Inside National DRAGSTER
by: Phil Burgess
Friday, December 14, 2007
Party time, NHRA-style
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.
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 …
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Such as the case when I received an email in response to my request for feedback on National DRAGSTER and received a reply from Simon Menzies. Newer race fans won't know his name but if you were around in the '70s, you know who he was. He had a really decent-running Alcohol Funny Car and even tried his hand at nitro, and his career path intersected and was influenced by some of the really great names in alcohol racing.
Born in England and raised just outside of Toronto, Canada, Menzies grew up in Southern California after his father, a retired Royal Air Force pilot and a quality control engineer in aerospace, moved the family south in 1968 after the aerospace industry soured in Canada. The family relocated to Torrance, Calif., and it couldn't have been a better spot to launch a drag racing career. It was alcohol-racing central.
After high school he pumped gas part time at a Union 76 gas station, owned by a Canadian drag racer named Dale Armstrong. In 1972 he opened a Chevron service station/speed shop on 190th Street in Torrance that was flanked to the east by the Chevron station of Alcohol Funny Car racer "Wild Wilfred" Boutillier and to the west by Ken Veney’s muffler shop. A couple of miles south was Hot Rod City, home to the shops of Armstrong and fellow alcohol powerhouse Billy Williams, and of Top Fuel Motorcycle pioneer Russ Collins, where Menzies remembers "two young guys power-tuning their motorcycles until the wee hour every night" – two guys named Byron Hines and Terry Vance. Famed Wilcap Automotive was there, too, where racers like "Double-A Dale" spent time on the dyno "trying to squeeze more horse power out of everything from small block Chevys to nitro 426s." Within a few miles were Bill Simpson’s Gasoline Alley West, home to Simpson Safety Equipment, Mike Kase Race Cars, and Dave Russell’s Race Car Parts. Within an hour's drive were the legendary strips of Lions, Irwindale, OCIR, Pomona, and Ontario.
"Torrance was a drag racing nirvana," he said.
Menzies partnered with Armstrong, who shoed the Faust & Menzies AA/A to a big Pro Comp win at the ’74 U.S. Nationals. Menzies inherited that famous chassis for his first Alcohol Funny Car (or BB/FC as they were known at the time), a Barracuda, and slotted between the framerails the potent powerplant from the A/FD with which Armstrong and Veney had won that year's Winternationals (Armstrong actually defeated Veney in the all-team final).
He continued racing during two years in Texas (’75-’76) before moving back to Torrance, and partnered with Jim Jackson ("the son of a millionaire Texas oilman who wanted to convert a good portion of his allowance into drag racing fun; I was only too happy to help him.") and ran heavily throughout the balance of the '70s at NHRA and AHRA races; he won 12 AHRA national events and their 1978 championship.
Racing that extensively cost Menzies his first wife and was putting on the strain on Jackson's marriage, but they decided to go out with a bang and run nitro in 1979. He ran as quick as 6.09 in that Challenger and sold the engine and combination to Williams, who was making the jump from Pro Comp to Top Fuel. Williams ran in the fives on the second pass and later ran a 5.64 with his old Alcohol Dragster chassis, at the time the second quickest Top Fuel E.T. ever behind Don Garlits' 5.63. If I remember correctly, Williams' Top Fueler even sported the Funny Car's zoomie headers for a while.
Credit Menzies also with an NHRA championship assist. Pat Minick and Austin Coil offered him the ride in the fabled Chi-Town Hustler in late ‘79, but he had a child on the way and just committed to work for Fred Crow at Simpson. He instead recommended Frank Hawley for the job, and we all know how that turned out.
He did drive again, in the Bergens & Leslie Arias-powered entry, but they failed to make the show at Indy, but he left behind fond memories and a pretty decent career.
"I only drove for five years; however I did spend the previous six years attending the Dale Armstrong school of hard knocks," he said. "Having Dale for a friend and mentor during my formative years turned out to be a pretty good leg up on the sport and having Fred to fill in the gaps for later life proved to be invaluable."
Today, Menzies, father of four grown children, keeps "relatively sane" by restoring ‘60s muscle cars in his spare time. He and his wife moved to Temecula, Calif., this year where they plan to grow "avocados, grapes and mongrels."
He's also a big part in keeping you safe today as you fly from race to race as his aerospace metal forming company, McStarlite Co., in Harbor City, Calif., makes "virtually all of the leading edge engine cowlings for commercial and business jets in the world" with customers like Airbus, Boeing, Cessna and Lear. "When you look out the window on your next trip and see the large circular silver ring on the inlet of any jet engine remember it came with a little drag racing influence right here from sunny California," he notes.
Menzies' heart remains in drag racing, and his thoughts are never far from Williams, who suffered irreversible brain damage in a devastating crash five years ago. Although this tale has been about Menzies, he asked that I also remind everyone of Williams' plight. Williams remains in a nursing home in Cleveland, kept alive with a ventilator. "His wife Dianne has had a real rough five years and doesn’t talk about it but I know she feels as if Billy was abandoned by racing in general," he says sadly. "I flew back to see him the week after the crash and several more times while he was in Charlotte and several times since he was moved to Cleveland. He is unchanged. Gary Scelzi, Bob DeVour, Doug Herbert, Bill Pryor and others have visited. Dale Armstrong donated his 300-mph crew uniform from Gainesville ’92 and Pryor [a former Top Fuel racer who now runs purchasing for Hendrick Motorsports' engine program] rounded up a pile of NASCAR memorabilia for an auction two years ago to help pay his hospital bills. We had a good turnout from some local street rod clubs and from Norwalk Raceway that raised some cash but not enough. Don’t get me wrong, every bit helps, but a little recognition for the champion that he was will go along way."
So think about Billy, please. You can contact me to get to the Williams family though either Menzies or Herbert.
Monday, December 10, 2007
I'm so easily distracted
Thanks for some wonderful feedback from my previous column discussing possible changes in event coverage for National DRAGSTER in 2008. I received a lot of good input and kind words from many longtime readers who have watched the coverage – and publication – evolve over the years. A lot of you appear to be happy with the current coverage, even though it arrives in your mailbox more than a week after the event's completion, but I still think there is room for improvement and additions, so that's what the staff has been focusing on.
A lot of talented people have pounded the keys here over a near-50-year run, each with his or her own idea of what would make the publication better, so I've spent some time the last week revisiting ND of old, looking back to how our forebears covered the national events in hopes of a ideas that might be repurposed or improved. I grabbed random issues from the last three decades and, with the distinct aroma of aging newsprint wafting into the air, started flipping through their sometimes yellowed pages, intent on my research.
I can't understate what a really, really bad idea that was.
The first issues I grabbed surrounded the 1970 World Finals and Supernationals, and I instantly got lost in a time warp. I know that a lot of the readers of this column are from "back in the day," whose earliest remembrances of drag racing were front-engined Top Fuelers and dry-hopping Funny Cars, so I'm sure you'll understand how I quickly got off-track.
The Supernationals provided a couple of NHRA firsts. The event, held at fabulous new Ontario Motor Speedway (just across the freeway from Ontario Airport, for those of you who wing into SoCal for the Pomona events), was sponsored by Mattel through its Hot Wheels line, and was known as the Hot Wheels NHRA Supernationals. It's the first record that I can find of a title-rights sponsor for an NHRA event, and, trying to read between the 37-year-old lines, it appears that because the invitation-only event was not part of the regular season (champions had been crowned at the Word Finals in Amarillo a month earlier) it opened the doors for this experimentation. The event also was the first ever to be televised live and appeared on the small screen in 75 major markets.
The event also featured the first use of the "Pro Start" system on the Christmas Tree where all five (yes, five back then) ambers flashed at once for the four Pro classes (Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Top Gas) instead of a five-bulb countdown. It's pretty wild to think about a Top Fuel driver watching a five-bulb countdown (each a half-second apart) before mashing the loud pedal, but that's the way we ran 'em back then; it was more a game of anticipation than reflexes. Rick Ramsey and the beautiful Keeling & Clayton California Charger won Top Fuel and Gene Snow the Funny Car crown. Sush Matsubara crashed Joe Pisano's Camaro, and a loose shock broke the ankle of our Leslie Lovett, but not before he captured some wild shots.
The winter of 1970 was match-race heaven in California, where 20 tracks existed, 18 of them under NHRA sanction, and it was easy to become mesmerized reading accounts of some of the sport's legends when they were still driving and discovering anew long-forgotten car-driver combos. Here's a little memory jolt:
Irwindale Raceway hosted its 4th annual East-West Funny Car meet, which, along with the Manufacturers Meets, was one of the great traditions of the 1970s. Each region – or manufacturer -- had a team and points were awarded leading to an overall title as well as individual honors. The late Mike Snively, in "Diamond Jim" Annin's Cuda, and "the Snake," Don Prudhomme, in his yellow Hot Wheels Cuda, led the West team to victory. Snively beat Don Schumacher's Stardust Barracuda, 7.11 to 7.12, for the #1 Division title while Prudhomme, in his first year in the class, beat Gene Conway's cool topless Corvette in the #2 Division final. Ed McCulloch was there, sporting the first 1971 Cuda, replacing the car he lost in a fire before that year's Nationals. Also in attendance: the Jake Johnston-chauffered Blue Max, Pat Minick in the Chi-Town Hustler, Dave Beebe, Nelson Carter, Larry Arnold's Kingfish, T.B. Smallwood, Kenny Safford and the Mr. Norm Charger, Pat Foster (get well, Patty!) in Roland Leong's Hawaiian, "Jungle Jim" Liberman, Tom McEwen, and Rich Siroonian in "Big John" Mazmanian's Cuda. Siroonian had guided the West team to victory at Fremont Dragstrip in Northern California the week before over a similar field; the Hustler, "Jungle," and Shoe had also picked up a quick match at San Francisco's eighth-mile Champion Raceway.
A week later, Johnston defeated Siroonian in the final at the Manufacturers Meet at OCIR that featured 63 blown Funnies but Plymouth (Schumacher, Prudhomme, Siroonian, Arnold, Jim Dunn, Stan Shiroma, Leonard Hughes, and Larry Reyes) took team honors. There were 21 six-second runs and 29 passes in excess of 210 mph, which were pretty strong performances at the time. Johnston's stunning 6.72 was low e.t. and shared top speed at 217.91 with Prudhomme.
Beyond the geographic and manufacturer rivalries of the day, there was also a brewing battle between engine builders as legendary Keith Black began getting challenges from Ed Pink (whose engine was in Schumacher's mount) and the Ramchargers (who had "the Goose" and the Max). Before long, guys like Steve Montrelli and Sid Waterman would join the fray.
Although the East Coast was getting cold, reports continued to trickle in (by regular mail!) of pre-snow racing. Current Bud crew chief Tim Richards wheeled his SS/EA Plymouth to a runner-up at Englishtown while, just down the road in New Jersey, his future boss, Joe Amato, captured Comp eliminator at Island Dragway in his BB/Gas Chevy and current Pro Stock engine builder Frank Iaconio took top honors in Stock #2 with his M/SA '57 Chevy. Further south, Foster defeated Bobby Wood in a Funny Car match at Phenix Dragway in Alabama, where "the Flying Plumber," the late Reid Whisnant, took Super Stock honors over Bobby Yowell's Sox & Martin-prepped Duster. Della "Funny Honey" Woods and Paula "Miss STP" Murphy put on a performance at Suffolk Dragway in Virginia that truly was jinxed. Murphy grenaded her transmission, injuring her heel, and Woods' Challenger went airborne at the top end, flying five feet off the strip for more than 100 feet before the blossoming chute brought it back to earth. She was sore but otherwise unhurt.
Riverside Raceway in Nashville hosted its season finale with a big Funny Car show. The line-up: Tony Olsko, Dick Bourgeois, Bobby Steakley, Roger Lindamood, Shirl Greer, Houston Platt, Gordon Mineo, Ton Johansen, Paul Sefansky, Paul Aray, Frank Oglesby, Ronnie Runyon, Charlie Therwanger, and Mart Higgenbottom.
Back then Funny Cars were plentiful, cheap to run, and not all that technologically sophisticated that they were too far beyond the reach of the talented mechanic.
Okay, now I really have to get back to work.
Friday, December 07, 2007
Another year down ... and your opinion wanted
Longtime members will recall that traditionally the last issue has contained both the Top Fuel/Funny Car issue and the year-end review, but this year we wanted to beef up the final issue and have it focused on a fond look back at the last 12 months. It's a view of highlights from the 2007 season from many angles, including some of the staples such as the "Best of" awards and quintessential quips and quotes, and this year we added "the year in photos," to show off not just some of the photo department's exquisite work, but photos that are worth way more than 1,000 words.
We concluded the DRAGSTER portion of the 2007 publishing season with our traditional "ship party," which includes champagne and finger foods and the eagerly awaiting (by most) and dreaded (by the few) new-employee shenanigans. Each year, I dream up a rite-of-passage ordeal for the year's new employees that in the past has involved singing and dancing but, because no one seems to be able to sing or dance well, lately it's been game-show-based NHRA trivia contests.
This year's "contestants," Associate Editor Kelly Wade, left, and Denise Lewis of the advertising department, squared off in a Jeopardy-style competition I concocted for the occasion. Kelly, obviously, is an NHRA expert while Denise is a pretty big NASCAR fan. Both are mothers of teenage daughters, so I culled 10 questions under the headings, NHRA, NASCAR, and Mother Knows Best that I figured they would whiz right through.
Equipped with bicycle horns for buzzers, they answered in the form of a question as they fought their way through NHRA trivia from softballs such as "They call him 'the Professor' " to difficult tasks such as figuring the number of inches in a quarter mile (15,840). NASCAR trivia included easy questions like "He won the first Daytona 500" (Lee Petty) and less-easy questions like the number of feet in a lap of the Daytona Speedway (13,200). They did best with the mom questions, things that every mother should know, like "He's always your first friend on MySpace" (MySpace founder Tom Anderson) and "She's Mylie Cyrus' famous alter ego" (Hannah Montana).
Kelly took the big win to earn a nice gift certificate to Chili's while the runner-up also got a fine parting gift. We all toasted the year's successes and will begin focusing on 2008.
We begin work on the first 2008 issue of National DRAGSTER Jan. 3. It will ship to the printer Jan. 8-9 and be in the mail that weekend, filled with a winter's worth of updates and a look at hot new cars of 2007's top finishers. In the meantime, we'll be putting the finishing touches on the 2008 Fan Guide and, after next week, maybe stealing a day or two off.
Next week is a big week for the staff as Wednesday is the annual NHRA Holiday Party, a fun day that brings the entire staff together for holiday festivities, a fine feast, and the annual salute to staff members who have reached milestones with NHRA of five, 10, 15, 20, and 25 years of service. Yours truly, along with Pat Simpson of the credentials department, will get to mount the stage to accept 25th anniversary accolades of some kind. Issue 48 was the 2,253rd issue of ND ever produced; I'm proud to say I've been here for more than half of them, 1,228 (54.5 percent).
Before all of that happens though, the editorial staff will have to earn their holiday bonuses in two intense days of planning for the 2008 season. Because all of the year's DRAGSTER writing is done, I've given them all of next Monday to sit at their desks, crank up their iPods, and ponder the future of ND. No deadlines, no one looking over their shoulders, no one giving them other assignments. Bring your best ideas Tuesday.
The challenge is this: Help create a fresh new way to cover the NHRA POWERade Series national events. From the 1960s through the mid-1990s, National DRAGSTER was often where people learned not only who won the national events but how they won them. The advent of same-day TV and the internet has slowly but surely stolen our thunder on that front.
Since we don’t have any control over the speed of the United States Postal Service, our goal is to make sure that when each issue reaches your mailbox, the stories are as worthy of your attention as if they arrived the day after they were written.
Mark Watkins, who recently made a very complimentary posting on a racing message board, agrees. I wrote him to thank him for his kind words and asked for his input, and he was kind enough put down his Shiner Bock to respond. Mark not only has been reading ND since the 1960s but also holds a bachelors degree in journalism and photography, so, to me, his is a very valued opinion.
"I tend to look at media a little differently than your typical reader," he wrote. "I understand how the bills get paid and I am aware of epic amount of time it takes to go from good to great." He then cited things he liked and disliked about ND, and in the latter, national event coverage was chief among them.
"TV and the internet tell me everything your stories tell me," he said. "I understand why they are there. You guys are the NY Times of the sport. As the paper of record, you have to document these events."
This is battle we have fought the last couple of years. Our initial response was to cover the events more deeply than anyone else, dig up more insider information and tidbits than anyone else, and leverage our great relationships with the race teams to take the fans where they couldn’t normally go. We've done that, but now so do a lot of the internet "magazines." We upped the ante, adding critical analysis, both from the staff and experts like Mike Dunn, to break out of a mold into which we'd long been cast of simply reporting the news.
While we still want to remain the chroniclers of history that can be more easily retrieved from a bookshelf than a computer search for some deeply-buried link on a vast website, we also want our stories to be entertaining, engaging, and thought-provoking and the photo layouts to be attractive and informative.
We've toyed and tinkered with the national-event coverage over the years and found our readers to be initially resistant to change, but we've also learned how they like their information presented, so we're going to shoot for the best of both worlds: A compelling narrative, amazing photos, attractive layout, great stats, and interesting sidebar stories that we hope will give the readers the complete and colorful story behind each event.
I'm excited about the creative process that begins next week and eager to see the results after Pomona.
We'll also be adding even more features and columns, will offer more coverage of the Sportsman racers (though not to the detriment of the Pros), and work harder still to take our readers behind the scenes. I think it's going to be a watershed year for National DRAGSTER.
I welcome all comments regarding any portion of National DRAGSTER. I'm interested to hear from our readers what they like and dislike, how they'd change things, or what they'd like to see added. If you're not currently a member/reader, tell me what we could do to make National DRAGSTER so interesting to you that you'd consider joining the ranks.
The floor is yours. Hit me up here.
Wednesday, December 05, 2007
Hail to the King!
Being in the news business isn’t always pretty. Sometimes we have to put on our newsman hats to report the sad, like the sudden losses of Leslie Lovett in July 1996, Blaine Johnson and Elmer Trett at Indy in 1996, Fuzzy Carter in May 2000, Steve Evans in November 2000, Buster Couch in January 2002, Scott Geoffrion in May 2006, and Eric Medlen and Wally Parks this March and September.
Other times, like now, it's quite thrilling to be able to report stories like this. There have been other shocking announcements over the years that really got my attention -– like Bernstein and Dale Armstrong splitting up in 1997 after 16 successful years together or Joe Amato and Tim Richards doing the same in 1992 after more than 20 years together –- that change the world as you know it, but neither of those exactly came out of left field like yesterday's announcement.
Senior Editor Kevin McKenna and I were in my office, talking about next week's 2008 National DRAGSTER planning meetings and discussing possible replacements for departing staffer Todd Veney when the phone rang. It was Susie Arnold, Bernstein's longtime publicist, who wanted to make sure I had gotten the email she'd just sent. As I searched my Inbox for her message, that old familiar tingle ran up my back because publicists don't follow up a run-of-the-mill press release. "What's up? What's the big news?"
The look on my face must have been priceless because Kevin, seated across my desk from me, listening to me say stupid things like "That's amazing," mouthed the word "What?"
The announcement is truly a good news-bad news scenario. I'm thrilled that Tommy Johnson Jr., whom I've known since he was a teenager racing in Super Gas, will be able to continue to showcase his considerable skills next season instead of sitting on the sidelines or roaming the pits and trade shows, résumé in hand, looking for a new ride or a new sponsor. We're also looking forward to him going head-to-head with his wife, newly minted Funny Car pilot Melanie Troxel.
“How bad do you want it?” he responded. “If you want to race, you’ll do whatever it takes to make it happen. When we didn’t have a sponsor, I’d drive the truck to the races, work on the car, drive it, help tune it, do the press work, then drive it home and do all the maintenance on the car by myself. I’d work all day, then go to the shop and work all night. Getting to race came at the expense of many other things, such as my friends and my social life. I didn’t care — I wanted to race.”
That says a lot about T.J., one of our regular bloggers here at NHRA.com, and pretty much just an all-around great and very likable guy, a straight shooter who's always a pleasure to interview. He's got the skills and has driven high-profile rides before, for Joe Gibbs and, obviously, for "the Snake." Bernstein made a great and deserving pick.
I'm not really sure how the Bernstein camp kept this under wraps. I don’t know of a person in our well-connected world that knew this was coming. Secrets are incredibly tough to keep in drag racing; most announcements seem to be well-known or leaked weeks if not months before they're announced. I'm pretty sure that Bernstein could have told us the Martians were landing next week before we'd have believed that he was going to retire again, this time so unexpectedly.
Don Garlits used to say, "Retiring is easy; I've done it dozens of times," and I can't help but wonder of Bernstein is really done this time.
When he first retired, in 2002, Bernstein gave us two years' notice and, fortuitously for him (but less so for son Brandon), he was able to temporarily squash his growing driving jones in 2003 when Brandon was injured in May in Englishtown.
"In 30-plus years of racing I'd never stood out there on the starting line and just watched, especially when my racecar was running," he told us. "It was a big adjustment for me. I missed driving the car and the competition tremendously, especially at the very start of the season. It was a real shock to the system. I went from being a competitor, racing nearly every day and every week and staying in that frame of mind at all times, to being on the sidelines. It was much more difficult than I thought it would be."
He shocked us at Indy last year when he announced he not only was coming back but was doing so in a Funny Car. I remember the stunned looks on the faces of my fellow journos in the pressroom. We had been called there for a "Bernstein family announcement" which we assumed meant that Brandon was getting married or something else of a personal nature. Bernstein entered the room on a warm day with his jacket fully zipped, which should have been our first clue he was hiding something like a Monster Energy shirt beneath it.
He had a great season this year, overcoming new-team bugs to reach two final rounds and, best of all, he proved that he could still drive a racecar. Even when he struggled early on, his peers all said, "Watch out, he's still got it," and they were right.
What makes this announcement even more surprising is that last week I got a call from K.B., who was looking for Veney. I joked with T.V. that maybe Kenny was looking for a new driver and heard that Todd was available. Turns out that "King Kenny" was more interested in Todd's stats than his driving as Bernstein wanted to know if he'd topped the charts in the yearly reaction-time averages that Todd maintains for us. Bernstein barely finished second behind 2007 champ Tony Pedregon, with Pedregon getting the infinitesimal edge well down the line of decimal places (.0647 to .0648), and Todd even cited that in a note with the stats just for Bernstein's benefit.
I thought that the fact that Bernstein was so into those numbers meant he was still very much in the game and, who knows, maybe he will be. At the end of 2003, we asked if we would ever come back (again) and he said, "Well, I did learn that you never say never so I'm not going to say that I'll never get back in a racecar."
Hopefully he still feels that way.
If he doesn't, he leaves behind an incredible driving career, chock full of championships and race wins, broken performance barriers, amazing technological advancements, and innumerable firsts. He'll always wear a crown in my books.
Monday, December 03, 2007
“The Good Old Days?”
Holland, who served as ND's editor from 1969 through July 1974, holds the honor of the third longest tenure behind Edmunds and myself, and is still an active part of National DRAGSTER as the owner of Holland Communications, the advertising agency for companies that include Mark Williams, Crane, ARP, ATI, and Manley. He's also a regular reader of this column and, as of right now, a guest columnist. Take it away, Bill.
I was chatting with Phil Burgess about this column and asked him if readers might be interested in how things were at DRAGSTER back in “The Good Old Days.” He said, “Go for it.” I did.
Myself, I came to DRAGSTER from the Valley Times and Hollywood Citizen-News daily newspapers, where I wrote an automotive column (“The Wonderful World of Wheels”) and was an advertising Account Executive. I was also partners in a Top Fuel dragster and had been racing at NHRA Division 7 and select national events for a few years. This background gave Wally and Barbara Parks sufficient confidence to turn the reins of DRAGSTER over to me when the late Steve Evans left to pursue other opportunities.
Having come from the newspaper world, I was familiar with the production technology of the day, which I can assure you did NOT involve computers. DRAGSTER's composition was done using a Linotype machine, which essentially generated lead type one line at a time. These were assembled in galleys, and proofed by inking the type, laying a clean sheet of paper on top, and using a roller to make the impression. We’d proofread the galleys, looking for errors. A “typo” would be fixed by generating a new slug of type and slipped it into position. Let me also point out that a supply of molten lead was required to feed the Linotype, so the place stank to high heaven.
I hadn’t been on the job too long when I got a phone call from DRAGSTER's printer, which was a firm in Glendale, Calif., called News Type Service. The company owner, Dick Jutras, asked me how I felt about unions and would I cross a picket line. Fortunately, I didn’t have to make that decision as the printer came to terms with the union and made provisions for the transition to this newfangled technology called “cold type.” They replaced the big, smelly Linotype “hot type” machines with the first generation of phototypositors. Operators would use a typewriter-like device to make a punch tape. The tape would be fed into the “Photon,” which would expose the letters onto photo-sensitive paper. And it was the output of this refrigerator-sized machine that would be pasted into the proper position on each page using hot wax as the adhesive. Photos were added through the use of “halftones,” which are essentially scaled reproductions of glossy photos with a screen used to create a dot pattern. The overwhelming number of pages were printed in B&W, and full process color used only in extremely rare occasions (like the U.S. Nationals Souvenir Edition cover).
It’s important to point out that in those days National DRAGSTER was the primary source for timely news about drag racing. There was no Internet. No same-day TV shows. And very little coverage afforded by the mainstream media. We were it! Accordingly, there was a sense of urgency in the way we went about producing the paper. You could count on burning the midnight oil on Mondays and Tuesdays, because the presses would be rolling in the early a.m. hours of Wednesday. A few progressive retailers like Jeg’s had a bundle of hot-off-the-press DRAGSTERs air-freighted to them so they’d have all the latest news and product information on Thursdays, which served to attract racers to their facility.
John Jodauga, who’s the lone survivor from that group of free spirits, also joined the DRAGSTER staff in 1969. Needless to say, his artistic and journalistic skills were put to good use. For many years John’s illustrations of the sport’s top racers for our driver profile stories graced DRAGSTER's quarter-fold cover.
This was a time before political correctness. We could get away with running a full page of feminine pulchritude in the coverage of national events. We came up with the April Fool’s edition (National DIGGER) and had great fun at the expense of some good-natured racers. We also invented the mythical “Eldorado Nationals” where Caddie owners from all over came to race. Much to our surprise, recent CHRR honoree Mike Jones and the folks at OCIR decided to make it a real event.
Looking back at things, there were a tremendous amount of changes that occurred during those halcyon days. NHRA’s event calendar began to swell. Drag racing was, after all, “The Sport Of The 70s.” We ushered in Pro Stock, rear-engined dragsters, and aftermarket aluminum engine blocks. During my five-year tenure, the circulation of National DRAGSTER tripled, with NHRA memberships growing from 17,000 to more than 50,000. I’d like to think that the quality of the paper helped stimulate that growth.
The rancid smells of molten lead and hot wax notwithstanding, those were, indeed, “The Good Old Days.” It was a time and place I’ll never forget.
Friday, November 30, 2007
See you in the glue, friend
So I guess I'm going to have to. Sorry Todd. Hey, this isn't going to be any easier for me.
This year's final issue of National DRAGSTER will be Todd's last on the staff, a career that spanned nearly 20 years of writing about what he loved most. He's been offered a position with Mike Ashley's Funny Car team that may ultimately offer him the chance to live his dream of piloting a nitro Funny Car as the team test driver and who knows what else beyond that. In typical Todd fashion, he jumped at the chance, because for as long as I have known him, driving has been his dream, and he's proven to me and to his peers over and over that he'll do whatever it takes to get there.
I watched him go deeply into personal debt to buy his first Alcohol Funny Car, following in the steps of his legendary father. I saw him sacrifice a lot to follow that dream – personal comfort, sleep, relationships, sweat, and blood. He left a comfortable job here with us in California and worked for us on a contract basis out of Indianapolis, burning the midnight oil on both jobs to keep the income coming almost as fast as he could pour it into his racecar, because that was the only thing that kept it running. That and a determination to prove to himself and to everyone else that he could do it, and do it well.
I've never really been a racer and although I've known many of them, no one ever gave me the insight into what it's really like than Todd has over the years. He's shared intimate details about the hardships and the long hours, not in a woe-is-me kind of way but more like, "Dude, you can't believe how hard this can be."
He's shared horror stories about mistakes on the track, in the pits, and on the way home from the track that have provided immense hurdles and caused huge financial setbacks, but he always found a way to bounce back. He looked after his parts -- that's what you do when you don't have a trailer full of spares –- and never brought a crappy car to the line just to be there. His dad, who taught him better and insisted on as much even if it meant his son had to pull all-nighters, made sure of that. He earned the admiration of his peers for doing it the hard way, and paying his dues, either in his own car or as a hired gun.
I hired Todd back in the summer of 1988. We'd known each for a while through his family -- Ken and precious mom Rona – and Todd won the job on the basis of a story he submitted earlier that year about the time he had spent working at Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School in Gainesville.
Quite appropriately, the headline was a quote from his story: "The only thing I really want to do."
"I have always pictured myself as a drag racer," he wrote. "Driving a race car is the only thing I've ever wanted to do. I first reached this conclusion as a 4-year-old in 1969 when the dragsters were still called slingshots and the blocks were made of cast iron. But, 19 years later, I'm not much closer to being a full-time driver."
Ironically, the photos that accompanied the story were shot by another wanna-be Funny Car racer who ended up working his way up the chain like Todd is doing and ultimately made The Show: Whit Bazemore.
Todd went to work for Hawley in 1986 to learn the ropes. He had hitchhiked to Gainesville to ask for a job at the school, paid $25 a week to a local family who let him sleep on their couch, and, while suiting up other students and working on their cars for their rides to glory, he pinched pennies every paycheck to pay for his own tuition. He ran 7.50 at 196 mph in the class' detuned Alcohol Dragsters, the third quickest pass in school history at the time, (and also surpassed his previous best of 20.65 in a Vega station wagon). And the hook was firmly set.
He was 22 at the time, a recent graduate of the University of Akron (go Zips!) with a degree in business and organizational communication, when he came to work at DRAGSTER, probably the next best thing to actually racing, and, even though I'm sure they weren't his motives, it put him in even closer contact with the world of racers he so wanted to join and people got to know him as we did: an admittedly brash but loveable hard worker.
Even while his dreams and his days were consumed in driving, I can’t say that it ever interfered with what he did for me. Todd is one of the best writers I've ever known or had the chance to work with. He never, ever took the easy way out of a story, opting for a hackneyed phrase that he knew would suffice and please the majority of the people. He always worked extra hard for that lead that would hook a reader, that twist of the phrase that would catch your eyes and make you want to reread it just for the pure poetry of it, or the little parenthetical things he'd wedge into stories that made them that much more interesting, accurate, or thought provoking, even if he knew that might get read past by the majority. There was a time when we had to wrest overdue copy from his hands after watching him pore over every word just to make sure it was the absolutely perfect word for the sentence.
Todd was just as good at the track. I knew that he had good reactions from the many times we staged intra-staff reaction time challenges (named, in his honor, The Brash Nationals) with portable Christmas Trees, but he actually transferred that to the track. Rare was the time he got left on in his Alcohol Funny Car, and we all watched proudly, and silently rooted for him when he reached three national event final rounds only to get turned away each time. He won his first Wally, at a Lucas event at the National Trail, and we couldn’t have been happier for him.
He cuts a dashing figure in the staging lanes, tall and lean in his all-black fire suit, carrying a leave-me-be face and a prowling demeanor unconsciously absorbed over a lifetime of worship of our shared idol, Don Prudhomme.
Todd finished up his work for us with a fine story on Cory McClenathan in issue 47 and another great one on Mark Faul in Issue 48. I asked him if he wanted to pen the year's final staff-authored "The Write Lane" column to say farewell and recall his days here. I knew what the answer would be (right) but I tried.
T.V. loved writing about drag racing -– that is, unless it involved himself, though many times I begged him to share his story with us -- but he loves drag racing. Now he's going to get a chance to do more of that, and although we'll miss him –- and I know our readers will miss him, too -– he's still chasing his dream, and we're proud of him. I know he'll be a success (unless he has to write about himself).
See you in the glue, friend.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Statistically speaking ...
And don't even get me started on computer passwords. To enhance security, our passwords contain at least three of the following: lowercase letters, capital letters, numbers, a wildcard ($, &, @, and the like), an Egyptian hieroglyph, a Sumerian cuneiform, an improper fraction, and your second cousin's sister's babysitter's middle name. Or something like that. You must change your password about every 90 days and your password can’t even remotely resemble any of your previous 150 passwords. I'm not making this up. (Well, most of it I'm not making up. For security purposes. So forget that part. I was never here.)
We signed up an extra statistical burden once we became drag racing fans, trying to remember how Don Garlits ran 5.63 at Ontario in 1975 and Kenny Bernstein 301.70 in Gainesville in 1992, that Don Prudhomme won 13 out of 16 events in 1975-76 and Greg Anderson 15 of 23 in 2005. Hardcore fans live and breathe these kind of stats.
The funny thing about numbers is that they're tricky little devils. For example, if you’re batting .300 in baseball – three hits for every 10 at bats – you’re an all-star. Drain just three shots out of 10 in basketball and you're on the bench. Save only three of 10 slapshots in the NHL and you're back on the bus in the minor leagues. The difference, as explained to me by almost-big leaguer Bob Wilber, is that hitting a baseball is infinitesimally tougher than anything else in sports (believe me, he could write a book on the subject; ask him to blog about it) but it kind of boils down to the fact that trying to a hit a round object (the ball) with a round object (the bat) is tricky. Quoth Wilber: "As far too many announcers have said, 'You have to swing a round bat at a round ball, and hit it square.' The difference between a pop-up and a line drive, on the face of that bat, can be less than a quarter-inch. It takes something like 14-hundredths of a second for a fastball to leave the pitcher's hand and cross home plate, so a hitter's reaction time has to be almost immediate. He has to recognize the release point, and then instantly calculate things like release angle, rotation, and arm action to figure out if this is a fastball (swing NOW) or a curve (wait and take it to the opposite field) or a change-up (override all of your instincts, and wait, wait, wait, even though your eyes saw the same arm action as the fastball release.). Mix in a sinker, a slider, or a knuckleball, and the mind boggles how these guys can ever hit a ball hard."
Okay, fair enough, but that all got me to thinking: What's drag racing's most important stat? For drivers, you’d immediately want to say "reaction time" but, as we insiders know, the reaction time is a combination of driver reflexes, staging depth, and tune-up. I remember Frank Hawley working to devise a system a few years ago to measure driver reaction time but not much ever came of it in the way of centralized stats. The stat also doesn't take into account, for example, drag racing's version of a change up: a staging duel. Or runs made in dark conditions. Or having to find the Tree in the glare of the setting sun.
So, a few years ago when we created a giant back-of-the-book stats section for National DRAGSTER, one of the stats we dreamt up was the "first-leave" stat which is exactly what it sounds like: How many times did you leave first against an opponent. It's not a perfect stat either, but it at least is a head-to-head stat based on near-identical conditions.
With the new Countdown format, round wins are not necessarily a good indicator, nor is winning percentage. Tony Pedregon had just the fifth-best overall winning percentage, yet finished the season champ in Funny Car with less round wins than Robert Hight and Ron Capps. Curious, right? Yet he had the best head-to-head winning percentage among fellow Top 10 points earners and possessed the season's best reaction time average. Ditto for Top Fuel king Tony Schumacher, whose winning percentage was just the third-best in the class, yet he was 20-9 against his fellow top 10 racers –- far and away the best in the class -- meaning he won the crucial matches against those with whom he was most directly doing battle. Sure, he had a ton of first-round losses, but the majority of those wins went to non-championship-contending racers.
I think a good indication for a crew chief might be completed runs –- how many times a car went A to B without breaking or smoking the tires -- but that doesn’t take into account losing lane choice and getting stuck in a tricky lane or "testing" passes once already safely qualified. Again, a tricky task.
We're not alone. Have you ever seen the NFL's quarterback rating formula? It goes a little something like this:
(a + b + c + d) / .06
a = (((Comp/Att) * 100) -30) / 20
b = ((TDs/Att) * 100) / 5
c = (9.5 - ((Int/Att) * 100)) / 4
d = ((Yards/Att) - 3) / 4
a, b, c and d can not be greater than 2.375 or less than zero.
Okayfine. What he said.
A lot of guys out there -- Todd Veney, Bob Frey, Lewis Bloom, Jim Hawkins, and "Nitro Joe" Jackson – crunch drag racing numbers for a living and I bet they're still searching for the truth, too. Maybe they can come up with something like the QB Rating. I'd be interested in hearing what you all think is a great new (or improved) stat for our sport. Drop me a line with your ideas.
I asked Lois Harmsen, one of our fine customer service reps at Conley, for some details about the presses that churn out your ND for you week in and week out. In addition to your favorite weekly racing paper, Conley publishes approximately 85 other publications, some weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, even a few quarterlies. According to its website, Conley Printing’s history in Beaver Dam (population 15,000, not counting the beavers) can be traced back to 1856 with the publication the Dodge County Citizen, the city’s first weekly newspaper.
"We have three Community presses that can run heatset and non heatset paper (normally just newsprint), and the one Baker G16 that can pretty much run anything, most size publications and newsprint and gloss papers," she said. "The G16 can run approximately 22,000 pieces per hour and is powered by a 200-horsepower motor. The Community presses run approximately 19,000 pieces per hour and are powered by 100 horsepower motors."
Conley has other sites in Colorado and Arizona, but the place in good ol' Beaver Dam is pretty impressive, with more than 200,000 square feet of manufacturing and office space. You can take a virtual tour of the place here.
Saturday, November 24, 2007
Rolling down the comeback trail
I first worked with Chad a few years ago to create the Driving Force blog, and it was Chad who did all the legwork tracking down John and the ladies for answers to questions and more. He's a great go-to guy when I need to reach Force, and I appreciate him forwarding me these pics.
When we last left Force in my previous entries here, he was heading back to Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas last Sunday to have the casts removed from his left ankle and hand and to have further surgery on his left hand, a big step toward returning to the cockpit next season.
"His surgery went well," Chad told me. "Dr. Zehr, John’s hand doctor, felt that the bones in the wrist had set about as nicely as could be expected. He had five pins removed from his wrist right in the doctor's office while under local anesthetics. The true test will be the enduring physical therapy sessions that John has to look forward to attending. You know John almost as well as anyone and realize that he is determined and focused; when he gets that way, do not block the road. I don’t see physical therapy bringing down John Force."
Chad went on to say that after the plaster cast was removed from his left ankle, Force was fitted with an air boot cast and that he still will be on a non-weight-bearing status for about the next two to three weeks. The pin in Force's right foot will remain in place for another week. Once the pin is removed, Force may get the green light to begin including the foot in his PT.
I know that, like me, everyone out there is pulling for the champ. And that you'll all continue to send your prayers, thoughts, and positive vibes his way.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Two to go, and thinking 'bout Darrell Gwynn
Because NHRA also grants us Friday off, we'll have the next two days off plus the weekend. That's the good news. The bad news is that we have the next two days off, which essentially means that we're also losing two working days – not very helpful when you have just five of them to produce a new issue each week. So, anyway, we're here working hard on issue 47, which is a pretty good-sized issue, packed with nitro-powered stories like the Top Fuel and Funny Car champ profiles, features on Cory McClenathan and Racepak's Ron Armstrong, and all manner of stats and facts.
Bundled with Issue 47 will be the 2008 NHRA Rulebook, which no doubt will get some long studies from racers. One of my favorite Rulebook-flavored quotes comes from that acknowledged master of the dry quip, six-time NHRA Pro Stock champ Warren Johnson, commenting on the amount of spacing between the lines of type: "That's for me write in."
Anyway, here's what it'll look like when you get it in the mail next week. Well, it'll be bigger and you can actually open it, but you get the idea.
I remember Gwynn's accident well, and the outpouring of support that followed. Before that fateful day, I had worked through two previous catastrophic-injury cases involving popular racers, Shirley Muldowney's horrific 1984 crash in Montreal and Doug Kerhulas' career-ending crash in Columbus, and watched our drag racing community pull together mightily; the Muldowney accident, for example, led directly to the founding of the Drag Racing Association of Women.
Some of you reading this might not have been around to see Gwynn's rise to glory, so let me backtrack to tell you why his accident was such a heartbreaker. When Gwynn's career was ended that sad Sunday, he was on top of the world. He had just won his homestate Gatornationals for the first time – his 28th career win -- and set the new national record in Houston. It's hard to say, but it's a good bet that he would have won the championship that year. Over the course of his 10-year career, from May 1980 to April 1990, only two racers won more NHRA national events than Darrell Gwynn: Bob Glidden and Kenny Bernstein. That's saying something. Our travel budget back then wasn't as generous as it is today, but I remember getting the green light to make two trips to Miami to cover the story, the first official press conference, on May 24, in which Frank Hawley also was announced as Gwynn's fill-in driver, and the second July 24 when Gwynn met the world for the first time since his accident. That's how big a story it was.
Gwynn's bravery in the face of a life-changing experience was an inspiration to us all. He married his longtime sweetheart, Lisa, and started a family. His team, with Hawley driving, won the Springnationals June 10 and Gwynn returned to the track at Indy that year. Two weeks later, the NHRA and NASCAR communities played a benefit softball game during the Keystone Nationals, which the NHRA team won, 21-20, after scoring five runs in the bottom of the ninth inning. Gwynn was there and threw out the first pitch. An autographed photo of that toss still holds a place of honor in my office. Just a month later, Gwynn was on hand to see his car win in Dallas and he continued as a car owner for several more years, racking up 14 more wins and a host of partnerships including the groundbreaking sponsorship by the fabled New York Yankees. In 2001, we named him No. 32 on our list of Top 50 drivers of NHRA's first 50 years.
That same year, we all watched Gwynn make an emotional pass down the quarter-mile in a hand-controlled dragster at Indianapolis during the 50th Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.
In 2002, he formed The Darrell Gwynn Foundation "to prevent, provide for and ultimately cure spinal cord injuries and other debilitating illnesses." The Foundation is also dedicated to injury prevention and quality of life for those already afflicted with injury or illness, by providing necessary equipment or special services. He stages fundraising activities, gives away wheelchairs, supports other like-minded programs, and is a sought-after motivational speaker.
Since he retired as a car owner, I haven’t spoken to Darrell nearly enough, so yesterday I picked up the phone to right that.
Gwynn was on a high after staging last week's 2nd annual Florida Spinal Cord Awareness Week. The spinal cord program's logo was on all of Cup cars in the NASCAR event at Homestead and on a majority of the truck and Busch cars. They held their annual Hot Rods and Reels fishing tournament, gave away yet another wheelchair, and promoted their cause.
"I never expected the foundation would become what it's become," he said. 'It's been amazing."
Gwynn also keeps track of the latest medical developments, which include some promising clinical trials on spinal cord regeneration that someday could give him better mobility in his right arm.
Gwynn also is excited about being able to induct his former crew chief, Ken Veney, into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame next March. Another longtime friend and mentor, Dale Armstrong, is also being inducted.
"I'd love to induct them both," he said. "Other than my parents, they’re the two guys who helped me most in my career. Ken was the guiding force of a lot of my Top Fuel success and Dale bought me my first helmet, shoes, and gloves before I got my license. I was always a great Dale Armstrong fan, and he's still one of my favorite people in the sport."
Gwynn will be moving into a new house soon in the Florida Keys with Lisa and now 9-year-old daughter Katie, so, for all of his travails in life, he's got a lot to be thankful for, an appropriate sentiment at this time of year. Me, I'm thankful for the friends I have met over the years, people like Darrell Gwynn.
Monday, November 19, 2007
More Monday musings
This issue salutes the Pro Stock ranks, with everything from champ profiles on Jeg Coughlin and Matt Smith to the end-of-year stats on average e.t.s, r.t.s, and speeds, plus the top points earners, a head-to-head matrix, and a recap of the season's results. We've also got Candida Benson's feature on rookie of the year candidate Justin Humphreys.
We're also saluting the last of the Sportsman champs, repeat titlists Bill Reichert in Alcohol Dragster and Frank Manzo in Alcohol Funny Car, plus printing the list of the top 50 finishers in all of the Sportsman classes and a handsome full-color poster of all of the champs. Brad Littlefield also has a nice feature on Alcohol Funny Car racer Sean Bellemeur, who quietly had a season that was bettered only by class giants Manzo and Jay Payne.
Next week we'll salute the nitro champs and the week after that, the final issue of the year, will be our expansive Year In Review, complete with our annual awards, great quotes, and the year in photos. It's a keeper.
I figure I could offer a list of Force's favorite soups and it would draw readers by the thousands. And with good reason. If you could have seen him sitting there with us last week, chatting about everything and just happy as hell to be out at the drags and to be surrounded by people he calls friends, that says a lot about him. He's a true people person –- I'm guessing you didn’t need to read that to know that –- and he's as genuine as the day is long. He didn't get to be the most popular driver of the modern era by turning a cold shoulder to his fans or hiding in the trailer instead of working the ropes.
I'm waiting to hear how his surgery went yesterday. He was excited to be heading back to Baylor to have his casts removed and to get some more work done on his left hand. Even though he's on the road to recovery, the mental impact of lying in a hospital bed for a month hasn't left him, and made him think about Darrell Gwynn, who was paralyzed in a racing accident back in 1990. Force will walk again and Gwynn most likely won't.
"I called Darrell to tell him that he's a tough son of a gun," Force told me, "because now I know what it's like to wake up in the morning and not be able to dress yourself. You get depressed, and you wanna cry and you wanna get mad. But at least I know I can work again. What was his hope? I can’t imagine how he's handled it, so God bless him."
I'll be making a trip down to Yorba Linda in the next week or so to hang out with Force for a day, so stay tuned for that adventure.
To the mailbag …
A lot of you wrote to say what lucky dogs were are to have the annual Staff Drags, and I'll wholeheartedly agree. Getting paid to race down the quarter-mile … hell, I feel like John Force.
Jason Acosta of Temple City, Calif., wanted to know how fast Force ran and who had the quickest hot rod.
Force was wheeling his Lincoln truck and ran 12.21 on the eighth-mile. I'm not sure what that converts to on the quarter-mile but, humorously enough, we forgot to tell Force that we were running the Staff Drags on the eighth-mile and he legged 'er all the way down to the scoreboards. I wonder what he thought when he got that 12.21 time slip ...
The Quickest Run plaque, like the winner trophy, became the property of the IT department after Vihn Do slammed his Lexus IS350 to a 9.13, an impressive pass for a automatic-transmissioned V-6. I've twice earned the Quickest Run plaque, both times with a Trans Am, and ran an quick as 8.80-something two years ago in one of GM's bitchin' new-era GTOs (can’t wait to strap on a G8 next year!).
Blog reader Bob W. of Woodbury, Minn., who some of you may know from his woefully infrequent contributions to this site, was curious about Vice President-National Event Marketing Glen Cromwell's soaked shirt in the winner's circle photo down below. Did the pressure of racing overwhelm Cromwell's anti-perspirant? Or was this some sort of overcelebratory soaking?
First, I have to give (as the kids say) mad props to the G-man for making it to the quarterfinals. He's a good friend and the star player on our weekly rec hockey team, but who knew he could drive, too? He was cutting regular .030 lights throughout eliminations before going -.003 red against me. He was nice enough to say that he knew he had to cut a light to beat the defending champ, but he was just being modest.
But back to the shirt.
Well, as the accompanying photo shows, the Staff Drags also offers some of NHRA's execs a chance to blow off a little steam after a season in the trenches making the NHRA world a better place for the racers and fans. Here. Cromwell serves a soggy subpoena to NHRA VP-General Counsel Linda Louie. A chilly countersuit swiftly followed.
And finally, from Joe Hooks in Bangor, Maine, who, after reading Rob Geiger's recent entry about the accident-prone almost Top Fuel champ, asks "Is Rod Fuller drag racing's Gerald Ford?"
Well, while I wouldn’t exactly nominate the unlucky Las Vegan for any safety-prevention awards, comparing him to the pratfall-prone 38th president of the U.S.? Let's investigate.
Fuller holds Bachelor of Science degree in Marketing from the University of Arkansas. Ford held a Juris Doctor (legal degree) from the University of Michigan. Both are trying to sell you something.
Ford played college football on two championship teams and was named to the college all-stars team. Fuller is a former All-American college soccer player. In some countries, soccer is called "football." Hmmmm.
Ford was caught on camera stumbling down stairs, bumping his head on the doorway of Air Force One, and walking into other people. Upon winning the Englishtown event in 2006, in front of a national television audience, Fuller tried to jump on top of the rollcage in the shutdown area but fell off, smashed the windscreen of the car, and got his foot stuck.
Ford had weak knees from his football days. Fuller tweaked his knee playing volleyball in Hawaii in March and then hurt it again trying to climb a fence to reach a Porta-Potti later in the year.
I'm just saying …
Love ya, "Hot Rod." Get 'em next year!
Friday, November 16, 2007
Hail to the champs!
"Hey John, what's up?"
"I'm driving, man!"
"No, right now. I'm on the freeway in my truck."
"I just had enough, I had to get away. I'm tired of looking at the same three faces. I hobbled out to my truck, and ol' Chad [Light, JFR marketing coordinator] was like, 'You can’t do this'; I said, 'Ain't no law says you can’t drive with a broken leg.' I threw my walker over into the bed and had to hold onto the truck to get in, and getting out's gonna be a bitch, but I'm free. I figure I'll just drive around all day until someone comes home tonight. I can go through drive-thrus for food; maybe I'll even go to a drive-in movie. Maybe I'll just drive around America. I can’t believe how good it feels just to be driving again, to have the freedom where someone's not driving me around."
Well, seeing as ol' Force didn't have anywhere to go and seeing as he was going to need help getting out of his truck, it didn't take a lot of convincing to talk him into dropping by the NHRA Staff Drags at Pomona yesterday to visit. Hell, he was dying to get back to the track.
Force rolled up in the middle of our time trials and stayed through the first round, just enjoying being at the track. Cell-phone cameras were whipped out as he chatted with the gathered troops, and you could just see him light up. I finally talked him into making a run (yeah, like that was a hard sell), helping him into his Lincoln pickup, tossing his walker into the bed alongside his wheelchair, and sending him on his way.
With a large group cheering (literally) him on and applauding, he saddled up in the left lane for what would be his first trip down the quarter-mile since the scary accident in Dallas nearly two months ago. He turned his ever-present Castrol cap backward and yelled out the window, "Tell Pedregon I'm coming for him," and off he went. It was a very, very special moment.
"That was bitchin', really cool," he said. "[Austin] Coil told me that one of the biggest things I would face would be the mental part the first time I looked at the Tree, but when I pulled up there, everything just went into automatic mode. That was cool as hell."
Thanks, John, you made our day, too. By the way, Force is heading back to Dallas Sunday to have his casts removed and for further surgery on his left hand, a crucial step toward a possible return to action next season. It goes without saying that all of our fingers and toes are crossed for him.
But back to racing …
Jared Robison, who heads up our IT staff and is one of the people who keeps y'all happy by making sure NHRA.com stays alive and kicking even through bandwidth-choking traffic, swept through the six rounds to win in impressive fashion, finishing it off with a tight final rounder against Field Marketing boss Eric Lotz, who was gunning to join me and John Miller as the only repeat champs of the event. This was Eric's third final-round appearance.
The Publications squad won the team championship (again) in a major rout as a lot of the gang broke their first-round jinxes and racked up wins in the all-important opening round, including da boss, Adriane Ridder, NHRA.com Webmaster Jade Davidson (who later ran dead on his dial as half of claiming Best Package honors), Brad Littlefield, Production Manager Matt Hurd (who went to the quarters!), staff newbie Denise Lewis, and others. Assistant Photo Editor Jerry Foss was a real star, making it to the semifinals, and Managing Editor Vicky Walker and Senior Editor Kevin McKenna notched quarterfinal finishes. All told, we had four of the eight quarterfinal spots. It was a true team effort. Our own Candida Benson was race director and did a great job, assisted by the Pomona staff, including Harold Owens, a familiar face in the staging lanes to anyone who's ever competed at Pomona, and our own Teresa Long shot these fine photos.
Your defending champ (that's me) again had a pretty good day, lasting until the semifinals, where I red-lighted to Jared after taking way too big of a chunk of the second bulb. Like almost everyone there, I like to deep stage, but I knew right away I was in way too deep, and when I let 'er fly, the dreaded red meant that any hopes of a third title were gone. I had earlier gone perfect .000 on the Tree (or, as W.J. would admonish, "That's just a bad job of red-lighting.") two rounds earlier, and I pushed my luck. Hey, some days you eat the bear, some days the bear eats you. I didn't need to see the butter to know my 12-round win streak was toast.
Mike Ashley might preach otherwise, but it's not like you go out there every time expecting to win. Oh sure, you bring a positive can-do attitude to the starting line every time, but you know the odds are stacked against you, multiplied to a factor based on the number of people filling out the rest of the ladder. I know I can drive well enough to win, but so can a lot of other people.
That fact is exponentially increased when you start talking about competition at "real" drag races, where people have invested money and time into their hobby/profession and compete on a weekly or better basis instead of dragging their daily driver to the line twice a year. While I might pair off at the Staff Drags with someone turning their first tire on the strip, the real racers know that the guy or girl in the other lane probably isn't a duck, which makes the win totals of guys like Dan Fletcher, David Rampy, Jeff Taylor, and Peter Biondo mind-boggling. I use them as my examples rather than Force because, let's be honest, while it takes a bigger set of you-know-whats to climb into a Funny Car, those other guys are having to rely on a whole different level of driving skills at both ends of the track, and many would tell you that –- cubic dollars and millionaire crew chiefs aside -- it can be tougher for a driver to win in a Sportsman class than a Pro class.
I know how hard it is to go seven rounds against an armada of amateurs, so I can't imagine being able to beat the best in the business 40 or 50 times; there are so many things that can go wrong at both ends of the track. Their skill and know-how is immense, and I think we take for granted seeing their name repeatedly showing up in final rounds simply because we know they're good at what they do, but imagine winning three national events in a row as Rampy has done and as Fletcher just did. These are truly amazing athletes.
So, hats off to our Staff Drags champ, the team champs, and to all the people who have ever won a race. Savor the victories; they’re not that easy to get.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
It's (still) all about Pomona ...
The writers did a good job with the details, too, talking about three-layer firesuits and House noting that the dragsters (well, not these dragsters) accelerate faster than the Space Shuttle. ("Nothing says thanks for saving my life like a test drive in a car that accelerates as fast as the Space Shuttle," Houses explains to his interns when he chooses the case of the race car driver from among several.) At one point the patient is even diagnosed with polio, and while I'm not sure if that was a nod to John Force, I'll pretend it was.
"Big Bruce" Comtois, team manager for Top Alcohol Funny Car racer Alexis De Joria and a real-life transportation coordinator for TV and film, helped assemble the cars for the shoot and sent along these photos of the filming and himself with Amy Dudgeon, who played stricken driver Casey Alfonso. Jonathan and Danny Fiello were the stunt drivers (earning some nice exposure for K&N and B&T Performance), and Comtois his big, bad self played the starter of "Ocean County Speedway." The footage was filmed Aug. 31; apparently we were all in Indy for some kind of big race they hold there.
If you missed it (and 22 million didn't, according to Nielsen ratings), you can catch it here starting today (Fox puts its shows online eight days after they've aired). You'll have to download their proprietary plug-in, but it's quick and painless and worth the effort. The episode is called "Whatever It Takes."
Speaking of Pomona, tomorrow's going to be a special day for the NHRA staff as we head out to the fabled facility for the twice-yearly NHRA Staff Drags, a team-building exercise that not only brings together the many departments but also gives some of the office-bound staff a hands-on taste of the sport for which they so dedicatedly toil each week.
This will be the 17th running of the event, and sure, it’s a day of fun and camaraderie, but let's be honest: It's all about the bragging rights. Much like the Jegs Allstars competition, in addition to individual glory, there are team honors at stake between the squads from the Publications, Field, and Executive branches. I don't like to brag – unless it's absolutely necessary, and in this case it is – but the ol' Publications team has only been defeated a handful of times. We practically had to add a wing onto the building to house all of the team championship plaques we've won.
John Miller, who won the title twice when he worked for National DRAGSTER and twice more after moving to the Field Office, left NHRA last month, removing a big obstacle. Another Staff Drags ace, Jim Skelly, who put me on the sidelines more than once, also headed down the road. Not that there's not still plenty of talent over on Financial Way. NHRA Vice Presidents Peter Clifford, Gary Darcy, and Graham Light and Field Marketing honcho Eric Lotz all have individual wins.
The race runs on a bracket-racing-light format to level the field between the savvy among us and the novices: five-tenths Pro Tree (less red-lights) and a locked-in dial-in (less math). The defending champs set the rules for their defense, and as much as we'd love to go to a five-tenths full Tree or variable dial-ins, we're playing nice. We did change the format from being locked in to a dial-in produced by your quickest time trial to allow the racers to pick any dial they choose after time trials; you pick your dial and stick with it for the remainder of your racing, which makes for some challenging moments as many cars will either pick up or slow down as engine temperatures warm up, so it helps to understand your incremental times to figure out what you might need to do at the finish line if your car can’t run the number or is too quick. There's a great deal of teamwork, from pre-race "chalk talks" to between-rounds strategy sessions and the ever-growing cheering sections as racers are eliminated. Last year, someone across the street got a wild hair to get a sponsor, so we did too and brought the glory home to Jegs (thanks again, "Woody!"). Awards also are given for Quickest and Slowest Run and Best Package (which Debbie also won last time). It's fun stuff.
The strategy and planning began long ago. How much gas to put in your car at the beginning of the week so you have just enough for ballast but not too much to compromise braking come Thursday? How else can you better stack the odds in your favor? Turn off traction control. And the radio. Find a starting-line driving style and stick with it. What else can you do? Why, heck, I remember one staff member, who will remain anonymous except her initials are DP, and she was in the final in March, who once loaded bags of dog food in her trunk to act as removable ballast in case her car slowed. I don’t remember that working out well for her.
We have a heckuva team ready to defend our honor. No one knows bracket racing like Senior Editor Kevin McKenna, who's won it once and runner-upped three times, and Director of Advertising Sales Jeff Morton, who has a win and a runner-up (the latter to McKenna in another all-ND final), and we also have Top Alcohol Funny Car-licensed Brad Littlefield, regular late-round finishers like John Jodauga, and a host of budding and bracket-knowledgeable talent in our corner.
We're also eager to see how new staffer Kelly Wade will do … no pressure, rookie. Did I mention that I factor your Staff Drags performance into your annual salary review?
Monday, November 12, 2007
Monday morning mélange …
A little bit o' this and a little bit o' that for your Monday morning reading enjoyment. No theme, no strings ...
"I got hurt pretty bad," he wrote. "I broke some stuff on my left side starting with my little toe and working my way up to my hip, and I was laid up for about four months. The car it was junk; I couldn't save anything. Even the engine was scrap because the chute came out while I was rolling over and got sucked in while the engine was winding down. I never saw him coming; all I can remember is I saw black [the color of his car]; he was on me so fast I didn't have a chance to do anything. I was along for the ride."
Evegens retired from jet-car racing in 1995 after wheeling a car of jet-car pioneer Roger Gustin. Now 65, he dabbles a little in real estate, builds houses, and owns rental property. "Anything to make a buck and not have to work too hard to get it," he noted slyly. "I am doing okay, but I'm never gonna have that villa in the south of France. I will say one thing, and this goes for everyone who picks racing as a career: If we worked as hard at a regular job as we do at racing, we would all be CEO of some multimillion-dollar company, and we would have the villa. But, in true gearhead form, I wouldn't trade those times for anything."
"She gets to pick the car first; Daddy gets what is left," wrote Bloniasz. "She has become familiar with the drivers. She loves Ashley Force and attended her first national event in E-town this year. During the event, as a thanks for Ashley's autograph, she made her a card of thanks for Ashley on Sunday morning of the event."
Bloniasz later brought Kira a copy of the National DRAGSTER with Ashley's photo on the cover from our interview with the rookie of the year earlier this year, and Bloniasz ended up buying her a gift membership.
"When I told membership services she was 6, they asked if I wanted Jr. DRAGSTER. I stated no. The girl knows all the Pros and knows their rides and would not settle for anything but a full membership, so I bought her a year's subscription. Membership Services stated she may be the youngest member of the NHRA family at this point. As soon as she got the card welcoming her to the NHRA family, she asked Daddy for a piece of paper and drafted a thank-you note to me and had him mail it. She is quite the mature 6-year-old. She is now getting her younger sister interested, as Daddy's rule is Kaylynn cannot attend E-town unless she knows her drivers like Kira. That task is now under way in their household. I needed to share this with you as it makes me pretty happy to have someone that young not only be a fan, but now a member of this group."
Thanks, Jeff; I couldn't agree more. Maybe Kira is Force's next Next Generation driver?
Also, Dawn spent time with Roger Gorringe at the Hot Rod Reunion and wanted me to recognize Andy "Tog" Rogers, whose Eurodragster.com is one of the continent's top racing sites. Rogers also made the trip across the pond with Roger a few years ago to attend the reunion. At this year's Gathering of Geezers, a couple of teams from the United Kingdom were represented and made exhibition passes. "Roger was brimming with pride whenever I asked about them," she said. "I have a couple of photo montages that include them in my CHRR coverage at www.maziracing.com/07chrr/. The fans loved them!"
And finally, who are these Zogby poll people, and why do they clutter my inbox? Well, at least the other day they had something interesting to share. According to a recent poll, nearly one in four Americans say that the Internet can serve as a substitute for a significant other for some period of time. Not surprisingly, the percentage was highest among singles, of which 31 percent said it could be a substitute. Time to add a dating component to Geiger Counter, I guess.
But wait ... there's more. Ashley Force has one. Angelle Sampey, too. Not surprising then to find out from the Zogbyites that more than one in four Americans has a social networking profile on a site such as MySpace or Facebook. Among 18-24-year-olds, it’s almost mandatory: 78 percent of them report having a social networking profile.
Just a little more useless information to melt your brain. Happy Monday!
Friday, November 09, 2007
More from the unforgettable Finals
It never ceases to amaze me how inevitably I get asked at the Finals: "So, now that racing season's over, you guys finally get a break, huh?"
To which my response is … HUH?
That's akin to asking Greg Anderson, "So, you’re just gonna roll the Summit Pontiac into the trailer until the Winternationals, huh?"
As the old saying goes, "The job's not over until the paperwork is done," which in our case is a lot. Once we finish covering the Finals – no small feat this year – it's headlong into writing the champ profiles for all 11 drivers, the first five of which will be in the Pomona Sportsman issue, along with coverage of the Summit National Championship held at the event.
We'll spend the next three issues saluting the Pro and Sportsman champs, creating various posters honoring them, and publishing final points for '07 and schedules for '08, in addition to our usual assortment of feature stories. We'll wrap it all up with a monster year-in-review issue with everything from our popular year-end awards to the top 10 stories, great quotes, the year in photos, and more. We're also simultaneously working on the 2008 Fan Guide that will be completed around Christmas and which members will get free with their third issue next year (this year's theme: Experience the Power) and planning for 2008.
Comp has had a wonderful tradition that began in 1996 when outgoing season champ Sal Biondo autographed then turned over to newly crowned Bo Nickens the cool BMX-style number 1 plate that had adorned his pit bike that year. Nickens kept the tradition alive by signing it at the end of '96 and handing it off to Andy Manna Jr., who passed it on to Bob Andrews (who then had to hand it back to Manna the next year). Since then, it's been passed to Jerry Arnold (2000), Don Stratton (2001), Mike Saye (2002), Dean Carter (who got to keep it two years, 2003-04), Jeff Taylor (2005), Butner, and now Aragona. It's getting a little ratty, but it's cool to see the autographs, which are accompanied by the year and the class the champ won in.
It really means a lot to the Comp crowd. Recalls Arnold, "Andy saw me coming to his trailer and said, 'I know what you're here for. Guard this with your life as I am going to win it back!' "
He came out with his son, Jim, who works on Roger Bateman's Alcohol Funny Car, and I was able to get them on the starting line for a pair of Top Fuel qualifying runs during Friday's session. They were greeted warmly by Chief Starter Rick Stewart and enjoyed the thrill that only comes with just about having your eyes blown out of their sockets when sandwiched by two 8,000-horsepower monsters. Although he's been around fuel cars a long time, Kalb, whose brother Pete died several years ago, clearly was astounded by the amount of power generated by the modern cars. A great time was had by all.
"It just turned out awesome," she said. "That moment of silence before they fired the cars was amazing, It was just so quiet; I'd never heard that before at the racetrack, then the cars started firing, starting with the Isky roadster, and it just built and built, and I just lost it. I felt like the luckiest girl alive; three weeks ago I was in Bakersfield [at the Hot Rod Reunion] hanging out with James Warren and Gas Ronda, and now I'm here for this. I was laying in bed that night crying just reliving it; it's been that way all week."
Cindy also told me that Don Prudhomme had volunteered his Army car to be in the tribute and to even fire it himself, no small feat for a busy guy like him on a day he was racing for the championship. I also got some great comments about Prudhomme's involvement, including the aforementioned Arnold jokingly taking me to task for saying the engine had "steel" heads instead of cast iron (even though that's what everyone always called them); turns out he was an expert witness in a case involving cylinder heads a few years ago and several times had to correct one of the attorneys who kept saying "steel heads." Purists, these guys are, and the story has been "adjusted."
I also heard again from former Funny Car racer Frank Mancuso, who liked my line "they didn’t just drive 'em" in reference to Prudhomme's hands-on work with his cars in the 1970s.
"I remember Sunday at the 1980 Summernationals watching Prudhomme orchestrate a win by his sheer determination," he recalled. "After the first round, he scuffed a cylinder and used the puller to remove it. He pounded and pounded with the slide hammer, but the sleeve would not come out. He was sweating profusely in the hot, humid sun (no canopies then). After 20 minutes or so, he gave up and got an electric cylinder hone and honed it for another 20 minutes. He went on to win the next round, came back to the pits, and changed the engine, not such a small feat back then. He won the next round and went on to win the race. My team had already left as did the others and spectators, but I decided to park by Prudhomme and watch what he did after a win. No celebrating. He worked just as hard as the lowliest gofer on the team. Rebuilding, cleaning, loading drums of nitro. The track lights went out and everyone was gone, yet the work continued with drop lights and flashlights past midnight. How in the world could he be so motivated after working in the heat and driving? Sheer determination made him a legend."
Great imagery, Frank ... thanks!
The Finals was such an amazing race on so many levels it's hard to say it all. Between Monday's column, the "overall" story I wrote for DRAGSTER's Pomona coverage, and my Staging Light column on the same subject, I burned through more than 3,500 words, and I doubt I repeated myself. I could probably write another 3,500 … hey, don't dare me!
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