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 Amazon.com, 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

Rahal determined to regain winning touch in 2019 IndyCar season

Photo by Shawn Gritzmacher, INDYCAR
INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Graham Rahal entered the room with a smile on his face and a chip on his shoulder.

It was IndyCar “Media Day” and Rahal wasn’t happy with the way last season went at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He was less happy with the fact some aren’t considering him a serious threat in 2019. He playfully chided with one media outlet for failing to mention his team as one to watch in 2019.

“We use that as motivation to show everybody how we are viewed,” Rahal said. “We are here to win.”

Rahal just turned 30 in January but is entering his 13thseason in big-time Indy car racing. He entered the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he was just 17. He missed his high school prom because he was racing at Houston.

“That was the luckiest day of my life,” Rahal said. “I didn’t have to go to the prom. It doesn’t get any better than that.

“Plus, I got my second career podium that weekend.”

Rahal drove to victory in his very first race in the combined IndyCar Series in the 2008 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He was hailed as the “Poster Boy of Unification” and a future star. What followed was a seven-year drought before he captured his second-career win in a thrilling race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

He won two races in 2015, one in 2016 and two in 2017. He was expected to contend for victories and possibly the championship last year but struggled through a disappointing season and finished eighth in the standings.

“I’m looking forward for chance this year,” Rahal said. “Last year was a tough one for me and for the team. I’m looking forward to what my new engineer, Allen McDonald, has done so far. He is an accomplished engineer and brings a different mindset to our program this year from what we had last year. He and (fellow engineer) Eddie Jones are very close friends and that will help us from the standpoint they are on the same page.

“We needed a bit of life brought back to the team.”

Rahal believes his challenges are to get everything in order before the season starts. The team has defined the areas where it was lacking in 2019. The team needed to improve in research and development after starting behind last season.

“I’m excited for what I see, and I know in the end it will all pay off,” Rahal said. “It’s just a matter of when.

“There is a lot to be excited about for us. We are in a great position as a team. We have great sponsorship and that will allow us to push forward and do the things we need to do.”

Rahal believes at 30, he has a long time ahead of him to win races and championships and maybe even the Indianapolis 500. In order to reach those goals, however, Rahal’s team needs to regain the competitive level he displayed prior to last year.

“We’ve been fortunate to win six times,” Rahal said. “A lot of people come into this sport and never win. I fully recognize there is no reason we can’t win a lot. I don’t care what anybody writes, what anybody thinks – I really feel that when it comes to race day, we perform better than 99 percent of the other people out there.

“As a team and for myself, we have to qualify better. If we can qualify better, we’ll be a thorn in everybody’s side. We know the rear of our cars just aren’t good enough. When we need to find that extra tenth or two, it’s just not there but absolutely, we want to win.

“I don’t come here year after year to just drive around. Our sponsors don’t invest in us year after year to not see us win. We feel that. But our cars aren’t good enough and we know that.”

Rahal believes the team has identified the problems with the setup of its car. It has a deep engineering staff but hasn’t had a chance to develop the damper program and other important areas that provide a competition setup.

Takuma Sato, the winner of the 101stIndianapolis 500 when he was with Andretti Autosport, scored the team’s only victory in 2018 with a win in the Portland Grand Prix. The two are back this year and have built a respect for each other.

“He’s a good guy,” Rahal said of Sato. “Other than Helio Castroneves, Takuma is probably the happiest man on the planet. He’s a great guy and fits in well with our organization. We pride ourselves on being a family and he fits in extremely well to that.

“We need to do a better job for him as a team. He won a race last year, but we can both do better to win with both cars.

“The Andretti cars are the best right now and the Penske cars will be good. We have a lot of space to close up on those two teams but hopefully, we can do it.”