Whew! So I’m basically in full-on writing mode right now. My deadline for getting my new book manuscript done is just weeks away, and I’m thrashing as best I can to make it happen.
When Elon Werner sent me a blog installment this morning, my first thought was “I won’t even have time to format this and post it.” But, here we are and I have least gotten it up on the correct day.
Rain delays… I never headed back to the team hotel more exhausted than when I was on a day-long rain-out. It’s far more tiring than a day of racing, when as a PR rep you’re running nonstop. Sitting around is brutal.
Below, Elon describes a time we were totally rained out at Atlanta Dragway, and the race was postponed for a week. My team (Team Wilkerson) was staying at a hotel about 30 miles west of the track. When word came down, I was assigned the duty of driving to the hotel immediately, not just to get my stuff and check-out, but to alert the hotel that our whole team was leaving. That was a 30-mile drive, followed by another 30-mile drive back to the track for some reason (I don’t remember why) then the immediate turn-around to drive back to the west (passing the hotel) to get to the Atlanta airport, which is about 80 miles away. Somehow, the hotel manager allowed us all to bug out early without a charge for that day, and he booked us all back in a week later. In NHRA life, that’s what we call a miracle.
What you’ll read below is life on the NHRA tour. Some years, it never rains. Other years, it seems to rain every race week. Del Worsham and I used to say “If it rains at the first race, it will rain at every race. If it doesn’t, we’ll get them all in on time. That’s how weather works.” That was nonsense, of course, but it seemed to also be true.
Now I need to put my head down and get back to writing my new book. I’m on chapter 37. Only about six or seven more to go! And it’s raining here in Woodbury, Minn. It has been since the break of dawn. It’s gloomy and wet. Reminds me of rainy days at the race track.
Hi everyone. Elon here, back with you.
Last weekend, I had to suffer through one of the worst aspects of drag racing that happens at least once a season. The dreaded rain-out or rain delay.
The week leading up to the SpringNationals saw most of Texas, and especially Houston, get hammered with multiple days of rain. By the time rigs started pulling into Houston Raceway Park there was standing water everywhere and the spectator parking lot was a potential mud bog. The NHRA cancelled Friday night qualifying and moved up the schedule on Saturday. Both of those decisions were the right calls. We got one and a half of the qualifying sessions in on Saturday and on race day we were all hopeful we could get some, if not all of the race in.
We were foiled by Mother Nature as the lightest of rain showers began just after we started Top Fuel eliminations. Only six pairs of dragsters made it down the track before the race was put on hold and after nearly seven hours of delay it was announced the race would be postponed until Monday morning.
During the down-time on Sunday I spent time talking with a lot of teams but I also spent some time in the press room on a research project I had been thinking about. I looked up the minimum number of round wins historically needed to make the Countdown. I had already done this a few years ago for Funny Car and Top Fuel when Courtney Force was on the edge of not making the playoffs.
I did both categories at the time, even though we had no interest in Top Fuel. That project saved me a couple of hours on Sunday in Houston, since I was able to pick up that old info and I only had to go back about five seasons. Interestingly, over the course of the Countdown, which started in its current format in 2008, the average number of round wins to get the 10th spot was 10.6. But, over the past seven seasons the average has jumped to 13 round wins.
There is no real correlation to winning races or being No. 1 qualifier. It all comes down to round wins. I even looked at the impact of the bonus points a driver can pick up during qualifying, and there was no major impact in the regular season. The bonus points really come into play in the Countdown when the teams are bunched together and those 3-2-1 points can close the gap over a couple races.
This was not the first project like this I had completed during a rain delay. In Norwalk in 2008 I did a Mike Neff versus Bob Tasca III rookie year comparison. We had a rain delay and we were at the midpoint of the season, so I thought I would compare the top two contenders for the rookie of the year award. I looked at round wins, race wins, average qualifying position, their head-to-head records against past champions and of course their record against John Force. I came up with about eight or nine categories and Neff held the edge in the majority of them. I wrote up a quick release outlining how Neff was the front-runner based on this research and shot it out to my media list.
It was standard PR promotion but it created quite the stir in the press room. One of the NHRA media services representatives told me I couldn’t refer to Neff as a front-runner because there was no ongoing tabulation throughout the season. There was simply a media vote at the end of the year. I saw his point but didn’t really care. I wanted to plant that seed in the minds of the voting media that Neff was the season-long clear choice. He didn’t have the strongest start to his rookie season losing eight straight races in the first round so I needed to get him some media momentum.
During the start of that season he at least came up with about eight different ways to lose. He crossed the centerline. He hit the wall. He red-lit. He lost on a holeshot. He smoked the tires. He was also simply outrun a couple of times. It was a rough start capped off with one round in Topeka when his steering wheel came off on a run and he had to slam it back on the steering column as his Funny Car was careening towards the guard wall. I had a job to do!
Rain delays are tough, but the long ones were also usually times for the crew guys to get caught up on their endless list of things to check or recheck. There was only so much maintenance work a group of young guys could do before boredom or just the sheer monotony of repetitive measuring led to distraction.
The usual outlets included low stakes gambling, usually tossing quarters. Quarter tossing typically involved four or five guys seeing who could toss a quarter and have it land as close as possible to the back wall of the hauler. I was terrible at this game which was why whenever the crew guys started playing I was immediately summoned to join in. I always played because I never wanted to miss the chance to bond with the crew.
The oddest time-killer I ever participated in was the “C” Team head weighing competition. The John Force Racing teams were internally referred to as “A” team (John Force), “B” Team (Ashley Force), “C” Team (Robert Hight), and “D” Team (Mike Neff). One of the crew guys had the team’s scale out and after an hour of weighing some part (again I am not a car guy) he decided to see how much his head weighed. In true crew guy fashion he figured out a way to position the scale on the floor of the trailer so it was raised perfectly to allow a person to lay on their side and rest their head on the scale to get a measurement. It was not exact but we all took our turns weighing our heads. I had the third heaviest head on the team which I am not sure was a good or bad thing. Again, it was all about bonding and killing time.
The worst rain out I had to deal with at John Force Racing was Atlanta in 2013. The race weekend rained out and we had to come back the next weekend, which was Mother’s Day. I remember standing in the hotel lobby waiting to hear what the new schedule would be, and as word spread that we would be back the following weekend you could hear a collective groan throughout the first floor as crew guys knew they were going to get an earful from their wives about missing Mother’s Day. We came back and ran qualifying on Friday and the race on Saturday but that still left Sunday as a travel day for the people that flew and meant the crew guys driving the rigs wouldn’t be back in Indy until well into the evening after a nine-hour drive. In motorsports there are two weekends they try to keep open every year, Mother’s Day and Easter. We would run every other holiday weekend but those two were sacrosanct.
When I was working at the Texas Motorplex the FallNationals rained out two weekends in a row and we ultimately had to set the field based on points for the first time in NHRA history. I remember standing in a midway tent while NHRA Vice-President Graham Light explained what was happening to all the drivers. It was pouring down rain, with lightning, while Graham laid out the weather forecast and the options for the teams. As he was speaking, lightning was striking so close to the tent the hair on my arms stood up.
When Graham announced that qualifying positions would be based on points you could see there were four or five guys in each class who didn’t know where they were in the point standings. They didn’t know if they should agree or argue. I had printed out the point standings for all the classes and began passing them around. It was funny to look at their faces as they scanned the list to see if they were in the show. It was very reminiscent of a drama student scanning the call list of a high school musical or a football player checking the roster to see if they made the travel team. There were a few objections but for the most part everyone knew the NHRA was in a tough spot. We got the race in and it was just another one of those things.
I will admit I caught some of the racing action from the NASCAR race at COTA while we were waiting and I was very jealous they were able to run in the rain. Maybe someday, some genius at Goodyear will come up with a wet-track tire that can hold 11,000 horsepower to the track so we can finish in the rain. If I was a lot smarter maybe that could be my next rain delay research project.