Hello again blog faithful. We have yet another installment from Elon Werner and it’s great. I will admit that my blood pressure rose and my anxiety level increased a couple of times while reading the sort of stress John Force put him through, and this stuff happened regularly. I could not have done Elon’s job. Period.
Elon writes about the first 4-Wide exhibition during the race in Charlotte. I think that was 2009, because it would’ve been my first year with Tim Wilkerson. My actor buddy Buck Hujabre happened to be in town and was there with us. Thanks to that, I could hand my Nikon camera to Buck and he took this great photo of the four Funny Cars lined up ready to go for that exhibition run. Cool shot. Thanks Buck.
I did not know, however, the depth of the conversations the four drivers and the NHRA officials had prior to, and after, that first toe-dip into the waters of racing four wide. Great detail and much hilarity are found below.
Enjoy the read and, again, let Elon feel the love by clicking on the “Like” button at the bottom.
See you next week!
Last week’s blog about crew chiefs and the 4-Wide Nationals exhibition run reminded me of another memorable exhibition event I was lucky to witness up close and personal. Before I get to that I have to tell an additional story about the four-wide exhibition that didn’t make the cut last week.
In advance of the exhibition race, held after the semifinals of the actual real race, the NHRA held a meeting with the eight drivers who would be participating. Graham Light, NHRA vice president of racing operations, gathered all the drivers in a conference room in the zMAX Dragway tower to go over how the exhibition would be run. He talked about lane assignments and staging procedures and went into great detail on how each team should pull their race car up to the lanes. He also explained how the Christmas Tree lights would work and what the drivers should look for. It was quite an explanation about something that had never been done before, and at the end he asked if there were any questions. John Force immediately started asking Graham about all sorts of scenarios and “what ifs.”
Without missing a beat, Graham said he had planned on rehashing the whole explanation with Force after everyone had left as long as no one else had any questions.
Force then turned to Tim Wilkerson and asked him what kind of burnout he was going to do. Wilk said he was going to do his regular routine. Force just about jumped out of his chair at Wilk and he began ranting about how everyone in that room needed to put on a show for the fans and he was going to do an old-school burnout, and he might even try to dry-hop his Funny Car to turn it around at the finish line, and then do a burnout back to the starting line. He was yelling and pointing at every driver, challenging them to put on a show that legendary promoters like Bill Doner and Humpy Wheeler would be proud to host. He went on chiding and ranting for more than five minutes. I will never forget the look on Top Fuel racer Spencer Massey’s face. It was a combination of terror and confusion. He had no idea what to do with the information Force was commanding him to do, let alone did he have the power to just ignore what his crew chiefs told him.
The one person who was listening was Del Worsham. The exhibition was finally run and immediately after the race the zMAX Dragway PR team brought all the drivers into the pressroom to talk about what had happened. Before anyone said a word Del took the microphone and told the media he had something to say. He recounted Force’s pre-exhibition rant and challenge to the group, and then he said Force had him so fired up that he did the longest burnout he had done in more than 15 years. He said when his Funny Car stopped he was quite proud of himself for what he thought was an epic display of showmanship. His joy was short-lived, he said, because as the clutch dust settled in his cockpit he looked out his windshield and saw that Force was 200 feet further down track. He said he couldn’t believe how far Force went and also how he was shocked at how fast Force flew past him in reverse as he rolled back to the starting line.
The room erupted in laughter when Force said he hadn’t had that much fun since he convinced his high school football team to storm into the cheerleader’s locker room after a big game when he was playing for Bell Gardens High School. Force also gave Del a huge compliment on his burnout and then he chastised Wilk for not stepping up his game. It was classic Force, always the showman.
Well before Neff took the win light at the 4-wide exhibition race he had already had the most spectacular burnout in the history of NASCAR on his resume’. In 2008, during his rookie season, Neff was sponsored by Old Spice. They were a great sponsor for a variety of reasons but the biggest was their relationship with NASCAR and their interest in enhancing the exposure they were getting on the NHRA tour with additional opportunities in the premier stock car series. One opportunity they presented was the chance for Neff to do a burnout before the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. That was a huge deal and one that we could not pass up even though there were some logistical issues we had to work through.
One issue that presented itself as soon as we got to the track was where to do the burnout. The Old Spice marketing team was hoping to have Neff power by the packed grandstands on the race track. On Saturday, as we were looking at the feasibility of that feat, we quickly realized there was no way for Neff to keep his 11,000 horsepower Funny Car far enough away from the grandstands so people could see him and also not have him straddle the banked track and the flat lower apron. We quickly came to the conclusion that it would be impossible, but Force wasn’t listening and he suggested that he could not only do a burnout on the track but he could actually continue the burnout around turn one. I would have paid for the nitro to see if that could work but the Old Spice people wanted their sponsored driver to do the burnout, and that meant we needed a flat surface far enough away from the grandstands so the tens of thousands of fans in attendance could be amazed by the Old Spice Funny Car’s burnout powers.
The next best spot was pit road. It was flat, long and concrete which was perfect for drag racing and burnouts. It was decided Neff would do his burnout down pit road right before the cars came out to start the race. It would be the capper to a spectacular opening ceremony. We were all set and everyone was feeling confident we would put on a good show for Old Spice and positively represent the NHRA.
Race day rolled around, we had Neff’s Funny Car unloaded and crew guys are scurrying around making sure everything was just right. There was a discussion going on about how much fuel the team needed to put in the fuel tank. Force made the executive decision to fill it up so there was no chance of Neff running lean and blowing up. This seemed like a prudent plan at the time. As we were waiting for our “get ready” signal, the opening ceremonies were unfolding and it was a spectacular sight. There were marching bands, and tanks, and pyrotechnics, and a variety of planes buzzing the grandstands. We got the signal to put Neff in the car and we knew that once we got him strapped in we’d have about a seven-minute window to execute the burnout.
The pit road stalls were filled with NASCAR crew guys, officials, and drivers all eager to see what this show would look like. There was some skepticism, though, about whether it would be a big enough deal to be impressive from the grandstands. The team fired up Neff’s Funny Car and he made a quick short hop but we immediately realized we had an issue, since there was no water box for him to roll through. A quick-thinking crewman grabbed a hose from behind the wall and sprayed a liberal amount of water right in front of the nose of the race car. Neff rolled through and hit the throttle with gusto.
The reaction from the NASCAR faithful was priceless. As Neff’s Funny Car roared to life, half of the guys on the wall either fell over backwards or dove for cover like something had gone terribly wrong. Neff continued to power down pit road as smoke billowed out of the back of the Old Spice Funny Car, as if he was birthing the most beautiful white, fluffy, cumulous cloud imaginable. By Neff’s own account he lost track of where he was and the Funny Car tires almost hooked up to really take off before he lifted off the throttle. The roar of his Funny Car was replaced by a wall of sound coming from the grandstands as thousands of fans screamed, clapped and cheered, as if Neff had won the race.
Once Neff stopped the race car, he hopped out of the roof hatch as NASCAR crew guys congratulated him and gave him high fives until his hand was sore. We rolled the Funny Car to the hauler and our job was done for the day.
Force was scheduled to fly back to California during the race so I was in charge of getting him back to his rental car after pre-race. As we were walking to the golf cart behind the pit stalls there was a decent crowd of VIPs, motorsports executives, and team personnel all milling about. One person who was approaching us literally stood head and shoulders above everyone else. The starting center for the Houston Rockets, Yao Ming, was in the pits. As we walked past all 7’ 4” of him, Yao looked down at Force, who was wearing his team uniform shirt looking quite official, and gave him what appeared to be a knowing head nod of appreciation. As we moved past Yao, Force turned to me and asked who that tall guy was and where did I think he was from. I told him that was Yao Ming and he was from China, but he played basketball for the Houston Rockets. Without missing a beat Force said, “I didn’t know people knew about me in China.”
Force and I hopped into a golf cart for the long and winding ride to the parking lot where his rental car was parked. We had to snake our way out of the infield garage area and then go through a tunnel before getting outside of the facility to cross a road to the VIP lot. It was a decent trip and as I pulled up to Force’s car I checked my watch and he had a good two and a half hours before his flight took off. Plenty of time to drive to the airport, return the rental car, go through security and get on his flight to California. We said our good-byes and I headed back to the track to enjoy the race.
By the time I got back on pit road things were wrapping up as far as the pre-race ceremonies. I was standing with Dean “Guido” Antonelli, one of our crew chiefs who had joined the trip to help with the burnout, next to one of the teams during the national anthem when he leaned over to me and said, “I thought you took Force to his rental car.” I told him I did and to quit jerking me around. He pointed to a car a couple rows in front of us and I will be damned if I didn’t see Force talking a mile a minute into Dale Earnhardt Jr’s ear. I could not believe my eyes. I quickly speed-walked through the teams and race cars and sidled up beside Force. I asked him what the heck he was doing and he told me he realized he had to tell Dale Jr. a story about his dad, Dale Sr., so he came back into the track. I asked him how he got back in and he said a state trooper gave him a ride and was waiting to give him a ride back to his rental car.
By then, drivers were climbing into their race cars and we were weaving through the teams. We were walking by the Jack Daniels team when one of the crew guys grabbed Force and asked him to give the team a pep talk. Force gathered the whole team around and told them they are going to kick ass and win this race. He let them know as long as they worked together and trusted each other they would be unstoppable. He wrapped up his impromptu pep talk by saying as long as they love each other there was no team that could beat them and they are going to win the Coca-Cola 600. He would bet his life on it. He told the guys to put their hands together and cheer “Win!” on the count of three. One of the crew guys said, “No. On the count of three say Force!” They all counted down, screamed “Force!” and threw their hands in the air. I had goosebumps because it was such a crazy moment, and as we were walking away Force turned to me and asked, “Who were those guys and why did they want a pep talk from me?” I couldn’t believe it. Force fired up those guys and had no idea who they were. It turned out, years later, Force would reunite with the driver of that Jack Daniels team, Clint Bowyer, when both were sponsored by PEAK Antifreeze and motor oil.
I was constantly checking my watch knowing that every minute we wasted could be the minute that cost Force his flight home to California. We were just about off pit road when NASCAR team owner Jack Roush blew by us. Force immediately turned around and chased him down. They were standing and talking on pit road at one of the garage entrances. A FOX TV official came up and told me I had to get them off pit road right away. I explained there was no way I was interrupting my boss and Jack Roush’s conversation. He clicked on his headset radio and quickly told someone he needed 30 seconds for debris on pit road. He repeated the need to delay the broadcast and start of the race for 30 seconds for debris on pit road. The official turned to me and said I had 30 seconds to get them out of there or they were going to get run over. That’s the power of Force. He can delay the start of a national broadcast by talking shop with Jack Roush, while both of them are being categorized as debris.
By then I was in a full body sweat thinking there was no way I could get Force out of the track and to the airport in time. We found the state trooper sitting in a golf cart and Force told me to get his name and address so we could send him a sleeve of autographed hats for his efforts in driving Force around. I took down the information and watched as Force sped away. I looked at my watch and it was almost exactly an hour until Force’s plane was scheduled to take off. I knew there was no way he was making his flight.
I headed back through the garage area again and made my way to the grandstands and then up to the suite level. One of the perks of being part of the opening ceremonies was we were given passes to one of Bruton Smith’s prime suites. When I walked in I was greeted by Guido, who immediately told me I looked like crap, and he asked if I got Force to the airport in time. I told him what happened and let him know I didn’t think there was any way Force would make his flight.
Almost an hour later my phone rang and it was Force. I thought he was, for sure, calling me to tell me he missed his flight. Once again Force got all the breaks. He was sitting on his plane and they were about to take off. He thanked me for my help and double-checked that I was getting hats to the state trooper. He said that guy really came through for him and I needed to make sure we sent him two sleeves of autographed hats.
I finally got to relax and watch the race, but the whole time I was wondering how in the world Force had made his flight. The next day I got the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say. It turned out that once the state trooper got Force back to his rental car he hopped into his cruiser and gave Force a police escort all the way to the airport. You can make up a lot of lost time when you are driving 100 mph down I-85. Once they got to the airport Force got out of his rental car at the terminal curb and tossed his keys to the trooper. He asked him to take his rental car back to Hertz for him. Force then strolled right through security to his plane, and since he was the last person on the flight he walked right on board and they closed the door behind him. Zero wasted effort and just another day on the road with the 16-time champ.
You can’t make this stuff up.