NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Bill Crites: Gone but never forgotten

30 Dec 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

This photo, of me and Bill at Griffith Park's Travel Town, tells you all you need to know about the big kid we all loved.

Me and Crites, Montreal 1986. As I recall, he handed his camera to some stranger standing nearby and asked him to snap this shot.

You could say that Bill Crites left a lasting impression on me.

Bill Crites was the only 68-year-old teenager I knew, and now he's gone. We lost National DRAGSTER's original court jester today of a suspected heart attack, and somehow the world won’t be the same place without him.

Most of you didn't know him and probably don’t have much reason to even blink about his passing, but those whose lives William A. Crites touched won’t soon forget him.

Bill Crites never met a person he couldn't make laugh or at least grimace. His inventiveness in getting a rise out of people knew no bounds, and his legendary antics while a member of the ND staff have been resounding through the hallways as long as I have worked here.

Tales abound of the road trips he used to make with Associate Editor John Jodauga and others, driving the souvenir issues of ND cross-country to the national events from our printer here in California. It didn't take more than five miles down any road with Crites to leave you with a tale worth telling the following day – if you survived.

Crites – I can't remember many people who just called him Bill – was here when I got here, in 1982, and worked alongside another of my late, great departed friends, Leslie Lovett, to skillfully chronicle, through the lenses of their cameras, the cars and stars of the NHRA. Crites also served as art director and production manager at various times in those early days, and you could always count on Crites to keep the pressure from getting to us on those long nights working on the paper.

In my formative years on the staff, traveling to a national event with Leslie and with Crites were two completely different experiences. Leslie would mentor me, teaching me his photographic tricks and introducing me to the thousands of racers who admired and respected him so that I might be able to do my job better. Crites mostly was interested in how good a time he could show you or how much he could make you laugh.

Crites and Lovett were like oil and water, or more like gasoline and fire sometimes. Crites had a special knack of getting under Lovett's skin like no one else could. I well remember sitting around a table at a local restaurant – the entire editorial and photo staff routinely would lunch together back in those days – and Crites was salting up his food. Lovett made the mistake of telling him that he ought to use salt in moderation, whereupon Crites immediately twisted off the top of the salt shaker and poured its entire contents into his mouth. I've seen him do the same thing with ketchup and hot sauce. The man had a stomach of cast iron.

Lovett, an avid fisherman, also made the fateful mistake on one trip to point out the large number of bass-fishing boats in driveways on a trip to Gainesville. For the next 30 miles, Crites pointed out every single boat they passed. "Bass boat ... bass boat ... bass boat" for miles and miles. I couldn't hear that story enough times.

And who could forget the red-eye flight to Indy out of LAX one Wednesday night in the mid-1980s? As the flight attendants dimmed the cabin lights so that some of us might catch some much-needed shut-eye, Crites let out a blood-curdling scream. Lights on, red faces for the ND staff, and a perma-grin plastered on Crites' face.

As I'm overcome with the loss of my good friend, I can’t even begin to think of all the stories about him that have been told and retold to new DRAGSTER staffers who joined the team after Bill left here in 1998. He was a semi-frequent visitor over the years; I saw him just a few weeks ago. We shared some laughs, talking about the good old days at the 7-Eleven by the North Hollywood headquarters where we poured endless quarters into the Burgertime video game (here's irony for you; I played Burgertime for the first time in decades just two days ago after finding an online version of it and thought about Crites the whole time and how he loved to mimic the game's soundtrack). He told me that he still was playing softball – the guy could hit the ball a mile and still get around the base paths and the field despite being Social Security-eligible – and that was the last time I'll see him. The guy photographed my wedding for next to nothing, and now all I have left are memories and photos.

Cindy Gibbs-Arias, whose famous father, Steve, knew Crites from way back in eighth grade and probably could tell better Crites stories than I can, wrote me to say that they had spent the day with him yesterday. "He left here at 8, grouchy as ever, but lovable as always," she wrote.

I spoke to Bill's younger brother, Ken, with whom Bill had lived the last six years, to share my private thoughts with him about what Bill had meant to me.

"He was a pain in the ass," he managed to say through tears. "It's like [Steve] Gibbs said, 'Sometimes you wanted to slap him, and other times you wanted to hug him.' He was unique. He was Bill. God, I'm gonna miss him."

After Teresa Long called to tell me the sad news this afternoon, I made some calls and dropped some e-mails to people I knew would want to know – his good pal Tom McEwen, former ND Editor Bill Holland, Dawn Mazi-Hovsepian, fellow photogs Dave Kommel and Tom Schiltz (who earlier this year had sent me the great pic of Crites and the "Mickeymatic" camera on the starting line at Indy in 1986).

"I used to joke that Bill was my fourth child," Kommel said via e-mail. "When my kids were much younger, Bill would come over and sit on the couch and watch cartoons with them for hours, every bit as engrossed as they were."

Crites found the humor in everyday life. I remember well his penchant for honking at strangers just to wave to them. He and I always buddied up to cover the Montreal race back in the 1980s, and, in the long drive through countryside from the hotel to the racetrack, he'd honk at farmers, at cows, at vacant houses. And heaven forbid you accidentally said the word "wheel" because Crites delighted in the game he called "Get a Wheel," which was to put two tires into the median or side of the road. My knuckles are still white.

It was also on one of those Canadian trips that Crites, an avid player of sports, accidentally crowned me on the left eyebrow with a racquetball racket to the tune of three stitches. I still have the scar, and I know that every time I look at it in the mirror from here on, I'll think of him. Like the impression he left on me in so many other ways, it's part of me.

Godspeed, pal.

Friends remember Bill Crites

Phil Burgess can be reached at pburgess@nhra.com

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