I’ve started and re-started this piece several times today. I keep trying different angles. Some have been poetic, some have been funny, some have simply been informational. None of them have worked, so now I’m just going to write what I’m thinking and whatever happens, happens.
Jon Knapp died late Monday night and I have been crying on and off ever since I heard the news.
Most of you probably don’t know who Jon is. He’s a public relations representative within the NHRA Full Throttle Series. Since 2009, he and his wife, Joanne, have been with the Summit Racing team of Ken Black Racing and Pro Stock champions Greg Anderson and Jason Line. I’ll get to Joanne in a bit because she’s pretty important to the story.
Jon had been sick for awhile, suffering from the cancer that would eventually take him from us. The weird thing is about Jon, he never acted sick. By that, I mean his illness did not define him. He never changed. If he ever had a moment of weakness, I never saw it. We would ask how he was doing, he would provide a quick update regarding his most recent doctor’s visit, then it was all about racing.
In motorsports, the greatest compliment one can be given is being called “a racer.” You don’t have to be behind the wheel to be a racer. It’s a mentality. It’s a work ethic. There are a lot of folks behind the wheel who are simply drivers. There are also a lot of folks who have never gotten in the cockpit of a racecar who are true racers.
Jon was a racer.
I’ve seen guys get appendectomy surgery and were back in the racecar two days later. I’ve seen guys go through chemo and radiation without having ever missed a race. That was Jon. He worked his butt off. He was one of the best among us, not just at his job, which he absolutely was. But as a person. People are fallible. People can be mean-spirited and hateful. I never, in the years I knew him, heard Jon say a mean word about anyone.
I didn’t know him longest. I didn’t know him best. But I knew him well enough to know he would be the kind of person I would never forget. My first meeting with him was in 2008. I had been the PR director at the former Gateway International Raceway since the previous June, but May 2008 would be my first NHRA event as a track director. Jon e-mailed me out of the blue and invited me to dinner the Thursday night prior to the three-day race weekend. He, Jay Wells, and Joe Sherk organized a PR/media dinner and thought the new track PR guy should be there.
I was primarily a NASCAR guy at the time and didn’t know much about drag racing. Depending on whom you talk to, I still don’t. Jon answered any and all questions I had and told me if I ever needed anything, don’t hesitate to ask. From that moment on, he was my friend.
That weekend, he, Joanne, and their driver, Kurt Johnson, went to the Winner’s Circle. It was a neat thing to see him work, how effortless it was for him, and how happy he was. Not for himself so much, but for Kurt. I would see that same joy repeated many, many times when Greg and Jason would earn Wallys and championships. He loved his drivers. Two years ago, when Greg won the Pro Stock title after a hard year that saw his house burn down and his team owner Ken Black suffer a stroke, Jon was beaming. Everything had turned around. Greg won the title, Ken was back at the track, and all was well.
About a year later is when he was diagnosed. The vibe I got from him was that it made him uncomfortable. Not the illness itself, but the fact he was the center of attention. Jon was no wall flower. At all. But he didn’t want to be pitied. He wanted to do what we always did in whatever media center we were in that weekend: work hard and laugh. I’ve always said working in drag racing really isn’t working. Yes, the hours are long and the conditions aren’t always the best, but we get to see amazing things happen on the track and we’re having the time of our lives in the media center, especially on the PR side. For the most part, it’s the same group at every race, and at every race, you know you’re going to laugh. Jon and Joanne were an integral part of that group.
Now is as good a time as any to talk about Joanne. They were partners in every sense of the word. They were married and they were a PR team. I could no more imagine the two of them working for separate teams as I could imagine waking up with my head sewn to the carpet. They would walk into the media center in the morning and the greeting, “Hello, Knapps!” would ring out. Rarely were they apart and they brought out the best in each other.
The amazing thing about them, and I’m crying again, is that you could see the love they had for one another. No, they weren’t in a corner making out or walking through the pits holding hands. They just had a visible, unbreakable bond. More than almost anyone I’ve ever met, they were the true definition of soul mates. They loved and respected each other unconditionally.
It’s thinking about Joanne that makes Jon’s passing all the harder to bear for a lot of us. More often than not, when a member of our racing family dies, you know they’re married or have kids and you feel sympathy for their loss. Odds are, though, you’ve never met them. Or if you have, it’s been briefly at a dinner or some sponsor function. With Jon and Joanne, they were the same person. As much as I am grieving for the loss of Jon, I’m grieving the same for Joanne’s loss, a loss far greater than anything I could possibly be feeling.
The last time I saw them was at the 4-Wide Nationals at zMax Dragway this past spring. It was Jon’s home track, as he’s a native of nearby Mooresville, N.C. His Jeff Foxworthy hair and moustache were gone, sacrifices made to the chemotherapy. He was wearing a surgical mask and looked thinner. I wasn’t able to talk to him much because we were both busy, but the brief conversation we had was a good one.
The weekend was also a good one for Jon and Joanne with Greg winning the Pro Stock Wally. I congratulated them in the media center after the race.
And that was it. That was the last time I saw Jon.
So many people talk about treating any conversation you have with someone like it’s your last because life is short. It honestly and truly never occurred to me that I would never see Jon again. That I would never sit next to him and Joanne in the media center in the morning and talk about dinner from the night before or just talk about racing. Maybe that’s stupidity and naiveté on my part. But I’m comfortable with the knowledge that Jon knew how much he was loved. He knew that every person in that media center was rooting for him to beat this thing and even before the cancer, he knew he was a dear friend to us all.
All day, I’ve had the same childish thought rattle around my skull. “He’s my friend. This isn’t supposed to happen to my friends.” I really don’t think it’s sunk in yet. Logically, intellectually, I know Jon Knapp is no longer with us. But all the same, that disbelief and numbness I’ve felt since I heard the news around 3 a.m. Tuesday assails me. I cry when I think about him and when I think about Joanne having to go on without him, but then I go back to thinking, “He’s my friend. This isn’t supposed to happen to my friends.”
This weekend, the NHRA will be in Las Vegas. I won’t be there. I’m not with a team anymore and I have a fulltime non-racing job. I’ve been to two races all year. My friends will be there. They will talk about Jon and they will laugh and then they will remember he is gone and they will cry.
Jon will be looking down on them, I’m crying again, and he will be smiling. He will be happy for those who’ve won the race, because he was always as happy for those who won as he was when his drivers won. He’ll be happy that the show is going on and that racers are racing.
And he’ll be with Joanne. Part of Jon will forever be with her and she will never be without a friend. She will have that piece of Jon and she will have us all, her friends and family in the media center, who will be there for her whenever she needs us.
Good bye, Jon Knapp. There will forever be an empty seat in the media center and a missing piece in the hearts of all who knew you. Godspeed, my friend.
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