assignments that included from-scratch reporting, including a Sportsman story based on notes and quotes supplied by us, and, maybe toughest of all, a mathematical problem involving margin of victory and double breakouts to see if they could calculate the results based solely on dial, reaction time, and elapsed time. This last element was crucial for me because the writing position is not just about covering Top Fuel at Indy; there’s a lot -- an awful lot -- of Sportsman racing coverage that we write.

Surprisingly, a few of the eight quailed and bailed because of the math problem, perhaps realizing that the job required skills beyond nouns and verbs, and two others were no-shows. Kelly was one of just two to successfully complete all of the “eliminations” tasks, and although she admitted to being a pile of nerves for her first face-to-face meeting with us, won us over with her enthusiasm.

If you’re in Reading or Indy, look for her happily bopping around the pits searching for the next big story and welcome her to our family.