Getting really close to a NASCAR or a NHRA team at work and obtaining a behind the scenes experience is not easy even if you have connections.
Getting close to NHRA drivers and teams in the pits is easier because every ticket is a pit pass.
In the NHRA pits, fans lean up against the ropes or tape barriers to watch crews work on cars and engines during runs down the drag strip, but they are not permitted beyond the ropes unless invited.
In the NASCAR garage, drivers walk among the lanes to get from haulers to garage stalls passing a few lucky fans with a hot pass, but fans can’t enter the stalls or the haulers without team permission.
NASCAR drivers may come out of the garage for autograph sessions, but that’s not where they normally work.
Racetake.com decided to invite Facebook.com friend Jayson Huggins, a Financial Analyst for NASCAR, to accompany them beyond the ropes during the Tire Kingdom NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida recently.
Huggins lives in Daytona, Fla., where he works at the NASCAR headquarters, International Motorsports Center, across from Daytona International Speedway.
Huggins has been a NHRA drag racing fan for many years and his father has drag raced for decades and has been on SPEED TV’s Pass Time show with his 1968 Chevelle.
He has also had the opportunity recently to be close to NASCAR drivers with his role at NASCAR.
But Huggins got an eye-opening special tour among busy crew members preparing the powerful Funny Cars at the John Force Racing hauler compound.
Public Relations Manager for JFR, Elon Werner, explained the difference between NASCAR and NHRA racing by taking Huggins a few feet away from one of the cars during warm up.
“You guys race for three hours and your pit stops are 15 seconds,” Werner said. “We work on the cars for 45 minutes and we race for four and a half seconds.”
Huggins was impressed in many ways.
“Standing next to a Funny Car warming up with 8,000 hp the ground just shakes,” Huggins said. “It vibrates your bones and when they rev it up it almost feels like the horsepower just grabs you by the neck.”
Werner’s guided tour of JFR’s command center with sophisticated data, weather and machinery was especially remarkable.
“Working in one motor sport and seeing all the different aspects that go into a race gave me a completely different take on drag racing, which I ignorantly thought I knew everything about,” Huggins said.
“Drag racing has also evolved into a high tech sport where every edge is searched out just to achieve 1/1000th of a second advantage. The teams are pouring over hundreds of data points to give them any edge in hopes of making the final round.”
The effect of one-on-one interviews with famous drivers John Force, Robert Hight and Mike Neff was striking as the fast encounters played out.
Courtney Force, one of Force’s racing daughters, explained earlier in the race week what it was like growing up with a famous dad.
“When I was growing up I didn’t really know he was a famous driver,” Force said.
“He was just dad to me and he was gone every weekend, driving. It was something that was taking him away from us in the beginning. We grew up and started to understand it more and realized that’s his job, that’s what he does and that he’s good at it. We grew up being proud of him. Now it’s something that’s bringing the family together.”
As a part of the cordial driver interview sessions, an interesting question was asked to John Force, Robert Hight and Mike Neff.
"What’s it like to get cheered by fans?"
“It’s the win light, the cheers, the pay check and the trophy,” Force said. “That’s the four things you get. The cheers, it’s the adrenaline that makes you hair stand up on the back of your neck. It’s a turn-on for me.”
“It makes you feel good,” Hight said. “I remember when I was a fan and I had my favorites. Being a part of this John Force Racing team is big and we do have a following, a lot of it especially because of John. When we go to a NASCAR race or whatever it is, it does make you feel good when people notice you.”
“It’s exciting,” Neff said. “It gets you fired up. The fans are what it’s all about and it’s great to see them, the excitement they get, coming out here and watching these cars run. You see a lot of first-time people and they tell you about it. Just to see their excitement, that’s what makes it special.”
Huggins was even more impressed with Mr. Force.
“He’s even faster in person, just standing still,” Huggins said. “Quick wit, you can tell he’s always on top no matter what he does.”
Force told a few stories as he often does.
Force about Jimmie Johnson and Richard Petty:
“It’s only a rumor, Force said. “But they said Jimmie Johnson said, ‘Why is Force’s name so big on his bus?’ Richard Petty said, I don’t know if it’s true, but Richard Petty said ‘Either Force has a big ego or he’s so old he can’t find his bus.’ Thank you, Richard Petty. I don’t know if he said it, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
Force about a Mike Helton motorcycle visit to the NHRA pits early in race week:
“I saw Helton [Mike Helton, president of NASCAR] came in here yesterday. I said, ‘I’m sorry sir, no bikers in here.’ It was great to see him take a ride with a bunch of his friends. They came up on Harleys and came by to say hello. He showed his respect. It was really cool. He’s the best. Big. He ought to be a Green Bay Packer.”
As often as Force is humorous and entertaining, he can get serious and did as ended his one-on-one Racetake.com interview.
“Thank God for the American soldier,” Force said. “That makes me wake up every day. When fans tell me how great I am, I try to tell them it’s our soldiers that are great. That ain’t being humble, that’s a fact. We all gotta understand that.”
It’s suspected that Jayson Huggins understood that and probably understands a lot more too as a result of this behind the ropes experience.
More fast encounters coming soon.
Photo credit: Gary Larsen @ Racetake.com.
FYI WIRZ is the swift presentation of pertinent motorsports topics by Dwight Drum @ Racetake.com.