The second printing of Erik Arneson’s photo-enriched book John Force -- The Straight Story of Drag Racing’s 300-mph Superstar is an exciting but cautionary story into the life of a father, husband, and drag racer extraordinaire.
Thomas Watson, the longtime president of IBM, must have been cut from the same cloth as Force himself, once commenting that "the formula for success was to double your rate of failure."
As Arneson points out so well in his densely detailed book, Force was a highly unlikely candidate for success, yet he singlehandedly created the modern image and story of drag racing.
By populating quotes termed, "The Gospel According to John." throughout the pages, the reader gets to the heart of the man through such insights as Force declaring, "You can’t win every race. You learn how to lose (and) you’ll be a real winner. I had 10 years of losing, every week. I never came here to win. I came here because I loved it."
History is full of inspirational stories of achievement occurring through massive failures. Whether computers, drag racing championships, or any other enterprise, it would be the rare bird that flies to the pinnacle without enduring failure, challenges, and debilitating setbacks. Force over-achieved in failure to achieve success, and looks to continue indefinitely into the future.
Entrepreneur John Stacy, who literally woke up one morning with a totally unique solution for removing wallpaper, once said, "What you need for success is a maniac-on-a-mission." This is a crafty way of saying success requires a crystal-bullet focus on the undertaking combined with an almost maniacal approach. That being true, Force may be the poster boy of success.
His unique ability to communicate on camera and on the fan’s level with vibrant and catchy remarks is unparalleled in motorsports -- perhaps in any sport. This book is full of his years and years of utterances like this following account of an event early in his career:
Without a competitor’s license, John Force continued destroying parts, surprising himself and others with an accidental run of 200 miles per hour at one point, setting the Australian national speed record. But most runs weren’t nearly as spectacular, and (Gary) Densham continued helping him put the car back together again and again. "I blew the engine, the car caught on fire and stopped in a cow pasture! Me and Gary went to a junkyard (and) put the car back together."
Who else could have built a verbal movie of a crash in 15 words consisting of three short, colorful sentences? "Stopping in a cow pasture" is the kind of natural phraseology that just can’t be taught. Force has the gift to rant this way innately, without ever pausing to think about it – he does it off the top of his head. Arneson shares these unique gems liberally while detailing the life and times of John Harold Force.
And, of course, there is pain.
My heart kept hearing the Beach Boy’s classic song of loneliness, In My Room, when reading of Force’s childhood and background while, on the very same pages, taking in the sumptuous photography of his later drag racing verve. The Beach Boy's lyrics…
Do my dreaming,
And my scheming,
Lie a-wake and pray.
Do my crying,
And my sighing,
Laugh at yester-day.
…will have new meaning to you once you visit Force's most unique bedroom.
This bright, glossy book gives an uncensored, intimate and, at times, somewhat disturbing history of Force’s upbringing and pre-fame years. As Arneson commented, "John’s story is one of overcoming a sub-blue collar environment, including his irrational fear to this day of going back to the trailer park where he spent his youth."
The author treats Force with a lot of respect, as he is aware that his reliance on humor and non-stop chatter often overshadows his accomplishments. "I tried very hard to maintain a healthy respect for what has done, what he has accomplished," Arneson said. "I didn’t want to portray him as the clown prince of drag racing. He deserves better than that."
Without spoiling the rich detail in the book, let me just say that never again will one doubt that a massive lack of security in one’s formative years can be a driving angel of success. A reader will develop a new empathy and understanding for the heart and soul that makes up this man.
Force, phase two
Father’s Day is a stepson of a holiday to Mother’s Day; still there are many lessons written, preached, and argued on this occasion regarding the conflicts facing a man when he becomes a dad. By covering the continuing story of John Force, Arneson unveils in his narrative the cost of success in the world of motorsports behind the camera, lights, and glitzy world viewed on television. There is no sugar coating Force here or omitting family failures brought about through his singular focus to escape his insecurities.
These days his family gathers in the staging area to watch every launch down the drag strip. His daughters, his wife -- these are highly visible, beautiful women now. They have paid a price for his drive while simultaneously enjoying the bounty.
Obviously, success in motor racing is expensive, not necessarily just in the dollar and cents variety for the purposes of this Father’s Day tale. One example of the human cost in the book floored me. Slicing like a razor to the heart of the matter, this innocent remark displayed exactly how this lifestyle played out at home. Imagine the scene as a precious first grader, a little girl, Ashley, describes her dad to classmates as follows:
"She told them her daddy was a big-old green and white race car, and that she didn’t see him very often."
Ouch! Or, as John Force states in one of the "Gospel..." inserts:
"I really believe you can be a drag racer and be home to barbecue. But if you want to be a champion, you have to give up your life."
Force is not only a racing champion; he is a 14-time Funny Car champion.
The father Force is now catching up with his girls as Brittany and Courtney are racing in the "Force Racing Training Program" to attain, ultimately, pro licenses. Ashley, the oldest, is already there. She has caught the camera’s eye early and with her ability as a driver continuing to unfold, is now the second most recognized female motorsports driver only behind IRL’s spicy Danica Patrick. Ashley is a very good spokesperson, but no one would expect any of the family to match the Vesuvius-like voice of Dad.
Fans of John Force’s enthusiasm and ability to create excitement wherever he goes will enjoy discovering many secrets of his life in the book. Here is just a sample of what you will find:
-- Where Force’s famed lengthy burnouts came from (and the meaning behind them)
-- How Force enticed Austin Coil join this struggling team
-- What is his favorite meal. This is interesting because it is so far out in left field.
-- Why the names of the girls -- Ashley, Brittany, and Courtney -- were chosen; the answer is not what you will expect.
Add-ons for second printing
This second edition (with the bright red cover; the first was green) of John Force -- The Straight Story of Drag Racing’s 300-mph Superstar is up-to-date with the Force story and includes Ashley's blossoming pro career. With more family to join the professional ranks, Arneson is going to be very busy over the years following the Force circus.
Fans of drag racing should be grateful recipients of his effort. This realistic, inside look of the life and times of John Force, the good, the bad, and the ugly, is fascinating. Drag racing needs Force like golf needs Tiger Woods.
As Einstein once wrote, "Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason mastery demands all of a person."
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Much was said during the weekend broadcasts on ESPN2 about the 40th anniversary of Old Bridge Township Raceway Park. Starting anew, which this celebration seemingly accomplished, certainly was cathartic after last year’s tragedy.
ESPN2 handled the year after Scott Kalitta's crash in a tasteful yet powerful way. The opening long, smoky solo-burnout by Jeff Arend’s mustard yellow DHL Solara Funny Car sent a strong message the Kalitta's and the world of drag racing were back while simultaneously honoring Scott’s memory. The moment of silence at the track and on television was a wonderful and potent touch.
The Race Broadcast Show
Night Time Flames: We all love the replays of the Friday night qualifying during the broadcasts, showing the bright nitro flaming exhaust. This week featured Tony Schumacher’s night pass when he earned the No. 1 qualifying spot.
Hipness Factor: Mike Dunn quelled rumors to the contrary and proved he's "with it" by following a scene of John Force taking a picture with a fan and then trying to cure the Polaroid picture by moving it up and down. Dunn piped in with a lyric from a popular song a few years ago, "…shake it like a Polaroid Picture." If he had only said it was an Outkast tune he could have removed any doubt. In my case, I had to check with a daughter to remember the name.
Best Sunglasses: Anne Marie Krawiec interviewed early in Eddie’s day (he lost, but in the finals) talked about their courting days, meeting at Englishtown. She wore big, terrific shades.
Best Look: Angie McBride, Matt Smith’s fiancée, reacting on the starting line as Matt wins an early round.
NHRA Race Day Show
Are we Safer? Hosts Dave Rieff and Mike Dunn answered whether drag racing as a sport was safer one year after the Kalitta crash. They provided good and interesting detail like emphasizing the automatic shut-off that kills the ignition and deploys the parachutes. It was combined with a filmed example. What about going back to the quarter mile? Said Mike, "I’d like to see it, but we’re not there."
Match-up to Watch: Teammates John Force versus Robert Hight. How did it turn out? Crazy run as both went up in smoke early and pedaled from there -- Force with the win. FastNews reported in their written account, "This was ugly."
'Hammer:' Nickname for Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Hector Arana. He answered the question about how he was going to break his recent red-light habit with his mantra, "Green is my day!" He wasn’t red, but FastNews commented, "Arana was way late on the tree," in getting knocked out in the first round. In other words, he saw too much green.
Ron Krisher and Red Lights: No Hammer-type phrases here; he said has team has dealt with fouls by adjustments on the car. How did he do in the race? He did have two good lights on the day. Unfortunately, leaving on Jeg in Round 2, the eventual winner of the day, didn’t do any good.
No. 17 Qualifier: Highlighting those who come oh-so-close to making the Sunday eliminations, but miss by one measly spot. Only class to have more than a full field attempting to qualify in New Jersey was Pro Stock:
17. Dave Northrop, Nitro Fish Wear GXP, -.007 (No comfort in better speed than No. 16)
Highlighted Race: Warren Johnson and Johnny Gray, as No. 10 and11 in points, less than one round separates the two. What was the outcome? Gray won the light but Warren’s performance won the round, and the points, to stay in the top 10.
My Race of the Day: I selected Kalitta vs. Millican, as they were the first pair of the day after the Scott tribute, and the particularly poignant fact this would be the first Kalitta down the track since the 2008 tragedy here. Millican cut a good light, winning the round.
Best Line of the Weekend: By Don "the Snake" Prudhomme, during the interview on the dais, commenting on the rookies, said, "A lot of great, great talent is coming up in this sport."
Best Sign: As the Snake was interviewed a sign popped up behind him asking, "Hey, Snake! Give me a ride in your Mustang." Well, while we’re asking, can I get one, too?
Upset Alert: Massey versus Bernstein. Massy is 0-3 this year in this match-up, Mike Dunn explained, but with momentum after winning last week’s race, thinks he can come out on top in this match-up. Nope, Brandon goes forward and Massey goes home.
Deja Vu All Over Again: The description of the use of the "snout" on the front of Cory Mac’s car is interesting but isn’t this a repeat?
Best Scenic Picture: Downtown Englishtown, shot from the river, framed with blue sky.
Flight #1549: The "Harley Davidson Quarter Mile Profile" segment interviewed Top Sportsman driver Chris Rini, a passenger on the airplane that splashed down in the Hudson River in New York last winter. This was a riveting first-person account. A viewer felt every second he described. Note: he has won four times since that day.
8.2 Hours: No, this is not the record time for sitting in the stands without a bathroom break, rather a Lewis "Statman" Bloom special calculation of the track time it has taken to run all eliminations for the 40 years Englishtown has been staging NHRA drag races. Another example of how Lewis finds creative ways to use numbers to the fan’s advantage.
JEGS Allstar Broadcast from Chicago
Best Heart-Felt Answer: The interview with Frank Manzo was memorable. Plus he won his seventh JEGS Allstar event. When asked how he felt about it, he answered, "It gets better each time."
Best Camera Shots: All of the in-car television pictures were great in this broadcast, particularly the Super Comp races.
Best Car: No doubt about it, Greg Luneack’s wheel-standing SS/KA ’65 Nova station wagon was a popular hit with the cameras. Winning the class helped, too. Toward the end of the broadcast there was a great camera shot of a white helmeted Greg looking out the driver’s window as he approached finish line, looking for his opposition.
Best Helmet: Travis Prudhomme with his Super Comp dragster had his helmet topped off with a Mohawk hairdo. And brightly colored, too. That’s a first! Wait until helmet painting sensation, Tony Pedregon, adds this detail to his nitro collection.
Sportsman Recognition: More drivers spoke of not getting a lot of recognition in the Sportsman classes and deeply appreciate the JEGS Allstar Event for the coverage it stimulates. Media Matters agrees, as does go2geiger.com with its coverage, and also agrees these races aren’t followed by enough media. We are happy to help highlight these broadcasts because we thoroughly enjoy Sportsman racing and the drivers, teams, and support personnel who make up the classes. Some of the coolest looking cars at an event are displayed in the Sportsman pits. If you aren’t doing this when at a race, take the time to wander around and check them out. Find one you like and cut them a check as a sponsor, too. A few grand goes a long way for a lot of these teams.
Best Food: A delicious picture of Chicago’s famous deep-dish pizza baked fresh at the track.
Best Front-Wheels-Up Launch: There were terrific slow-motion viewings of Robbie Shaw and his A/SA 2001 Firebird carrying the frontend high and long after every race start. These launches make for great television viewing.
David vs. Goliath Matchup: As described by hosts Dave Rieff and Bob Frey, the Steve Harker/Frank Manzo Top Alcohol Funny Car final was definitely a big one. Goliath Manzo won, making him a "Double-Up Champion" with an even bigger check from JEGS. How did Manzo react? By finishing his comments off camera with, "Did you see I almost hit a seagull during the run?"
By the way, Super Gas racer Mike Sawyer also won the Double-Up bonus.
2010: Even more classes will be featured in the JEGS Allstars race moving forward. These are exciting races. Fans who are not putting this race on their calendars are missing some of the closet and most exciting drag racing around. Plus, one can easily identify with the driver’s enthusiasm.
Special Note: Be sure to check back this weekend for a special Father’s Day edition of Media Matters with many lessons for dads of all ages.
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NHRA race broadcasts are stepping out of the shadow of their circle track cousins and earning new fans by playing to drag racing's dramatic strengths.
A viewer may have been startled as I was at the direct assault on other forms of auto racing as the final eliminations broadcast opened at Route 66 Raceway. It has seemed NHRA television had to use kid gloves if any references or comparisons were made to sports like circle track (yes, the Big Boys). Drag Racing on television has many advantages over other forms of motor racing; I feel capable (emboldened?) of postulating this assessment as a fan of all and have watched, attended, or listened to countless events of all flavors.
It just seems drag racing fits an action-oriented, fast-paced temperament with its continuing and building excitement round after round. The level of anticipation grows until the final pair remains and the winner of each pro class is jubilantly determined. Additionally the sport has the best form of race qualifying, week in and week out, than any other motor sport, exceeded only by the qualifying days for the Indianapolis 500. ESPN2 broadcaster Paul Page is also an authority on the Indy race.
He weighed in on NASCAR by pointing out a Top Fuel engine has more horsepower than the top four rows of Daytona combined along with other similar comparisons. I almost fell out of my seat as it seems NHRA drag racing may be coming out of its shell relative to NASCAR and is ready (needing?) to absorb fans and viewers who are tired of the tedium of circle races – excepting tracks like Daytona, Bristol, and Talladega. Now the comments were not inflammatory or derisive, but they seemed to show the sport may be ready to challenge the Big Boy, something akin to the Target Corporation taking on Wal-Mart stores and succeeding by emphasizing their differences.
Remember the line from the character Billy Flynn in the movie "Chicago?"..."This trial...the whole world...it's all...show business."
Here are my observations from the weekend:
Best '60 Minutes' on Television: These NHRA Sportsman rebroadcasts, generally on the Sunday following the race day, are thoroughly entertaining with hosts Dave Rieff and the effervescent Bob Frey. The viewer audience for these broadcasts may be less than the Pro version but the excitement of drag racing comes through each show. The next scheduled broadcast is June, 14 at 12:30 p.m. just following the "RaceDay" show for that weekend (which starts at a later noon slot that day).
Team Look-of-the-Day: Nothing like winning to create family excitement but the Harker family with their color coordinated red/yellow Funny Car team outfits along with flowing blond hair of mother and daughter really attracted the cameras. Plus they got to celebrate a win as dad Steve captured his fourth Wally.
Smart Call: In the semifinals of Top Alcohol Dragster, Bob Frey emphasized the plain-jane look of Tom Conway’s dragster belied its performance. He was correct as Conway won the semifinal matchup against Dan Kracht driving the Randy Meyer Racing A/FD.
What a Shock!: David Rampy, a multi-time winner here and a 70 event winner overall, redlighted by -.006 leading Fast News to comment, "Oops!"
Best Signs: Well, it’s hard to find anything that would surpass the sign exclaiming "Hello, Mom and Peacock," but I’ll try. How about a sign ribbing the good-natured host, Mike Dunn, utilizing a line from a popular Castrol ad, "That’s thinking with your Dipstick, Dunn!"
Highlighted Pairings: No upset alerts were selected but the following first round races were noted:
Cory Mac versus the returning "Hot Rod" Fuller: Fuller won. (In the Topeka Sportsman broadcast his dad redlighted in the finals of his class)
Tony Pedregon versus Ron Capps: No. 1 qualifier versus the No. 1 in points, noted as a "Big, big" matchup by Mike Dunn. Pedregon showed dominance this round and day as he won the class.
Why Dan Wilkerson Will Be a Star: Standing with his Funny Car racing dad, both holding Full Throttle Original Flavor cans, Dan was sipping away while on camera. It’s smart to enjoy the title sponsor’s beverage.
Best Line: As guests on the stage, Tim and Dan Wilkerson were two of the year’s best. The line that got my attention was: "Wilkerson, if P.T. Barnum ever dies, you can run the Circus," referring to Tim’s introduction of the second funny car, piloted by Dan, at Topeka. Now, if they had only brought some goodies to pass out for the Race Day crowd, an action that always generates fan excitement and goodwill.
Blog-O-Sphere: The television programs throughout the day made a point of keeping up with what was filling the blogger’s minds.
Moment of the Race: Stunning upset of Tony Schumacher’s Army dragster in the first round, ending his streak of first round victories, led by No. 16 qualifier and previous without-a-round win in Top Fuel, Terry Haddock in his unsponsored dragster. FastNews reminded us after writing about how Tony had a great qualifying effort and Terry just barely made the field, "they don't race on paper." Exactly!
First Round Key Matchup: Mike Dunn highlighted Ashley Force’s Castrol Funny Car match-up with Jack Beckman’s Valvoline Funny Car. Not too much question once they got under way with Ashley going on, eventually, to the finals.
17. John Lawson, Tek Pak Funny Car, .071 (Bumped out)
17. Tim Cullinan, Top Fuel dragster, .049 (Never cracked top 16)
17. Redell Harris, Master P/No Lmt Rec Suzuki, .005 (Never in qualifying field)
17. Steve Spiess, Spiess Construction Cobalt, .005 (In on first try; missed show by tiny margin, but wins 17th qualifier tie-breaker)
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Paul Page expertly set the tone for the Thunder Valley race coverage by opening the qualifying television broadcast Saturday night with, "This is where thrills happen."
The weekend, although threatened by dire weather forecasts, produced some of the best racing and excitement of the season with thrills like:
-- John Force and Jack Beckman’s incredible near-miss as Force crossed over to the other lane. Fast News’ real time reporting on the NHRA result’s page exclaimed, "Oh, wow! Scary!"
-- Larry Dixon hitting his 500th round victory in the first round only to be inexplicably late on the launch in the second pass.
-- Cory McClenathan earning the No. 1 qualifying spot in Top Fuel, rectifying his horrible crash three years ago, only to find himself crossing the finish in Round 1 trailing flames so high the broadcast team described it as "looking like the Space Shuttle."
-- Pro Stock winner Mike Edwards executing a remarkable .000-second launch for a lap that set the track E.T. record, and in the process, reminding all how close drag racers can edge to the anguish of defeat, yet find victory. There’s not a whole lot of room for error when notching a perfect light.
There was so much to watch and learn that getting up at 2 a.m. to watch the ESPN2 rerun on Wednesday morning will seem easy. Right?
Here are my observations from the weekend:
Rickie Jones' sharp-looking Quarter-Max Dodge.
Side-by-Side Burnouts: "I’m a big fan of them," said Mike Dunn. Guess what? So are fans. Race day mindsets would be expected to be different, but it seems that some teams under certain circumstances could coordinate their qualifying round burnouts to make them dualies.
University of Drag Racing: There was an obvious emphasis this weekend, between rounds to educate viewers on the operation of dragsters and the terms of drag racing. These explanations were quite interesting as the pieces provided details appealing to an enthusiast and presented them in interesting ways.
For example, the explanation covering the exact location and number of fire extinguishers in a Funny Car. Wow, I never knew there were that many. Mike Dunn gave the driver’s view with his quip, "Several times in my career those bottles become your best friend."
Another instruction during the qualifying show had announcers explaining the meaning of density altitude and what its reading of 3,300 feet for Saturday meant. It became very apropos during Sunday’s race when it cooled off. For the comparison, the density altitude had plummeted to something near 1,600 feet. This created wonderful conditions for top speeds, times, traction, and other challenges unforeseen by crew chiefs and drivers.
Best Tattoo: Tim Wilkerson’s crew member, propping up the Funny Car body during the staging work for a qualifying round, was caught by sharp ESPN2 cameras displaying an arm tatted with colorful flames resembling those painted on dragsters. It looked especially cool in High Definition.
Best Looking Car: Rickie Jones’ Quarter-Max Stratus only earned one pass on race day yet the flames detailed on the body, roof, hood, and scoop with the blue and yellow paint background were startling bright, standing out, and winning Best Looking Car at the Thunder Valley Nationals.
17th Qualifiers: Our event-by-event feature noting those who missed by one spot making the Sunday show in each Pro Class, ranked in order of how close they were. This week’s list contained some surprises:
17. Robert Hight, Auto Club Mustang, -.596 second (FastNews said it best: "Had terrible weekend.")
17. Spencer Massey, U.S. Smokeless Dragster, -.111 (Painfully bumped out.)
17. Dave Northrop, Nitro Fish Wear Stratus, -.015 (A few ticks off in tough class.)
Race Day Show Crowd: It was a very peppy with plenty of Tennessee hill country characters parading in the audience. I liked the T-shirt one fan had that was imprinted with an image of Dave Rieff and Mike Dunn on their NHRA Race Day stage.
Fram's Cory McClenathan lights up the Bristol night.
Mark Marquette photo
Thunder Valley Location: Mike Dunn put it best when he said, "One of the best settings in drag racing, only Bandimere can compare." He further pointed out, "I love the night time racing here, the first one of the year."
Highlighted Race Picks: It’s hard enough just winning a round of drag racing, much less predicting winners. Mike Dunn adds an increased level of drama to a lap when he highlights a pairing during broadcasts, whether naming it "Matchup of the Day," "Upset Alert," or other classification. I wish he would name both a "Matchup" and "Upset" for each Pro Class, maybe even doubling up if the pairings and situation demands. It certainly is entertaining.
On Brandon Bernstein, Dunn said he "has a good shot at it." Brandon made it to the semifinals before falling to eventual winner Tony Schumacher. Result: decent pick.
Dunn had Rodger Brogdon’s Charter GXP picked over Kurt Johnson’s ACDelco Cobalt. Kurt won the round leading Dunn to quip, "I’m 0-for-a-million!"
As for the Force/Beckman, "a great matchup," Dunn said. After nearly colliding at high speed, boy was he ever right.
Two Full Throttle Commercials: The first, continuing their theme of black and white race images, was accompanied with Jazzy Blues music. The other, which I believe is termed "Portraits," is accompanied by a snazzy rendition of the oldie, "Blue Moon." This series of commercials by the title sponsor are generating notoriety for their ability to lock an emotional connection with the viewer.
Most Unusual Qualifying Run: Dunn roaring down the drag strip . . . on his bicycle. In a continuing series of comparisons of E.T. it takes for a dragster to complete a pass versus other forms of locomotion, Dunn demonstrated how it would be to race a bike in the quarter mile. Instead of E.T., a new term, H.R. for heart rate, was measured with Mike finishing with a 164. Getting to that heart rate level reflects his work at conditioning while training for a 200-mile bike endurance road race in August. Too bad Whit Bazemore, another active cyclist, isn’t still racing as we could have had a great pairing.
Good Example of Great Production: After any number of early round Funny Cars had trouble getting down the track on race day, suffering tire shake or smoke, the production team put together an assemblage of clips of earlier runs in the day to help the on-air broadcasters visually make the point. That’s on-the-ball work by the team in the ESPN trailers.
On-The-Spot Reporter: Ace cameraman Dana Sherman broke in the broadcast giving instant information that a spill was the reason Matt Hagan’s Shelor.com Charger was being pushed off the line and would not be making the lap. Dana then lugged the big camera over and showed us, up close and personal, the big puddle of churned-up oil left in their wake. This real-time, inside info is great to have.
Best Dressed Award: Thanks to the attentive sharp eyes of the ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD cameras, Jessica Horne, PSM rookie sensation Doug Horne’s sister, was noted while strolling with him. I would describe her outfit as sensational hot weather apparel accompanied with big heels. She is my first two-time winner of this award of the still young season.
If David McGee's book, Bristol Dragway, contained nothing more than the foreword by Kenny Bernstein, it's still worth buying; his account is that good. Fortunately, there is so much more to learn and love about the storied times of Bristol Dragway.
Having been there for much of the ride, McGee is the perfect writer to scribe this track's epic history.
Living in Eastern Tennessee, and photographing and announcing at the strip since the early 1980s, McGee has a unique perspective on all things Bristol, also known as Drag City USA and Thunder Valley. Combining his personal collection with images from the historical galleries of Bristol Dragway and some of the most famous photographers in the sport has yielded a snappy, page-turning exploration into the world of drag racing at this most unique setting. As McGee describes, "This is such a special place with the exhaust cackles echoing throughout the valley."
The complex was built into a Tennessee mountain valley, surrounded by more mountains, valleys and forests. From the effort of enormous digging, blasting, and hauling along with great entrepreneurial dreaming, this drag strip rose, literally, from the earth. The result bestowed a distinctive crown of racing splendor on the grounds, a setting unparalleled on the globe for a race compound that also includes the famous Bristol Motor Speedway.
"(The drag strip) is not built on flat ground like the airport-type locations of most race tracks," McGee added. All of this is chronicled in the book along with stories like the real reason the special "curve" was originally built into the shutdown area.
Resembling a reverse shift in time, readers will recognize some of the top names in the sport as they looked and dressed back in the day. On one page there’s a side-burn toting Don Schumacher, looking younger while winning the 1971 Spring Nationals than his son Tony appears today.
Sporting a white shirt and skinny tie, a youthful Wally Parks, NHRA founder, is photographed just shortly after the announcement in the early 19060s that Bristol would become the NHRA's marquee event. The Bristol race, the third event on the original national tour along with Pomona and Indy, earned its spot as a significant historical event in the annals of drag racing.
Richard Petty (yes, THAT Richard Petty) is seen in a rare drag racing photo standing proudly with his hemi-powered Barracuda in the staging lanes in one shot.
Another favorite is a full-page classic of Linda Vaughn, "Miss Hurst Shifter," looking blond, bawdy, and beautiful in her trademark boots for the rapt 1970s race crowd. Still impressing throngs decades later, she was recently honored as SEMA's Person of the Year.
This is a breezy, entertaining volume for an enthusiast. Each page is packed with some of the best in black and white competition images. In all, there are nearly 200 photographs in the book, giving this edition one of the fullest collections of historical drag racing images available.
McGee selected each one, a tough job when having to filter through many deserving entries, so one knows these are top shelf.
"I can tell you I looked at between 8,000 and 10,000 images as the book evolved," McGee said.
Among McGee's favorites photographs is one of the "Vulcan Shuttle" jet-powered Volkswagen as it ran a lap at Bristol in what McGee remembers as "an amazing performance…the green fog it spewed out hung in the valley forever, it seemed."
He also liked the "Code of Arms" Camaro captured with its characteristic spinning, twisting start. "This car was very meaningful to me because I got to know the team so well back then," McGee said.
This volume includes many episodic events – every page has images to be relished and digested for the memories and information they include fashioned by McGee's street-level writing honed from years of print journalism at the Bristol Herald Courier.
Here's a factoid from the book that would make a great question on the NHRA Race Day broadcast from the Thunder Valley Nationals: What make Funny Car did Mike Dunn drive to a win and a national speed record of 270.27 mph at his very first Bristol appearance? (See the end of this article for the answer.)
It's enjoyable meeting teams and drivers at the races so readers should use this book as a guide to understand how each group evolved. Plenty of surprises are between the covers of Bristol Dragway like the photo of a lanky Conrad Kalitta standing in his front-engine Top Fuel dragster just after setting a national speed record at the first Bristol NHRA event.
This book was so packed with stuff it left no time for the reader to ever get bored as they anticipate what's coming next.
In the regular Media Matters column after each NHRA event, I always try to recognize the No. 17 qualifiers -- the first competitors NOT to make the 16-car field in each Pro class. Keeping that in mind, I asked McGee to provide the last two photos not making the cut in his book, narrowly getting bumped out of publication. His No. 17 qualifiers, if you will.
Here are his selections, shown for the first time: "The Richard Tharp-Blue Max vs. Leroy Goldstein-Ramchargers shot (accompanying photo) was probably the last image bumped out of the Funny Car chapter. Technically, it may not be a great photo, but the era it evokes -- from the first IHRA Spring Nationals -- and the fact those cars were so cool made it tough to kick out."
"The Warren Johnson shot (accompanying photo) lost out to an earlier image of him sitting on the ground waiting to make a run in 1989, primarily because this one was vertical and the earlier image fit the horizontal space. The vertical was to run on the opposite page, but I wanted to squeeze in the more recent photo of his son Kurt Johnson, given his success at Bristol."
Bristol Dragway: An owner's guide
A suggestion on the best way to continue enjoying this book long after reading the commentary and viewing the photographs -- bring it to the drag races with a Sharpie pen and get the drivers, crew chiefs, officials, and others shown in the book to autograph their pictures. I bet they will be happy to remember those earlier days reflected in the photos.
Keep in mind a portion of the proceeds fro the sales of this book will be donated to the Bristol chapter of Speedway Children's Charities, which supports child-centered programs at health and human service agencies in East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
The book is readily available at www.arcadiapublishing.com and many online bookstores. Fans attending this weekend's race at Bristol can get an autographed copy from the author at several different times throughout the weekend. McGee also is working on another project, still under wraps, with a timetable of 2011.
Now I'm off to get my autograph collection started...does anyone know where Linda Vaughn might be?
(Answer to Mike Dunn quiz: Defeating Mark Oswald in the finals, the Pisano Oldsmobile won the Funny Car title at the 1987 Spring Nationals.)
"Three brothers and their passion," is how The Justice Brothers Story terms this chronicle, and it delivers in spades. Fortunately, it's available for all to see on DVD.
From a background where their father, H. M. Justice, an auctioneer, like any self-employed professional today, working day-in and day-out, developing and promoting his business, the brothers inherited an entrepreneurial flame in their core.
No guarantees of success, no assurances, no safety net under them, theirs was a do-it-yourself attitude -- the best education possible from the university of the "Real World."
But it was Anna Justice, their mother, who provided the oxygen to the flame that led to the Justice Brothers roaring success, now extending to a new generation for the family with Ed Justice Jr. leading the way.
"She was really the inspiration for us to be mechanical," recalls Ed Justice Sr.
Her encouragement -- as Ed said, "she made us" -- was the kindling that fed the fire leading to the youngsters running their own bicycle shop, where they did repairs and painted frames. Decades later they thought up and developed the global automotive chemicals and car care product's company, Justice Brothers Inc., consumers know today.
As the DVD tells, mom got them "rooted in their life long passion for all things automotive." All of this was a combination of hard work, ingenuity, family traits, and in the best traditions of America, the result of a Mother’s love and a Father’s example.
Zeke Justice recalls how the first sign advertising the Justice Brothers -- nailed to a big Maple tree in their childhood home in Paola, Kansas -- promoted the bicycles the boys built. The entrepreneurial spirit and corporate structure that would serve them well for a lifetime was already budding as Zeke built the bikes, brother Ed painted, striped, and promoted them, and Gus took care of the books. They prospered by renting and selling their bikes to townspeople.
An observer can deduct from images in the movie these were not ordinary bikes. A favorite is shown with three different headlights plus a horn mounted on the makings of a sophisticated front-end setup, perhaps the world’s first hot rod bicycle.
The tipping point
If one ever needs a reason, or excuse, to get a session at one’s favorite form of motorsports, take the example of the impact a visit to a midget car race in Kansas City had on the Justice sons. Immediately after viewing the event, they began researching all mechanical steps relating to building a midget race car themselves.
Mom may have protested somewhat because they pasted an entire wall full of pictures trimmed from 1930 editions of Popular Mechanics magazine, tacking them directly into the wall. Nevertheless, she let them do it, with the result being that her sons woke up daily to those images, consequently stoking their imagination and dreams to the point where they realized -- "We can do that!" Sure enough, they secured plans, and lo and behold, built their first midget racecar.
From that experience and process, the Justice’s knowledge of all things mechanical exploded. The lesson the viewer can take from this is that one should never miss a chance to expose their children and themselves to new experiences, ideas, and fresh thinking, for one never knows what paths they may lead.
Many of the interests children exhibit in the pivotal elementary and high school years come to fruition in some form in their lives. In an example of this, Zeke would repair cars and engines for locals because of his curiosity about them, not charging a cent, all the time getting an Ivy League-equivalent degree in the real world of mechanics, an education that would serve him extremely well over a lifetime.
That Anna and H.M. let their boys do these things and have these experiences, cultivating their imaginations, is a good lesson for all parents when their offspring want to explore diverse interests versus what mom and dad might prefer. Like the boys’ reputation at the time for being a little on the "wild side," a reputation earned by revving and wrecking racecars in their neighborhood. Today’s equivalent might be video gamers, who spend what might seem to be an inordinate amount of time with Internet fantasy, but then go out and create multimillion-dollar online games.
This story is intended to be a history of the Justice Brothers, and it gloriously accomplishes that in an entertaining mix of interviews, photos, and discovery.
But the real payoff in this film is much more profound. This is an All-American success story recapitulated as a grass roots education for those who want emulate the Justice Brothers success in life as entrepreneurs and family men, all the while striving and thriving on a larger global stage.
When you play the DVD, watch for these underlying themes:
Do What You Want To Do In Life: After initially training and working in various jobs, all of which were critically important to their life’s triumphs, the brothers secured a franchise in the oil additives business, moved across the country to their first territory, and with few resources hustled to begin a meteoric rise with their distributorship.
Network: These affable men made friends everywhere as you will understand when enjoying their experiences in the DVD. People they met along the way in their business dealings came back to assist them one way or another. They didn't just show up at a reception and exchange business cards, as is common in today’s networking gatherings, the brothers perfected the art of helping others get what they wanted, which ultimately helped them get what they wanted.
Promote, Promote, Promote: They pasted their decals on racecars everywhere, and when they found an outstanding competitor, like drag racing’s Don Garlits, they did not sit in some random office tower somewhere waiting for Garlits to come to them and make a presentation. They used initiative, went to him, and asked how they could get involved, thus beginning a long and valuable relationship. What a concept! This is a critical lesson many fail to grasp.
Risk Takers: The Justice Brothers put everything they owned in a few station wagons, a couple of trailers, pack up the families, and take off cross-country to begin anew. And they did this more than once. The DVD demonstrates how they reached for the brass ring of accomplishment in a way that encourages all to follow.
Visualization: As Ed emphatically states, "The opportunity is there if you’ll just put your thinking cap on and figure out what you need to do to make it work." Reread this maxim a few times; it is the essence of entrepreneurism no matter the endeavor.
Work: What an ethic they exhibited -- work all day, come home for supper, then repair customer's racecars until the middle of the night, day after day. Without complaint, "That was our routine."
To purchase DVD, click here.
How To Become Driven: Ed, Sr., vigorously recalls, "We just don’t want to be one of the regular companies, we want to be the best! And to strive to be the best, that’s where the drive comes in."
No Fear Of Losing: There are no guarantees of success, of course, but there are markers that improve the chances. As Zeke stated, "We had an idea, we wanted to pursue that idea, and we just went to work doing it." The one axiom of an initiative is that it will never get off the table without effort, without action, to make it happen.
The Justices are so genial that their drive and mental toughness seems easy to emulate. It isn’t; the brothers had setbacks and calamities. Their example can be imitated by initiative, personal commitment, and seizing risk. Ed summarized, "Whether or not you got the gold ring or not, you always had hopes that someday I’ll grab that gold ring and they’ll talk about us."
Now is that "someday" and The Justice Brothers Story DVD, featuring the lives of Zeke, Ed, and Gus, fulfills Ed’s dream of "talking about us." Enjoy the movie as a chronicle of the brother’s lives now they have all died with Ed passing in 2008.
Visit the extensive website at www.justicebrothers.com for lots more, particularly in the racing museum pages. Importantly, soak up the real joy of this film -- the history of an American dream come true. No humbler understatement can be made on their remarkable achievements than Ed’s closing remark, "I think we’ve won that position . . . at least I hope we have."
SPECIAL OFFER ONLY TO GO2GEIGER.COM READERS:
Justice Brothers Inc. is making a special offer for www.go2geiger.com readers only! When you order any JB product, merchandise, and/or DVD (look under the collectables tab) at www.justicebrothers.com and enter this code -- JBDVD -- you will receive $4 off the normal shipping cost. This offer is good through September 5, 2009.
Photos courtesy of the Justice Brothers.
The viewing audience for the NHRA race broadcasts is lucky to have a crack production team for ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD always working, always stretching, to create better telecasts. They never seemed satisfied with just the status quo, thank goodness.
The innovations in broadcasting these events make the NHRA race shows can’t-miss programming for television as the seemingly small refinements or additions as the season progresses are having huge payoffs in programming quality.
First, there was the unique side angle view of the starting line launch with the camera placed with enough elevation to see both competitors’ cars as they launched.
Wow, was that great or what? Shot from the left side, the image also contained the corner Christmas Tree box showing the lights and driver reaction times from the get-go. This is a view many fans attending the race want -- that’s why they buy their seats so close to the starting line -- so it is natural that a similar view for the television audience would be so exciting too.
Next the slack time as the cars back up and stage -- a pretty ordinary few moments now is often juiced with a half-screen live shot of action in the pits. It's very cool. On Sunday they showed Tony Schumacher's team scrambling to recover from an engine explosion and then later, Brandon Bernstein's group preparing for another lap in their quest to win one last time in departing sponsor Budweiser’s hometown.
I have noted over the season many of the advances in these broadcasts, like having mobile cameraman on the start line, the talented Dana Sherman, break in with quick news, or Lewis Bloom, a.k.a. StatMan, add a quick, relevant historical statistic, or the quad shot of four teams simultaneously readying for the semi’s to name a few. The point is innovation is alive and well in America as demonstrated in these weekly broadcasts.
I wager the ESPN2 production crew will continue to work at finding opportunities to add more action when appropriate.
Now, on to the NHRA Race Day Show:
Karamesines inspires at 79.
Roger Richards, CompetitionPlus.com
Living to 100: John Force has it right when he talked during an interview about turning 60 and living to 100. What he didn’t realize, and something I want to touch on, is this: If adulthood starts at age 20, then reaching the 60th birthday is 40 years of living. Plenty of us born at about the same time as John Force and the 10s of millions since do have a decent shot of reaching the century mark. That’s another 40 years, a second lifetime of years! In other words, John Force (and all of us for that matter) has a chance to relive his entire life all over again, starting at age 60.
Think of it. Now one can make new mistakes and trustfully avoid many of the old ones from the first time around. Turning 60 is something to look forward to, not dread. How we best use this "new" lifetime is a worthy subject that I relish speaking about.
Hopefully John Force, and many others, can follow Chris Karamesines example in his Strange/Chizler dragster, making St. Louis' field at the age of 79, which age would have been unthinkable for a racer back when "The Greek" started his career. Probably as recently as his last round win, too, as the great resource at NHRA, FastNews, reported that was 1990. Karamesines lost Sunday’s first round to Cory McClenathan’s Fram Dragster in an interesting start, as FastNews dryly put it, "It looked like the biggest holeshot in history until we realized that the Greek hadn't waited for the tree to start."
Best Signs: Karamesines himself scored a sign from Palo, Iowa, which happens to be near where Duffy’s Car lot sits, with a signpost featuring a pink Cadillac convertible hoisted on top of a gigantic clock, something everyone needs to see, of course.
Then “Squid Racing, Hopkinsville, Kentucky” was at the show celebrating a wedding anniversary, a perfect way to start another year of marital bliss.
Finally, some signs aren’t on boards or banners, they’re just there as the ESPN cameras zoomed in on a trio of very attractive women race fans in the audience.
Upset Alert: I didn’t hear one so I immediately went to the pairings to identify what I would choose if I were playing Mike Dunn. I chose the Larry Dixon vs. Joe Hartley pairing as Dixon has a short-term jinx on attaining his 500th round win and Hartley, who had never beaten Dixon, was owed one. Dixon will have to work on getting that career mark in Bristol as FastNews once again said with great understatement, "(Dixon’s) record (against Hartley) is not perfect any longer."
The Race Broadcast:
Great Fashion: Snappy sky blue tie for announcer Paul Page and commentator Mike Dunn’s black on black with a sharp yellow tie was a look to emulate.
Best Dressed: Thanks to heads-up camera work by ESPN 2, we were all introduced to Jessica Horne, sister of Pro Stock Motorcycle rookie sensation, Doug Horne, in the second round.
Sounds of the Track: Including the noise of the race event with unique visuals is what sets this ESPN2 feature apart from just the standard "race cars being loud" one often gets on an automotive broadcast. For example, as the pipes were pumping big sound, heat, and exhaust from what appeared to be Cruz Pedregon’s Funny Car (possibly it was Jim Head’s), the camera on the line focused in on a smiley face etched on the metal.
Then, best of all, during this segment was a quick tour through the control truck and the conglomeration of screens, action, and direction going on in there as the dedicated group who sort through these images we are privileged to see were hard at work. One can tell it is Showtime in there as the focus and intensity on the work was 100 percent.
Best Driver Of The Day: In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Mike Dunn clearly illustrated the effort Angie McBride was making, shifting off her NitroFish/MSR/Redline Oil Buell on one side to get it back in the groove, then sliding over to the other to correct that, all while accelerating to 187 mph and making it to the semifinals.
The Loneliest Number: The race-by-race list of those who won the worst spot in qualifying, number 17, one notch short of the top 16 earning a spot in the Sunday race day eliminations, often missing by just inches. How did this week go?
Scott Palmer, The Compound Dragster, missed by 0.261 (just needed another run)
Mike Berry, MB Machining LAT Racing Oil Buell, missed by 0.109 (needed another run, too)
David Beckley, Mountain View Tires Stratus, a painful 0.007 (this rates as "ouch")
No Funny Car winners in this week’s group as their were only 16 cars entered, not a good sign at all
Special Editions: Okay, drag race enthusiasts, watch for a special Mother’s Day edition of Media Matters and a special pre-Bristol edition, too.
A new generation of drag racers emerged in Atlanta and now threatens to begin a transition of dominance unseen in the sport in more than a decade.
Mike Dunn and Dave Rieff covered this topic extensively on NHRA Race Day -- that the story of the weekend was 'rookiefied' when Spencer Massey in his US Smokeless dragster led Top Fuel for the No. 1 spot while Matt Hagan’s Shelor.com Charger and Doug Horne’s Buell were knocking on the door in Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle, respectively. As they said, "We’ve never seen such a crop (of rookies)."
Of course, the trend didn't start this weekend -- the battles for change actually have been underway for a while, beginning most notably in the Force camp with new names like Robert Hight and Ashley Force Hood stepping forward in recent years to brandish the banner. Some traditional names are seemingly tired, unable to grab another Wally, while sponsorships lag or are dropped altogether. New names are surging forward, tomorrow’s future today, to keep this sport growing, evolving, while avoiding the doldrums.
Indeed, baseball is not the only sport where "There is no crying," but the difference with drag racing is that boredom won’t be tolerated. The next generation has arrived. Morgan Lucas won his first Wally in Atlanta in a pedalfest with Massey along with Eddie Krawiec edging Horne in the bike final, all part of the new generation of drag racers.
Celebrate it, embrace it, because this crop will not march away. It has happened before in the sport, it will happen again. Hopefully we are all here to see it the next time around. But one can say this: drag racing, never, ever will be dull.
Now, on to the musings of the NHRA Race Day Show:
Biggest Disappointment: Dave Rieff and Mike Dunn make it obvious in case the rest of us missed the fact that some preseason names have, at this quarter mark of the season, failed to impress. They particularly noted Funny Car champion Cruz Pedregon and runner-up Tim Wilkerson. They continue to frustrate their fans along with themselves, no doubt, with multiple early-round failures.
'Long Time Coming': Continuing the rookie trend, the show pointed out how long it has been since notable teams like Brandon Bernstein, Warren Johnson, and John Force’s personal car have won a race. Cunningly, they got to this point by referencing the victory the night prior in Arizona for Mark Martin in his first NASCAR win in years, a popular win for an old timer and a reputed nice guy.
Speaking Of W.J.: Gary Gerould did a nice job in his interview with the naturally reticent, to put it mildly, Warren Johnson. Give Warren credit – he does not overstate or overpromise. He gives refreshing clinical analysis of his car, the pass he just completed, or whatever's he's asked about.
Flame Job Of The Weekend: Todd Paton in his Tim Horton dragster came out for his first run of the day in Round 2 qualifying, made the field, and won "best flames" in the process. As FastNews described it, Todd "lit it up" crossing the finish line. Unfortunately, his time didn’t hold through Saturday’s laps.
17th Qualifiers: The race-by-race list of those who won the worst spot in qualifying, No. 17, one notch short of the top 16 earning a spot in the Sunday show. Often by inches. How did this week go?
Andy Kelley, Serenity Limousine Funny Car, -.191 (kept Del Worsham in program)
Todd Paton, Tim Horton's dragster, -.041 (big flame job came back to toast him)
David Hope, Vroom Racing Buell, -.026 (better speed than 16th qualifier)
Ronnie Humphrey, Troy Humphrey Stratus, -.002 (almost knocked K.J. out of race)
Best Signs: A double dose for the Southern Nationals. Maybe this qualifies as the best act of the day, but one fan in the audience waved a yellow Prestone placard in one hand while virtually twirling a piston/rod in the other. He was given plenty of room by those wary of his skills. Special attention was offered by Dave Rieff to the trio of fans he referred to as the "Three NHRA Amigos," who follow the tour to several sites wearing their adorned shirts.
Upset Alert: Mike Dunn once again sticks his neck out, this time picking Del Worsham over top qualifier Ashley Force Hood. He picked a dandy. What a race this turned out to be with Del getting the edge off the line but evidently loses after hitting a "bump" in the left lane. Ashley said she kept up her rituals at Atlanta that had led to past success at this track by eating the night before at a Cracker Barrel and attending the same church service. If she had won the race, Statman Lewis Bloom pointed out she would be the first nitro female to qualify from the pole and win the event since Shirley Muldowney. And the Cracker Barrel would have been jammed with teams next year. Maybe church, too.
Chip Wells, go2geiger.com
Talk About Cool: How lucky are drag fans to be treated to some of the best television commercials made by the sponsors of the NHRA telecasts. Title sponsor Full Throttle once again takes the "TV Commercial Wally," if there were such a thing, unveiling the "Blue Moon" spot at the Southern Nationals. Featuring black and white video and photography of faces, cars, and all things drag racing, the romance ballad of "Blue Moon" is sung in a lyrical, creative voice that grabs one right in the gut. This is their second commercial, I hope in a long series, ranking better than best. Maybe they will put together a first: a CD of the songs used in their commercials as they’re that good.
Second best, and a real attention getter, is the GEICO Powersports Pro Stock Motorcycle spot featuring Karen Stoffer in its bright banana, shocking-yellow scheme, looking fast just sitting there. Their commercial will not only sell insurance, it will advance interest in the entire class.
Third, and quite humorous, is Prestone's "let’s go, Sparky' featuring a guy and his alter ego shopping for anti-freeze. Played several times, I couldn’t stop watching.
With great drag racing and interesting commercials, how does one fit in a bathroom break?
What A Way To Start: Paul Page highlighted one of the great traditions of drag racing when he noted the opening pair of Top Fuelers cranking up, filling the countryside with their monster noise saying, "There’s nothing quite like it when the roar fills the air." signaling the start of the race. He is absolutely right. When you have a combined 16,000 horsepower speaking out in unison, one doesn’t need someone to blow into a microphone about "starting your engines." This is drag racing; the horsepower does all of the talking.
Best Race Of The Day: Set up perfectly as Mike Dunn referenced the race of "these two veterans with Cory McClenathan and Larry Dixon" in a Schumacher Racing versus Alan Johnson Racing face-off. Thrillingly, and in the first round too, such a race like this can set the tone for the entire day, just as it did. It was only appropriate the margin of victory for McClenathan was .0003 of a second, incredibly close for any class, much less Top Fuel.
Staying Topical: I read an article this past week discussing some top NASCAR teams spending millions of dollars to gain advantage in one of the few areas they can -- motor oil. In an interesting segment, Mike Dunn adapted that same commentary to drag racing. The upshot was clear -- nitro cars create so much horsepower and can "dial up an extra 300 when needed," that the advantages of thin oil wouldn’t apply as they need heavy viscosity to keep all of the pieces together. He had the best conclusion to a featured segment ever by wiping with a fingertip the thin and thick oil samples on the lens of the camera where one could plainly 'see' the difference.
Those ubiquitous oddsmakers that help make Vegas so unique have an uncanny way of being spot on. Take the 5:1 odds both Pro Stock finalists, Jeg Coughlin and Greg Stanfield, carried into the race. Both met in the finals while some very good drivers, with 20:1 odds, were on the trailer early as the odds would suggest.
If I were running a sportsbook, I suggest Jeg would have been a better bet if just calculating the final, though the odds were even before hand. This is written now with the perfect hindsight of the final results that he did in fact win. It’s almost easy to be right in hindsight; the rewards, though, are non-existent. It is the taking of risk, of lining up side-by-side and giving it a go in competition that gives one the chance to win in drag racing, gambling, or the race of life, for that matter.
Vegas oddsmakers were spot-on by picking Coughlin.
The ace handicapper on the NHRA Race Day Show, Mike Dunn, gave viewers his weekly "upset alert" so we would know the outcome before the race even happened. First round, Funny Car bracket, his upset pick was Brian Thiel teamed with cagey crew chief, Paul Smith, picking off two-time race winner this year, Ron Capps. After winning the race for his third Wally of 2009, and ruining this week’s upset alert, Capps reminded us that his crew chief, Ed "Ace" McCulloch, "trumps all."
Not an upset alert but discussed as a "possible outcome" was the first round pairing of Spencer Massey over Brandon Bernstein. Brandon made it to the final so this pick didn’t work either, but Spencer had a terrific reaction time and almost ruined Bernstein's day.
Now, on to race day observations:
NHRA Web site Jumps Gun: Double checking race day schedules for television early on Sunday morning I was shocked the next NHRA Race Day show for ESPN2 and ESPN2HD indicated April19th, two weeks from now at the Southern Nationals in Atlanta. The day's race was Vegas. A couple of days ago the site reflected the proper event so maybe the automatic update -- or something else -- got off track.
Loneliest Number Qualifier: These are the No. 17 qualifiers, highlighted here for each event to commemorate the pain of ending one notch out of the show; ranked from longest shot to the nearest miss:
.587, Steve Faria, System One Filtration dragster, 4.837 seconds (Big boomer cost him)
.062, Jerry Toliver, Canidae Pet Food Monte Carlo Funny Car, 4.340 seconds (this team is so capable)
.005, Rodger Brogdon, Kent Services Pontiac GXP, 6.764 seconds (tough one as his speed was better than many)
Attention All Super Comp Racers: Dreams do come true, just ask Shawn Langdon, now racing Top Fuel with Morgan Lucas Racing after a successful, very successful, tour in the brutally competitive Super Comp ranks, where he won the last two world titles. As Joan Didion would write in Play It As It Lays, "You can’t win if you’re not at the table," which means racing Super Comp or any of the other NHRA Sportsman categories puts you in the game at drag racing’s table -- the track -- where one can take a roll of the dice and perhaps hit a jackpot, like Shawn did.
Best Sign: At the slot machine of signs, we came up with three cherries from the rather subdued crowd gathered to watch a vibrant Dave Rieff and Mike Dunn at the NHRA Race Day Show. Maybe the audience was just tired at that time in the morning. Visiting in the Vegas time zone (the city has its own, I think) with hours split between The Strip and THE Strip, different from all other time zones known to mankind, will do it to you.
One of the three cherries that spun up on my "best sign" slot machine was simple -- a full sized Canadian flag displayed proudly by, I suppose, two happy Canucks. It just seemed so out of place that it warranted mentioning. Next, a unique set-up requiring two large posters held together to get across the following: "Starville, WY Loves NHRA Drag Racing," although I could find no location by that name. But this is Vegas, so who cares?
But the best one, with Dave Rieff casting his vote on air as the week’s best sign, exclaimed, "Top Fuel Driver For Hire," with a big arrow pointing to Mike Dunn who often laments about not having a ride.
Mrs. Force Hood: Ashley Force Hood has now taken the talking mantle from her well-known namesake and she's more polished, not off the cuff. As a spokesperson she is quite good. Prior to getting on the dais, Ashley mingled with an admiring audience, signing shirts and jackets.
Nathan’s Question: This is a funny bit on the weekly show where a youngster asks a provocative question like this week’s, "Ashley, do you have any unmarried sisters?" The bit works because it isn’t over-used.
At the Races:
Langdon is proving that a sportsman background helps.
Best Boomer: Occurring in Round 2 of Top Fuel Qualifying, Steve Faria suffered a big blow. FastNews reported that, "Faria was mixing up the cylinders and then pipes went real wet and it banged the blower with a big fireball." Now that’s my favorite drag racing line of the year -- "(the) pipes went real wet and it banged the blower." Great visual.
Best Outfit: Go back and read my account of the November NHRA Awards Banquet and you’ll see my affection for the well dressed. Mrs. Bob Bode wins this week’s "Best Outfit" award for her dazzling combo while waiting in the staging lanes with husband Bob. She definitely grades out well.
G-Man: One of the happiest scenes came with interviewer Gary Gerould on camera with two scantily dressed showgirls, Stacy and Jennifer, cuddling the old pro between them. That’s called a "perk," race fans.
Top Fuel Dashboard: Several times in the broadcast the cockpit of a staging dragster was shown so the viewer could see the dash over the driver’s shoulder along with the built-in monitor giving instant digital readouts. Great stuff! Now, if only the broadcast can freeze the frame and enlarge it so the viewer at home can see the various readouts on the screen the driver is watching and explain to us what each number means.
Continuing a theme explained in last week’s column, here are some "I’d give anything," remarks from this week’s race:
"I would give anything…If I didn’t have to lose to a rookie in the semifinals." Cruz Pedregon, the 2008 Funny Car champion, after falling to Matt Hagan.
"I would give anything…If for the second consecutive week Jack Beckman was not in the other lane." Ashley Force, after beating Jack last week, winning the entire event, but failing to get past him Sunday.
"I would give anything…If Ashley Force and Jack Beckman could meet in the Funny Car finals for their rubber match at the Southern Nationals." NHRA Management, for obvious reasons.
Sounds Of The Track: This is a favorite race feature of mine. In one scene the cameraman shows just how close they are to the action in the pits when the Schumacher crew, just getting to work after a run, is lifting off the blower and moving to set it down when they almost walk over the camera guy who yells, "Behind you, behind you," as he scrambles to stay out of the way. It definitely put the viewer right there in the mix.
A Quick Fix, Please: When the start of a race is shown from behind the cars, looking down the strip, you get a graphic in the corner that reflects the Christmas Tree, where each car is in the staging process, and ultimately the reaction times. But, if the view is from the front of the dragsters, looking back to the start line, that information isn’t displayed. Since reaction time is so critical to winning, fans at home want to know that number at the start, not wait until the final finish line. Often the shot from the front is more entertaining so I hope ESPN2 doesn’t stop doing that, but it feels like one is almost penalized for the front view.
Best Stat: When the finals of the Funny Car were determined, Lewis Bloom broke in to announce that we were guaranteed a 10th new winner at Vegas for Funny Car between Ron Capps and Matt Hagan.
Best Driver: Jason Line saved a tire-spinning, twisting Pro Stocker by pedaling, allowing him to win a lap with a respectable number. Mike Dunn said, "I’m impressed."
Reverse-James Bond: Top qualifier Mike Edwards loses a chance to continue the race by red-lighting with a -.007 light.
Hats Off To Crews: Fans knew the teams were under time pressures to turn around the hot rods for the next round in record time in order to accommodate the 4 p.m. live broadcast time for the finals. We were with the crews as the pit cameramen would show, for example, a Funny Car that would have the body removed by the time it rolled to a stop in the pits. It was almost a ballet in there. The extra effort allowed the final-round pairings for all three classes to be shown live, a real treat.
New Quad Shot: What a great idea! Four simultaneous shots in the pits of the same class at the identical moments as those teams prep for their semifinal rounds. Innovative thinking in my view, and it worked great. Race commentator Paul Page said it best when he quipped, "This is technology."
Next Sportsman Event Broadcast: Don’t miss it! Las Vegas replayed from 10-11 a.m. Easter morning on ESPN2.
During the Houston broadcast a visual enumerated the racers who have achieved 500 round wins, a very short list for a major accomplishment.
Ace color guy Mike Dunn mumbled some comments at the end of the piece that were not necessarily intended for all to hear otherwise the audio would have been, well, audible. That’s where closed captioning comes into play -- those printed words scrolling across the screen usually trail the broadcast by several seconds. I quickly glanced to see if the scroll caught it. Yes!
Now if only my DVR hadn’t been on the fritz I would have a recorded version of the whole thing, but the key was Mike saying, basically, I would give anything to be on that list, meaning to have 500 rounds of drag racing wins attached to his name, to be in that elite group. Paul Page comments, 'You’re in television, isn’t that good enough?'
We all dream of what could have been, like Mike and his 500 rounds, what might have happened if only this, if only that, had happened. As such, here are some, "I would give anything…" moments drivers may have suffered at the 22nd annual O'Reilly NHRA Spring Nationals presented by Pennzoil:
"I would give anything…if Jeg Coughlin hadn’t James Bonded me on the tree." Jim Yates, losing after the .007 light Jeg pasted on him, effectively ending a possible big day for the Wiley X Eyewear GXP team trying to pay for a trip to Las Vegas.
Private note to the FastNews guys (the drag racing experts who type out real time, round-by-round descriptions of each lap from the booth on NHRA.com): I give you credit for also using the James Bond line in your detail for the Coughlin round. I know if I didn’t mention this, you might’ve thought I lifted the reference. I’m of a certain age to have attended the original James Bond premieres so I’m well indoctrinated to the meaning of 007, thus qualified to use it, too. Besides, this little ditty allows me to get you further recognized by drag racing fans. As previously stated, I’m a devotee of your work. I believe true drag race fans dig details like the ones you provide in MOV (margin of victory). Maybe if a favorite doesn’t win, the MOV should be changed to MOL (margin of loss)?
"I would give anything…to not lose on a holeshot." Larry Dixon in blowing his first matchup with Tony Schumacher after Alan Johnson left the Schumacher camp to form Al-Anabi Racing, hiring Larry to do the driving.
"I would give anything…if Ron Krisher hadn’t beaten me with my own engine." Mike Edwards, setting the Pro Stock speed record at 212 and change, in a semifinal round where the margin was less than a popsicle.
"I would give anything...if I hadn’t have been such a good drag racing teacher to Ashley when she was starting out at age 16." Jack Beckman, after losing the final round to Ashley Force Hood after she matched him on the Christmas tree and pulled away all the way down the strip.
Email your own "I would give anything…" lines to me and I’ll print the best ones.
Now on to the NHRA Raceday Show and Race Broadcast:
Best Sign: None! But, that’s not so bad in this case as all were of the "somebody loves somebody" variety, perhaps a sentiment for all of us to take to heart as the drag racing circus leaves Houston.
Biggest Prediction: "Years from now, Larry Dixon will be seen as the greatest Top Fuel Driver ever." Mike Dunn, before the aforementioned loss by Dixon to Schumacher.
Dana Sherman: ESPN2 cameraman breaks in to give an instantaneous starting line report that Todd Simpson’s Top Fuel dragster won’t shift into reverse. "Rick is gonna shut ‘em down," Dana shouted excitedly. Don’t you love getting this stuff just like you were on the line? How neat! Dana did a similar on-the-spot report at Gainesville. These ESPN2 camera guys are into the program big time.
Upset Alert: Dunn’s pick this week was Del Cox, Jr. over Tony Schumacher in Top Fuel. He admitted it was a longshot as Tony had won the previous three matches, but today his prediction almost worked. Schumacher won, but Del led at the start and had a respectable pass. A gutsy call.
Sunday Noon Qualifying Show: Did you catch this? Drag racing fans are going to get spoiled having qualifying broadcast during more normal hours.
Guests at NHRA Raceday Show: Bob Tasca and Tim Wilkerson were entertaining interviewees but it didn’t appear they brought any "goodies" to the crowd watching the live broadcast. Maybe that’s the reason the cameras spent about one second on them waiting by the stage before the program breaks for a commercial. That being said, Tim Wilkerson gave an interesting reply about his impact on new teammate Bob Tasca’s race program. Tim said, "I’m just the corner piece to a 500 piece puzzle."
Additionally, an entertaining idea is having a kid in the audience ask each week’s guest a question. This week the query was directed to Tasca and went something like this: “The Question, Bob, can you say one sentence without saying 'Ford?'" referencing Ford Motor Company’s best spokesman ever, short of Lee Iacocca. I bet Ford would happily have supplied some bling to throw to the crowd.
E = MC2: Dave Rieff gave the drag racing equivalent of this famous Einstein formula which, incidentally, one sees at the opening of every episode of "The Twilight Zone." The Rieff equation compared horsepower produced and cars owned by Ken Black. The formula? KB = HP
A Full Throttle Moment: NHRA announced earlier this year a highlight from each four pro categories for each race will be chosen. Fans will vote on the top four moments for each class at year's end. Then awards will be made at the season ending NHRA Awards Fest (my suggested name, by the way, not the one they use, yet.) They haven’t asked my opinion on these "moments" and probably won’t, so I need to share my selections here for each race, although not necessarily each class. It’s gonna have to be big to make my choice. How big, you ask? Don Garlit’s BIG!
This Week’s Nomination: The stunning explosion that rocked Houston Raceway Park when Urs Erbacher’s Century Asphalt Top Fuel dragster boomed fire, nitro, and parts like confetti on New Year’s Eve, creating a fireball that could only be termed "Texas sized." Shown from every angle (thanks! ESPN2 and broadcast crew), the most dramatic video was this huge fireball of a dragster jetting cross the finish line dragging a fully blossomed parachute. Not only was Urs not injured, he was seemingly nonplussed about the whole deal, no John Force-style gesticulating or anything. Why so calm with such a boomer moments before? I believe I have the answer:
If you’ve been keeping up with this column, you will already have a pretty good notion of that answer as you will have viewed your personal copy of the Erbacher "Kings of Nitro" DVD I reviewed in the March 9th column (scroll down, you’ll come to it). You will know the team has plenty of Euro experience blowing up perfectly good dragsters. But seeing this race was in Texas, and in the U.S. of A., this blast had to be bigger than all of those in Europe. Of course!
Now, go read the review, buy their DVD. It’s well worth it, and besides, they need a little extra parts money now. A whole lot of extra parts money. If you were mentioned in that review (read it and find out – you may be surprised), you should buy 100 copies and give ‘em away. I termed their movie an "absolute hoot," and even convinced my boss, Mr. Rob Geiger (I call him Mister when I’m trying to get away with something), to run a few Euro-type photos, too, for your viewing pleasure while you’re lonely, travelling to the next drag race.
Biggest Understatement: "They’ve got a little cleaning up to do." The broadcast team’s summary of the work necessary to pick up the carnage from Urs’ firework's display.
Early Mother’s Day Sentiment: In the "Sounds of the Strip" segment of the race broadcast, a favorite feature where not only engines are roaring and tires are spinning but also wrenches clanking and drivers like Clay Millican, who turn, sees the camera and without hesitation exclaims, "I love you, Momma." Don’t you just love it?
Clay won his first round of the year in this race. He's a popular driver and nominee for "Best Talker," joining a short list of Jack Beckman, Tasca, Force, and others to be revealed as we go along.
Best Driver Of The Race: Who could argue with my choice of Cruz Pedregon? Way behind in herky-jerky race with Bob Bode, Cruz saw Bode’s Alard Machine Products Impala SS way downtrack coasting to the finish, but he stayed after it and finally got his Toyota to hook up and, bam, baby, zipped his Advance Auto Parts Solara past Bode to finish first. Exciting to see. One can only empathize with Bob as he had to hear Pedregon rev up and come after him as he sat strapped into his seat, drifting to the finish, no doubt pushing on the steering wheel, trying to add a little "oomph" like that would in some way would get his Impala there quicker. It didn’t.
Coolest Ever: In an A+ example of tying in regional activities with drag racing, the ESPN2 crew did a comparison of launching a Top Fuel dragster with that of the Space Shuttle from the Houston NASA Space Agency complex. The final video was a shot not widely seen where, after lift off, the mounted camera looks down the auxiliary tanks with the Space Shuttle attached below, the whole contraption being propelled skyward with their super high test version of nitro, Florida bordered by the Atlantic Ocean as a background. The clarity of the video was 100-percent amazing. Definitely high definition; definitely a high just viewing.
No. 17 Qualifiers: my weekly recognition of those who came ever so close to making the show (from top to bottom, furtherest to closest to the No. 16 qualifier):
.114 Doug Kalitta, Kalitta Motorsports Dragster, only 17 cars were there
.054 Brian Thiel, Olympus Trailers Monte Carlo, same for F/C
.010 Fred Camarena, Embee/Clay Smith Cams Suzuki, "ouch, so close"
.006 Greg Stanfield, Attitude Apparel GXP, "double ouch close"