Hey gang! Get in, put on your seatbelts, and get ready for a John Force blog, which actually starts out with Werner family Santa photos. Elon is back once again (Alan Reinhart says I have to stop calling him my “pinch hitter” because he’s playing in every game and hitting over .500 at this point.) He will, however, remain my guest blogger until I get closer to the finish line with the new book. I’m basically done with Chapter 30 now, but honestly don’t feel like I’m in control of it. The two characters in my head are truly writing the story now. I just type. It’s the weirdest thing.
Elon also mentions riding on the back of Force’s scooter, and that he will have tales of those dangerous adventures in a future blog. I, too, have a Force scooter tale, and I’ll be sure to relay that in my introduction whenever that particular blog happens. I’m lucky I survived with both legs intact.
So, enjoy another blog by my friend and esteemed colleague Elon Werner. The visuals, both in terms of photos and mental images, are priceless. And, as always, let Elon know how much you appreciate how he has stepped in to be my “guest blogger” (you’re welcome Alan) while I focus on the new book. You can do that easily, by clicking on the “Like” button at the bottom.
With Christmas right around the corner, the Werners are planning to keep one of our few family traditions on track in this crazy world we live in. Every year, the kids have gotten their photo with Santa. Daughter Abby had a couple of years on her own, after she was born, but since the arrival of son Nick we have never missed a year of Santa photos. It was a highlight moment for sure. All the photos are framed and placed on our mantle by wife Jenn. It is a highlight for me to watch her put out the photos and get a little teary eyed. It truly is Christmas time with the Santa photos are arranged just right.
This year we are trying to find a Santa location that is socially distanced without being too weird looking. Our go-to location, where we have taken photos for the last five or six years, is open
but we aren’t sure about their set-up. We love going to “Santa on the Hill” (the location is Cedar Hill, Texas) because the same women have been running it for years and they love to see our kiddos. Abby and Nick are by far the oldest customers on most occasions and they rarely have crying fits or pee on Santa. We also love catching up with Santa too.
I am sure we will work something out but as I was thinking about taking Santa photos it got me thinking of many of the photo events I have been a part of over my career. I am guessing that many of Bob’s faithful readers have a general understanding of a lot of the behind-the-scenes work and planning that goes into many of our sporting events, but staged photos take it to a whole new level. If there is a significant milestone coming up, you want to capture it in the perfect setting with the perfect lighting and perfect props. Also big smiles are key. “Smiles everyone, smiles!”
I have been a photo stand-in for John Force on too many occasions to count. I would volunteer to sit, stand or lean wherever a photographer needed the real John Force to be, so they could get the lighting just right or see if their mental vision translated to real imagery. It was one of those duties that PR people get roped into just to make sure it is easier on the drivers, and it also gives you a sneak peek at what the finished product will look like.
The first photo event that jumps to the front of my mind is the photo I coordinated to commemorate John Force winning his 1,000th round of racing in 2008. You might remember from a previous blog that Force had a shot at 1,000 during the Atlanta race that year, but was stopped at 999 round wins by his daughter Ashley. The next race was in St. Louis and he just needed one round win. I had devised a plan in coordination with Phil Burgess, editor of National Dragster, and the NHRA marketing department to get a photo at the top end, of Force with some Goodyear tires displayed in a particular fashion to signify the No. 1,000. We actually caught a break by not getting 1,000 in Atlanta because while I had a plan I had not yet reviewed the plan with Force.
In St. Louis, I was able to secure the four tires I needed, get them to the top end, and also talk with the Safety Safari team about the best spot to stop Force’s car that was A) A natural spot to direct him to, and B) Kind of out of the way at the top end. NHRA had agreed to hold up the show for photos of the big event right after his run so we could get everything just right. On Saturday night, after qualifying, I rode with John to the top end on the back of his ever-present scooter (we will talk about what riding a scooter with John Force is like in a later blog) and I walked him through the plan for the photo. I showed him where he was going to be directed to stop and I had even painted a huge square as sort of a landing zone for him to stop his Funny Car. I also tried to convince him I wasn’t jinxing him by just having a plan for the photo.
Sunday morning arrived and Force was lined up beside long-time rival Ron Capps. Not exactly a lay-up for your 1,000th round win, but Force had qualified a little better than Capps so he at least had lane choice. In a classic Force hyper-competitive move, knowing history was on the line, he had a great reaction time and won on a hole-shot to get round win 1,000. I was at the top end beside my carefully placed photo zone with a big gaggle of photographers positioned to get the perfect shot of Force emerging from his Funny Car, and that’s when things start falling apart. Force came off the track hot, he overshot the landing area by about 60 feet and also locked up his clutch so there was no chance to move his race car. On top of that NHRA ran one more pair of Funny Cars after Force, which included our rookie driver Mike Neff, who was winless on the season. He picked up his first round win right after Force grabbed No. 1,000 so Force went running/hobbling over to Neff’s car. Force was still recovering from the 2007 crash so he was not what you would call a track star. Force was hugging Neff and congratulating him on his first round win, and all the while I am trying to pull him back over to his race car for this photo I have been planning for months. I am not kidding. I was physically grabbing Force by his fire suit yelling at him to get away from Neff and go to his race car. By the time I got Force away from Neff, the photographers had all moved to the new location and I was able to get the tires in place.
We even had a special sign but there is always one detail that gets overlooked. I didn’t have a sign guy, so Ben Reiling, Coca-Cola VP of Marketing, stepped in to hold the sign and get no visible credit for being in this historic photo. I was also captured in the photo trying to get out of the way. You can see all these little elements in the photo: Neff’s Funny Car in the background, some guy (Ben Reiling) holding a sign and another partial guy (me) on the right. It was a crazy ten minutes but every time I see this photo I smile.
The other photo event that jumps out in my memory is the John Force photo shoot for the ESPN The Magazine “Body Issue.” Many years ago ESPN was tired of giving up the high or low ground, depending on your perspective, to Sports Illustrated for producing the annual swim suit issue. ESPN upped the ante by coming up with the idea of highlighting the athletic form by taking photos of athletes completely nude, with them performing athletic feats or holding their equipment to hide their private parts. It was all very tasteful and artsy and it was a HUGE hit. It was the most popular ESPN magazine every year and got a lot of additional media attention.
There was an annual section highlighting athletes with the bodies that you wanted plus assorted athletes in unique poses. In 2011, I pitched ESPN on the idea of doing a photo shoot with Force, highlighting the body that you don’t want. By this time he had healed from his 2007 crash and was coming off the 2010 season in which he had just won another Funny Car world championship. His body was visibly a wreck. Scars and callouses lined his arms, hands and legs. It was not a pretty sight but it was also visually striking. ESPN loved the idea, so then all I had to do was get Force and all the sponsors to agree. Luckily, Force had saved everything from the crash so we were able to use his fire suit and one of his gloves to show the exterior damage for additional sponsor “exposure.”
I had a long talk with Force, during which I laid out my idea and showed him examples from the magazine of what other athletes had done. He was fine with letting them take photos of his legs and hands but when I said they also want a full body shot I had to get creative. I told him he could hold his helmet strategically in front of himself for the photo and it would be a really cool shot. I let him know that his sponsors were OK with the idea and it not only would be an amazing tribute to the safety of the sport, but also of his determination to come back from the 2007 crash. He agreed and we had to sign a ton of paperwork and pick a date for the photo shoot.
We decided to use the shop in Yorba Linda, California because we had an area that could be closed off and provide us some privacy. I will say this for ESPN: They took this very seriously and ensured that all the athletes were completely comfortable. They could not have been more professional.
On the day of the shoot I flew out to the shop to make sure everything went smoothly. The photo crew showed up right on time. I got them squared away and they began setting up their lights and equipment. The make-up people also arrived and I got them set up in a side office. Things were moving right on time and I just had to wrangle up Force. This is when things went sideways.
I went into Force’s office and he was wearing Hermes taupe boxer briefs. That was all he was wearing. He asks me how I thought they would look in the photo shoot. I told him it didn’t matter, because he wouldn’t be wearing that underwear in the photoshoot. He won’t be wearing any underwear at all. He looked at me like I was crazy and he asked me what I meant. I told him they were going to taking photos of him naked and that he agreed to this months before. He immediately started arguing with me, saying I never told him he wouldn’t have any clothes on for these naked photos. That is the quote, “You never told me I wouldn’t have any clothes on for these naked photos!”
He followed that statement up by asking me if I was trying to bankrupt him and cost him all his sponsors. I told him that all his sponsors approved and had to sign agreements. He started calling sponsors apologizing and saying he didn’t know what I was getting him into. This went on for quite a while, and it got so heated I said I would go downstairs and tell the photographers he had changed his mind and they could go home. I also said if that happened we would most likely never get coverage in the magazine again and it could impact our TV coverage during the races on ESPN. I might have embellished a little on that front but there was no way I was going to call off this photo shoot. Once Force heard it could cost him media coverage he changed his tune. It took a little more convincing but I let him know how professional this would be and I assured him the ESPN photographer would make him look like a Greek god. He grabbed a robe and we went downstairs.
Once we got on the set it took about an hour for Force to be comfortable in this very weird environment. The photographer and his assistant had a couple of ideas for some posed photos and they would stage the photo to get the lighting right. Then they would have Force come in to the shot with his robe on to again see how it looked with lighting, and they would then have Force hand the robe to his assistant for the actual photos. The assistant who took the robe from Force is the guy typing this blog.
ESPN did about five different shots including some with the race car. Force got comfortable enough that at one point he was suggesting photos that were, let’s just say, more provocative than ESPN was looking for. After about four hours of shooting we wrapped up and went up the street to the TGIFriday’s for dinner. I don’t think the ESPN photographers went with us but to be honest my brain was a little fried from that much personal time with Force. It was well worth it when the magazine came out and Force was the only athlete with a two page layout made even better by some great editorial from Ryan McGee.
Photos are forever and they should always bring a memory to the front of your consciousness. My kids Santa photos always do that and so do many photos of Force, with or without the Hermes boxer briefs.