There’s no ‘I’ in team: MC alum Wilber lives the expression2011 By Kari Williams
All his life, Bob Wilber, a 1978 SIUE Mass Communications graduate, has been a team-oriented person, and working toward a common goal—winning or losing as a team—is what he loves about drag racing.
Wilber saw his first drag race in 1991 as the general manager of a racetrack in Topeka, Kan. He is now closing in on 15 years of involvement with the National Hot Rod Association.
“I was never a gear head. I built model cars when I was a kid, and that was about the most I knew about cars,” Wilber said.
Wilber currently lives in Minnesota, and, since he left Kansas, he has worked for various drag racing teams doing public relations, been the general manager for the indoor soccer franchise the Kansas City Attack and worked as the team manager for Del Worsham and Tim Wilkerson’s NHRA funny car teams.
Funny cars developed in the late ‘60s, according to Wilber, from individuals fixing their own cars and fabricating some of the parts.
“It evolved over the course of a decade, stretching, fabricating, changing the sheet metal on the cars,” Wilber said.
Today the cars are single bodied, made out of carbon fiber and they have about 8,000 horsepower. The Wilkerson car can go from zero to 300 mph in about 4 seconds, according to Wilber.
While working for Worsham, Wilber said they had one of the best, single weekends possible when they won the Skoal Showdown in Indianapolis, Ind. The team won the race and $500,000 in one day.
“It’s just our Superbowl, just the most prestigious you could win…being the kings of it for one day, it was just amazing,” Wilber said.
This is almost Wilber’s third year with Team Wilkerson.
“In our business, there’s some divas, some prima donnas….some [who are] not so ethical. Tim is just the opposite of all that,” Wilber said. “[He] just struck me as being probably the best guy in the sport.”
Through his work, Wilber travels from coast to coast for the 23-race schedule that lasts 10 months. Wilber coordinates the business side and handles the logistics of what the team does. He has to make sure the team gets to the right place at the right time and handles endorsements.
“[It’s like] running a business that’s like a circus, and I’m in charge of getting the circus to the right town at the right time,” Wilber said.
He also handles the media relations aspect of the business and keeps in daily contact with sponsors, as well as promoting through social networking. Wilber acts as a liaison between the race team and the media, writes press releases and feature stories, as well as pitching stories to publications. He also coordinates travel with other teams and NHRA as the team spokesman.
“I wear all of those hats, but it’s still a lot fun. It doesn’t seem like work,” Wilber said.
Wilber also writes a blog on NHRA.com.
“I think the blog is probably, in the big picture, one of my career highlights because it made me famous. I was just the PR guy that no one knew,” Wilber said.
According to Wilber, five years ago the editor of NHRA.com said they were going to start behind-the-scenes blogs that would last for a month.
“I was a little nervous, but we plowed into it,” Wilber said.
Wilber is the only blogger who is not a driver, and he said his blog quickly evolved into stories about his life, rather than information about the race car or the race team. Wilber’s blog is the No. 1 blog on the site.
“It became kind of a sensation…we average thousands of readers a day,” Wilber said.
It takes Wilber at least an hour to write each blog, and he tries to write two-four per week. He equates writing to jumping in a cold swimming pool: “As soon as you type that first letter, you’re in it for an hour.”
“I’m typing just as fast as I can, and it’s hard work for an hour to do that,” Wilber said. “Sometimes it’s easy…some days I sit here with a notepad… you don’t bat a thousand. Some of them are great and some of them are just words.”
One blog that stands out more than the rest, according to Wilber, was when Adam Vincent, a reader from Pearl City, Hawaii, e-mailed him asking for a model replica of a funny car. At the time Wilber received the e-mail, they did not have any for sale and were not making anymore. Wilber said something about Vincent struck him, and he offered to send one of his own models to Vincent.
After Wilber sent the replica, he found out Vincent was sick with cancer. Wilber met Vincent and his family while they were in Hawaii. A year after they met, Vincent e-mailed Wilber again, saying his wife, Francine, lost her job and the family had 24 hours to keep from losing their house. Wilber decided to use what he calls the “power of the blog” to help. He wrote a piece explaining Vincent’s situation and gave Vincent’s address if any readers were interested in sending money to help.
“[He had] about 70 envelopes in his mailbox. Some still send money today,” Wilber said.
Because he talks about his pets and his wife, Barbara, in his blog, she is recognized at the racetrack as well as Wilber.
“I get recognized now at the race tracks, sign autographs, it’s just absolutely goofy,” Wilber said. “It’s a little funny to go to a race if Barbara is with me, people recognize her.”
Wilber said he has been able to spend almost his entire life doing something that does not feel like work.
“It just feels like what you want to do. I love communicating. I love writing,” he said.
Wilber thought life after graduation from SIUE would lead to a professional baseball career—and it did for almost six years, until an injury changed the course of his life.
Wilber signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers, where he played for two years in the minor leagues before he was released. He was immediately re-signed by the Oakland A’s and spent a year in their minor league, the Medford A’s. But, his ball career ended there when he was hit in the face with a bat.
“One of my teammates didn’t know I was standing right behind him, and he took a full swing with a Louisville slugger and hit me in the face…All I lost was my two front teeth and the ability to eat solid food for about a month,” Wilber said.
But when Wilber came back from the injury, he was malnourished and atrophied, and, he said, “Baseball is a very cutthroat deal,” causing him to leave his baseball career behind.
At SIUE, he studied television and radio and planned to play 10 years in the big leagues then go to the broadcast booth.
Wilber said his only regret is that he did not pursue much in television and radio, but he said there were dozens of Mass Communications classes where he learned how to cut through clutter of a story to get the point across. What he has learned about communications came initially from classes at SIUE.
“Other than a lot of stuff I learned in the sports marketing business just the hard way, the best training to start my career came from SIUE. It was a terrific education,” Wilber said.
After his senior year at SIUE, Wilber signed a professional baseball contract and played two and a half seasons professionally and said he had to go back to school one quarter at a time. He could work from the bottom up pursuing a career in radio and broadcast, but then the Toronto Blue Jays offered him a scouting job.
Wilber changed course to become a scout for the Blue Jays for four years. From there, he swerved into the world of sports marketing working with Converse shoes and managing a couple soccer teams along the way until the NHRA came into view.
Professor Kamil Winter was a “tremendous motivation” to Wilber and told Wilber he could do a lot of good for the program at SIUE.
“He took me aside and said, ‘You’re the one in this class who can be a television star, if you want to be,’” Wilber said.
Professor Jack Shaheen also made an impact on Wilber’s education; Shaheen said Wilber was a special student who he always felt had a great future.
“You’re special when you care about what you do, and he just had something about his presence, he really had a deep affection for the university [and] was always very positive,” Shaheen said. “I think his concerns about SIUE were genuine and he was committed there.”
According to Wilber, the day he walked onto campus he felt a change in himself and he went into every class willing to learn everything professors were willing to teach.
“I think I was a terrific, responsible student. I realized when I got to college nobody was forcing me to learn. [You] gain whatever you put into it,” Wilber said.
Wilber considers his time at SIUE some of the best years of his life.
“[College is] where you go from being a teenager to an adult. Those are big years…I have such a warm spot in my heart for SIUE,” he said.
While attending SIUE, Wilber was on the SIUE baseball team and played in the Division II World Series.
“It was the college world series; it was really, really neat. We didn’t win either one of them, but it was great to be there,” he said.
Bill Lee, a member of the SIUE baseball team with Wilber, has known Wilber since 1974. Lee and Wilber had a family connection, as Lee’s father was the head baseball coach at SIUE and Wilber’s older brother, Rick, played for Lee’s father.
“We just hung around all the time together away from the field and we just had a great time. Our entire group was basically the baseball players,” Lee said.
Lee said the education they received at SIUE helped them become well-rounded, as well as helping with social skills.
“Careers are careers, and they will lead you and change directions. I never thought I’d be doing what I’m doing today,” Lee said.
Lee’s time at SIUE in the ‘70s was a great time of life for him.
“When you share so much time with somebody as a player, and just as friends, and you do so many different things—from all of our practice times to just the social times and the parties we’d have and the craziness we’d all share—it just creates great memories all around and lasting friendships,” Lee said.
Lee is currently the commissioner of the Frontier League, an independent baseball minor league, and lives in Belleville.
Lance McCord met Wilber while playing baseball and has known him for more than 30 years. McCord and Wilber were captains of the SIUE baseball team their senior year. According to McCord, working with NHRA is perfect for Wilber.
“It’s a natural extension of his personality,” McCord said. “I think it’s a perfect fit for him.”
Though his baseball career did not go as planned, Wilber did play again with the Sauget Wizards, in Sauget, Ill. The team had eight former minor league players, one former big league player and college players. As part of that team, Wilber went to Tennessee and defeated the United States Olympic team in 1989.
McCord played on the Sauget Wizards with Wilber after college ball was finished at the convincing of former SIUE baseball coach Bob Hughes.
“It was a great time because we had a lot of guys like us who’d played a little bit of minor league baseball,” Lee said.
Though Lee rarely sees Wilber in person, they keep up with each other through e-mail.
“The friends you make in college…those tend to be the friends you forge through [with] for a lifetime,” Lee said.