What You Find When You Dig Through The Utility Room

Feb 27, 2020   //   by bwilber   //   Bob's Blog  //  Add a Comment

The word is “plaque.” For some reason, I always want to put a “c” in there and spell it placque, but a quick search on the Google machine instructed me, in no debatable terms, that the word “placque” is nothing more than “a misspelling of the world plaque” so there you have it. Late yesterday I was searching for a theme of any sort for this week’s blog, and (like most of them) it came to me out of the blue. The theme would be about plaques.

I’d been in the utility room to change the furnace filter yesterday, but thought nothing much more of that place where boxes, household items, tools, old jerseys, framed photos, duffel bags, and other remnants of this long career in sports and sports marketing go to spend the rest of their time in retirement. After downsizing quite a bit to move from the old Woodbury home (how we miss you Pond Cam) when we transferred to Spokane, we then downsized about another 1,000 square feet when we moved back here to our current lovely home in Woodbury. After the first move, out to Washington, a number of carefully packed boxes were never opened. They just lived there for four years in a closet. When we came back, the same thing happened. The unopened boxes, where I’m sure my cool miniature guitar and drum collection is still stored, went on a shelf in a new large utility room. For the record, the utility room in Spokane was so small you had to wedge your way around the furnace sideways while ducking under a copper pipe, just to get to the main sprinkler shut-off valve. There was no room to store anything in there. As my father used to say, “That place was so small you had to leave the room to change your expression.”

In addition to those boxes that stayed sealed, much like some sort of time capsule, a number of others also got put away as well, once we moved back to the Twin Cities. That’s both the benefit and the scourge of a larger utility room with sturdy built-in shelves. No need to throw anything out!

Among the heavier and more substantial bits of memorabilia down there were a bunch of plaques. I could see many of them standing on their sides under the bottom shelf, but had to dig beyond an upright fan, two end tables, a number of boxes, and a dozen or so framed photos, some of which I’d lost track of and therefore was really happy to see, including the long-lost Paintsville Hilanders team photo. I shall never lose that again!

It struck me that I should not just show some of the more important plaques, but I should tell the overall story of why I still have them and what each of them means. So here we are.

After I joined Del and Chuck Worsham in 1997, we battled like crazy for a couple of years but didn’t win a race. We finally did that in 1999 in Seattle, and it was a celebration for the ages. I was still relatively new to the sport and did order a jacket and a Wally trophy, but I didn’t yet know about a firm in Tampa called In The News and I also don’t think we earned a spot on the National Dragster cover after winning that race, but I may be mistaken. It was long time ago.

We didn’t win again until 2001, when we qualified No. 1 at Houston and then ran the table in dominating fashion. We had a big old hullaballoo at the Outback Steakhouse in Baytown, north of the track, and during the toasts and the steaks, someone mentioned In The News to me. I don’t recall who it was, but they said “If we get the cover of the Dragster, I’m ordering one of those plaques.” I had no clue, so I asked about it.

My first plaque from “In The News” and I’ll always keep it. (Click on any image to enlarge)

The company specializes in taking photos or clippings and mounting them on heavy wood, then sealing them with a polyurethane before adding a standard “trophy style” name plate at the bottom. They did a lot of work for racing teams back then, and as far as I know they still do. They were then, and probably still are now, the industry leader in taking awards and clippings and preserving them as impressive wooden or acrylic plaques, and have access to all the major publications so you don’t have to cut the clipping out and send it to them.

I got “tipped off” early that when National Dragster would come out, we would actually not be on the cover. But, the people at CSK really wanted to congratulate us so they asked me to come up with a full-page ad concept, and needed me to write the copy. An hour later, we had it. A week later, we had the magazine in our hands, and a couple of weeks after that I had this plaque on my wall. All of these are probably images you’ll want to click on to enlarge.

So that’s how it starts. You win that first race, which in our case was Seattle, and you just have to get the jacket and buy the Wally. You just have to. And then another two years go by and you’re convinced it might never happen again. When it does, and you win it all in Houston, you not only buy the Wally and the jacket, but now you add the In The News plaque. And the collection begins.

I’m not sure it’s superstition or just pride, but from that point forward I never hesitated to get one of everything, especially once we finally started making the cover of National Dragster after victories. There was never any hesitation, and I know the main reason for that was the fear that it might, actually, never happen again. I mean, it’s REALLY hard to win those races. Why jinx it?

And back then, in my office at the Marsh Creek house, my decorating style was one I’d seen in many sportswriter or sports information director’s offices. The style was “Show everything and use every square inch of wall and shelf space to display it.” Starting with a few plaques was easy. Some framed Winner’s Circle photos were a sure thing. Die cast cars, the Big Bud Shootout trophies we got with Western Six-Shooters mounted on them had to be shown too. And the Wally trophies? Well, duh. Winner’s Circle hats? Of course. I made sure to even hang each year’s hard-card credential and its lanyard on the wall. Barbara never said much about it. It was my job, and my office. It was kind of crazy and legit out of control.

I finally made the decision to stop trying to fill every inch of space when it was time to sell the house and the staging expert convinced me to clean up my office into a more minimalist look. I admitted it was, sad to say, more appealing once I saw it. I decided I’d never do it the old cluttered way again, but I would rotate various photos and bits of memorabilia over the years and I would most likely never part with any of it. I mean, those jinxes are real! Don’t mess with success!!!

Not in our house!

In 2002, we finally earned a cover when we won the Checker, Schuck’s Kragen Nationals in Phoenix. Those race weeks were always manic for the PR guy, as we ran around and had to be “here, there, and everywhere” from Tuesday through Thursday, before the actual race began on Friday. To cap it off with a win in front of damn near the whole company, was a thrill beyond anything we’d done up to that point. And, it was another reason why we were cementing our place as the cornerstone of CSK’s marketing efforts. We were their team. They were our family. And I ordered that plaque as soon as the magazine came out. Editor Phil Burgess not only gave us the cover photo, but a great headline too. Talk about a “keeper.”

In addition to the cover, CSK again took out a full-page ad to congratulate us and that made for my first side-by-side plaque. The thing weighs a ton, and it looked great on the wall.

As an aside, I wasn’t just the Team Manager and PR rep for the group. I was also Chief Decal Installer, a job I was proud of but continually horrified by. Every time I see a photo of any of those CSK cars, I close one eye and peer through my fingers with the other, knowing for sure I’d be seeing something so crooked I might want to burn the photos. The Houston and Phoenix pics look pretty good, thankfully.

Yes, the track is in Madison, Illinois but it will always be the St. Louis race to me. An honor to win it.

In 2003, we won my hometown race in St. Louis and got the cover again. Keep in mind, after we won Seattle in 1999 and then went winless in 2000, we won four races in 2001 and four more in 2002. Then we won three in 2003, five in 2004, two in 2005, and one final race in 2008. And I’m only talking about Del’s red car here. The blue car won some races too, with Frankie Pedregon and Phil Burkart delivering the goods, and I ordered some plaques and photos for those wins as well. In the interest of telling this story and keeping it somewhat short, I’m only diving into the red team here.

After years of broiling at the St. Louis race during summer events held in the hottest months of the midwestern year, we ran the 2003 race completely at night. Well, sort of. It doesn’t actually get dark in St. Louis until after 9:00 pm during the summer, so we started in early evening and finished up at night. At least that kept the soles of our shoes from melting.

The thing is, we ran pretty lousy in qualifying and just sneaked into the field in the final spot. Yep, No. 16 in a 16-car field. But I’ll never forget winning that first round (was it Gary Densham we beat?) and thinking “We just took over the No. 1 car’s spot. We can win this.” And we did. It wasn’t until much later that I watched a replay of the TV show and heard Mike Dunn say, as Del pulled to the line in round one, “If anyone can win a race from the number 16 spot, it’s Del Worsham.”

I wore a Cardinal hat throughout the race and then wore it to the Winner’s Circle, just to honor my dad and my home town. When we got our official Winner’s Circle hats, I put the red Cardinal hat on the injector. I still have a photo of Del and me with the Wally and the red hat with the STL logo is clearly visible.

And yes, for the most part the decals on that St. Louis car seem pretty straight. By then, we were winning lots of races and landing considerably more associate sponsor deals, whether we were getting them ourselves or CSK was leveraging them for us. That’s a ton of decals to squeeze in along the bottom edge or behind the rear wheel wells, and on the spoiler spill plates. When we’d get a new body, the whole process stressed me out so much I’m surprised I never got hives or something. And I always attacked a fresh new body in the same way. 1) I always put Del’s name above the windows first. That’s how I dove in the pool and got started. 2) I knew once that first one was on, there was no stopping until I was done. I’d have decals spread all over the hospitality area and sheets full of notes about where everything went.

A very large 48 hours in most of our lives. Nothing like it.

Finally, the biggest, baddest, and most important plaque of them all. And yes, it’s another heavy side-by-side. Indy, 2005.

Yes, we won the $100,000 Skoal Showdown for the first time. That was amazing. Then we came out to the track on Monday and could only dream of winning four more rounds during the actual Mac Tools US Nationals to “double up” and turn our prize money into something north of $225,000 in just two days. And we did it.

It was the most nervous I’ve ever been. If you read my book “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” you might recall how I had played a random playlist on the old iPod speaker dock in my office and Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” came on before the first round, and the lyrics spoke to me as if to say “This got played for a reason. Listen to this. This can happen if you seize it”

“If you had one shot, or one opportunity,

To seize everything you ever wanted.

In one moment.

Would you capture it, or just let it slip?”

I then, of course, played that again before round two, and the semifinal, and the final. And I was so nervous before the final round I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was going to pass out. When we won, I’m relatively sure I’ll never feel that much emotion pour out of me again, all at one unfiltered moment. It was incredible. Obviously, this plaque will be with me forever, despite being in the utility room.

The Big Bud Shootout

I leave you with this unframed 8×10 photo I also discovered in the utility room. I hadn’t seen it for decades.

I’m 99% sure this is from 1997. At least I know all of these drivers were in the 1997 Big Bud Shootout (the precursor to the eventual Skoal Showdown) and I don’t see any easy-to-find evidence that they were all, once again, in another Big Bud together as a group. Must be ’97.

Like the fan I was, I ran around before and after this photo shoot and got all the driver’s to autograph it. They are, from left to right: Gary Densham, Kenji Okazaki, Cruz Pedregon, John Force, Tony Pedregon, Chuck Etchells, Dean Skuza, and my boy Del Worsham. Note that Del is wearing a black generic Simpson fire suit. In ’97, our budget wasn’t big enough to pay for a custom red CSK fire suit, or even embroidered CSK starting line shirts! We started that deal with next to nothing. We collectively built it into something absolutely huge.

In the middle are Dallas Gardner from NHRA and Karen Holschlag from Anheuser-Busch. Also lots of beer.

So there you have it. A trip to the utility room to change a filter turns into a pretty fun recounting of things like plaques and Wally trophies. And how my design aesthetic changed from “How much can I cram in here?” to “What are the most important things I can display here?” It’s better this way, but thankfully I have a utility room that allows me to keep these memories around. I’m not a hoarder. I promise. I’ve given far too much of this stuff away to be considered a hoarder.

As always, the rule is this: Did you like any of this blog? Even a few words or a photo? If so, I’d be ever so thankful if you clicked on the “Like” button at the top. The more “likes” the more visitors and the more we can spread the word about some of these stories. Gracias, amigos y amigas.

See you next week, I think. I’m headed to Florida on Saturday and Barbara and I will be enjoying Spring Training games in Fort Myers and Bradenton on Tuesday and Wednesday, before flying home on Thursday. I might be a day late if I want to write about those adventures. We’ll see.

Bob Wilber, at your service and proud of the 20+ years I put in with Del Worsham, Tim Wilkerson, and the NHRA Drag Racing tour. I have the plaques to prove it!

 

 

 

 

 

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