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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

Phil's Puny Pet Peeves

By Phil R. Elliott

OK, we all have complaints. One of mine is that I never seem to have enough time to write new stuff for DragList!

Lately though, I've been very disturbed by television announcers that overuse certain words and phrases. If you listen at all, you certainly have your own list.

For example, one that we all have seen and heard way too much over the last 10-15 years is "Awesome." This poor word that once meant "something that causes great awe" has now gone the way of words like "quality" and "unbelievable." It carries very little of its original value.

I have been spoiled over the years by superb announcers.

Oh sure, I've heard the worst of the worst over the years too, folk that honestly couldn't pronounce their own home towns let alone some of the tongue-twisting last names of drivers. Announcers that were certainly looking out the wrong side of the tower. I've also spent time in the south where I couldn't understand more than one in five words coming out of the tower. But those are stories to share some other time.

I was privileged to hear Jon Lundberg back in the heyday. He was one of the most believable and trustworthy announcers I'd heard to that point. Plus, he had previously been mythologized as much as the hero drivers and cars of the 60s. Magazines heralded him as "The Voice of Drag Racing." Ads for important events mentioned "Jungle Jim," Chi-Town Hustler, "Big Daddy," and that Jon Lundberg would announce. Heady stuff. Jon toured the circuit. He not only knew the ins and outs of the cars and their performances but what these folk had done the night before and what they'd had for breakfast. During downtime, he joked over the PA with drivers, owners and crew people. He was really and truly part of the traveling show.

In the northwest, I enjoyed guys named Harold Zeek and Gary Johnson.

Harold worked Puyallup Dragway exclusively, as far as I know, and early in the evenings he was spot on. Later, after twelve too many beers, he was a comical blithering idiot – imagine Foster Brooks trying to inform you about what a jet car had just run at 2:30am. On the hot August and September nights when all the tower windows were slid open, I figured he'd tumble to the ground and go right on announcing.

Gary was always funny, and possibly the best I ever heard when it came to knowing the differences between models -- say a 150 vs. a 210 57 Chevy sedan -- back when all that was very important to Stock eliminator. He lived and breathed what he spoke. I never heard the term "crotch rocket" before Johnson called the motorcycles to the lanes long ago. When some errant bracketeer went a little nutso in the staging lanes at Kent one day, he suggested there must be a fire in he woods, "because all the squirrels were down here." Simple? Yes, but funny and human and extremely sharp on the PA. Gary was at Puyallup, Kent and Portland during the late 60s and through the 70s.

Between racing gigs, Richard Schroeder was one of the great announcers too. At some places, he'd jump out of his racecar and head directly for the tower, sometimes describing the remaining pairs in a round he just won. At Puyallup one night Rich was announcing when Art Morrison hopped in Schroeder's "Dare to be Great" AMX wheelstander. He remained professional as he watched in certain horror as the little car went off the track at speed, flipped and tumbled into a rather small ball. It was Art's last (wheel)stand, and he headed for the world of superb suspension pieces. Richard has gone on to a number of publishing gigs and continues to keep a wheelstander close.

The biggest shows in the northwest were announced by inimitable Bill Doner, promoter extraordinaire, and though not as mechanically savvy as some other race announcers, he had the carnival barker portion mastered. As far as dragracing goes, he owned the west coast for a number of years. Had he gone into the circus business, he would certainly have been another P.T. Barnum. He did virtually everything, booked cars, wrote ad copy, swabbed the decks, chilled the wine (or whatever), pushed the name drivers to hurry their maintenance in order to beat the always-tight SIR curfew, and of course, worked the crowd. Some of his traits disgusted me, but love him or hate him, he was one hell of a promoter and at the time one of the most powerful men in drag racing.

Steve Evans was among the best at this whole promotion game, and his voice and style in announcing made a strong impression on me. He took the "Sunday, Sunday, SUNDAY!" radio spots to another level, and that style was carried with him to the announcing platforms of many a drag strip.

Dave McClelland was another that I'll always remember for his deep knowledge, plus his great pipes – the timber of his voice was enough to reverberate the already overdriven dragstrip speakers into submission. Though opposite in styles both Evans and "Big Mac" really had a handle on what was necessary in announcing drag races. Dave is still is one of the best loved and highest respected figures in our sport.

The best in the business at working a crowd has always been Bret Kepner. I've been at tiny and obscure, and major national all over the country, as well as monster truck events in Madison Square Garden, where it was Kepner who put the meat in meet. When this cat gets goin' he is virtually unbeatable from an announcing standpoint. Not only is he fully up to speed on the happenings throughout the current world of dragracing, he has a nearly photographic memory for records and dates and even match races throughout dragrace history. When I see him do his TV spots, I am always impressed because I know he is working without notes or net. He was the second (other) dragrace stat freak I ever met. I thought I was alone in that little world until I met Chris Martin. (Since, I've met about a half-dozen others.) When I met Bret, it was a full swirl off into a euphoric cosmos full of nobody-knows-nor-cares trivia – exactly the stuff on which I thrive! I'd pull an obscure fuel altered photo out of my files and he would tell me the who-what-where-career best numbers and whether the crew had eaten properly that day. We formed an immediate bond.

When a clever guy like longtime announcer and now TV personality Bob Frey comes along, he naturally comes up with original lines and/or new turns to known phrases. I admire his abilities. When I first heard him, I was amused with his northeast accent that turned words like "dragster" into an Elmer Fudd impression. I remember asking Kenny Bernstein PR agent Susan Arnold one day, "What's a ‘dwagstoo?"

Off the cuff, Frey comes up with a phrase such as "right down Broadway" to describe a perfect run. The term is now synonymous with "straight as a string" or "on a rail" and even Bob knows it is overused. When he uses it, there is a very audible grammatic pause then one of those comedic lines such as "you guessed it" to show the audience he knows. He has however moved on to a dozen other descriptive phrases for a run where a driver is able to stay "in the groove," another overused phrase borrowed from yet another venue.

Of course, by now everyone else has picked it up and apply it to both announcing and writing. Ironically, and this fact was pointed out to me by an ex long time resident of Manhattan, Broadway is not straight at all and encompasses some rather obtuse twists on an island that is otherwise laid out in perfect grids. It is Broadway that forces such things as the famous triangular Flat Iron building we all see in the pictures from Time Square.

Knowing Bob Frey just a little bit, I wonder if passing along an ironic phrase has pleased him.

Then we come to the term that currently grates on me to the point of hitting the mute button – "driver's race!"

Bret Kepner once described something that bothered him a lot. As color commentator during post race dubbing (Do you still think all that stuff is done live?), Kepner would use a phrase or point out an interesting tidbit. By "take 3 or 4", his cohorts – either Ted Jones or Bob Varsha at the time – would steal his information and use it as their own, usually spitting it out of context. More often than not, that was the take that was used for broadcast.

I'm not sure who originally used the term "driver's race" during a televised NHRA national event. I do know however it was one of the many drivers that have sat in the expert's chair over the last few years. It was used, tongue-in-cheek, to describe a race where both nitro cars went up in smoke, putting the outcome totally in the hands (and feet) of the two drivers. Today, with all the techno-gadgetry strapped on NHRA professional entries, a driver rarely gets the opportunity to influence actual outcome.

Reaction timers have given us another way to critique drivers, but honestly, there are only three ways a driver can leave the starting line – early, on time and late. Of course, there are varying degrees of early and late. But all we see are statistics that show one driver has been closer to perfection more times over a race or a season than another. Seldom do we hear the myriad mechanical intricacies that cause a car to react once a driver pounds the loud pedal. Trust me, the number is high.

Don't get me wrong, a driver of a nitro car, a Pro Stock, an alcohol dragster or funny car, or any number of other drag race machinery, is plenty busy during a run down a dragstrip. But Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers, the ones that are considered heroes to us all, have little more to do on a run than leave and hit the chutes on time.

Are they violent? Do they get crossed up and out of shape? Do they drop cylinders and veer in that direction from lack of equal thrust? Do they wheelstand, explode, shred parts, shake and appear as uncontrollable about 90% of the time? Are there only a few brave men and women capable of handling these megapowerful machines? Yes, a thousand times yes.

But no longer do drivers shift early or late to counteract things, or control shake or slip with throttle position. They are on runs of predestination, controlled 100% by pre-settings of clearances, timers and pressures. If one of a thousand ingredients misses or fails, the run is less than what was planned, no matter what the driver does inside the cockpit.

About half of those miscues cause one spectacular result – tumultuous tire smoke.

During qualifying, tire smoke is followed by an aborted run and emotions from disappointment to disgust. On raceday, a winlite is all-important and the art of pedaling, or more properly stated, back pedaling, comes into play. Since the norm of side-by-side, no-smoke runs where the crew chief and his underlings determine the outcome 100%, when a pair of cars goes up in smoke, both drivers suddenly control their individual destinies. Hence the term, "driver's race."

OK, I'll agree, and it was definitively cute the first time I heard it. But now, it is Marty Reid that climbs on the phrase quicker than my friend Whit Bazemore's mood swings.

As the two drivers fight desperately to regain some control and taste a victory, all those preset controls are working hard against them. Today's fuelers are set to go down a track with no wasted motion. When tires spin, there is no way for a driver to circumvent the timers in the way a Super category driver can switch his cross-overs and actually change his strategy after his car is under way. Two controls are at his disposal, the throttle pedal and the brake handle and, as likely as not, due to the huge fuel volume, hitting the former will hydraulic the engine and halt progress in a fashion just short of a mushroom cloud.

I suspect that in some way we become calloused watching those thunderous runs. When two completed passes come up on the boards and register in our cerebral cortex we are only mildly impressed unless one of the statistics is momentous. Suddenly, in similar fashion to the way NASCAR crowds leap to their feet when contact is made, a pair of fuelers taken out of their timer-controlled environment becomes a far more exciting happening.

And, in a television booth not far away, Marty Reid screams, "Drivers Race!"

Am I picking on Mr. Reid? Not really. In fact, I must congratulate ESPN2 and the staff of the televised national event coverage over the past couple seasons. Reid has improved and keeps learning, though he continues to come off as slightly naive, especially when trying to tell the audience which lane the car is in. His "near" and "far" or "right" and "left" references must be very hard for a TV viewer. Broadcasters must always remember to suggest that the action is taking place "on the right side of the screen."

I thought Cruz Pedregon did a good job on color during 2001, and Mike Dunn has stepped that up a notch in 2002. Both are very knowledgeable driver/tuners who give an extra bit of insight to the coverage. Dunn comes across without even the remotest of "I-know-more-than-you" tone.

I give Parker Johnstone high marks for moving from road racing and CART/IRL "circles" to looking like he's having a very good time with dragracing. His sidebars have been refreshing, mostly I'd say because he is a novice and finds fascinating the many facets of dragracing.

Too, the many new camera angles tried during 2002 have added drama, and have even stepped up the feel of the tremendous speeds achievable in dragracing, long unobtainable across the airwaves.

I have been much happier since both lanes' timeslips have been displayed. They are not presented always but a much higher percentage now than ever before.

If there were something I would change about the television coverage it would be to train the announcers to use more common language instead of dragspeak. Fans of dragracing already know pretty well what is going on so the announcing staff need to speak to the needs of the novice. I'm not suggesting sending those to be interviewed to Public Speaking 101 – can you imagine John Force after a semester of elocution training?

But back in the booth, the guys and gals need to choose carefully their descriptive words in order to better educate the masses.

As a bottom line to all of this, I have an informal request. Dragrace announcers of the world, whether television or tower staff, please, use fewer idioms, less jargon and get some new material.

Phil Elliott


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