A Little “Back and Forth”

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March 11th, 2021

I shall quote the words of a comedic genius, the one-and-only John Cleese, who often uttered this line with deadpan sincerity on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” when he’d say “And now for something completely different.”

I’ve been mentally toying with the idea of collaborating a little more directly with my colleague Elon Werner, on this blog. I miss doing it by myself, but my new book demands so much attention I just can’t do it justice, week in and week out. So, as you’ve no doubt noticed, I typically add an introduction atop each of his submissions. That served a purpose, and kept me connected, but it wasn’t a true collaboration.

And then it hit me. Let’s actually write a blog together! Not a classic formal “Q & A” thing, but more of a conversation between the two of us. Just two friends asking questions about each other’s lives and interests. Could we do that? Are we good enough at this thing to make that even readable?  I guess we’re about to find out.

If you enjoy it, you know there’s a “Like” button at the bottom and that would be a wonderful thing to click on.

Here’s our ad lib “conversation”…

Bob- My man. I know a lot about your career from the Texas Motorplex on through the John Force years, but tell me about your childhood. It was just recently that I learned that you grew up in Texarkana, on the Texas side of the road. What was it like? What were your parents like? Just fill me in on young Elon…

Baking with my mom!

Elon: I had a great childhood. As an only child I had to entertain myself growing up but my parents also made it a point to include me in events and quality time with other adults, even as a young kid. Both of my parents worked for universities, which led to our move to Texas. They were both working at Auburn University in Alabama when I was born. Ironically, I was born on Columbus Day in Columbus, Georgia and was almost named Christopher. My dad was offered a position at East Texas State University in Texarkana, Texas when I was about four or five so we moved and I have been a Texan ever since.

Texarkana was a cool town, since it was split down the middle by State Line Avenue. One side of the city was in Arkansas and the other side in Texas. The courthouse straddled the state line so one side handled Arkansas business and the other side of the building handled Texas. The Arkansas county was allowed to sell beer and wine and the Texas side was a dry county, so State Line Avenue was a funny street. One side had all the beer stores and the other side had all the fast food joints. 

The first house I lived in, in Texarkana

We lived in four houses while I was in Texarkana. The first one was in Pleasant Grove which was sort of outside of town. We moved to a smaller house on Holiday Lane when I was in elementary school and I got a trampoline. I loved bouncing and flipping on that thing. One time I wrecked my bike and managed to cut a gash in my ankle. At the hospital they stitched me up and as they were discharging me I asked them what I could and couldn’t do. They said I could pretty much do anything I wanted, so as soon as I got home I got right on my trampoline. An hour later we were back in the ER re-stitching my ankle since I had blown out all the stitches.

We moved to a bigger split level house when I was in junior high and that was great. My parents were big entertainers. They would host an annual wine and cheese party and it was kind of a big deal in Texarkana. They would drive to Dallas and get cases of wine and specialty cheeses for the affair. It was a really cool mix of people from the University, my mom’s consulting business, our church, neighborhood people, and people my parents knew professionally. I was encouraged and expected to make the rounds talking with the adults. This is the best gift my parents ever gave me. The ability to carry on a conversation with a stranger, or having the confidence to introduce myself to someone new, was a skill I continue to try and perfect.

Bob- So tell me more about the split of the town into the Arkansas side and the Texas side. Must have been a heck of a sports rivalry, right?

Elon- The high school rivalry between Texas High and Arkansas High was ranked by ESPN a few years ago as one of the fiercest in the country. People would egg your house and we camped out in front of the high school to “protect” our marquee which had a Tiger on top. One year it was painted red by some Arkansas kids so we tried to never let that happen again. My senior year I bought a pig’s head from a butcher and had it on a stick at the football game. By the second quarter I realized that was a terrible idea. The smell just about allowed me to have my own section.

Elon- OK, your turn. I visited St. Louis a couple years ago with my family and really fell in love with the city. The history and also all the different neighborhoods. I know you have been away for quite a while but it must have been a great place to grow up and then to go back and visit. What, for you, has changed the most and also stayed the same?

Bob- I honestly believe St. Louis has never been better. It’s in its glory days right now, and I love going back. We’ll likely never leave Minnesota and all of our great friends here, but if something ever came up that directed us to move to St. Louis I would do it in a heartbeat.

My unique and wonderful “home town”

All the way up through high school, St. Louis seemed stuck in a kind of malaise. So much great history, so many incredible things to do and see, but it was just rough around the edges. Like it needed a fresh start or a deep cleaning.

It got the first “fresh start” in the early 60s when a dreary old downtown full of brick warehouses left over from the riverboat days, was cleared away for the construction of the Gateway Arch. I watched it go up, section by section, as a kid. At the same time, Busch Stadium (what we now call Busch 2, the circular park with the arch-shaped openings in the overhang) was also being built. It was like taking an eraser to the downtown chalkboard and starting over. It made a huge difference.

But, despite the Arch, the sports, and the restaurants, downtown never really was a place people lived. They worked there, then went home to the suburbs, just like my mom did when she worked for the Cardinals at Busch and we lived in Kirkwood. I wasn’t sure that was ever going to change.

It has now. It’s not Manhattan by any stretch, but people do live downtown. It’s got a totally different vibe to it and I love it. And now, the Arch and its renovated grounds have been named a National Park. Up until recently, it was “just” a National Monument. Having a National Park in your downtown brings in a large amount of new tourists. And the renovation of the grounds included, finally (after only about 50+ years,) the fact the Arch is now directly connected to downtown with a beautiful park. Up until now, I-70 sliced between downtown and the Arch, making it a really unpleasant walk from any hotel or the ballpark.

And when the current Busch Stadium was built, we heard grand plans about “Ballpark Village” being built just north of it. Throughout my life, those “visions” always sounded great but never seemed to happen. It took Ballpark Village a while to happen, but now it’s a fabulous mixed-use area with condos, apartments, and entertainment. When the Cardinals are in town, it’s the place to be. Imagine having a condo right next to Busch Stadium, and sitting on your balcony when the Redbirds are playing the Cubs.

On top of all that, all the truly great stuff is still great. Forest Park is better than ever. The Zoo. The Art Museum. The Muny Opera, the Fox Theater, and on and on. Plus all the various entertainment and dining areas all around the city and the suburbs. And man, the St. Louis-style pizza and toasted ravioli still rock my world. I’d live there again tomorrow. I truly would. I miss it enormously.

Bob- Now back to you, Mr. Werner. I know you spent some time with the Dallas Mavericks. Tell me more about that, the NBA experience, and what the players and staff members were like. Right now, I’ve just finished Kevin Garnett’s book “KG – A to Z” and it was fabulous. Very open, extremely honest, and a real view into a basketball world I really know almost nothing about, other than as a spectator. I highly recommend it.

Elon- I’ll have to read that book. Sounds great. We have talked about internships and mentors before but getting the job as an intern at the Dallas Mavericks was one of the those opportunities that changed my life. My bosses, Kevin “Sully” Sullivan and Tony Fay, taught me so much and I am still working with them today on projects. Seeing the inner workings of a professional basketball team was eye-opening. There was so much that went on and the players, even in the early 90s, were totally taken care of by people in the organization.

Everyone working for the team wanted to be there, so the atmosphere always had a cool energy. The Mavericks, at the time, were in the process of becoming terrible. The 1992-93 season we went 11-71 and then the next season we went 13-69. There were times when they would make announcements for everyone in the upper level to just come down to the lower level so the stands looked better on TV.

The relationship between the players and the staff was also an interesting dynamic. Staff members helped the players find houses or apartments. There were sponsorship deals that provided cars or trucks for some players in exchange for endorsements. This was all really early in the endorsement game so players were doing things for the team rather than themselves.

I became close friends with the late Sean Rooks and I was at his house one day, and he had three huge TVs, still in the boxes, in his living room. He was named player of the month three months in a row and the award was a TV. I asked him what he was going to do with all those TVs and he offered me one. I didn’t need a TV but I told him I bet he could trade one or two of the TVs for an entertainment center or another appliance. He wound up calling the appliance store and swapped two of the TVs for a new fridge and stereo. 

The hours working for a professional team were very long which should be no surprise. I mean, you know that, right? On game day most people on the team got to work by 8 a.m. and didn’t leave the arena until well after midnight. I know there were some staffers that would just spend the night at work on back-to-back game days. Not very glamorous but you were on the inside. It was awesome.

Elon- Let’s shift to baseball. The clubhouse and dugout are two almost secretive societies in my opinion. I would love to hear about two of your experiences living in those worlds. The first being around your dad’s teams and then as a college or pro player.

Bob- To a great degree, that theory is correct. But, if I told you anything from those days I’d have to kill you and then go into the witness protection program. That’s surprisingly not true, but seriously, it’s a fraternity and those guys are your brothers. You’re literally with them every single day, through good times and bad. Wins and losses were team things. We all won and we all lost. Never anything individual. Hugs were shared and tears were shed together, with no self-consciousness or reservation. And bus rides. So many bus rides. So many shoulders to sleep on, deep in the night as the hum from the diesel hopefully rocks you to sleep. You look out for each other, but no one takes kindly to guys who aren’t loyal to the collective. That can be a problem.

The thing I most remember about my dad’s teams at the Triple-A level, was how close-knit the guys were. I might have been too young to really understand the old line “What you see here, what you say here, what you hear here, let it stay here when you leave here.” I think they took some care in not getting too graphic around the manager’s teenage son. But I knew later in life that minor league ball could be really tight and really bonded, or really mercenary, when everyone was just looking out for themselves.

You’d think at Triple-A that it would be the latter, but my dad’s teams always seemed really bonded and the guys were all truly good friends. They ended up as good friends of mine.

In college and pro ball, it was something I was experiencing myself rather than witnessing as the manager’s kid. There was definitely a “look out for each other” mentality. Once, in college, we were playing down at the University of Evansville when a big storm rolled in. We were getting drenched in the dugout, so we ran for the bus to ride out the storm in there.

In the bus we told stories about exploits that were strictly among us. That was just understood. We were a team. Later in the week, we heard one night, at our Edwardsville hangout Spanky’s, that one of our teammates was telling a batgirl about the day on the bus in Evansville. He was throwing all of us under that bus, making it clear we were bad guys, and I think he was just trying to impress her by illustrating that he was the only really “good guy” in the room. That did not go over well with the boys. That created a rift that never really healed. Ever. He wasn’t ostracized but he knew we had lost trust in him. On a drunken Thursday night he put himself ahead of the team.

My college buddy Kent Hendrickson and the late great Roy Lee, our coach. In the dugout. Where we owned the place.

An aside: Spanky’s was a great place, but not for any specific reason. It was just your basic bar and always packed, but almost all the SIUE athletes from the various teams would be there every Thursday night, and if my baseball buddy Kent Hendrickson was working the bar that night, he would pour draft beers in a very inexpensive and liberal way. Like, if you ordered a glass he’d hand you an empty one, but then also hand you a full pitcher to go with it. We rarely spent more than a dollar to be there all night and the local girls were always around, eyeing us up. It was very different then, compared to anything you’d experience now. What a strange and “wild” era that was.

Are any of us proud of stuff like that? No. A little embarrassed is more like it. But, it was the 70s and times were very different. We were clearly a product of those times. And, we were baseball players. It was a lot like “Bull Durham” in many ways.

Bob- OK, so tell me about your time in the DFW area. I’ve been to your current house in Mansfield, and it’s wonderful. How many other places have you lived in or owned in the area?

Elon- When Jennifer and I got married I was working at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis and she was working as a social worker for a dialysis center in Ft. Worth.

The Cedar Hill house

We bought a house in Cedar Hill, Texas because it was right in the middle of our commutes. It was an 1,800 square foot one-story in a nice neighborhood with an elementary school around the corner and a fire station three blocks over. I think we had planned on staying there for a few years and wound up living there for over a decade. We realized the school district was just OK, and our kids had gotten into swimming so we were driving 40 minutes round-trip to swim practice in Mansfield, four nights a week for practices that lasted an hour and half. We were also driving our kids to a charter school that was 45 minutes away, but we split the carpooling with two other families. We decided we could “buy back” almost two hours a day by moving to Mansfield, so we started looking for houses.

We got incredibly lucky to get our current house. It was a house that was in foreclosure and was a wreck. The previous home owners were having some serious issues and we got a great deal. Our neighbors are amazing and thanks to the rebound in the housing market our house has tripled in value. We will never realize that increase since I am never moving. I love to entertain and our house has the perfect flow and layout. We are planning some remodeling improvements in the coming years once the kids get out of college but we could not be happier. 

Mansfield is growing but still isn’t nearly as congested as north Dallas. We are 20 minutes from downtown Ft. Worth or downtown Dallas so when we can start going out again we will have tons of options for restaurants and entertainment.

Elon- Speaking of homes and areas… Being from Texas my whole life, the fact that you and Barb have lived in cities/towns that have winter amazes me. Like real seasonal winter… How do you handle that and is it something you just grew up around and have adapted to? I have no idea about winterizing or snow plows… I think I would last about two weeks if I had to constantly clear snow to get to my mailbox or out of my driveway.

Bob- Growing up in St. Louis we definitely had four seasons, and we’d get the odd below-zero night about every year. But mostly, winter was just dreary. We got a lot of sleet and freezing rain and it seemed the sun would never come out. I can recall, after college, thinking “If I’m going to live some place that has winter, I’d like it to be a real winter. Where people embrace it and enjoy it. The dreary stuff is just depressing.”

As it turned out, I graduated from SIUE in 1980 and married Barbara in 1997. Then it only took us five more years to move to Minnesota. It’s everything we thought, and hoped, it would be.

Embrace the spirit of the North!

Yes, it’s cold for a few months. And we can sometimes have more than four feet of snow piled up on the curb when nothing melts but the storms keep rolling through and the city plows keep coming by. But people here embrace it. You have to. You can’t be a hermit. This stuff is around from November to April. And it’s not a shutdown calamity if we do get a foot of snow. The Twin Cities collectively enjoys an absolute army of snow plows. You should see MSP Airport in a blizzard. It’s a choreographed ballet of snow plows and de-icing trucks. Here, our neighborhood hires a company to clear our drives, walks, and porches. We just hunker down with a fire in the fireplace and binge-watch TV. It’s not the end of the world.

I learned a few tricks of the trade the hard way, after we originally moved here. Like not just turning off the sprinklers in the fall, but having them professionally blown out. That next spring, I turned the sprinklers back on and we had geysers all over the yard. Cost me way more to fix that than if I’d just hired someone to blow them out. What did I know? Not much.

You’ve got to turn off the outdoor spigots, but new houses here are almost always built to make that easy. You can get to the valves and the back-flow caps with no problem and no ladder.

We get a little of this.

The most mundane thing is also my least favorite. Our furnace has a diverter, so you can send most of the air either upstairs, downstairs, or both. In the winter, we send the hot air to the lower level because it will rise and keep the upstairs warm. We do just the opposite in the summer, when we send the AC to the upper level and let it sink. It’s not just the diverter though. I go around and open or close all the vents in the appropriate level. Downstairs, all the vents are ceiling mounted. I have to pull the ladder around to about a dozen vents to either open or close them, and it’s not just a lever. They’re round and they screw in. It takes about five minutes for each vent. This ex-baseball player’s right shoulder doesn’t like that.

But it’s OK. It’s better than OK. We love it here. And when the sun is shining, just like it is today, it really doesn’t matter what the temperature is. And as warm as it’s been the last week (we’ve been in the 50s and almost all the snow is gone) we never forget one specific fact: The two snowiest months of the year here, in terms of total inches, are March and April. This time of year, it’s warm enough for the snow to be very wet and very heavy when it comes down in copious quantities. Just yesterday, it poured rain all day. I bet we got three inches or more. It was a deluge! Had it been about eight degrees colder, we would’ve gotten about 18 inches of snow. Missed it by “That Much.” This is typically when we get our blizzards. So, we’re not over the hump yet.

Bob- Back to you. Now, walk me through how you ended up at John Force Racing and then how that job evolved. I’m assuming you wouldn’t go back and change a thing if you could. That’s actually a dumb thing to say. None of us can go back and change anything so why worry about it, right?

Elon- I started at JFR as the assistant to Dave Densmore. Dave was handling the Castrol PR and as Force’s operation grew Dave just started doing all of the PR for all the teams even though he was not technically a JFR employee. He worked for Castrol. I was the first PR person Force ever paid out of his own pocket.

The first couple of years I basically just followed Dave around and listened and learned. I would write releases and Dave would improve them dramatically because he was, and still is, an amazing writer, both technically and creatively. My role evolved as Force started trusting me more and I got comfortable pitching ideas and trying to get us mainstream media. The job was really so much more than traditional PR. I wrote releases and coordinated interviews but I also spent time with sponsors in the pits, social media became a thing and then there were the dinners. Force liked having people he was comfortable with join him at every family dinner or sponsor dinner. I got to meet a lot of interesting people and that was the great thing about JFR. There was always something going on.

Face to face with the man, inside his “office”

I think if I could change anything, I would have done more things with Force. He was a media machine. There were times when I could have pushed harder to get more media but I didn’t want to work seven days a week. I have 100 percent confidence Force would have done more media too, but there were times when I personally had to take a mental break. Now I look back and think I should have gone to more NASCAR events with him or pushed to go to an Formula One event to increase our coverage and meet more media people.

Elon- While we’re on the racing side, I have had the luxury of working for big teams but I always admired the small teams who were doing it all with a skeleton crew. Guys like Tim Wilkerson, who asked you to do certain defined jobs and then other duties as assigned. I think your breadth of experience is greater than mine. I never got to film on the starting line. What would you say your job titles were with Wilk or even the early days with Del Worsham?

Bob- I think I’m the luckiest guy in NHRA history, in terms of the stuff we do, because I worked with Del and Tim. Two incredible guys. My title was “Team Manager” for both organizations, and that was born out of necessity. I was originally part of Worsham Racing, back in 1997, as a PR guy. But, I certainly jumped in to help wherever Del needed me. Then, within a year, the CSK sponsorship was growing fast and it was the marketing guy on their side, my counterpart Joe Spica, who told Del and me, in no uncertain terms, “Someone needs to directly manage this whole thing. Right now, it’s just a bunch of people doing their jobs however they want to do them and it doesn’t seem like things get communicated very well. Del, you should make Bob the manager for the whole team.”

Del and me. No, we weren’t in trouble. We’d just won the $100,000 Skoal Showdown!

I was honored, and excited, and kind of scared. I had no experience doing that in a racing setting. But I dove in head-first and learned it on the fly. Within a year, we had processes in place, a crew handbook that laid out all the rules, far better communications between the Worshams and the crew, and my relationship with all the CSK people was solid. I spoke to Joe Spica on the phone literally every single day. And when Jim Schoenberger joined the CSK marketing effort, I made a friend I will have for life. What a “Renaissance Man” he is!

Until the end, in 2008 when O’Reilly bought CSK and we lost the deal, I was closely involved in anything that had to do with presentation, hospitality, logistics, PR, communications, and management. I even installed our associate sponsor decals and still fret when I walk though my office and see a slightly crooked one in a photo on the wall. DAMMIT!!! And there was the video job. For all those years I was the closest team member to the car. I was right next to it at the starting line, but pretty much had the worst view, looking through that tiny viewfinder. It all changed my life and after dreaming that all I’d ever be was a baseball player since I was a tiny kid, it was totally unexpected. I think you and I have that in common, Elon. We never imagined being in drag racing, but we both made huge marks in the sport. I think we should both be pretty proud about what we’ve done.

When I joined Tim Wilkerson, it was slightly different. He’d always been very hands-on and really didn’t need a lot of management in terms of what he and the crew were doing. They had that down. I managed the hotel reservations and Krista Wilkerson still thanks me for one policy I instituted. We would no longer stay in any motel that had a number in its name, just because it was $5 cheaper.

It was ALWAYS fun to be the emcee in the LRS hospitality area. Kind of like a weekly stand-up gig.

Working for Tim was much more a PR effort and a sponsor liaison job. And I loved it. I bonded with Dick Levi and the Levi, Ray, & Shoup group right away. It was a wonderful relationship and they really appreciated what I did. Don’t ever discount the value of being appreciated. It’s pure gold for someone who pours their heart into their work. And man it was fun.

We had a dedicated hospitality person, Annette, who was super talented so I didn’t have to worry about ordering food or drinks, keeping the buffet line going, or checking people in. I just had to be the between-rounds entertainer. I absolutely loved that. I was kind of a natural. Tim, who didn’t hand out compliments freely, once told me, up in his office in the transporter, “I really can’t hear what you’re saying out there, but I hear them laughing and clapping so keep it up. They seem to love it, and Dick loves you.”

Elon- This was cool. Let’s do it again, and let me say how much I appreciate that you’ve let me get involved in your blog. It’s a new thing for me, and I’m learning new stuff every week.

Bob- I agree. We should do this again as soon as we can. Thanks buddy. You’re the man!