A Heck of a Kickoff

HOME / A Heck of a Kickoff

March 18th, 2021

Hey gang! Happy Blog Day to everyone. Another great post from my man Elon Werner is below, and it bears mentioning that he’s doing PR work for Kalitta Motorsports, in case you didn’t know that. That would explain why he was at the starting line when J.R. Todd ran in the Funny Car final round this past Sunday, in Gainesville.

In this blog, there’s one particular story about his former boss, John Force, that is absolutely a Top-5 anecdote of all time. On multiple levels! I’m about to assume that Elon has literally an endless well of John Force and JFR stories to dip into, and we’re all good with that!

Elon is also right about the annual February trip to Pomona for the Winternationals, which sadly didn’t happen this year. It was always the “first day of school” as he references in his submission. The NHRA family is tight knit, and we all have great affection for one another, but very few of us were ever able to even see each other between the World Finals in November and the Winternationals in February. You’d spend the entire weekend walking around the Pomona property having conversations with just about everyone you’d see, whether in the pits, walking in the staging lanes, or in the media center, just to reconnect. I miss those days. They were very special.

As an editing note, I just texted Elon to tell him that the WordPress spellcheck software that runs the posts on this blog is about to throw the rods out and catch on fire when trying what to make of “firesuit” versus “fire suit” and it can’t even find a way to be consistent. In one line, it will automatically adjust “fire suit” into one word. In the next sentence it will flag “firesuit” as not even being a word, and automatically put a space in there. I even Googled “Firesuit versus Fire Suit” and came up with no definitive answer. The links were about 50/50. So I let Elon decide which way he wanted to go.

I think it’s a matter of the term being modern and really just part of the motorsports lexicon, rather than standard language. If that’s the case, go with the version actual firesuit manufacturers use, even if you have to override spellcheck like I just did in this sentence. And I thought having to figure out only one space after a sentence, rather than the two I was taught by stern Jesuit instructors in high school, was hard to adapt to!

See you next week. And remember, if you enjoy the words you’re about to read please consider clicking on the “Like” button at the bottom, if only to show Elon Werner the love….

Bob Wilber


The NHRA season has started and it had a brand new feel this year. Normally, the first race is on the west coast at the Winternationals, in Pomona, and it would always have a real “first day of school” feel.

There would be a big “media day” event at the track on the Wednesday of race week, and then I usually conducted a media tour for my team with a driver or two on Thursday. There were also a lot of photos. Drivers needed to get updated shots for National Dragster and the FOX broadcast, plus all their sponsors wanted pictures in brand new firesuits with shiny helmets. There were photos taken inside with perfect lighting and make-up, and then teams would sometimes go out on the track to get majestic shots on-track with the snow-capped mountains in the background.  Those photos were also fun as you tried to get three or four drivers to walk in step and look straight ahead while a photographer laid on the track 50 feet away trying to get the perfect picture with all eyes open and no goofy expressions. 

One year with John Force Racing we were doing on-track photos first, followed by studio shots. We had a gap between the sessions so we decided to grab some breakfast in La Verne, which is the quaint town right next to the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. I hopped in Robert Hight’s truck, since he offered to drive, and we waited for John Force to join us. Robert had changed into street clothes, since he had already done his studio shots the day before. A few minutes later Force hopped in the passenger seat still in his firesuit. Robert asked him why he hadn’t changed clothes, since we were leaving the property to go to breakfast before the next photo session. Force said he didn’t feel like changing. Robert just shook his head and off we drove.

La Verne has a ton of cool shops and restaurants in its small downtown area, but it also has very tight streets and parking spaces. We found a spot but it was a little tricky to get into. Force immediately jumped out of the truck and started directing traffic so Robert could make a three point turn to get his truck into the space. It was a wild scene as Force was waving cars past us and stopping others all while wearing his Castrol GTX firesuit.

We walked into the restaurant and it was packed with regulars plus a fair amount of racers and team personnel. All eyes turned to Force. We waited a few minutes and eventually got a table in the back. A few tables over, Chad Head and Del Worsham were eating and Chad did a double take when he saw us walk in. A few minutes later Del was texting me asking why Force was in his firesuit. We enjoyed breakfast and the check arrived. Robert pulled out a credit card and we were informed they were having credit card issues and it was cash only. He didn’t have any cash and I had about $20 which left us short of covering the bill. To our amazement, Force reached into the pocket of his firesuit and pulled out two $20 bills.

Two things jumped out at me right away. First, I had no idea firesuits had pockets and, secondly, I had no idea why Force had cash in the pocket of his firesuit. I asked Robert if he kept money in his firesuit and he looked at me like I was nuts. Later that day I asked Force why he had money in his firesuit and he said he had no idea. It was just one of those Force things, I guess.

Once you got past the photoshoots and media day interviews it was all about the racing. Qualifying started on Friday and as you walked through the pits you were seeing so many familiar faces it was really exciting. Again, “first day of school” stuff, every year.

This year, as we are still doing what we can to come out of the pandemic, we didn’t start the season in Pomona and we had a wait a few extra weeks to get started, but the 2021 kick-off in Gainesville was a huge success. Every state across the country has handled the pandemic differently and now more and more states are opening up, as the vaccine becomes more widely available, and Florida was in the unique position to be more open than most states and ripe for an event like the Gatornationals.

There was a lot of buzz about the first full season with Camping World as the series sponsor and they did not disappoint. A highlight of the weekend was an RV drag race on Saturday. I was shocked to see the scoreboards light up showing 19-second runs for each RV in a quarter mile. Also, I would have lost a lot of money when one RV jumped off the line well in front of the other only to be run down at the finish line in a losing effort. Two fans were selected as “team reps” with the winning rep getting to keep the RV they had driven. Of course, Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis would never want to disappoint a potential customer and as the winner was celebrating they announced both fans would win RVs. Waterworks ensued and we were then allowed to roll into the final qualifying session for the pro classes. 

Throughout the weekend I was reminded how far drag racing has come in the last year, both on the performance side and with spectator attendance. There were full fields in all four professional categories with quality teams from top to bottom. New sponsors were announced by multiple teams leading up to the event and Kalitta Motorsports announced the addition of Rowdy Energy drink on Friday right before the first qualifying session. That was a huge deal because Coca-Cola had previously owned exclusive rights across all soft drinks, certain energy drinks, and bottled water when it came to sponsorship and on-site activation. 

In every pro category it looked like there were new faces, as a number of rookies introduced themselves to the NHRA universe. Most notably was the addition of Top Fuel racer Krista Baldwin, granddaughter of Chris “The Greek” Karamesines. Krista works for Funny Car driver Paul Lee’s McCleod Components as the Creative Director and was a big focus of attention all weekend. Josh Hart was also making his first Top Fuel start and while his debut did not receive the initial fanfare of Baldwin’s he announced his presence with authority. In the Pro Stock ranks former Summit Racing car chief Dallas Glenn made his pro debut behind the wheel of a KB Racing Pro Stock entry while Texas businessman Mike Callahan was living his own dream wheeling one of the eCarMover-backed Dodge Darts tuned and operated by Alan Prusiensky. Both Glenn and Callahan were seeing their dreams come true when they pulled up in front of nearly packed grandstands on Friday for the lone qualifying session. There was a lot of positive momentum and we hadn’t even seen any race cars on the track yet.

When race day finally rolled around, there was an earlier than usual start for eliminations so the race could fit into the FOX national window leading into the NASCAR broadcast in the afternoon. All the competitors also lost an hour of sleep from Saturday to Sunday thanks to daylight saving time. As soon as the first pair of Top Fuel dragsters fired up, all the cobwebs and any lethargy flew out of Gainesville Raceway faster than University of Florida Gator running back in the open field.

J.R. Todd just adding to his already stellar legacy, in Gainesville

There was still some rust to be knocked off after a year-long lay-off as Brittany Force and Mike Salinas were ousted in the first round of Top Fuel and reigning champs Erica Enders and Matt Hagan had their first race of 2021 spoiled by early exits. The stars of the day turned out to be Funny Car champion J.R. Todd and rookie Josh Hart. They were both looking to make a little history in their own special ways.

J.R. was trying to become just the seventh Funny Car driver to win a championship as well as all four of the NHRA “Majors.” Most historians consider the Winternationals, the Gatornationals, the U.S. Nationals and the World Finals as the four most historic races. The now defunct SuperNationals in Englishtown would also haven been on par with those events as well but it left the NHRA schedule three years ago. A win on Sunday would add J.R.’s name to a list that included Don Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, John Force, Cruz Pedregon, Robert Hight and Jack Beckman.

I’m hard to see here, but I’m 3rd from the left with the black Toyota hat on.

I rarely go to the starting line, but I didn’t want to miss the chance to see a little history. When J.R. took off and smoked his tires my heart dropped but right after that Robert Hight smoked his tires in the other lane and the race was back on. J.R. is one of the best drivers when it comes to pedaling his Funny Car and he was able to get his momentum going and raced to the win. It was an emotional top end as J.R. talked about his late friend and competitor Eric Medlen, who lost his life in a testing accident at Gainesville Raceway in 2007. This was a race J.R had circled as a must win for a lot of seasons. 

After J.R. got his first Gatornationals win I was hopeful his teammate Shawn Langdon could wrap up the first Kalitta Motorsports double-up Top Fuel and Funny Car weekend in his DHL Top Fuel dragster. But, it was rookie Josh Hart’s day and he got his first Top Fuel win at his first NHRA national event. More history for sure and no one on Shawn’s team was hanging their heads, knowing we need fresh blood in the sport. Guys like Josh who work hard and have a passion for the sport are a welcome addition.

I swung by Josh’s pit to congratulate him on his win and was blown away when I saw Don Garlits just hanging out with Josh’s crew. Apparently Josh and Garlits have shops about seven miles apart in Ocala, Florida, and spend quite a bit of time together. No wonder he wasn’t the least bit intimidated by racing in his first national event. When you have the greatest drag racer of all-time in your corner, I would think that would give you quite a bit of confidence. 

One last thought on confidence and the NHRA. As the season moves along I am confident the events will get bigger and better. If you can’t get to an event you will be thrilled with the product the NHRA and FOX are putting together on the broadcast side. Sunday’s race was viewed by an average of one million viewers, throughout its three-hour “live” window, but more importantly almost two million people watched the last 15 minutes of the broadcast and they saw amazing racing action as they waited for the NASCAR race to start. I would be shocked if they didn’t tune in to the Las Vegas NHRA race. 

Thanks for reading, everyone. See you next week!