It wouldn't be hard for long-time fans to reel off the list of differences between the NHRA of 1982 and the NHRA of today, but, as proved on Wednesday, as much as some things change, they remain the same.
Wednesday was NHRA's annual holiday party for employees and although the format and the venue have changed over the years, it's still a family gathering, even though the headquarters staff has grown 10-fold over the last 25 years.
Those of us who were here for those raucous early-1980s parties still fondly regale the newcomers with tales of prank gifts and revelry at the yuletide soirees held in the NHRA headquarters building on Riverside Drive in North Hollywood, but NHRA still throws a pretty mean party these days.
Hosted in the Majestic Ballroom of the Pacific Palms Conference Resort in the City of Industry about a half-hour from HQ, this year's bash featured a wonderful buffet and the usual assortment of raffle prizes, the giving and receiving of which was intercepted on occasion by a call to emcee Gary Darcy from "the banker" (in Deal or No Deal fashion) and winners given the option of keeping their gift or choosing a case, each emblazoned with an image of an NHRA VP and containing either cash or a "prize" of considerably lesser value.
The day also featured a Family Feud-like game between four teams from among the different departments, complete with "survey says" reveals and "three strikes" buzzers and impressive (if somewhat technically glitched) production values. Paula Gewertz, Kelly Wade, Teresa Long, Jerry Foss, and Lisa Handy represented ND in fine fashion, defeating their first-round opponent and just missing out on the grand prize on an obviously flawed question about "favorite national events."
For me, one of the highlights of the day was the annual service awards -- honoring employees for reaching milestone service marks of five-year increments -- and not just because I received a handsome watch in honor of my 25th anniversary with the company.
Every year the list is long, but this year a whopping 34 people were honored, and that kind of longevity speaks volumes about the kind of place that NHRA is. Each year, the publications staff, which has the longest average tenure in the company, is a big part of these awards, and this year was no exception. Managing Editor Vicky Walker and Senior Advertising Coordinator Maria Aguilar reached the 20-year mark, Vice President-Publications Adriane Ridder and Commercial Classified Sales whiz Robert Jaramillo hit 15 years, Director of Advertising Sales Jeff Morton hit the 10-year mark in his second stint with the publication, and Copy Editor Sarah Barnes, Art Director Rey Oruga, and Managing Editor-Special Projects Lorraine Vestal (also on her second stint) reached five years.
Former ND Editor George Phillips, who now works in NHRA's video department, marked his 30th year with the big N, and Division 3 Director Jay Hullinger and Safety Safari member Randy "Double R" Robbins also joined in the 20-year club. National Tech Director Danny Gracia hit 15 years and was joined by O'Reilly Raceway Park Facilities Manager Bill Gunn and Division 1 Director Bob Lang. Those also celebrating 10 years were Executive Vice President Peter Clifford, Vice President-National Event Marketing Glen Cromwell, Director of Human Resources Marleen Gurrola, NHRA Contingency Programs Manager Charlie Neilson, Gainesville Raceway Sales & Marketing Manager Melinda Stalnaker-Selvidge, Jerrie Foss (field marketing), Dana Bisbee (IT), Derek Kleier and Bevery LeBus (accounting), Bertha Romero and Margarita Garcia (membership), "Top-End Tim" Rasmussen, Pam Champer (National Trail), and Charlie Halcomb (ORP). Five-year honorees were O'Reilly Raceway Park Communications Manager Scott Smith, Jennifer Gregg (competition), Damien Osborn (IT), John Crosby Jr. (Safety Safari), and Rich "Shrek" Schreckengost (tech).
As Pat and I posed with NHRA Board Chairman Dallas Gardner and NHRA President Tom Compton, Dallas stopped us for a second and asked that we clear a spot in the middle, between Pat and I. "You know who would love to be standing here with you, right?" he asked me.
That was a very touching gesture from a class individual who knew of the special bond between Wally and I, and Wally's presence was surely missed by all, but his spirit will live on in the culture that Compton and Clifford and the management group continue to support and foster with gatherings like the holiday party, the Staff Drags, and company meetings. It's one of the many reasons I've been happy and proud to call NHRA my home for more than half my life.
I was fortunate enough to discover drag racing at age 10 and because I developed my love for writing just a few years later, you might say I was destined to be here. But you don't stay in a job this long just because those stars aligned.
I was 22 when I came to work here, so I’d had a few jobs before that weren't as enjoyable. You know the kind: You develop a real good call-in-sick voice and use all of your vacation days. It's never been that way here. Each day, from the first up through today, I couldn't wait to slide behind the keyboard (or typewriter originally) and find out what was new in the drag racing world and find interesting and compelling ways to share it with our readers. The racers are all incredible people, and we count ourselves lucky to have developed and maintained the close, symbiotic relationships we have with them. The adventures I have had, the places I have been, and the friendships that I have developed over the years are treasures to hold close.
I was blessed early on to have wonderful mentors, such as Leslie Lovett, the dean of drag racing photography, and John Raffa, the dean of drag racing writing, tutor me. As I took a leadership role, I was fortunate to have supportive bosses like Wally, Tom, Peter, and Adriane who gave me the room to do my thing, putting their faith and trust in me to spread the NHRA gospel in the right manner, offering support but never micromanagement.
And, best of all, every morning I could walk into a creative environment, filled with like-minded people, dedicated, hard-working, passionate, and talented individuals who made the crushing deadlines and long hours that much easier and fun. Many of them I've know for 20 years, like Jeff and Robyn Morton, Teresa and Vicky, Joni Elmslie and Maria, Lorraine and Paula, Kevin McKenna, Steve Waldron, and John Jodauga. We've watched one another turn from baby-faced young adults in the 1980s to husbands and wives and parents (and grandparents – yikes!). We've seen one another's weddings and cradled one another's newborns. They're truly a second family, and I love them all very much. (And I've developed a very strong attachment to the newer gang, too!)
But that's a story that anyone who's been here any length of time might tell. We work in a high-stakes, high-pressure business, yet there's an uncommon camaraderie that goes company-wide that makes NHRA a place that for 25 years I've been proud to call my home.
Now, for my next 25 years …