In Memory of “The Doctor”

Jun 18, 2020   //   by bwilber   //   Bob's Blog  //  Add a Comment

Watching yet another Funny Car warmup in the CSK pit area. Two colleagues. Two counterparts. Two friends. (Click on any image to enlarge)

I got a phone call from Del Worsham yesterday. Hadn’t heard from him in quite a while, and I was excited to see his name pop up on my phone. And then he said “I hate to be the bearer of bad news.” He told me that Joe Spica had passed during the night, dying in his sleep.

Joe Spica worked for CSK Auto, the Phoenix-based company that not only owned Checker Auto Parts, Schuck’s Auto Supply, and Kragen Auto Parts with stores spread over much of the country, but also sponsored Del and our Worsham Racing Funny Car team on the NHRA Drag Racing tour, from the start of the 1997 season through the end of the 2008 season. I was Team Manager for Worsham Racing. Joe was the essential point-person for the sponsorship on the CSK staff. There were plenty of other talented and dedicated people on both sides of the program, who made it work and made it wildly successful, but Joe and I were the two who literally spoke on the phone every day. We plotted out the marketing plan. We organized new paint or vinyl schemes. We planned and scheduled the displays and appearances. We coordinated who our associate sponsors would be, and he quarterbacked leveraging the major sponsorship to assist our team with needed bottom-line items like parts and supplies from a variety of CSK vendors. All that leg work had to be done, and Joe was the man who handled it at “ground level” for CSK. He was tireless. We covered and planned every detail from uniforms to the design of the privacy barriers around our hospitality. From handout cards to the graphics for the transporters. From the real race cars to the 24th-scale die cast models. And just about everything in between.

For two people to work that closely together, through 12 long seasons of racing, and get along as well as we did was remarkable. I’ll give Joe all the credit. He was amazing, thoughtful, flexible, creative, and dedicated. He was also hilarious. The vast majority of our endless number of phone calls included laughter. A lot of laughter. Our time together at various race tracks was priceless.

He called me “Professor” and I called him “Doctor.” I don’t recall why. It just happened organically.

When I’d manage to do something well in the PR world, he’d congratulate me by saying “Great work. I’ll take you to lunch next time we’re together. I might even Super-Size it at the drive-thru!”

12 years. Every single day of the CSK era. That’s how long Joe and I worked together. It was a business relationship of course, but it blossomed into a friendship quickly. I’d often tell Del, “Joe and I get a lot of work done, day after day, but if you’d then ask me who I’d like to go have a beer with, I’d pick him. He’s that kind of guy.”

Joe, with a piece of pizza in our corporate hospitality area. The look says “OK, you caught me”

12 years. That CSK era with the Worshams and the various drivers, crew guys, crew chiefs, volunteers, and family members who came through our lives, was priceless. It defined my career. It made me what I am as a man. Joe was a huge part of that. So was Del. We all grew together, got better at what we were doing, saw our future in front of us and then made it happen.

We were absolute underdogs when we started. CSK was literally “sticking a toe in the water” of the whole race car sponsorship world. We scraped by and did the best we could, but we made it clear to CSK that our hearts were in it, and we wanted to be partners. To us, it was all about relationships and building trust.

Joe and I did our best, in the very early days, to be creative with what little we had to work with. And my gosh, the program grew. From the original $200,000 sponsorship, we all mutually developed it into a “super team” running on multi-million dollar budgets with a slew of CSK vendors lending support and putting their names and logos on our cars and uniforms. From one old home-built trailer with a single Funny Car, to three modern big-rigs on the road and two full-time Funny Cars (with a third car popping up every now and then) we focused on building the program. When we won our first race as a group, at Seattle in 1999, it felt like the top of Mount Everest. It was really just the beginning of an amazing run. Joe was there with us, in Seattle, and it was the first time I’d seen him get that emotional. He wore his emotions on his sleeve. He’d say “I’m getting a little misty” as the tears would roll down his cheeks. From that point forward, we won many races. Dozens of races. The “Wally” trophies still stand guard at various locations around our house, reminding me of just how great it all was. At a few points in our history, we weren’t just “as good as anyone out there” we were better. We dominated. Joe had so much to do with that.

When O’Reilly Auto Parts began making inroads in an attempt to purchase CSK and merge the two companies, we could all sense the end might be near. We practiced our own version of “ignorance is bliss” in an attempt to not think of it, but it was out there. Joe and I never skipped a beat. Need Del or one of the other drivers out at the track at 5:00 a.m. for the local version of the Today Show? We’ll be there. Need us to display the cars and fire up the engines at a local mall? No problem. We just kept the pedal down, going as hard as we could to make it work. It was such a pleasure.

The marketing man and his Funny Car driver. Just enjoying the moment.

It wasn’t always fun (leaving the hotel at 4:30 for that 5:00 live shot is never fun) but we got it done. Racers are racers. Racing is what they want to do, and Del wouldn’t always be thrilled to hear that Joe and I wanted him to be in five places in five hours when he’d rather be working on the car, but he never said no. We always did all we could. That’s why it worked so well. That’s why we succeeded.

When the merger went through, 2008 became our swan song. That Sunday night after the final race in Pomona, in our pit area with our teammates, friends, and so many CSK people, the emotions ran very deeply. It was the end of an era. For Joe Spica and me, it was the end of a nonstop working relationship, but not the end of our friendship. When the CSK team dissolved, we were all fortunate to land on our feet as “free agents” and I was particularly lucky to head over to Team Wilkerson, where the feeling and atmosphere was nearly exactly the same as it was with the Worshams. When we’d race in Phoenix, I looked forward to seeing Joe more than anything else. If I was with Team Wilk, he was too.

I posted a brief note on Facebook, about Joe, and have had my heart warmed by the response from friends, former teammates, and former drivers of the blue CSK Funny, the counterpart to Del’s red CSK machine. Everyone remembers Joe the same way. Because that was him. What you saw was what you got. He was a marvelous man.

I was close to so many CSK executives and staff members I can’t possibly mention them all here. Ron Chisler, Jim Schoenberger, the late Martin Fraser, and so many others (you all know who you are.) They were part of our racing family, and I firmly believe we were part of their corporate family. We worked our butts off to make it work for them, and they did the same for us. Joe was always involved, from the biggest “big picture” strategy to the smallest detail. And through it all he made me laugh while I was furiously taking notes to keep it all straight. It was the most remarkable business relationship I’ve ever had.

Joe was special. He made me better. He made me understand that relationships are the key. If it’s just about winning, the whole deal can go bad with one slump in performance. If the relationship is solid, if we’re one family working toward a common goal, nothing can stop us. When you care about people, the ups and downs of racing are just background noise. Joe cared. Joe cared deeply. About his work, his company, our racing team, and all the people around him. We are all better for having known him. Period.

I’ll miss you Doctor. You were the best. Rest in eternal peace, my friend

Signed,

The Professor.

 

 

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