Photos courtesy Bob Wilber

New book takes fans on compelling, humorous journey into world of NHRA drag racing

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Tens of thousands of people will attend this weekend’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis.

They’ll be there to see some of the best performers that the world of NHRA drag racing has to offer.

But between burnouts, finishes and between rounds, don’t be surprised to see at least a few doing some reading in the grandstands and suites.

Veteran NHRA public relations representative Bob Wilber has written a very compelling and humorous book – “Bats, Balls and Burnouts – A Life of Sports, Marketing and Mayhem” – that details his long tenure in the world of sports as an athlete and PR rep.

Wilber grew up steeped in Major League Baseball as his father, Del, played in the big leagues for several years before Bob was born. Bob followed in his father’s athletic footsteps, playing high school, college and six years of minor league baseball and becoming a baseball scout before moving on to administrative roles in soccer and as a player agent.

But that was all a prelude to Wilber changing careers shortly before turning 40, and then spending more than 20 years in the NHRA in a variety of roles, including marketer, racetrack operator and ultimately a team PR rep.

“Looking back over all of my career, playing ball, college ball, professional ball, at the time was my dream and all I cared about,” Wilber said. “That was my dream.

“But looking back over all of it, the 20 years in NHRA drag racing were the most rewarding. That was not handed to me. I was not the son of a drag racer, I was the son of a baseball player.

“And the soccer part of it, I was a marketing guy, which was not my forte. But what I really am is a communicator. So to be a PR guy for all those years, to go from being nobody and then look back over my career, to see what we did and where I got and the respect I earned, that is my greatest accomplishment. I started from nothing in this sport, I didn’t know anything about the sport.”

Wilber’s new book tells a number of great stories of the Minnesota resident’s time in the straight-line world – which is quite appropriate to be discussed here, as the U.S. Nationals is the biggest and most popular drag race in the world.

And has been for nearly 65 years.

“Probably the biggest memory of my drag racing career was the 2005 U.S. Nationals, when Del (Funny Car driver and one of Wilber’s closest friends, Del Worsham) won the Skoal Showdown (an exhibition race within a race), and then doubled-up and won the Nationals,” Wilber said. “That was pretty remarkable for a group like us.

Bob Wilber, right and Del Worsham celebrate after winning the 2005 U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.

“And we didn’t luck into any of it. We just beat all the big hitters. That was one of the most excited moments of my life, and that’s what I love about drag racing, is that every race win is a walk-off winner.

“I walked up to the starting line for the final round, I knelt down to shoot the video and the thought came into my head, ‘In four seconds, this is going to be over, and nobody knows how it’s going to end.’ It’s not like you’re up 9 runs in the ninth inning or 42 points in the fourth quarter.

“I love that about drag racing because every one is a complete explosion of emotion. It’s like it’s tied in the bottom of the ninth and someone is going to hit a home run.”

That Wilber, whose book went on sale recently on Amazon, would be at the U.S. Nationals this weekend to sell and autograph his book as well as catch up with longtime friends and fans, was an easy choice.

That race has figured highly throughout his career in the sport, providing a number of memories that he candidly describes in the book.

Wilber spent 12 years working with Worsham, one of only three drivers in NHRA history to win world championships in the sport’s two most popular classes: Top Fuel (2011) and Funny Car (2015).

Other drivers Wilber worked with in his career included two other veteran Funny Car drivers, Tim Wilkerson and Whit Bazemore.

Bob Wilber was a promising baseball player like his father before making a career change and spending 20 years in drag racing as a PR rep and administrator.

Having grown tired of constant travel, he decided heading into the 2015 U.S. Nationals that he would retire at season’s end and put his life story on paper. It took him one year to write.

The theme of the book, Wilber said, is “plow forward” – and that’s exactly what he did. He wrote 5-6 days per week for one full year, writing 1,000 pages before trimming it down to the final in-print version of 510 pages across 33 chapters.

The book came out this July and has been very well-received, so much so that Wilber is thinking about additional book projects, maybe even a sequel.

“There are still many, many stories to tell,” Wilber said. “There’s probably a decade’s worth of books to write if you want to do drag racing, I guarantee you.”

And indeed, Wilber, now 61, is already preparing to do two more books, one on drag racing and the other on minor league baseball.

Drag racing books are rare to come by. How Wilber arrived at writing his book is interesting. It was during his final season on the NHRA circuit – and during the 2015 U.S. Nationals – when Wilber confided in a fellow PR rep who was also at a similar career crossroads about retiring and pursuing other opportunities.

Close friends for many years, they looked at each other and the answer just struck Wilber.

“I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up,” Wilber said, recalling the conversation with a laugh. “What am I really supposed to be doing here?

“I looked at her and it was right then and there that I decided to write my book. I just made up my mind and I’ve done it.”

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“Bats, Balls and Burnouts” is available on, on Kindle and Nook formats, and will be on sale at Tim Wilkerson’s souvenir trailer this weekend at LOR.

Wilber will be at the trailer during much of Sunday, signing books, as well.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.