And The Winner Is…

Nov 16, 2017   //   by bwilber   //   Bob's Blog  //  Add a Comment

I wrote about this topic earlier this week, briefly, in a Facebook post. It’s hard to do much more than write about something briefly on Facebook, but at least it’s a good venue and platform for showing photos. The topic was this: Over the decades, too many people to count have asked me, “What’s your favorite track on the NHRA tour?” To be diplomatic, I’d usually respond with something like, “Oh gosh, there’s so many I like it’s impossible to pick just one.”

I don’t know why this trip to the Auto Club NHRA Finals was a bit different, but I think it’s because I’m at a sort of natural crossroads with my life and career. I still feel like I’m definitely “retired” from the grind of doing the tour as a full-time PR rep and manager, but I’m also not ready to put my feet up, sleep all day, shave once a month, and be a fully retired couch potato with a box of bonbons. On the other hand, I still don’t have a fully detailed plan in place for next year and beyond. When people ask me about the future, I’m still saying, “I don’t know, because I’m still doing this.” And frankly that, by itself, is kind of surprising. When “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” came out, I had no preconceived notion as to how long we’d keep promoting and publicizing it, because I didn’t know how long it would keep selling. And here we are after the 2017 season, heading into the holidays, and it’s still moving the sales meter. Not as much as in June or July, but it’s a steady flow.

OK, that was a total digression. Now, back to the premise at hand here: My favorite track. Ranking the tracks includes all sorts of criteria, to get right down the the nitty gritty. The facility itself is key. Is it clean? Is it modern? Is it well kept? Are the restroom facilities mostly permanent with running water, or Porta-Johns? Are there fully functioning permanent concessions, or just a few trailers? Even if it’s mostly trailers, is the food good and creative or just hot dogs and turkey legs?

Then, there’s traffic flow. Can you get in and out without spending half your day in bumper-to-bumper traffic? Are the parking areas easily accessible? Are they also prone to flooding and known for annually turning into mud bogs?

History is surely part of it, although any track that has the name Bruton Smith attached to it is still going to be near the top of the list. In their current incarnations, though, none of Mr. Smith’s tracks are particularly historic in the entire scope of NHRA’s history. Yes, Bristol and Sonoma have hosted drag races for a long time, but they’ve both been renovated and rebuilt into modern stadiums. Still, maybe history isn’t that important.

Is the track easily navigated, in terms of those of us on teams who need to get from the pit to our destination without the use of a golf cart, scooter, or bicycle?

Are the fans there unique in any way? Do they seem “different” than fans at other venues, in a local or regional kind of way?

Is the racing typically thrilling, or forgettable?

Is the surrounding area interesting, pretty, and full of things to do and places to eat?

So let’s take all that and compare some tracks. Las Vegas ticks just about all the boxes. It’s modern, clean, it’s awesome, and you’re in Vegas, so there’s that.

Bristol ticks a lot of boxes, as well. Fabulous facility, wonderful part of the country, and great fans. With their NASCAR training, the Bristoll staff also know how to move traffic and, since racers get to come in via a back entrance into the pits, it’s a very easy trip for us. Plus, even though we might be at the finish line, the pro pits in Bristol are literally “trackside” viewing spots.

Sonoma is tops, as well (see where we’re going here, with all these Bruton Smith tracks?) It’s a great facility that is, admittedly, hamstrung with some traffic issues, but you’re in Sonoma and not far from Napa and San Francisco. That’s hard to beat.

Charlotte? My gosh, there is no better drag racing stadium in the world. Period.

Gainesville? The traffic can be rough, since everyone is coming in together on one road, but they’ve improved that a lot in recent years. For me, it’s one of my favorite tracks because of where it is and when the event is run. It’s in Florida, in the spring. As you can imagine, Florida in the spring is a part of my family DNA. John Fink and I have, many times, attended a spring training game after the Gatornationals. It’s a great place and that Florida sunshine in March brings back so many spring training memories.

But, and as soon as I write the next part of this sentence you’re going to know where I’m going with this, something occurred to me this past weekend. The answer to the question is Pomona.

My favorite track and my favorite race (Click on any photo to enlarge)

Now, to be fair, there’s a certain percentage of the answer that really pertains to the Auto Club NHRA Finals, for reasons that range all over the board. The importance of it, the weather, and the emotion of finishing another season and saying goodbye to so many friends you will not see until the next February all conspire to make Pomona something no other track can ever be, no matter how huge or impressive they are.

Is it the most modern? No, but it has solid infrastructure and lots of attributes that are both permanent and comfortable.

Is it in a good part of the country? Are you kidding? Sure, SoCal traffic is legendary for a legit reason, but you only have to plow through the freeway system on the day you arrive and the day you leave. With the track located near so many hotels and restaurants, it’s generally pretty stress free. Plus, there’s In-N-Out and the nearest one is close enough for you to hear Top Fuel running while eating your Double-Double. I have specific experience in that regard, as does Barbara Doyle.

Is it easily navigated for crews and PR hacks? Probably better than any other track.

What about history? Yeah, what about it? Again, are you kidding me?

And the fans. What about them? Are they unique, in a good local way? The answer, my friends, isn’t “blowin’ in the wind” it’s a simple “Yes, they are.”

Some tracks draw from such a wide swath of the Earth they don’t really have a fan identity. Vegas comes to mind, unless that identity is crazy Halloween costumes for the Countdown race. Mostly, Vegas fans seem like they’re out-of-towners combining the unique wonders of Sin City with their favorite sport.

In Pomona, especially at the Finals, I can’t be there without feeling all that history and sensing, immediately, that the avid fans there are directly connected to it. They may be third or fourth generation now, but SoCal is the birthplace of drag racing and post WWII hot rodding, and you can still, to this day, sense that and see it in the fans. Plus, they’re very friendly, very engaged, and just all-around fantastic.

For me, there is no other track that has the vibe Pomona does and, as I mentioned, about 20% of that is based on how it feels at the Finals. That being said, many of the attributes are just as vivid at the Winternationals. The Finals are just “this much” better in all regards.

So it only took me about 22 years to come to grips with that, but looking back over the decades I know, in my heart, that I’ve always understood it.

It’s just a very special place. There are a lot of tracks tied for 2nd place in this contest, but they can’t compete with Pomona in November. And, to me, it’s not even close.

These thoughts are mine, of course, and I don’t pretend to present them as the definitive “ranking” in any way. It’s just how I feel, and this past weekend the feelings were extraordinarily vivid. Like, hair standing up on my arms vivid.

There are no tracks on the tour that I utterly dislike. Some present more challenges than others, especially for people like me who have to travel to get there, but all of them have more positives than negatives and I love them all. It’s just that Pomona, to me, is the ultimate NHRA experience. No wonder the NHRA headquarters are just a few miles away. When the sport of drag racing looks around, it must look at Pomona and think “Hey, I’m home!”

I was there on Saturday, of course, and it was jam-packed with stuff to do, people to see, and things to accomplish. The first thing I had to accomplish was the act of being a book courier. Right after I went on the P.A. with Alan Reinhart in Vegas, we sold every last book we had in the souvenir trailer within a few minutes. I kind of expected to hear that, because I know I signed a bunch.

For Pomona, I knew I had some stashed in the Team Wilk hospitality lounge (yeah, the new big rig hospitality center that we never had when I was there, but who’s bitter?) and I stuffed four more in my suitcase. At 2.5 lbs per book, that added a nifty 10 lbs to my bag. At least we gave the souvenir trailer something to sell.

This time, in Pomona, Alan had me come up to the announcing deck while Q3 was going on, instead of during a cleanup or other kind of downtime. That’s kind of fun, and it was my first experience with timing it so that you’re not talking over burnouts or launches. I even got to use one of Alan’s patented (not really patented, but you know what I mean) lines when I was speaking as a car rolled through the water box. I said, “Pause for burnout” and that got a smile from Alan and the reply, “You’re getting this.” Yay for me.

Kathy Macias, with a book to sign

By doing it that way, we got to spend more time talking and that’s a good thing. Between folks who brought Amazon purchased books with them and those that bought them at the track, I signed more books in Pomona than I have at any other race. After all, the locals have the Dodgers and the Angels, the L.A. Galaxy, and Pomona. That, right there, is baseball bats, soccer balls, and dragster burnouts. It’s a perfect fit!

One of those who brought her book was this fine person, Kathy Macias. She wrote a great review on Amazon, and I see her a lot on Twitter. It was a pleasure to meet her and sign her book, but it was a wonderfully stunning thing to hear her say she liked all 545 pages of it so much she’s read it twice! That’s awesome.

What was also awesome, and very interesting, was this: In an hour or two after I was on the P.A., I know for a fact we sold a lot of books, and I don’t just mean at the track. In that immediate time frame, we sold more Kindle versions of “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” than we ever have in one day! We set a Kindle sales record almost seven months after the book was released. Isn’t that crazy!

I don’t know if those sales were by folks in the grandstand ordering it on their phones, or fans at home listening to Alan and me talk on All-Access, but I find it very interesting that we did that. And very encouraging, as well. That confirms what I’ve always hoped and have long believed. There are still potential purchasers out there who just need to be informed about the book. There are still people who will hear about it and think, “Yeah, that’s something I might like” or, just as good, “Yeah, that’s something my husband would like” (or insert son, cousin, neighbor, friend, butcher, baker, or candlestick maker.)

Word of mouth is a slow moving thing, but it’s powerful. With that in mind, and with Christmas on the horizon, I’m not going to be too shy to ask each of you to think about that. Whether you buy another copy as a gift, or tell your friends that you liked it and think they will too, we can keep on selling. That would be cool. So (he writes without much shame): SPREAD THE WORD!!!

So, Pomona in summary. There were old friends to see, there were fans to meet, there were books to sign, and in the end there was yet another season to bid adieu. And there was the not surprising mental revelation that Pomona is my favorite track, and the Finals makes it even better.

On Sunday, I got to watch the opening round on All-Access, then made my way to LAX, where I got to watch more racing from the Sky Club. It was a relaxing way to cap off a year. And it was kind of fun to have other travelers walk behind me in the club and sense that they’d stopped to take a look at what I was watching on my laptop.

And now, it will be an interesting winter as my future plans coalesce. As I wrote about extensively in the book, it’s not like me to overanalyze or overthink things like this. I’m planning on just “plowing forward” into the next great adventure. But, whatever the plan ends up to be, NHRA will always be a part of me and a key part of who I am. I’ll never be that guy who waves goodbye and is never seen again. It’s in my blood far too much. I have a few ideas, but I’ll keep them to myself for now. However it turns out, I’ll always be out there for as many races as I can attend.

And now, time to wrap this up.

You know the next line, right? If you read this blog and enjoyed it, please show that you liked it by clicking on the “Like” button at the top. The more of those the merrier.

Bob Wilber, at your service and happy to have finally answered the question, “What’s your favorite track?”

 

 

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