Hanging With The A-List

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January 7th, 2021

Like much of the country, I was glued to the TV for hours yesterday, in stunned silence with disbelief rattling around in my head. At one point, as the DC curfew began to be enforced, I actually thought “There’s no way I’m posting a blog tomorrow.”

But then I kept watching, and I saw congress take back the chambers they work in, to do the job they had to constitutionally complete despite the mob rule that had defiled the people’s houses just hours before. And I realized it was a bit comforting because it was normalcy. I’m not much for the formality of parliamentary rules and procedures, but I’ve sat on a couple of boards of directors so I understand the need for them. It was normalcy.

These are not normal times, but we all crave normalcy. That’s what we said throughout 2020, blaming the numbers on the calendar instead of the world itself. It didn’t take 2021 a week to plunge into the most horrific abnormal visions I never thought I’d see. And we still crave normalcy. We have to, just to keep our sanity.

So here’s a fantastically written blog from Elon Werner yet again. This is our new normal. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate what he’s been doing with this blog, just so his buddy (me) can concentrate on the normalcy of finishing his book.

Enjoy this. It’s got a lot of John Force in it, so “normalcy” is not really what one would call it, but just to read these stories is indeed normal.

And if it felt good for you to read it, click on that “Like” button at the bottom, just to let Elon and me both know that you appreciate it.

See ya next week!

Bob Wilber

A blurry old photo, but there I am in the back, and there’s Snake, and there’s Larry second from the right. My first trip to the winner’s circle.

Last week I was very excited to see three-time Top Fuel world champion and all-around nice guy Larry Dixon share a letter he received from the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. Dixon was notified he was being inducted into the Hall of Fame class of 2021 and I could not be happier for him. He is in the background of my very first winner’s circle photo. The photo was from Don “The Snake” Prudhomme’s last win as a driver and Dixon was one of his crew guys. Snake won the FallNationals in 1993 and Snake’s PR guy, the late Joe Sherk (another amazing person), encouraged me to hop in a group shot.  Seeing Dixon’s letter reminded me of two Hall of Fame inductions and one “legendary” experience I had with John Force.

After Force’s miraculous 2010 NHRA season, which culminated with his 15th NHRA world championship, the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame, of all places, reached out about inducting John into the Hall. The Hall of Fame displays were housed at Texas Motor Speedway and Force would join actual Texans Lee Shepherd, Kenny Bernstein and Eddie Hill as drag racing members. Force considered himself an honorary Texan, since he wore cowboy boots every day and had won a bunch of NHRA national events in the state, between his dominance at Houston Raceway Park and Texas Motorplex. Longtime motorsports journalist Terry Blount was leading the charge along with legendary DFW motorsports writer John Sturbin. Both of these award-winning writers bent the ear of Eddie Gossage about Force’s place in Texas motorsports lore and I doubt it took much convincing since Eddie wanted to sell tickets to the event at The Speedway Club and he knew Force would give a heck of a speech.

There is no doubt Force was a worthy inductee but as we arrived at the event he was having second thoughts about his place in a Texas Hall of Fame, since he was a diehard drag racer from SoCal. I did my best to remind him of his place in Texas motorsports history and once we got to The Speedway Club he was comfortable with the idea again. We found our table and then the worst part of the event began to unfold; the waiting. Force is not very patient. He doesn’t like to sit still. He doesn’t like to eat unfamiliar foods. I am not saying he has a lot in common with his very active grandsons but sometimes sitting with him at events like that is painful. Luckily, I had a plan. 

Force being interviewed by San Antonio sportswriter Mike Haag.

I knew he wouldn’t be interested in eating so during the dinner portion of the program I took Force around to all the media people in attendance and let Force tell stories. I had prepped a couple of writers in advance of my plan so they knew to eat fast because Force was coming by and they needed to have their recorders or notepads ready. It worked like a charm and we were able to get a ton of interviews done. The media loved the fact that Force came to them. They had no idea how grateful I was that they were the ones being so accommodating. After dinner the speeches started. I knew Force was going to be the last guy to talk so that meant more waiting. I was out of ideas after we walked through the silent auction area and Force bid on a number of items. The main item he wanted was a polished sheet-metal sign that was three feet wide by eight feet tall, with his Hall of Fame credentials and likeness etched from top to bottom. As we were walking back to the table Force turned to me and asked me if I had a Full Throttle energy drink. I just looked at him dumbfounded. He explained he needed a boost of energy and again asked if I had a Full Throttle for him to pound before his speech, to get his energy up. I said I didn’t have any drinks in my suit pockets but I would check with the bartender.

I struck out with the bartender and was doing math in my head about whether I had enough time to leave the ballroom drive across the highway to a convenience store buy a Full Throttle and make it back in time for Force to take the stage. I asked a Texas Motor Speedway staffer if I had enough time and he gave me a hard no. He did say that there was a breakroom a few floors down and he thought there were some energy drinks there. I thanked him and hopped on the elevator, exiting to a darkened floor a few levels down.

The main office was behind a glass wall with two doors. I could see there were lights on down the main hallway and I immediately started banging on the locked front doors. After what seemed like an eternity, a janitor poked his head out from an office and came to the front door. I explained my situation and after some serious name dropping he reluctantly let me in and showed me to the breakroom. I opened the fridge and there were no Full Throttles. As I was losing all hope I spotted a Red Bull mini-fridge in the corner. I raced over and opened the door only to be greeted by a loud clank as the handle hit the chain that was wrapped around the fridge. I know Red Bulls aren’t cheap but do they have to be kept under lock and key and chain?!?!

The good news was the chain was not tight and I was able to tip the fridge forward and pry open the door enough to shake out a Red Bull. Thank goodness those cans were skinny. The janitor was watching this whole scene and thinking he might report me, so I handed him a ten dollar bill and thanked him for his help. Back up in the ballroom I dropped off the Red Bull with the bartender and told her that a man was going to come up and ask for a ginger ale and she should pour the whole Red Bull into a tall glass and give it to him. Again, confusion and another ten dollars to the rescue.

Back at our table I whispered to John I had a drink for him and he needed to go to the bar to get it. There were a number of NHRA officials at our table and since our series sponsor was Full Throttle I didn’t think it would be a good idea for Force to drink a Red Bull right in front of them. Force kept asking me where his drink was and why he had to go to the bar to get it. We were whisper-bickering like an old married couple when I finally just told him what the deal was. He clued in and went to the bar for his drink. He powered it down and then gave one of the greatest Hall of Fame speeches ever. He thanked everyone there and he saw a Marine in his dress blue uniform who he brought him up on stage to thank him for his service. It was magical. 

At the end of the night Force found out he had been outbid on the metal sign and he tracked down the eventual winner. He talked the guy into selling him the sign and we high-tailed it out of there. That huge sign was housed in my office for six months until the FallNationals when I took it to the track so we could put it on the hauler to go back to the Indianapolis shop. 

The International Motorsports Hall of Fame. Force was a first-ballot inductee.

Later that year two more amazing things happened. First, Force got a letter similar to Dixon’s except his letter was from the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Birmingham, Alabama. There are a number of motorsports Halls of Fame and they are all very, very important for a variety of historical reasons but the International Motorsports Hall of Fame was the toughest to get into because of their voting process. It was very similar to the Baseball Hall of Fame where you needed a high percentage of “yes votes” from well over a hundred voters covering all sorts of motorsports. Drag Racing was at a disadvantage since there were fewer voters with a direct tie to our sport. Force’s name was appearing on the ballot for the first time so the fact he was voted in on his first run was quite impressive. His fellow inductees that year would be Kenny Bernstein and Richard Childress. Pretty good company if you ask me.

Before we got to Alabama the second amazing event unfolded. Force was selected to be honored at the 26th annual Great Sports Legends Dinner at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The annual event held every September honored philanthropic heroes and sports legends and brought together celebrities and corporate leaders to support the fundraising efforts of Nick and Marc Buoniconti, who have tirelessly worked to find a cure for paralysis. It was big time. Bob Costas was the emcee and Force’s fellow legends included Olympian Nancy Kerrigan, golfer Ernie Els, NFL legend Harry Carson, and the special honored guests were Don Shula and Jerry Rice. There was a pre-dinner cocktail party and it was top of the line. Also, there was security everywhere. Remember that fact.

Force was super nervous about his speech and called me down to his room about two hours before the festivities so he could rehearse and get feedback from me. He had some great stories about growing up with polio and how he was afraid he might never walk, so he didn’t take anything for granted. He also talked about his rehab from his accident in 2007. All great, heartwarming and personal stories that I knew the crowd would love. I told him he was going to be awesome and I needed to go change into my tuxedo so we could get to the pre-party on time.

As we walked into the ballroom on the third floor, which was serving as the location for the cocktail party, we had to go through a number of security check points and that was just for the pre-party. We got into the room and it was a “who’s who” of sports and entertainment celebrities. Force chatted up a few people but shockingly to those who know the gregarious, fast-talking, race track version of John Force, when he is in that kind of setting he gets very shy. He doesn’t feel like he belongs, so I usually try to draw him out. I introduced him to Jerry Rice by telling Rice that Force was a record-setting football player in his youth before switching to drag racing. Rice was intrigued and then cracked up when he found out Force’s football record is for the most consecutive losses in California high school football history. They quickly started talking about what it takes to be a winner and a champion and I wish I had a recording of those two legends sharing how they find the passion. 

The party was winding down and most of the people had left to go to the main ballroom for dinner. As I was walking out I reached into my jacket to pull out my ticket and credentials to get into the main ballroom, and my pocket was empty. My heart dropped. I have no idea how I lost my tickets but they were nowhere to be found. There was no way I going to make it through all the levels of security with just my charm and good looks.

If you walk with Wayne Newton, you apparently don’t need a ticket or credential.

Luckily, I had a secret weapon at my disposal; Wayne Newton. Yes, Las Vegas legend Wayne Newton was still in the room. I had spoken to him briefly, earlier in the evening and I reintroduced myself as he was walking out of the room. I knew he was going to the main event so I figured as long as I was with him, and engaged in conversation, no one would stop me. Sure enough we waltzed through seven security check points (Yes, I counted) and as we approached the red carpet entrance I ducked under a red velvet rope to get into the main event. I had successfully used Wayne Newton as a human credential.

Once we got into the main room I sought out Bob Costas and asked him to introduce Force as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I thought Force would get a kick out of it and Costas loved the idea. Force killed his speech even though he only used about 10 percent of what we went over in his hotel room. He is one of the best off-the-cuff speakers I have ever seen. He can read a room and know just how to connect with the crowd. He had people rolling with funny stories and then he gave a very moving request for donations that I know drove the total up tens of thousands of dollars.

At the end of the night, Dave Densmore and I hit the town looking for a slice of traditional New York style pizza, just to celebrate. We also marveled at the fact that a dirt-poor kid from Bell Gardens, California had just stolen the show at a high dollar charity dinner at the freaking Waldorf-Astoria hotel.  

Now let’s get to the good stuff. Force’s induction night in Alabama for the International Motorsports Hall of Fame is still talked about to this day by those in attendance. We drove down to Birmingham after the Southern Nationals in Atlanta if my memory is holding up. Once we got there we took a tour of the museum and they showed the inductees where their displays would be placed and there were some photo ops. Force was asking questions about the Hall of Fame ring and trophy as well as just chatting up the folks that ran the program. He was very appreciative and thanked them about ten times for giving him the chance to go into this Hall of Fame.

We got dressed at the hotel and the Hall of Fame had arranged for a limo to take Force, Kenny Bernstein, NHRA president Tom Compton, NHRA vice president Jerry Archambeault, NHRA legendary announcer Bob Frey, and myself to the event. On the way to the event Force was talking about who would get more ink if the limo crashed. Would it be him or Bernstein? It made Kenny very uncomfortable and I am not sure Tom or Jerry thought it was very funny either. Bob and I just kind of chuckled because we both knew if the limo crashed we would just be “and others.” Legendary drag racers John Force and Kenny Bernstein along with NHRA executives Tom Compton and Jerry Archambeult and others perished in a limousine accident.  

As we were getting settled at our table I excused myself because I had one task to take care of before dinner and the speeches. I had brought two Monster Energy drinks for Force to jump start his energy and I needed a place to stash them. I found a bartender and asked if he would hold onto the drinks for my boss. He said no problem so I felt like I was all set. Dinner went great and we were halfway through the speeches when I went to retrieve Force’s Monster Energy drinks. To my shock all the bars had been broken down and there is not a soul anywhere around. I searched under every table. No drinks. I had to go back to the table and report to Force that I had lost his drinks. To my surprise he said no problem and immediately grabbed his fork and started eating the icing off of all the desserts at the table. He fired back three cups of coffee and headed to the stage.

Once on stage Force thanked two people for getting him into the Hall of Fame, his Hall of Fame crew chief Austin Coil and his long-time public relations manager Dave Densmore. He told a great story about how Densmore got him more ink when he was terrible than anyone ever could have expected. He credited Coil with making him a Hall of Fame driver and Densmore with making him a Hall of Fame talker. During his speech Force got emotional and pledged to give Densmore the Hall of Fame trophy because he had been such a good friend throughout Force’s career. As soon as Force made the gesture Bruce Ramey, the Hall of Fame manager, and I locked eyes for a second and Bruce had a look of total panic. We both knew that there was only one trophy and it was headed to the display in the museum.

At the end of the speech Bruce told Force there was only one trophy but Force countered with “That can’t be” because he just had given that trophy away to Densmore and he couldn’t possibly ask for it back. Force asked Bruce where he could buy another one for the Hall of Fame display, as well as a third one for his shop in California. Eventually we got the trophy maker’s contact info and Force is now the only Hall of Famer with multiple trophies. There is one in Alabama and there is one in California and the last one is in Texas in Densmore’s office. 

In addition to giving away a trophy to Densmore, Force got Richard Childress and Rick Hendrick confused as he was congratulating Childress on all his accomplishments with Jeff Gordon. Force also tried to play match maker between Austin Dillon, Childress’ grandson, and either of his daughters Brittany or Courtney. The crowd was loving it and we were all convinced Force was only halfway kidding. After the event Tony Stewart who was at the event to accept his Driver of the Year Award came up to Force and said his speech was one of the funniest and most heartfelt he had ever experienced.

There is no doubt Larry Dixon is a Hall of Famer but in the pantheon of Hall of Famers there should be another level for guys like John Force, a sort of Hall of Fame of Hall of Famers. He is hands-down the most deserving, and I don’t think anyone would take issue with that fact. I am thankful I got to be a small part of adding to his career.