This might be my favorite blog penned, so far, by my esteemed colleague and good friend Elon Werner. It addresses a topic that only people who have held the positions we did, in the sport of NHRA Drag Racing, would understand completely. It’s the relationship between the PR person and the driver, and the crew chief, and the team owner. Such a thing varies from team to team because people are different and chemistry dictates who gets along and who doesn’t.
I was incredibly fortunate to work about 20 years for Del Worsham and Tim Wilkerson. You just can’t do better than that, as a PR rep. They’re both owners, drivers, and tuners, plus they’re down-to-earth humble people. I was very fortunate, and always felt like I was a valued part of the team with them.
I also had the good fortune to work with other crew chiefs when CSK Auto upped our budget so that we could run two Funny Cars instead of just one. The original crew chief on the blue CSK car was David Fletcher, and a nicer guy I don’t think I’ve ever met. He’s British, and still has much of his lovely accent, but he was open, respectful, inquisitive, and caring. What a great guy to work with.
In the original blue team trailer, David’s work station and computer was positioned in a stand-up area right next to the small flight of stairs that led to the lounge, where I worked. I’d have to squeeze behind him to get up there, and when they’d make a good run I’d say “You’re my hero, David.” When things didn’t go well, he’d ask me “Am I still your hero, Bob?” I’d always say, “You are, and you always will be, David.”
Elon mentions Bernie Fedderly, who was Austin Coil’s righthand man for John Force. I must mention that Bernie, as famous and legendary as he already was, really was the first big-name crew chief from another rival team who treated me like I was as important as any other person at the track. What a gem of a man. He’s retired now, but I’ll never forget his kindness and the fact he learned my name almost immediately and always had something nice to say.
Mark Oswald was another gem who always had something positive to say. I won’t forget the mutual team dinner we had in Indy after Del won both the US Nationals and the Skoal Showdown, while Larry Dixon won in Top Fuel. During the huge dinner with all of our teams filling the backroom at a Brownsburg steakhouse, even before I made my traditional speech to the gathering, Mark walked up to me and said “Bob, you are really good at what you do.” Words like that, from a crew chief, are priceless. Chris Cunningham and Marc Denner were, and still are, good friends.
Elon leads off with Rahn Tobler, and he’s always been another superstar in my book. Incredibly talented, but always kind to a nobody like me. I hope Rahn enjoys retirement!
I’ve been so lucky to know so many gracious and incredibly smart people who make Nitro cars go so fast. Their brains are off the charts.
In addition, Elon’s mention of “running the sheets” to the crew chiefs strikes home with me and just about any other PR rep who worked in the sports until a few years ago. A session or a round would end, and we’d all be captives in the Media Center until Race Control compiled the order and the incremental times, and then got them to the NHRA Media Relations staff, who would run them through a large Xerox copier. It seemed to take, quite literally, forever. And we all knew our crew chiefs and drivers were waiting for us, no doubt drumming their fingers on the desk wondering why the PR person was so slow bringing them to the pit.
Add in the stress of being at a huge venue, like Topeka or Charlotte, and the whole thing just got more and more stressful. Those memories are not fond, for me. There was a lot of pressure to get those sheets to the pit so that the tuners could make adjustments based on the incremental times, in the short amount of time they had to turn the car around. If the copier would jam, well… As they say in New Jersey, “Fuggetaboutit.” And yes, there were a few times the NHRA rep would get the sheets and then engage in a conversation with someone else, forgetting to actually copy them. Meanwhile, we were all pacing in circles, fearing that we’d be fired for not getting those to the crew chief.
So here’s Elon, telling you what it’s like to be the PR rep when the pressure is on. If you enjoy, please click on that “Like” button at the bottom. Cheers, everyone!
When I heard the news that legendary crew chief Rahn Tobler was retiring it was a bittersweet moment. I was incredibly happy he was leaving on his own terms but also sad I never made it to one of his legendary Friday night “crew chief lounge” wine sessions.
We did have a moment of sorts last year in St. Louis. I was beside him at the hotel counter as we checked in and his wife Ellen noticed I had a bag of snacks, which she said was right up Rahn’s alley. My Wal-Mart bag was stuffed with Almond Joys, Little Debbie Star Crunches and some other sugar rich treats. Rahn commented that I had an impressive selection of snacks. High praise coming from a guy who I assume spent hours upon hours cooped up in trailer lounges trying to maintain focus powered by coffee, chocolate or other assorted caffeine/sugar delivery devices. I join a massive group of fans and colleagues wishing nothing but the best for Rahn in the future.
Rahn’s departure opened up a section of my memory bank filled with tales of horror and comedy from my time dealing with assorted crew chiefs over my career. One thing people might not understand is that the relationship between the public relations staff and the sports team personnel, especially in motorsports, is very similar to the relationship between werewolves and vampires from the global best-selling Twilight series. We have an uneasy alliance that can turn bloody very easily.
I have been lucky to interact with some of the most legendary crew chiefs in the modern era. They are or will be Hall of Famers and dealing with them was a highlight of my career. The most iconic crew chief I ever worked with was the great Austin Coil, who tuned John Force from obscurity to the top of the drag racing pyramid for over three decades. When I came on board their successes were too numerous to count and their relationship was comparable to that of an old but very much still in love married couple. They knew how to push each other’s buttons but they also knew how to bring out the best in one another.
In 2009 during the NHRA Carolina Nationals at the famed zMax Dragway, the Bellagio of Drag Strips, the NHRA decided to host an exhibition four-wide race. The following season the series would have the first official four-wide national event, and to get people excited they wanted to give the fans a little taste of the action. It was decided that the participants would be plucked from the eight first-round losers in Top Fuel and Funny Car, with the exhibition contested after the semi-finals. The Funny Car foursome would be made up of John Force, who immediately volunteered after he lost, along with teammate Mike Neff, Del Worsham and Tim Wilkerson.
After the first round Force was talking with Coil about how he needed to do a super long burn-out to get the fans hyped up for the exhibition race. Coil was telling him that was not possible when you consider how precisely they were managing fuel flow. Force reiterated he had to do a massive burn-out and Coil needed to figure out how to make that possible. Coil shot back at Force that he could do whatever he wanted since his name was on the side of the trailer but if he executed a lengthy burnout Coil could not guarantee there would be fuel left in the motor at the finish line. Voices were now well beyond casual conversation levels and Force once again said he needed to be able to do a long burn-out. Coil told Force he could do whatever he wanted to do but, no more fuel was going to be added to his Funny Car. I think there might have been an emphatic tooth pick point from Coil to further define his position. Force stormed out of the trailer screaming at Coil to make it happen and Coil simply swiveled in his chair and went back to work.
When it was time for the exhibition run Force executed an old school burnout that went well past half-track. He then backed up so fast he was the first Funny Car back to the starting line. The crowd went nuts just as Force had hoped. When the Christmas Tree fired Force’s Funny Car leapt off the starting line and was charging for the exhibition race win. Just as he was approaching the finish line his motor blew up due to a lack of fuel and Mike Neff took a hole-shot win. When Force got back to the trailer he stormed in to confront Coil about what had happened. He was so mad he could barely speak and Coil just looked at him and calmly said, “I told you what was going to happen.” He spun around in his chair and went right back into his computer. It was one of the few times I had ever seen Force speechless because he was so furious.
The following year I was tasked with, hands down, the most stressful job I ever had at John Force Racing. I am not kidding about how terrified I was for nearly an hour on Saturday afternoon during the final qualifying session of the Auto Club Finals. Force and Matt Hagan were locked in a tight championship battle for the Funny Car title. Coming into the race, Force trailed Hagan by 37 points and after three rounds of qualifying he was 41 points back. That was a problem since each round of racing on Sunday was worth 20 points, so Force was three rounds behind Hagan at that moment, by that one solitary point. I was told to get on the headset for the final qualifying session and keep the team, mainly Austin Coil, updated in real time what the point situation was. The JFR radio channels were like a community line for each team. Everyone on Force’s team could talk at one time including Force, who talked all the time. He talked so much that when Ashley Force was racing she made sure her team was on a completely different channel to avoid listening to her dad.
Before the final qualifying session I positioned myself on the right-hand side of the track with a clear view of the scoreboards. I had never been on the headsets before so Bernie Fedderly had to give me a quick rundown of how they worked. With each pair of Funny Cars I would note their elapsed times and update the team of the current bonus point situation. The quickest three race cars got 3-2-1 bonus points each session, and we needed a combination of points that would help us close the gap on Hagan to less than 40 points going into race day.
Force and Hagan were running beside each other and right before they ran Coil was all over me asking where they stood against Hagan. I told him we had to run quicker than him this session. Both cars took off and made excellent runs but Force was quicker and as I quickly jotted down ETs and compared to the qualifying sheet Force had gained three critical points and now only trailed Hagan by 38 points.
Over the radio I told Coil we were within two rounds but he wanted the number. He and Force were screaming asking for the specific point differential. I told them we were 38 points back but there were two more pairs of cars. We weren’t out of the woods yet but after those pairs ran and did not run quicker than Force we were all set. Again, more yelling over the headset and I confirmed the gap as 38 points and we just needed to go two more rounds than Hagan on Sunday for the championship. I handed my headphones back to Bernie and said I was never going to do that again. I was exhausted and drenched in sweat from the stress.
In addition to keeping up with points one of the other major tasks most PR people had to do to support the crew chiefs was the delivery of the qualifying sheets after each session. This has now been computerized in the last couple of years but prior to that improvement PR people would anxiously wait in the media center for the NHRA staff to copy run sheets that had all the incremental times for crew chiefs and drivers to review. It was sometimes a race against the clock to get the info to the crew chiefs in a timely fashion.
One time I was running sheets and I mean literally running to get sheets from one team to the next in our pit area, when I darted through the JFR Technology Center, which was two semi-trailers parked beside each other to create one big unit all the crew chiefs worked out of. The trailers had lower levels with work stations and upper levels for storage.
There was an elevator platform used to raise and lower everything, from engine blocks, to tires, to boxes. On this day the platform had been used but had not been raised completely to the roof. It was almost there but for someone who is almost 6’ 5” almost was not enough. I was hustling through the trailer to give Coil his sheets when my forehead collided with the edge of the platform and very much like a Looney Tunes cartoon my entire body kept running, eventually becoming parallel with the ground before gravity took over and I landed with a thud at Coil’s feet. I was seeing stars as I gathered myself, and Coil simply asked me to quit showing off and give him his sheets. He also handed me a dirty rag that, unbeknownst to me, had a fair amount of Brake Clean on it for my bleeding forehead. The burning sensation I experienced from the rag made me forget about my throbbing head injury. Later that day Coil did thank me for my efforts to get him his sheets as quickly as possible which I honestly took as high praise.
I have two other epic crew chief stories. In 2009 Robert Hight was in a serious slump most of the summer. His crew chief Jimmy Prock was chasing one gremlin after another in the Auto Club Funny Car. One Saturday night my PR partner Dave Densmore and I were returning to the team hotel, and let’s just say we were bumping up against the team curfew. As we were walking through the lobby we heard a familiar voice and realized Jimmy was in the lobby talking tuning combinations to no one in particular. He was also chewing his collar like nobody’s business. The University of Nevada – Las Vegas college basketball head coach and Hall of Famer Jerry Tarkanian used to chew on a folded towel on the sidelines but Jimmy’s collar chewing was more of a private quirk.
That night he stopped us to ask us our opinion on what he should do with Robert’s Funny Car tune-up. Densmore and I looked at each other and just shrugged our shoulders. We would have had better luck trying to crack a safe with a stethoscope based on the level of fine tuning a crew chief needed. The fact he even asked us had us very concerned. Like all true geniuses Jimmy kept working the problem and eventually figured it out just in time for the greatest Countdown comeback in NHRA history, winning the Funny Car championship.
My last great crew chief story comes from one of the most impressive drivers and crew chiefs on the NHRA tour. I have so much respect for guys like Tim Wilkerson and Cruz Pedregon who drive, tune and own their whole operation. The amount of stress and focus you need to wear all three of those hats is unmatched in most modern sports. I would add Mike Neff to the list of driver/crew chief geniuses.
In 2011 Neff was driving and tuning his Funny Car as part of the JFR stable. At the U.S. Nationals that year he was having a terrible time in qualifying. At the end of each day I would swing by for quotes and he would simply tell me he had no idea what was going on or why his race car was doing what it was doing. He said he was completely lost and I should leave him alone.
After three days of qualifying Neff was in the show as the No. 9 qualifier but he had zero confidence he was going to do anything on race day. On Monday morning I stopped him as he was pulling out to head to the staging lanes for the first round of eliminations. I asked him how he thought his day was going to go. He told me he had changed everything on the race car and it was either going to haul ass or it was going to blow up before it got past the Christmas Tree.
His quickest run going into race day was a 4.118 second pass and in the first round he trailered teammate Robert Hight with a 4.086 second run. After that run Neff told me he thought he was on to something. On the next three runs Neff ran 4.062, 4.060 and in the final for the win over Bob Tasca III he ran another 4.068-second pass. After the first round there was only one other 4.06 pass the entire rest of the day. It was a piece of crew chief mastery. Neff won the U.S. Nationals the next year but he always told me the 2011 win was the best one because he wasn’t expecting it and he just caught lightning in a bottle at the biggest race of the year.
Watching those three crew chiefs win big races, win championships and also suffer devastating losses gave me a real appreciation for the intricacies of drag racing. A million things have to go right for a great run and only one thing has to go wrong to ruin a run. Crew chiefs have to keep their heads about them when everyone else is panicking. Guys like Coil, Prock and Neff showed me how to handle pressure and also how to manage adversity. They answered a lot of dumb PR guy questions but they also made sure I felt like I was part of the team. I can’t thank them enough and I look forward to seeing them continue to work their magic on the race track.