Welcome back to another Thursday Blog Day. Once again, we have the honor of posting a blog written by one of the best PR reps who ever worked in the sport of NHRA Drag Racing. Elon Werner is back with us again, and he dives “head first” into many of his recollections with John Force and the JFR team.
Absolutely, positively, without a doubt, worth your time to read this.
Thanks Elon! And for the official record, just like many people assume my last name is spelled “Wilbur” thanks to the Wright Brothers and that old TV show “Mr. Ed” it is worth mentioning that Elon’s first name is pronounced EE-lin not e-LON. I’m a giver. I care about little stuff like that.
Just a few days ago NHRA celebrated its championship weekend at the Dodge NHRA Finals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Due to the ongoing pandemic the vibe during the race, and especially afterwards, was subdued and almost bittersweet. The roar of the crowd when Steve Torrence, then Erica Enders, Matt Smith, and finally Matt Hagan clinched their championships was less than overwhelming. It wasn’t due to lack of enthusiasm or massive disinterest. Like a lot of 2020 it was a resigned realization that this year was different. At the end of the day everyone was just hoping for a feeling of normalcy that could be safely achieved and celebrated.
I was lucky to be able to talk with all four champions shortly after they returned to their pits following their top end celebrations. I was grabbing quotes for Competitionplus.com publisher Bobby Bennett and his team of writers. Bobby asked me to pitch in with quote gathering as the season wound down and I tried my best to get real emotion, reflection and insightful stories from all the race winners as they chased down their championship dreams. Few could understand the Covid pandemic more than Bobby, who suffered mightily from it before recovering. It was a sort of “full circle” to help him with interviews after he had gone through pure agony to survive.
On Sunday, asking Torrence, Enders, Smith, and Hagan about what this championship meant to them was one of the highlights of the season for me. How often are you in a position to talk with an athlete or entertainer who has scaled the mountain of success and achievement and is just beginning to understand what they just accomplished? All four racers were open and honest. I encourage you to check out the stories on each of them Competionplus.com has posted by now.
Here’s a link to my story about Matt Smith:
I was fortunate to witness a handful of championships from the inside during my time with John Force Racing. I can close my eyes and take myself right back to Pomona or, in one instance, Las Vegas and feel the rush of adrenaline when the championship win light came on. I can also remember the gut ache throughout the morning leading up to race day. There was a nervous energy around the team and everyone had a sense of focus that I wish every sports fan could get a real glimpse of from their favorite team or athlete.
My first championship experience was 2006 when John Force took the title back after Gary Scelzi ended the John Force Racing streak of twelve consecutive Funny Car championships the season before. Force was on a mission that season and he held off a furious charge by Ron Capps over the last four races of the season. I was only a contract PR person that season working a handful of races in support of drag racing PR guru Dave “Densy” Densmore. My original deal with Force was to support Densy from home, writing press releases and coordinating media, but I attended the Gatornationals that year to be introduced to Courtney and Brittany Force, who were just getting their racing careers started in Super Comp and were also involved in the wildly popular Driving Force television show on A&E.
The next race was Houston, an easy drive from Dallas where I live, so I made the quick trip. During that race I realized I could fly in to a handful of races on Friday night and fly home either Sunday on a red-eye or early Monday morning and then go back to my full time job as Communications Director for Beckett Media, the publishing house that brought together trading card collectors around the world to Beckett Baseball, Beckett Football, Beckett Basketball, etc.
That season I think I attended 10 races all while working a full-time job with a wife and two kids (not yet in kindergarten) at home. Heading into the Finals at Pomona my wife suggested (strongly) that I rework my deal with Force if I wanted to continue chasing him all over the country. To make a long race-day story short, Force won the championship and Densy and I went into immediate championship media promotion mode. Stories were written and sent out. Phone interviews were lined up for later that night and into the coming week. All the while winner’s circle photos were being taken with the team and sponsors. Force had managed to win the championship and the Auto Club Finals race in Pomona to close out the season.
At one point I was dashing through the winner’s circle when Force yells out, “Ian! Come get a picture with me. Ian, get over here, we’re world champs!” If you follow drag racing you probably know Force is terrible with names. That whole first season I was Ian, not Elon. I went over and stood by Force and he handed me the POWERade NHRA world championship trophy. It was heady stuff as confetti is flying around and Force had his trademark Cheshire Cat grin from ear to ear. He leaned over and asked if I was coming back next year and I immediately blurted out “Hell yes!” I just committed myself to the same deal for 2007. The renegotiation was over before it even began. You never forget your first championship and I always remember that day because it was so surreal and also very hard for me to explain to my wife what exactly had happened.
My next experience celebrating a world championship with Force was one of the greatest sports days of my life. Outside of all the important family dates and events I have, it was really the greatest day of my life. Leading up to the 2010 season I had experienced some of the saddest and scariest moments of my life. We lost Eric Medlen in 2007. Force nearly died six months later in his crash at Texas Motorplex. JFR redesigned the Funny Car, Force was trying every day to get himself healthy and through it all Robert Hight collected his first world championship in 2009.
He entered the Countdown in the 10th position and went on a tear that no one has been able to duplicate racing from tenth to first for the championship. That day was amazing since he had the championship all but locked up heading into Pomona. After he won the championship we were walking to the press room and Robert turned to me and said he would do every single media request the next season. He was so proud to be world champion that he said he would not ever turn down a media interview and I don’t think he did the whole next season.
Getting back to 2010, Force had been dominating all season leading the points from the Winternationals to Reading with the exception of a two race gap in June when Robert moved around him. Hagan was hot on his tail and in Reading a ten cent part on Force’s car broke in the first round against Dale Creasy Jr., and he lost the points lead to Hagan. Force was trailing by two rounds going into the Auto Club Finals. No driver had ever come back from that kind of deficit on the final day of the season. On Sunday morning Force hosted Henry Ford III in our pits and in front of the entire organization he guaranteed he was going to win the championship. He essentially told Ford that if he didn’t win, Ford Racing could fire him. The energy in the pit that day was beyond electric. There was a look in the eye of all of Force’s crew guys that was a laser-focus I had never seen before.
Rolling up for first round Hagan was racing Bob Tasca III a few pairs in front of Force. It was a great race with Tasca getting the win and opening the door for Force to get around Hagan. Force took out his long-time friend Gary Densham and then beat Bob Bode in the second round for the championship. I will never forget Force jumping out of the parade truck in front of the grandstands and hobble-running along the fence line as fans high-fived him and hugged him. It was an amazing comeback story considering right after the 2007 crash doctors told him a good goal would be to try and get in physical shape to walk with a cane. Now three years later he just won his 15th Funny Car championship and he went on to win the race as well.
At the end of the day, long after all the press interviews, Densy and I realized Force left the big check in the press room so we took it home for him. As we were walking by the ESPN compound the crew was breaking down all their equipment and we let them take pictures with the big check. Everyone was happy to see Force back on top. We wound up at the bar at the Double Tree hotel in Pomona and as we were celebrating and calling everyone in our phones to tell them the good news about Force, the bartender asked us why we were so happy. We told her our boss just won half a million dollars and a world championship. I also let her know we had the check in the car. She didn’t believe us so I told her I would go get it if she comped our drinks for the night. She said “Deal” and that is how a wedding party from Ontario that was staying at the hotel got their bridesmaid photos with John Force’s NHRA championship check for $500,000.
The last championship I was a part of with John was 2013 and he surprised everyone by wrapping it up in Las Vegas. Again it was a Hagan versus Force battle all season and coming in Las Vegas the penultimate (I love that word) event of the season Force had a commanding lead but we knew Hagan was going to go for broke. On Sunday morning Hagan lost first round and as I checked my point projections I realized if Force won the race that day he would clinch his 16th Funny Car championship. I confirmed my math with NHRA officials and we agreed a Force win meant a Vegas championship celebration.
Force kept winning and headed into the final he was paired up with his daughter Courtney. This was as tough a match-up for Force as any he faced all season. He is the most competitive person I know and he can get, as he calls it, the “Eye of the Tiger” against anyone except his kids. He loves them so much he can’t demonize them or get to that mental place where you have to destroy your opponent on the playing field. In one of his finest driving jobs he left on Courtney and beat her on a hole shot to win the race and the championship. Thanksgiving was tough that year but it was an awesome display of a competitor digging deep to get the win. The hug I got as he was walking up to the winner’s circle stage was almost rib crushingly strong. He had proved 2010 wasn’t a fluke and he also proved that no matter who and no matter what stood in his way he was still up for the championship fight.
The two weeks later, at the banquet, Force gave an awesome speech about perseverance and teamwork. He then promptly forgot the real $500,000 check and the trophy on the stage. I got to carry both around the rest of the night.
Those four championships will stay with me forever. They were all unique in their own way. I missed being on the team in 2017 when Robert and Brittany doubled up as world champs in Funny Car and Top Fuel. It was strange to watch the race from Texas sitting in my neighbor’s pool. I got a lot of questions about why I didn’t fly out just for that race. It would have been cool to be there for sure but the real joy of the championship isn’t always on Championship Sunday. It is realized from the experience of the Winternationals in February through the season’s ups and downs. It is more gratifying when you think you have things going your way and then they might start slipping and you reign them back in. Being around a competitor like Force, and even Robert, where they can lock in and tune out all the noise is a very cool thing to see from the inside. I am thankful that I was a part of a championship team and I congratulate the 2020 champions. No matter how long the season was and no matter who was racing you beat them all and you earned the big trophy and bragging rights.
It’s a year we’ll never forget.