Writer’s Diary: Well, This is Awkward

When last we spoke, I was confessing my ignorance and terror. Miss that post? It’s right here.

Okay, now that you’re caught up: hello, good day. Get your reading specs on because friends, I have more confessions to, well, confess.

So yeah, in a fairly risky move, they hired me. I had won the career lottery. I had the position as Associate Editor at National Dragster in the bag, baby, and I was beside myself with glee. The hard part was telling my bosses at Hot Topic HQ. They had recently created a position for me to enable a move up, and I felt terrible abandoning ship when they really were doing everything they could to make me stay. I had received a significant raise just a couple of months before applying to National Dragster, but this wasn’t about money or position. It was about finding something that resonated, something that put me into alignment with who I believed I was on a daily basis.

Making myself right at home at National Dragster, full of ill-placed, soon-to-backfire bravado

I have never been more excited to start a new job. I walked into my little cubicle at National Dragster and felt like I was home. ND Editor Phil Burgess, my new boss (holy shiitakes), gave me the grand tour, introduced me around, and then – hold the phone – showed me the National Dragster archives. Oh…… HELLO. I LOVE YOU. Every single issue of National Dragster was five feet away from my desk. Every single issue. Ever. Can I get a Kleenex for these happy tears, please?!

Directly across the way from my cubicle was the writing space belonging to famed drag racing illustrator and fellow Associate Editor John Jodauga. He was funny and fidgety when we met, and I instantly knew he would be my ally, should I need one.

Most everyone was kind and welcoming as Phil introduced me, and there was a name plate hung carefully outside of my cubicle that made it all so very real. “Kelly Wade, Associate Editor.” I had a map of the United States with pushpins ready to be placed, Pro and Sportsman media guides, a laptop and monitor with a proper keyboard, a phone with a tape recorder connected to it, and a slew of press kits the previous occupant had left behind.

When ND was a weekly. You can insert an emoji with heart-eyes right here.

Phil soon left me to my devices, and although I don’t remember the first assignments, I do remember two very terrible things: the complete silence (aside from the tapping of keys coming from each of the six writer’s cubicles) and Vicky’s red pen.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Copy editors are the devil. Those corrections coming at you in red ink? That’s no coincidence; it’s your blood on the page, and they revel in it. Their eyes sparkle as they step into your cubicle to offer you pages and pages, slashed and bleeding. What’s worse is that they can barely contain a smirk as they shake their heads and demand your shame in regard to comma placement. “How dare you, Kelly. How dare you not place a comma before ‘and’ when the second part of the sentence could stand alone. YOU SAVAGE!”

The sound of Boss Editor Lady Vicky’s heels on the carpet heading toward my cubicle would make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. I just got a shiver writing that, no joke.

Now, please understand that Vicky wasn’t really the devil. Nor were her assistants, each of whom helped mold me into a far more polished writer than I was when I came on board at ND. But it stung, guys. It really stung. Not only did my poop stink, it stunk real, real bad. I was soooooooo new. I mean, I knew I was new. But when you see it in that dad-blasted red ink, day after day, you can’t deny the level of suck from which you are trying to emerge.

Look how professional, with my hair pulled back so tight I couldn’t blink. (Photo credit: Jerry Foss)

A weird thing happened, though. The nightmarish red-ink consultations came about less often, and then eventually, they stopped. Thankfully, it wasn’t because I was a lost cause; it was because I learned. (Oh, heck. That’s just a guess. Maybe Vicky ran out of red pens. Or maybe my dad got tired of seeing me cry and issued some sort of warning. Who actually knows.)

There was a lot to learn outside of writing, though. Oh, dear God. So much to learn. My first race working for National Dragster was Bristol (and to this date, Bristol Dragway is my favorite, favorite racetrack). I had a story due that Friday summarizing the latest Division 6 event, and as Wednesday drew to a close, my last day in the office before traveling to Tennessee for the Thunder Valley Nationals, I realized I wouldn’t be able to turn it in before I left. I asked if I could finish it on the road and turn it in before Friday morning. The answer was yes, but it was a reluctant yes. I was so foolishly confident.

“They don’t know who they’re dealing with,” I thought to myself as I tucked that reluctant ‘yes’ into the part of my brain reserved for motivational fuel.

I hopped on an airplane the next day with ND writers Candida Benson and Brad Littlefield, and off we went to Bristol. It was a long day of traveling to another time zone, and when we got there, I was already done-for. Still, after dinner I went to my room and set to work finishing the divisional story. I swelled with inappropriately placed self-assurance for all of about 10 minutes.

All I had to work off of were stats, photos, and a very limited understanding of the Sportsman classes and how they worked. The internet was helpful, but not that helpful, and the later it got, the less I seemed to understand. I did not sleep the entire night, and by morning I was bleary eyed, flustered, and unfinished.

With Candida Benson and Whit Bazemore at Bristol in 2007. I had gotten no sleep the night before and was a zombie at my very first race wearing that coveted blue shirt.

The designated meeting time for the National Dragster staff was 9:00, and I ambled down to the lobby at about 8:45 and waited. When Candida arrived, she asked me how my night was, and I confessed that it wasn’t good. Then Brad got there, and they both agreed that I should let Phil and the edit staff know as soon as possible that I hadn’t finished. Phil was kind, but I was acutely aware that I had failed the first test. Kevin McKenna graciously agreed to finish the story for me, and when I got back, I was immediately called into Phil’s office.

Scroll down for the rest of the story.

When I got there, I saw that Kevin was already seated. Phil told me to come in and shut the door, and at that point I just knew I was getting fired. The lump in my throat felt like a baseball, and I could hear the blood rushing in my ears as my vision tunneled for a split-second.

It was like that part in Grease 2 when the lead dude goes over the cliff on his motorcycle, and Stephanie’s standing there like, “Just when I found you, I lost you!” I was about to be left standing on a cliff, pining over my beloved career.

But here’s something cool. I didn’t get fired that day. Instead, I got a full lesson in Sportsman racing from some of the best teachers in the entire world (see Kevin McKenna’s book, How to Drag Race, available here).

This lesson may or may not have included dramatizations with Hot Wheel’s diecast cars, but let’s just say that these good humans saw to it that I had all of the information that I needed, right down to the basics. Had that closed-door educational conference never happened, I would not be here today, completely in love with Sportsman racing and the people within it.

Yeah, the whole episode was a gigantic bash to my ego, but it was also a great life lesson. It’s okay not to know. It doesn’t mean you’re a lost cause, and it sure the heck doesn’t mean you should quit. But you have to own what you don’t know, and you have to be willing to take the lessons as they come so that you can get better.

Sample of my hyper-organization, based 100% in fear of messing something up, even the tiniest thing.

From that meeting with Phil and Kevin up until about five years ago, I didn’t read ONE THING that wasn’t racing-related. I didn’t read a magazine or book that wasn’t pertaining to either cars or the automotive industry or racing. Sometimes I would try, but I would be overcome with guilt. I never felt like I had enough information. I never felt like I knew enough about what I was supposed to know.

Last confession today: I will never feel like I know enough, but now I realize it’s okay to set aside time to read about a variety of things. I found fiction again, and I rekindled a love of history and even a little poetry. As a writer, I truly enjoy falling into a well-written book, particularly fiction – it’s kind of like an escape from reality, you know?

And here’s a good reminder to myself that I have learned a few things. I’ve been fortunate to write a book about drag racing, or rather, a book about one of the legends of the sport. Drag Racing’s Warren “The Professor” Johnson: The Cars, People & Wins Behind His Pro Stock Success will be released under the CarTech Books label this coming spring. Get it here.

And that, friends, is all I have for you today. Next week, I’m gonna tell you a little bit about that first race and some very significant things that happened there that would impact the trajectory of my career, even after my time at ND came to an end. The story includes one Pro Stock racer’s goofy way of welcoming me to drag racing, and one Funny Car driver’s simple gesture that altered my perception completely.

Have a great week.

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