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Tools of the trade

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

They say that a mechanic is only as good as his tools -- and by “they” I probably mean the tool companies, because I reckon Alan Johnson could get a fuel dragster to run 4.50s with a Swiss Army knife and some baling wire -- and by the same line of reasoning, the right tools in the right hands mean everything when you’re a drag racing reporter.

By “tools” I don’t mean notebook, pen, tape recorder, and computer; heck, any Clark Kent can have those and still not have the right tools. Due to its longevity (the organized sport is more than 50 years old), its makeup (multiple classes within multiple eliminators, with sometimes as many as a dozen eliminator champions crowned in a single day), and its statistical intricacies (track records, national records, elapsed times, speeds, reaction times, etc.), there’s a lot of drag racing to keep track of.

Because almost every story can benefit from its subject matter being placed in context -– its relative place and relationship to a given event, time, or situation -– and with well more than 600 NHRA national events in the history book creating a huge context from which to draw, being able to access the past, whether by memory or by research, can be not only a huge help to the writer but also create a more compelling and introspective article.

Obviously, the National DRAGSTER staff is sent scurrying through all sorts of reference material as it prepares its annual nostalgia-heavy Readers Choice issue, but there’s also a lot of benefit in other stories as well; whether it’s knowing or being able to find out when the last time a true door car won in Super Comp, as Ken Mostowich did with his in Seattle, or how many of David Rampy’s 67 wins have come in Stock (three), having the right tools at your fingertips is essential.

While some of the staff somehow still retain a near-encyclopedic knowledge of people, places, and things, with each passing year (and teenage child), it gets tougher and tougher to instantly recall the facts and faces that once were easily summoned, so for them and for newer staffers whose relationship with the sport doesn’t include Rain For Rent or “Mr. C,” we have many weapons of mass instruction.

In addition to shared assets -- including a complete library of every National DRAGSTER issue back to Volume 1, No. 1 as well as its newsletter predecessors, Tie Rod and Drag Link; 1950s issues of Hot Rod, from which future NHRA founder Wally Parks first covered the fledgling sport of drag racing; numerous authorized racer biographies, coffee table photo/history books, and handy tomes such as Robert Post’s High Performance -- each DRAGSTER staffer stockpiles his or her own arsenal of reference material. Senior Editor Kevin McKenna, for example, owns a collection of rulebooks that date back to the mid-1970s, so if you ever need to know what the E/Modified Production weight break was in 1978, he’s your guy.

Many of us have created searchable and sortable Word or Excel files with lists of national and divisional event winners and runners-up back to the beginning (though these are nothing compared to the details stats possessed -- obsessed? -- by Bob Frey) as well as other random files about specific drivers (I have a whole spreadsheet devoted to David Rampy) and events.

Many of us also have NHRA Media Guides that go back anywhere from five to 10 years – my collection stretches back nearly 20, though NHRA Director of Media Relations Anthony Vestal has one dating back to 1983, which weighed in at a paltry 94 pages, a far cry from the behemoth 2007 edition’s 610 pages -- that are extremely handy for finding out a driver’s record in a particular season, the years a driver participated in one of the Pro bonus events, and a lot more. My collection also includes media guides for the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series and NHRA Xplōd Sport Compact Racing Series. I also have on call old copies of Drag Racing USA and Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, Hot Rod Magazine Yearbooks, and Drag Racing Photo Greats if needed.

Although my office has seven years worth of NDs stacked neatly within arm’s reach, there’s nothing like a trip into the library to really dig into some research. There, lining two walls, neatly stacked and arranged in shelves reaching nearly to the ceiling, reside the more than 2,200 issues of National DRAGSTER produced since 1960. In daily newspapers, this room is traditionally called “the morgue,” but at National DRAGSTER, it’s a room that’s alive with memories. Even the smell of 40-year-old newsprint is intoxicating.

It isn’t very hard to go in there looking for a specific bit of information and get lost in the history of the sport, pages and pages and pages devoted to our heroes and to the races we’ve attended. It’s like having at your fingertips the history of the NHRA, as it was told by and put to print by our publication’s predecessors. Classic photos and vivid descriptions of moments in time now frozen in our memories, of a time when a lot of people didn’t know who won a national event until that week’s ND arrived in the mailbox.

I go there every once in a while just to relive some of the match races I attended at Irwindale or Orange County in the 1970s, marveling not just at the variety of Funny Cars but the everyman heroes who could become fan favorites and hard runners with a modest investment, guys like Mike Halloran and Roger Garten, Dave Condit and Jeff Courtie, and the underdogs we rooted for, like Rodney Flournoy and Ray Romund, Al Arriaga and Clarence Bailey. I could probably sell tickets to the library to hard-core fans.

These archived issues also are completely indexed with lists of each issue’s major stories, so that they are eminently searchable for ease of research.

And, of course, no self-respecting journalist of the 21st century would be without a toolbox of online resources handily bookmarked in his or her browser. We have full access to the competitor database for contact and background info and, naturally (as you all do), the resources of the always-growing NHRA.com, which traces online stories and results well back into the middle 1990s. Special sections and Web sites that have been produced for events such as the U.S. Nationals and World Finals remain online, as does the massive 50th Anniversary site. Because I conceived it from scratch back in 2001, I’m intimately familiar with its contents, but there isn’t a week that I don’t pop back into it to fact-check a date or occurrence. The Internet is full of other wonderful drag racing research material that covers pretty much anything you can think of.

My favorites also include links to grammar and usage sites (boring to some of you, but always helpful) and tons of helpful and fun sites such as anagram finders, famous quotations, foreign language translators, and my all-purpose favorite for writing those cover blurbs you love to hate, Rhyme Zone.

Put them all together, and you have the tools of a modern-day drag racing journalist. Who knows what we could do with a Swiss Army knife and a little baling wire.