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Jesus, Crites! Tales of our pal

09 Jan 2009
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Tomorrow, in nearby Azusa (motto: "Everything from A to Z in the USA"), we'll say a loving farewell to our old pal Bill Crites, the former ND photographer and art director who died suddenly about a week ago. I know that to many of you who are "just" fans, the loss of Crites doesn’t resound as strongly as it does to those who have been on the tour for the last 20 or more years – media types who were friends with him, racers who worked with him, and so on – but Bill was known and loved by so many and was such a character that he deserves a nice send-off here beyond what I wrote about him last week, so please indulge us. This is a long, long column, filled with funny stories and remembrances that might not mean as much to some of you as it does to us, but I’ll be back with something a little more conventional Monday.

From the e-mails I've received with those sharing their Crites stories, it's going to be a pretty solid turnout tomorrow at 11 a.m. at White's Funeral Home (404 E. Foothill Boulevard; drop by and find out what he was all about -- and come Crites Casual: wear a Hawaiian shirt!), and below are some of the stories and comments we're sure to hear repeated there that you might find amusing.

Bill's brother, Ken, told me that Bill will be cremated and his ashes spread at two places he loved: Maui and Wrigley Field. Crites was probably one of the most hard-core Cubs fans I knew, so the latter seems very appropriate.

Through our sadness the last couple of days, we've been smiling and laughing. ND Senior Editor Kevin McKenna reminded me of the time that Crites, so despondent about his Cubs, drew up a résumé based on his personal sports experience (a lot of softball!) and offered to take on the task of managing the Cubbies. Believe it or not, he actually got a response; unfortunately for him, they declined his generous offer.


Crites in his Irwindale days; that's him, front row center (go figure!)

I heard stories I never had (like DRO's Jeff Burk talking about the time that Crites locked himself inside the ND darkroom and wouldn’t let Photo Editor Leslie Lovett in and would only respond to Lovett's demands in cartoon voices) and ones I'd forgotten (former ND reporter Todd Veney reminded me of the time that Crites had laid heavy and continuously on the rental-car horn from the track at Maple Grove all the way to the hotel, a good 20-minute drive, and Dana Servaes reminded me how Crites used to sign his name to artworks in our hotel rooms, sometimes on the back but often right on the painting itself), but an awful lot of people insisted that I talk to former NHRA VP and Competition Director Steve Gibbs, who knew Crites for decades, to get "the iceplant story."

So that's where we'll start. Take it away, "Big Hook."

"While I was managing Irwindale Raceway, sometime between '66 and '68, I got a call from Irwindale city officials who wanted to see some modest landscaping done at the track in the space between the grandstands and the guardrail," Gibbs remembered. "About the only thing that would grow at that rock pile was iceplant - the stuff you see along freeway embankments, so I go and buy a couple hundred flats of the stuff. Bill was looking for a way to make some money, so I hired him to do the job.

"You know the speed Bill operated at, and it was no different then. After a couple of days, I went over to check on how he was doing, and it wasn't good. The stack of iceplant flats barely had a dent in it, and there sure wasn't much ground cover to be seen along the track. I got on his case about the way things were going and told him the city honchos wanted something completed, and soon. A couple of more days go by with the same amount of progress (or lack of), so I laid into him pretty good. I wanted the whole load of iceplant in the ground by the weekend, or I wouldn't pay him a penny. Well, in another couple of days, I drive over to the track to see how he's doing, and I'll be damned: The stack of flats is completely gone.

"Something wasn't right, however, as the landscaping was plenty sparse. 'Jeezus, Bill,' I said. 'Is that all the further the stuff went?' 'That's it,' he said. My gut instincts told me that something didn't add up, and I also recalled seeing Bill driving the old track pickup down past the end of the racetrack, so I decided to take a ride down there. Just off the right side of the shutdown area, there was a huge gravel pit that was a couple hundred feet deep; I hopped the guardrail and walked over to edge of the pit and took a look. Sure enough, there at the bottom of the pit was about three-fourths of the iceplants I had bought. I gave him his walking papers.

"I laid awake last night, just thinking about the 55 years we hung out together. I'm already missing him."

Steve's daughter, Cindy, who spent a lot of time with Crites and had seen him the day before he passed, wrote poignantly, "OMG, what are we going to do without him? He was family to us. I'm so thankful to have had yesterday with him. He was pissing us off, annoying us, and making us laugh all in one evening; in other words, the usual.

"We had a routine. Crites would call me, I would answer, 'Hey, whaddya doin?' and he would respond, 'Talkin' to you,' and then the word 'EAT!' would come out of his mouth. Within an hour, he'd shuffle up my driveway, get to my door, and without fail, ring it at least eight times or yell 'LET'S GO!' at the top of his lungs, announcing his arrival in the most annoying of ways. He was pleased. In fact, I believe that was his goal in life, to annoy as many people as possible each day. He loved to push strangers to the point of giving him the finger, something he cherished daily.

"We had our favorite little hole-in-the-wall Mexican-food place in Whittier. Pelo, our favorite waiter, always greeted Bill with an enthusiastic "Señor William!" Crites loved that. He and I would argue about everything; it was fun for me to play along. Rarely would he ever agree with me about anything I said, even when I KNEW he did! It was part of his schtick; again, God forbid he be anything but contrary. I'm sure people thought we were an old married couple. He would bark at me, and I would bark right back. I think I spent most of my time with him shaking my head, taking a deep breath. Or laughing. I was an easy audience; it's probably why he loved to hang here. My dad always told me, 'Order the most expensive thing on the menu, it's payment for the abuse.' I always tried to do just that; of course, the little joints we went to were hardly big-buck menus. I wouldn't have it any other way.

"We loved Bill; he was family. I've known him for 46 years; in other words, my whole life. We loved it when he showed up but were rolling our eyes at him within minutes of his arrival. He made us laugh hard, and he frustrated us beyond words. He's the most lovable misfit I've ever known; his crazy hair fit his personality perfectly. I've always imagined that he was BORN looking the way he did. He was a very talented artist, I think more talented than most gave him credit for. His bratty ways probably outweighed the ability for some to see just how artistic he was.


Crites and Lovett; wonder if Bill's already driving him crazy.

"Good God, the stories he has told us over the years. I think that's what I regret most, is that I don't have his stories recorded somewhere to replay them. Mischief was his mantra; I wonder if anyone has more firecracker stories than Crites. I'm sure that Leslie Lovett, my dad, and many of the original North Hollywood NHRA staff all had years taken off their life by some of Bill's antics.

"Bill spent Monday with my boyfriend, Greg, my boys, and me. I keep wondering if we had known he'd be gone by Tuesday if I would have done anything different. I don't think so. We had a lot of laughs; we went down to BelmontShores and had what was an unusually so-so meal at our favorite cafe. Bill loved to harass the servers and insisted on paying. As we were leaving, he started yelling at me, 'Go down there; I want to see the sunset!' I was tired and wanted to go home, but I made the turn down PCH, and we ended up at Seal Beach pier. Crites hobbled his way out of my car and took a dozen or so pictures of what would be his last sunset. I'm so glad we did that now. We came back to my house, ate a yummy dessert, and laughed at two episodes of Two and a Half Men, a show I just turned him on to. He said, 'This show's nuts ... I like it!'

"At 8 p.m., he stood up and demanded I drive him down my driveway to his car, which was parked on the street. Once there, as always, he reached over and kissed me on the cheek. He grumbled, 'Thank you,' and I replied, 'No, thank you!'

"Little did I know how prophetic those last moments were. Thank you, Bill, for the laughter and love you brought to our lives. I imagine you are having a blast with some of your long-lost buddies, Buster Couch and Jim Annin to name a few, and that Lovett was one of the first to greet you. Let the mischief continue!"

I also heard from a lot of former NHRA employees who worked here when Bill did. Former National DRAGSTER Editor Bill Holland, who worked here with Crites in the 1960s and '70s, had his own great Crites story. "There were a bunch of us NHRA types on a waterskiing weekend at LakeIsabella," he remembered. "Crites feigned that he did not know how to water-ski but was anxious to learn. I took the bait. I showed him on land how to do everything, and we proceeded to the water. I gave him two skis -- as you would for a beginner -- but Crites said, "No, I want to use one ski like you guys." I argued with him, but he was insistent. So off we go and give it a try. On the first pull he shimmied, was mostly submerged, and flopped mightily. We encouraged him to try it again. Same basic results. More encouragement. Off we go again ... and Crites, wobbly, rises out of the water. We cheer. And in the next minute, the bastard is off cutting wakes, jumping, etc., just like a pro. We'd been had. Again."

John Mazzarella, who was ND's advertising manager at ND when I first got here in May 1982, was a road warrior back then and spent a lot of time with Crites and Lovett. He remembered one Summernationals trip where the team got lost on the way to the airport and found themselves near the Statue of Liberty. "Crites kept telling Les he was lost, and Les was yelling at him to shut up, telling Bill that we were witnessing a historic monument so 'Relax and be quiet.' I started singing 'The Star Spangled Banner,' and Bill started to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Les went nuts, stopped the car on the freeway, and tried to throw Crites out. What a riot."

On either side of that crazy moment was the story of a box of NDs that Mazzarella had grabbed as they left the track that he had planned to lay out around the airport as a way to expose people to the publication, but "Mazz" got tired of the box sitting on his lap during the car ride. "As we approached a toll booth, Les was fumbling for money to pay. I saw an opportunity to take the 15-20 NDs out of this big box on my lap and opened the back door and let them out at the toll booth. Les went berserk as we drove off. About five miles down the freeway, and after Les had tried to get rid of Bill, he finally turned around to go back to where he missed the turn for the airport. As we approached the opposite-direction toll booth, Crites was screaming out the window that it was us who threw the box out in the lane. Lovett was swinging into the back seat trying to slug Bill and screaming at me while the rest of us were laughing our asses off. What a great memory. I'm laughing as I write it."

Karen Raffa, who worked with us in the 1990s selling ads for Jr. DRAGSTER and was the wife of another late, great ND alum, former Editor in Chief "Mean John" Raffa, was one of the many who got sucked into the vortex of Crites' office, called in to chitchat with him, surrounded by his impressive collection of knickknacks and toys. She remembered fondly "the days of walking by his office and getting 'summoned in' and an hour later 'breaking out' to get my work done. He loved an audience to do his work and show you his stuff."

Felicia Lawrence, who also worked here in the 1990s, wrote of Crites, "He was one of the greatest, funniest, craziest people I ever met. I loved him. Bill was the one that helped me get a job at NHRA. After that, just working together and getting to know each other more, I just came to just love having him around … most of the time." Are you guys sensing a trend here?

Former NHRA Marketing and Broadcasting veep Brian Tracy also weighed in. "One thing that might get lost in all the tales of zaniness about Crites is how really caring he was about kids," BT wrote. "When our daughter, Megan, was going to turn 16, Bill knew that we were going to get her a little car for her birthday, so he took it upon himself to make a really big red bow for us to attach to the hood of the car to really highlight the surprise."

David Woodruff, who worked in the NHRA Marketing Department a few years ago, wrote, "I too have many wonderful memories while working with Bill on the Jr. Drag stuff. He always made me laugh, but he had the ability to get your blood boiling as well. My favorite memories are from my time on the softball field with him. I especially liked the time I convinced [fellow marketing guy] Jim Teller, who was supposed to be some stud in his early days, to race Crites around the bases. Crites crushed him; it wasn’t even a race."

Another former NHRA employee, Dana Servaes, who worked in the Marketing Department in the late 1990s and early 2000s and somehow even survived as Crites' roommate for a time, naturally had some interesting memories.

"The best was probably the battle between Bill and the gopher. We once had a gopher living in our tiny, 10- by 20-foot backyard, and you would have thought Bill was hunting a wild beast in the jungle. He had a pellet gun and was in the backyard every day for probably four months, waiting for any sign of that gopher. Rodent poison would have been way too easy – he wanted to actually shoot it and talked about his 'game' that he was going to get ALL the time. He never did get that darn thing. Watching him fume over this poor gopher was great entertainment, though.

"One of the funniest things that I ever heard, though, was when he was on the road with DRAGSTER how he would remove paintings from the walls of all his hotel rooms across the country and sign his best 'Bill Crites' at the bottom with a black Sharpie and then put the picture back on the wall. I keep hoping that I am going to find a painting someday at some random hotel that has Bill’s name on it.

"Another time I took Bill to an Angels game. He took his glove and was soooo sad when we had to leave the ballpark. He actually turned to me and said, 'Dana, I sat in my seat the whole game and not one ball came my direction!' It was the sweetest thing ever – spoken like a true child. So I decided to take him to Krispy Kreme in Anaheim to make up for it. We watched them make donuts for about an hour and then ended up getting kicked out because Bill NEEDED to know where the donut holes were. They didn’t have donut holes at that time, and Bill insisted that if there were donuts, then there must be donut holes. It was quite the scene, but hilarious."

Henry Walther, known to many for his contributing role in Team Minor's dominance in Top Fuel in the early 1980s, also knew him well, and while many of those who knew Bill well called him "Crites," Henry had another interesting name for him. "I always called him 'Jesus,' which was shortened from 'Jesus Crites.' I am sure that Crites is laughing at the fact that he checked out still owing me a dinner. Such was his sense of humor. We are going to miss him, for both his humor and his mischievousness."

Like a fortunate few of us, Alan Miller got the chance to enjoy some quality "car time" with Crites. "I had the pleasure of making a road trip with Crites, maybe his last for NHRA, to [the NHRA National Hot Rod Reunion] in Bowling Green, Ky., in June 2007," he wrote. "We left late, and Bill could drive anyone nuts, even doing nothing. He took pictures of 18-wheeler lights with no strobe while trying to drive at midnight. He was the ultimate little kid that refused to grow up. I won't ever forget my trip with him."

Crites loved the guys on the NHRA Safety Safari, and one of its members, Fred Brown, remembered him fondly. "Jim Frizzell and I spent many hours with Bill during national events. He was, as you said a 'contrarian.' Once when I told him his moustache needed trimming, he reached up and snatched several hairs out with his fingers! He always seemed to speak in his sardonic manner as if no one but he knew just what was going on in the world. The last time I spoke with him was at Bowling Green at the first or second Holley Hot Rod Reunion. While not a 'big name' to many, Crites' passing will nevertheless leave a very big hole in our hearts."

His former photography peers also had their special memories of Crites, who, as I said earlier, was a diehard Cubbie fan. Remembered Tim Marshall, "Crites and I used to go to all the Frank and Sons baseball card shows, and he would ONLY buy Chicago Cub players while I wanted to find the hot, young, up-and-coming players, for profit, of course. Bill had the largest Ryne Sandberg collection in history. That was Bill. I'll miss him so."

Richard Brady, whose long career as an NHRA division photographer and National DRAGSTER photographer included lots of times with Crites, wrote, "I'm sending along to you a photo I found and scanned, and boy, does this date us, but in this photo taken back in 1977 at the Summernationals are Leslie Lovett, Eric Brooks, Bill Crites, and, of course, me, of which the hairstyles alone are enough to cause world panic, and how about that rental car? Working with Bill was always a treat, for we never knew exactly what he would do at any given moment, which as I look back on all of it now was what made it such a treat to be with Bill. In later years before he left DRAGSTER, I remember on more than one occasion being with him, and he wanted to stop somewhere to buy something, which eventually led us to spend three hours while he looked at several choices and read and reread every word written on the box just to be sure the one he was going to buy was the same as the other! I can recall to this day the time he drove me to the Thieves Market so he could look at cowboy boots! About four hours later, he walked out with a pair he had bought, but that was only after handling each and every single pair of boots that was his size!"

Jon Asher sent out a very eloquent piece on Crites (portions of which are below) to the drag racing photography community, remembering Crites' dominance of the annual SoCal softball game that he and Carol Johnson hosted for 20 years: "The annual Kagel Canyon Fallnationals, an erstwhile softball game and who-can-consume-the-most-margaritas-and-still-drive party in Southern California, a bash with a life all its own. Winning the softball game – in which cheating was not only encouraged, but was mandatory for survival – could result in bragging rights lasting only as long as one could convince others that you were telling the truth about your exploits. Crites was always an invitee, for numerous reasons, but in all honesty he didn’t always appear. As a softball player, however, he was in high demand. While the rest of us slumped over the plate like the buffoons we were, Crites stood straight, bat upraised and ready to send the ball deep into the outfield. Since everyone who appeared at the game played, that often meant there’d be 25 or 30 defensive players standing idly around the outfield, discussing world events or merely scanning skies for aliens. Crites’ blasts would usually leave them convinced that they had, indeed, spotted a UFO ascending overhead.

"Seeing Crites at races other than the Pomona events was a treat. For me, personally, spotting him along the guardrail resulted in mixed emotions, for as happy as I was to see him, he insisted upon greeting me with a wet, sloppy kiss on the cheek, a greeting impossible to avoid or ignore.

"Crites loved nothing more than setting the late Leslie Lovett off, and I admit that the few times I did it myself it was because I’d seen how successful Bill was in doing the same. Whenever Crites would say to me, 'Watch this,' and head towards Lovett, I always followed closely behind, knowing that in mere seconds the sport’s leading photographer would be heading into emotional orbit.

"For me, and the others who knew him, Bill Crites isn’t gone. He’s standing tall over the plate up above, waiting to hit the next pitch out of the park."

Dawn Mazi-Hovsepian, whose racing family (like all of us) Crites was quite fond of, wrote, "There are a lot of funny stories that come naturally with Crites. I have been searching though my archives (stuff in my basement) for a doodling on yellow legal paper that I believe Crites did during one of the ND staff meetings back in the day. It had typical notes about what needed to be turned in for upcoming issues, but there were stick-people figures with staff names on them and goofy captions, purely reminiscent of high school doodlings on a folder or book cover. Beyond Crites' high jinks and often aloof and grumpy demeanor was a sincere and generous man. I don't think it's a secret that Crites took great pleasure in keeping people on their toes when they were around him, or at the very least confusing the hell out of them. We had the pleasure of seeing Bill at many recent CHHR and March Meet events. The first time we ran into him, we were pleasantly surprised to see him and asked what he was doing out at the event. He quickly gave us the 'Shhhhhh' signal and said, 'I'm not supposed to be out here.' That was so Crites.

"Rich Enos also told us the story about how Crites would be shooting on the opposite side of the track and then out of nowhere frantically wave him over to see him. He would hustle over to see what the problem was, and Crites just turned and yelled [an obscenity at him] and would go back to shooting. I've attached a couple of pics of Crites, one with Rich. I know Mark [Hovsepian] and Rich always busted Crites' chops about using a 30-year-old lens on a new digital camera."


Wrote Lou Hart, "Bill was always nice to me and always had a story or two to tell. He was a special person and a class act. I'm glad to have known him. I had the opportunity to gather some photographers at the 2008 March Meet for a reunion photo." Pictured, from left, with Crites are some of his starting-line pals: Rich Enos, Tom West, and Rick Shute.

Tom West, who's also been covering our sport for decades, remembered, "Bill Crites was one of those guys who were out there on that starting line in summer 1966, when I first got out there. Bill, Les Welch, Tim Marshall, Ron Lahr, Mike Mitchell, and Mert Miller all were a part of that early experience, and I felt at home with them very quickly. I spoke with Bill as he was making his Christmas phone calls on Christmas Eve, spoke to him for a long time, even though both of us said that we had to get going a couple of different times. I would have hung on to it longer if I had realized that it would be my last chance to talk to him. Hope you're getting the shot out there, Bill."

Division 1 photographer Phil Hutchison added, "I have only known Bill Crites for about five years, but even with my limited history with Bill, your story on him was so right on. I make it to Pomona for the Winters each year to get away from the East Coast doldrums, and during one of my trips, I met Crites in the media parking lot, and immediately he was giving me tips on how to shoot my pictures! The past few years, my routine is to shoot photos during the first few days from the starting line, but come Sunday, I take my long lens and sit on the top end and shoot. Bill was usually down there with his buddies, and I loved sitting there and shooting the breeze. Two years ago, he needed a longer lens, and luckily I had one to lend him for the day (one of the new 80-200 vibration-free lenses). In trade, he gave me a super wide-angle lens that I used in the pits for some great stuff. The NHRA had arranged to have In-N-Out Burger bring in a remote unit for the media, and once Crites and I found out it was there, we made a beeline to get our Double-Doubles! I will never forget sitting on the Pomona tarmac outside the staging lanes eating our burgers and shooting the breeze. Damn; Pomona will never be the same. I will miss the man."

Even former Funny Car racer Tim Grose, whose racing career about mirrored Crites' tenure here, wrote in. "This one hurts!" he said. "Immediately after reading your account, I was starting to recount the many, many times he'd make me laugh and put everything back in perspective. At first, I was starting to feel our loss that would lead to tearing up, and then my dark side conjured up the image of Crites and Lovett meeting for all eternity."

This is a good place to point out that although I (and many others) have made a big deal out of how Bill used to love to get Lovett worked up, I know there was no end to the admiration he felt for Les and his work and that the two, deep down, were good friends.

Bruce Wheeler, who lives in Hawaii and will probably help Ken in the scattering of some of Bill's ashes, wrote, "Although he and I had been acquainted with one another for quite some time, it wasn't until the 50th Nationals at Indy in '04 that we really, er, bonded. He and I (and my wife, Kolleen) spent quite a bit of time at that race chewing the fat. We were both shooting 'newish' Nikon D70s at the time, so we talked, in depth, about how to maximize our use of that camera's many features. From that point on, we would talk on the phone on a fairly regular basis. Anyway, Bill (he was always 'Bill' to me) and I spoke on the phone at length just three days before he died. While we were talking, some clients of mine showed up to pick up their wedding photos, so I told Bill I'd get back to him ASAP to resume our chat. I guess 'ASAP' wasn't quite soon enough. Damn."

Crites' friendship knew no geographic bounds, as European lensman Melvyn Eke can attest. "I first met Bill at the 1978 Indy Nationals when I was a 22-year-old freelance photog and mad drag fan working for three British magazines," he wrote. "Having arrived at the strip and gotten all my press passes from Dave Densmore of NHRA, I headed to the start-line area, which was swarming with photographers, most carrying small stepladders, which seemed very strange compared to Santa Pod in England. Once I had settled in and run off a few films, I plucked up courage to ask, 'Why the ladders?' to the guy who appeared to be the most lively, humorous, and well-liked photographer. A voice replied from under a baseball cap covering a mass of curly hair and moustache, 'Please be my guest; step up and take some shots, and you will see the difference, and, hey, are you from England?' This was Bill Crites.


Crites, left, with current ND Photo Editor Teresa Long, Assistant Photo Editor Jerry Foss, far right, and former ND shooter Steve Bianchi.

"He and Les Lovett made me and my wife most welcome over the entire race weekend, introduced me to all the drag stars in the pit area, and provided great entertainment with his good sense of humor all day.

"We arranged to call into the National DRAGSTER offices when we reached L.A. and had a guided tour by Bill, followed by an office lunch at a Mexican diner nearby. I cant remember how much salt, but some sort of jalapeño-eating test took place with much laughter at people's faces as they felt the heat. We returned in 1979 to Indy for more photos and stories and had the same great experience and fun and hoped again to return for a California event but it was not to be, but a regular read of National DRAGSTER and looking at Bill's photos kept the drag racing interest for all these years. As you rightly say about Bill, once met, never ever forgotten."

Some of the best stuff comes, too, from people who still work here and knew Crites longer than me and bowled and golfed with him.


Joni, second from left, Crites, and their bowling team.

Noting my racquetball story, Joni Elmslie (Joni's Race Shop) wrote, "I too cherish sporting memories with him. Possibly it was the shoulder-hugging ride on the freeway or the tailgating trip to the golf course or the temper-tantrum-thrown cell phone to the roof of Chaparral Lanes in San Dimas; Crites was always a piece of work and a head-scratching ride.

"One Monday night following a four-game loss for our bowling team, with Crites in the leadoff position, he proceeded to take his bowling bag -- with both bowling balls still inside -- and hurl it into the Dumpster and storm off. Knowing that he didn't have the money to replace them, Timmy Pearl (team member and avid fan of NHRA) jumped in to retrieve them. Much to Bill's surprise, he brought them to him the following Monday night so he could lead us to yet another four-game spanking."

She also fondly remembered Crites throwing a 5-iron "helicopter style" at a fairway-guarding oak tree after an out-of-bounds shot. Crites went to retrieve the club, but only after throwing his driver up there, too. "He never ceased to amaze me with what he'd do next to get a rise or chuckle out of me," she said. "Crites will be missed but, rest assured, not forgotten."

Former ND Editor George Phillips, who now works in the Broadcasting Department, had no problem hitting "rewind" for his Crites memories.

"Bill Crites was the number-two photog and art director at ND when I went to work there in 1977. Crites had a penchant for taking the new guy under his wing and showing him the ropes. As a writer, that meant helping with my photo shooting. It also meant showing me where all of the best pinball machines were in North Hollywood and how to 'professionally irritate' other NHRA staffers. But once there was a new new guy, he cut you loose. Now you were on the target list.

"It was a less structured time, and getting the job done and done right was the main goal. After that, all hell could, and usually did, break loose. And Bill was often in the middle of it. It was a couple of years after my arrival that Bill technically worked for me. Let me tell you, Bill Crites didn’t work FOR anyone, with the possible exception of Wally.

"We had the local 7-Eleven store on speed dial so we could find Crites at the pinball machines if one of the ND pages wasn’t going together right or if an ad needed to be built. Supervising Bill Crites was like herding cats or trying to capture smoke in a butterfly net. He could be hard to find all day, but then he’d work all night, putting out great product. The only better photog in those days was Lovett.

"To many, he appeared to be a gentle soul with a giving heart – all true. He would befriend a girl working at the desk of the little hotels we stayed at and for months afterwards send her little cards and gifts. For some guys that would be creepy, but Bill had a way of doing it that was okay. But Bill also was the first grown man I’d ever met who could really pout. If he got upset with something or someone, he could retreat into his own head, and God only knows what was going on in there.

"There was a time when we took free copies of National DRAGSTER to all the hotels in Indianapolis to have in their lobbies for guests. There were a couple of times that Bill and I ended up delivering the papers together – until about 4 a.m. In Bill’s mind, a rental car was something with no soul. No feeling of any kind. Something that could be tortured without consequence. The first time I realized this was upon our return to our hotel after one of those early a.m. treks. Without so much as saying 'Watch this,' he goosed it up to about 60 mph in the hotel parking lot and then grabbed the hand brake and sent us into a full powerskid right through the guest check-in area. If you were in the lobby, you would have watched us slide by with the tires blazing. Life with Crites was often like in a Warner Bros. cartoon – which he loved, by the way.

"Crites was unflappable in any situation. Once a group of us flew together into Jacksonville and then drove to Gainesville. Crites drove. I had never been to the event before and didn’t much pay attention to where we were going, but Lovett seemed a bit unsettled. We came around a bend and looked at the familiar skyline of Daytona Beach. When Lovett asked what the hell we were doing in Daytona, Crites just said, 'This is the way I wanted to come.'

"I’m sure, right now, Bill is going the way he wanted to go."

After getting a preview yesterday of this column, George's comments about Bill pouting brought to Steve Gibbs' mind a gag he played on him that set him to pout for days. "Bill had one of those tiny Hondas that was painted a nice pumpkin orange color, and I decided to decorate it a bit," he remembered. "I found some heavy black paper, cut out three big triangles, and a big smiley-mouth-shaped piece with buck teeth and taped them to the passenger-side door. A perfect jack-o'-lantern! He drove around for a few days before he realized what was going on and was crestfallen. He pouted like a little kid ... for days. In later years, when we were laughing over old 'war stories,' if I said anything about the jack-o'-lantern deal, he would clam up or change the subject. Another Crites deal that would leave you shaking your head."

Gibbs also couldn’t resist adding another tale from those wacky early years at the North Hollywood office, where, as George said (and I well remember), things were a little more loose. Remembered Steve, "In the small lunchroom, we had one of those soft-drink machines where the bottles were in slots or channels. You would slide the drink of choice down its slot to the dispenser mechanism, deposit your money, and pull the bottle straight up. They were common at that time. If Bill didn't have enough change, he would just pop the top off a bottle and help himself with a long straw. He would replace the cap, leaving an empty behind for the next customer. 'Big Mac,' Dave McClelland, had a habit of hitting the soft-drink machine every morning for a Coke caffeine fix, so Crites decided to mix him up a cocktail. He took the top off the bottle and sucked out about half the Coke and refilled the bottle with Bacardi rum. 'Mac' was still drinking in those days, so it should have provided a good laugh. The problem came when a gal from the Accounting Department came in early and ... you guessed it ... got the doctored Coke from the machine. After taking a big swallow, she went nuts! Thought she had been poisoned and raised a huge commotion. Jack Hart was the big boss at the time, and he got in the middle of the uproar. He threatened to fire Bill but was laughing under his breath the whole time."

If ever there was someone on the staff who simultaneously got Bill's humor and paid for it, it's Associate Editor John Jodauga, who worked with Crites here back in the 1970s before leaving us to open his own ad agency (which meant he still had to deal with Bill) and later returned. Here are his thoughts and remembrances.

"Over the years, I had often compared the antics of Bill Crites to those of Stan Laurel of the famed Laurel & Hardy comedy team. No matter where you were, Crites always seemed to manage to create a scenario in which anyone who was with him would eventually be forced to say in typical Oliver Hardy fashion, 'Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.'

"One such example took place in the early 1970s when we were returning from the World Finals, which then was held in Dallas. Shortly after reaching cruising altitude, Crites began lobbing ice cubes from his soft drink at me, and in self-defense, I of course had to strike back. An irate flight attendant ordered us both out of our seats into the aisle and then reprimanded the both of us in a tone for the rest of the coach passengers to hear, 'If I see another ice cube fly through the air, I’m kicking both of you off the plane -- at 30,000 feet -- and with no parachutes.'

"Sometimes I have to admit that I shared in the enjoyment of Crites’ pranks, such as the one that took place in 1969, the year that both of us joined the ND staff, when we had to drive a rent-a-truck with the souvenir issues of National DRAGSTER to that year’s NHRA Nationals in Indianapolis. We were told to take turns driving without stopping off at a motel, and initially that didn’t bother us because there were lots of wide-open spaces on the old Route 66 in which we could make up for lost time. But to our disappointment, we discovered that the truck was equipped with an engine governor that restricted the speeds to 55 mph, which meant that the trip would take about 40 hours. Crites came up with the idea of attempting to dismantle the governor by intentionally backfiring the engine, and although the ploy failed at its original goal, we both got pretty good at producing a big bang.

"As dusk was approaching at the end of the second day, we spotted a band of genuine Woodstock-era hippies thumbing for a ride while standing beneath the overpass. I shut off the engine to prepare for the backfire, and as we slowly pulled over, the hippies, who were thinking we were stopping to provide them a ride, smiled and flashed us the peace sign as they eagerly approached the truck. But when the ignition was turned back on, a huge ball of fire, enhanced by the growing darkness and the reverberating roar from being beneath the overpass, emerged from beneath the truck, and the kindly expressions on their faces were quickly replaced by eye-bulging, mouth-gaping sheer terror as they truly felt that they were facing Armageddon.

"But Crites wasn’t satisfied. Early the next morning, when we began driving through the quiet suburban areas of Indianapolis at about 7, the only other moving object on the street was a 9-year-old boy riding his bicycle on a newspaper route. I pleaded with Crites not to backfire the engine, but he replied, 'Don’t ever tell me don’t!' After the ensuing explosion caused the startled boy to fall off his bike with newspapers flying everywhere, I admonished Crites in a Hardy-like manner by saying that this well-behaved youth who was just beginning to appreciate the virtues of a strong work ethic would now most likely turn to a life of crime. But Crites was laughing so hard I don’t think he heard a word I said.


Crites sometimes found himself on the receiving end of pranks, such as when he was assigned to shoot out-of-state license plates in the parking lot at a national event for a "demographic study." Jodauga memorialized the succesful prank with this holiday gift to Crites.

"Crites was a master at spontaneous humor, but he also excelled well with carefully planned hoaxes, especially when he collaborated with his longtime former classmate, NHRA’s Steve Gibbs. I came to work one day in the 1970s and saw a memo from NHRA founder and then-President Wally Parks on my desk. The memo, which was not sealed in an envelope, essentially stated that a number of major representatives from Detroit were going to be visiting NHRA the next week for future sponsorship discussions, and since I was the office’s worst offender in having an untidy desk, long hair, and all-too-casual wearing apparel, Wally essentially wanted me to clean up my act.

"The message itself did not bother me because at the time I took pride in being National DRAGSTER’s resident rebel. But I was upset that the memo was not presented confidentially, and in a brief lapse of good judgment, I planned to express my displeasure over what I perceived to be a grievous breach of office etiquette. When Wally came in later that morning, I happened to see him as he walked up the stairs to the office lobby. After he asked me how I was doing in his typical father-like manner, I told him, 'Not so good because of these memos I’ve been getting. A quizzical look appeared on Wally’s face as he asked me, 'Memos? You’ve been getting ... memos?'

"It became instantly clear to me that Wally didn’t have a clue what I was talking about, and a vision quickly appeared in my mind of Crites, the master forger on the NHRA staff, whose specialty was duplicating Wally’s signature, signing off on a memo that was written by Gibbs on Wally’s personal typewriter after hours. Too embarrassed to admit that I had been had, all I could do was blurt out an Emily Litella-like 'Never mind,' and Wally walked off shaking his head in bemused wonderment.

"I hadn’t seen much of Crites recently, but I did manage to have lunch with him behind the VIP tower at last November’s Finals, where we had the occasion to reminisce over these and many other adventures in the past, along with our traditional exchange of well-intentioned insults. When I was informed of Bill’s passing by Phil Burgess on Dec. 30, one of the first things that went through my mind was how grateful I was to have spent some good quality time with him before he left us. Working at ND in the early days with a much smaller staff and longer hours was much more strenuous than it is today, and we needed all the levity we could get just to keep our sanity.

"Thank you, Mr. Crites, for providing all of that and so much more."

As a wonderful final honor to Crites, he's been enshrined alongside some of drag racing's greats on the "In Memoriam" page on Don Ewald's We Did It For Love Web site.