Memories of Finals Past

Nov 9, 2017   //   by bwilber   //   Bob's Blog  //  Add a Comment

Welcome to Thursday Blog Day, the November 9, 2017 edition. Tomorrow, I will board a big metal tube with wings and miraculously fly from Minneapolis to Los Angeles while enjoying WiFi and lunch in seat 2D. I will get my rental car out at the National lot about a mile from the LAX terminal, then will drive to Pomona using the following directions, written here in pure SoCal “freeway speak.” I’ll take Sepulveda Blvd. to the 105. The 105 to the 605. The 605 to the 10. Then I’ll exit at Fairplex Dr. and head to the hotel. I land around 4:00, so depending on L.A. traffic I could arrive at the hotel by 5:30, or conceivably around 10:30. You never know.

And, of course, the reason for my trip is the same thing that will attract tens of thousands of others. It’s the NHRA Auto Club Finals in Pomona, where championships will be clinched (hopefully in thrilling cliff-hanger fashion) and Wally trophies will be won (possibly by a driver or drivers who use that final-round win to clinch the championship.) I have so many great memories of the Finals, beginning before just about anyone knew I existed in the sport, much less knew my name.

I know I typically consider my PR career to have started in 1996 with Whit Bazemore, then from 1997 through 2008 with Del Worsham, before wrapping up 20 years with Tim Wilkerson, from 2009 through 2015. But, if you read my book “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” you might recall that my first visit to the NHRA Finals was not in 1996. It was in 1992. And my team won in the Funny Car class.

Nobody Beats the Wiz. And nobody did beat the Wiz in Pomona 1992.

Early in the summer of 1992 I accepted an offer to become Vice President at Motorsports Marketing Inc., based out of Wyckoff, New Jersey. Ostensibly, my job was going to be that of the PR and Media Relations guy, while the owner of the company (Bill Griffith) handled the marketing and logistics. Our main client was this guy, the late Chuck Etchells, and the sponsor on his Funny Car was Nobody Beats the Wiz, a retail electronics firm on the east coast.

Right before I moved to New Jersey, Etchells won the Englishtown race. Right after my arrival, he won in Denver, although we didn’t go to that race. The first race I attended as a PR guy was Brainerd. By the Finals in Pomona, my feet were finally getting wet and I was figuring the job out, but I was still mostly a clueless unknown. And somehow, Etchells won Pomona with me in attendance. It was my first Winner’s Circle, my first red Winston winner’s hat, and a lot of fun. I don’t remember who we beat. All I remember is that it was really (REALLY) dark when the final round was won. So, I’d been there for half a season and “my team” had won three races. I honestly figured this Funny Car drag racing stuff was easy.

It wasn’t, of course, and by mid-1993 Bill and I went our separate ways as I moved home to St. Louis to try to “make it” in the PR and marketing world by myself. With Norm Wilding and Lewis Worden as my clients, I successfully forged some deep and lasting friendships, and I got to know a lot more about the sport, about sponsorships, about PR, and about hard work. I also successfully went broke. I went back into indoor soccer with the Kansas City Attack in early spring of 1994, as the general manager, and had a wonderful time there. Then Whit called in early 1996 and my “real” PR career was launched.

And if you haven’t read the book, all of this is in there in much more detail. Don’t be afraid to check it out. It won’t bite. As far as I know.

I joined Del and the Checker, Schuck’s, Kragen team in 1997. We won our first race as a group in 1999. We started winning with regularity in 2001, and we won our first NHRA Finals, in Pomona, at the conclusion of our breakout 2001 season. We then won it again in 2003. Both wins were of the “wacky and zany” variety.

In 2001, we were facing the aforementioned Mr. Bazemore in the final, and Del smoked the tires at the hit of the throttle. I don’t think the big Goodyear slicks made one revolution before spinning into huge tire smoke. We were, momentarily, crestfallen to have given it away like that. But then we noticed the bright red light on Whit’s side of the tree. He had fouled. We had won. And we celebrated like crazy.

It doesn’t have to be pretty. (Click to enlarge)

This memorable photo has been used on the blog before, but it earns a repeat appearance. This is what it looks like for a full Funny Car team (both the red crew and the blue) when they accept their good fortune and race to the top end to meet their driver. I’m hanging on for dear life on the step in the back. There are a lot of memorable guys in this photo. Good friends.

In 2003 we were back in the final round at the Finals in Pomona, and this one was even wackier and zanier (if that’s a word.) We’d marched through three rounds, taking out some tough teams, and we then faced the guy who most experts would’ve considered the least likely of the 16 entered drivers to be there. Not because he wasn’t good. Not because his car wasn’t fast. But just because he was a pinch-hitter as a driver in a car that hadn’t won and hadn’t even won many rounds. It was Cory Lee, and he was our teammate driving the Artisan Entertainment car Arnie Karp had been driving. After Arnie injured his knee, Phil Burkart drove it for a couple of races, then we put our good friend Cory in it for the Finals at Pomona. And we somehow squared off against him in the final round.

This time, it was Del who flinched and lit the red bulb. Cory took off fast and was on his way to his first career victory, until he crossed the center line. It was very strange way to win a race, and as excited as we were for Del to get another trophy, we were heartbroken for Cory and his team. They had the win in their hands, but it slipped away.

I’ll never forget the 2008 Finals for a bunch of reasons. It was our last race together as the CSK team, and that was emotional enough. It was also the race where just about everyone in the Funny Car class, heck just about everyone in the sport, was pulling for Tim Wilkerson to wrap up the championship. In the first round, against John Force, he red lit. Those red lights seem to be all through this blog. Maybe it’s something about Pomona, huh.

The rub, though, was that both Wilk and Force were adamant that they didn’t foul. Wilk actually thought he was a little late on the tree. But, that’s how it stood. After the race, I officially became a member of Team Wilkerson. Photos were taken as proof.

Just making margaritas. No big deal… (Photo by Hot Rod Magazine)

And through the years, another big highlight of the Finals was our Worsham Racing pit party. Long after the final rounds were won and Winner’s Circle celebrations were complete, also after most of the fans were gone, the pro pit area would mostly gather in our CSK pit, and our hospitality area. A live band would rock, many adult beverages would be consumed, and during a few of those years the most legendary margarita mixer in the history of margarita mixers would make its appearance.

This photo, from legendary Hot Rod Magazine was found online and it’s probably the best shot I’ve ever seen of MegaRita in action. This is from a different event (it looks like it was shot at the Worsham Racing shop) but it’s classic. 15 gallons of margaritas in five seconds. And loud, too!

So, there’s good reason why I’m really looking forward to getting out there tomorrow, and spending all of Saturday at the track. If you have my book and want it signed, come find me at the Team Wilk pit between sessions on Saturday. If you don’t have the book but are coming to the track on Saturday, we will have a few copies available in the Stupid Fast souvenir trailer. We sold out in Las Vegas, but I have a few books stashed in the Team Wilk hospitality trailer and I’m going to wedge a few more in my suitcase.

I hope to see you there!

As for things here at home, we’re getting close to Thanksgiving and that’s exciting. Barbara’s sister Kitty, along with nephew Todd, his wife Angie, and their twin toddler daughters, are all coming up for the holiday. We need to baby-proof this house! I’ve never really had to worry about that, but it would be very wise to put those plastic covers on the electrical outlets and get those hooks that prevent cabinet drawers from being opened. Barb already bought the gates that we’ll put up to keep the little ones away from the stairs.

On Monday, after the holiday, Barb, Kitty, and I will all head to MSP to catch a 10:00 pm flight. Where? To London. We’ll all fly there together and once we’re at Heathrow on Tuesday Barb will catch her flight to Switzerland for business meetings, while Kitty and I venture north to the wonderful city of Edinburgh, in Scotland. Then, on Thursday we’ll all meet up again in London for a few more days of sightseeing and fun. Can’t wait!

I need to run some errands now, and then start formulating my plan for taking what I need (including some books) to Pomona, all in one suitcase.

Of course, if you haven’t bought the book or want to buy a copy as a gift, you know it can be found right here:

https://www.amazon.com/Bats-Balls-Burnouts-Sports-Marketing/dp/1478775726/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1498841315&sr=8-1&keywords=bats+balls+and+burnouts

As always, if you read this blog and enjoyed it, please “Like” it by clicking the button at the top. The more “Likes” the merrier.

I’ll see you next week!

Bob Wilber, at your service and wanting a margarita, for some odd reason…

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