He had worked so hard on that fence, painting it and sprucing it up. Then Rob Wendland saw it blow away in the Kansas night, as if a tornado had splintered it.
What destroyed the fence there at the eighth-mile Lawrence, Kan., dragstrip, to 10-year-old Wendland's amazement, was the celebrated "Green Monster," the creation of dragster and jet-car genius Art Arfons.
Today Wendland, 46, is in his second season as Johnny Gray's crew chief for the Don Schumacher-owned NTB/Service Central Dodge Charger. But those memories flood back like they happened yesterday. This weekend's Dollar General Summernationals at Heartland Park Topeka provides the backdrop for his special homecoming.
"This is all I've done since I was 12," Wendland said of his involvement in drag racing. And this is where it began.
"When I was eight, I would have neighbors pick me up and take me to the local track in Lawrence. I worked at the track or washed parts." Then he graduated to what he called "the VHT kid."
Said Wendland, "At that particular track, you backed up to a wall. It was the burnout area. Then you’d roll forward and you'd have a VHT line. I was the VHT kid. They'd do a dry hop through the VHT. I'd throw a little VHT in front of the cars. That's how we used to do it."
Then one day, special -- famous -- company, including "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, was coming.
"I remember when the Green Monster came. I think I skipped school on Friday. I must have been about 10," Wendland recalled. "We decided we were going to paint this fence up and make this place look bitchin'." That night, he recalled, "Here comes the Green Monster. First thing he did was start pumping that thing. And it blew that fence clear across the road!"
All Wendland could think was how cool that was and how he wanted more than ever to be part of this unpredictable and crazy world. So he gravitated toward the best in the region, working for such notables as Top Alcohol Dragster racers Donnie Kornbrust, Tim Baxter (the 1977-79 division champion), and Darryl Hitchman. Then he helped Randy Parks, in a car Parks bought from Alan Johnson, qualify No. 1 and win at the 1994 U.S. Nationals.
Before landing a job at DSR, first in 2009 with Antron Brown's Matco Tools Dragster team, Wendland tuned Mike Gunderson's A-Fuel dragster to the first 280-mph run, worked with Mark Oswald on John Lawson's Funny Car (2003-05), served as car chief for John Force, and was an adviser with Morgan Lucas Racing and Cruz Pedregon Racing.
"I've worked on every type of hot rod over the years with numerous great racers, tuners, and fabricators, including having my own speed shop, been a car chief on a nitro Funny Car, and drove a Top Alcohol Dragster in 1999 for Mike Troxel," he said.
Wendland drove for only one season but finished sixth in the standings and earned four national-event victories. That included one victory at Route 66 Raceway at Joliet, where he took over the reins as crew chief for Gray's Funny Car.
"I got a lot of respect for drivers from that experience," Wendland said. "I used to think a driver should just suck it up and drive through tire shake, for example. Well, after driving, I called many of the guys who had driven for me and apologized about my attitude."
Today he has Gray in the top five among Funny Car drivers, as they both said they felt excited to return to Heartland Park Topeka.
"Rob and I both ran well there back in the alcohol days," Gray said. "Topeka is just a fun racetrack. It's good and it's fast, and I'm feeling really positive about the NTB/Service Central Dodge. It's coming back around. After the first round of eliminations in Atlanta, I told Rob, 'There's my old racecar coming back to me.' They're getting the bugs out of it and getting a handle back on it, and we feel pretty strongly about having a good chance to step back up to third or fourth in the points."
The homecoming has an extra-special twist for Wendland.
"I love racing at Topeka," he said. "These are my old stomping grounds, and in the past I've had some good luck there. This time around will be really special because we'll be running our NTB/Service Central car with a tribute decal honoring Tim Baxter and the Jayhawker. I'm always excited to get back there, but this is going to be really neat."
Baxter, considered one of the greatest Kansas drag racers of all-time, died from cancer this January 31, at age 56.
"I'm so grateful to Tim and his family," Wendland said, "and this is just one small thing that we can do to honor them."
Another strong showing, like the one they had last season, would make it even better. Gray drove the NTB / Service Central Dodge to the semifinals from the No. 2 starting position, qualifying only four-thousandths of a second slower than leader Jack Beckman.
"Last year we did very well in Topeka," Wendland said, "and right now I think we're all excited because the car is really responding to what we're doing. Thankfully, we're still in the No. 5 spot in the points, and we're just going to continue to look forward. The future looks really good for us."
The past hasn't been so bad, either.
All articles and photography published in CompetitionPlus.com are protected by United States of America and International copyright laws unless mentioned otherwise. The content on this website is intended for the private use of the reader and may not be published or reposted in any form without the prior written consent of CompetitionPlus.com.
|< Prev||Next >|