The Nitro Joint w / "Chicago Jon" Hoffman

A Journey from Chicago to Joliet and a Lesson Learned

Uptight Canadian Mountie, to Eliot Ness: "I do NOT approve of your methods,  Ness!”


"Yeah, well...you're not from Chicago."-- Kevin Costner (Ness), after Jim Malone (Sean Connery) has blown the head off a guy that was already dead)--  THE UNTOUCHABLES, 1987


So, another Joliet race goes into the record books, and another spectacular time was had by yours truly. I could quite easily write (in a 'Doctor Evil' voice) "One…MILLION words", but this is a column, not War and Peace. So, we'll start with what every arrival in town starts with, the accommodations.

Anyone who has been around this sport longer than five minutes has 'travel horror stories', but this year was well, a little bit different. Not one, not two, but EVERY SINGLE cliche in the book happened with the motel, and a handful of brand-spanking NEW ones jumped on the bus as well. This fine establishment is a part of the "We'll leave the light on for you" deal, except at this one, the light bulbs had already been stolen. What "lamps" there WERE in the room had dangling and exposed wire, but as the phrase goes, "but wait, there's MORE!" All the doors look like they've been beaten down by cops (or bad guys) so every night I'd install the "redneck-alarm" at my door. Next door to me is a 24/7 "Rasta-fest", with a fog rolling out the door that would have made London jealous. I love Deep Purple, and that was probably the color I was every time I came and went. (I am DESPERATELY trying to get hired at a local factory, and the LAST thing I need in my life is to bomb a drug-test, so holding my breath on top of dealing with the stairs, and turning colors every time I came and went became the norm.)


On Saturday night, I return to QUITE a sight. The old phrase, "you can crash at my place" has taken on a SPECIAL meaning, as workers, CLEARLY licensed and bonded (much like I'm a size 34 waist) are frantically boarding up a demolished room. APPARENTLY, someone coming to visit Snoop-Dog and company next door forgot which pedal was the gas and which was the brake.


I'm being dragged, kicking and screaming into the modern technology world. 'Wet-Labs', that develop film, have all but disappeared. Before my health took an ill-timed (but necessary) detour, in February, I invested in the Holy Grail of cameras, my first NIKON, and digital at that. I figured, Hey, I'll have all the spring races at the locals to figure this deal out. Rain, more rain, and then (cue up STONEHENGE) a virtual "Spinal Tap" of an operation, and I'm going into the race with NO practice worth a bleep.


I call up the Burkster in a panic (he has become used to this...at least I HOPE so) and he starts talking me down off the proverbial window ledge. "Hey, hey, settle DOWN, Big Boy! We'll start with the basics. See a dial, it says ON/OFF?? Well, turn it to on...." My boss then tells me not to worry, just go "and have some fun", and by all means, I am under direct orders to NOT..."turn in 3,000 pictures"! OK, have fun it is, so the weekend is all that and more, with local flavor in the form of the gang from the “Chi-Town Hustler” and the driver of the fastest bracket-car/Top Fuel Dragster ever, "Chef" TJ Zizzo! (They would peel off I believe three 3.80s) but as far as "Nikon-knowledge", I have a handful of cheat-sheets, and a minute long coaching-session, which we will talk about later.


Security at the event is unlike anything I've ever encountered at a dragstrip. I spent the weekend being searched, frisked, waved over with an 'evil-ness-finding magic-wand', and definitely NOT arguing with Joliet’s Finest. The wife was the one who said, "look up gun incidents", and yeah, sorry gang, we live in a sick world. Since Columbine, there have been (and this is just SCHOOLS, mind you) 50, with 141 fatalities. So, the "Five-O" pretty much has the right to do the whole "Not on MY watch!" deal.


Just last summer, there were murders at my old stomping grounds, Great Lakes Dragaway (unsolved as of this writing) and when I went to a hockey game in March, the 'magic-wand' folk were there as well. When you have fake knees, and a thing in your neck that looks (on the X-ray anyway) like a bracket for holding a fuel line in place, you draw attention. Toss in being a member of the press, and swapping equipment out all day -- this sh&$ got old over the long haul, but as former Cubs Skipper Dusty Baker would say, "Dude, it is what it is....”


And so, on Saturday afternoon, the second session of pros comes out and I have moved to an upper row mid-track, spectator side. John Force has been having an absolutely TERRIBLE time this year, so when I see him coming up next, I pull the 'new kid' out of the bag. At the same time, some people sit down right in front of me, so I hustle up four more rows, because I just sense trouble. Sure enough, he starts sashaying around, and I start shooting. Never having even owned a motor-drive, my right thumb wanted to advance the film wheel! (Tough task, as there isn't one.) I'm confident I have some good shots, but have no clue how to preview them. Scott Bessee (my DRO teammate) comes to the rescue later in the parking lot, and well, I've done better, but never has it been a sixteen-time champion. (Show of hands, who DOESN'T have a photo of the 'Montana Express' blowing up?)


Let me talk about football for a second. When I was a lad, there were maybe four elite teams, and one was the pride of Baltimore in general and "Loudy" Loudenslager in particular, and that was the Baltimore Colts. Toward the end of the 1965 season Johnny Unitas, and the guy who held Johnny’s clipboard both got injured, so Coach Don Shula turned to his running back, a cat named Tom Matte. Tom had played quarterback in high school, so coach wrote a handful of plays on Matte’s wristband for him to call. (I'd also like to mention that I did not "read about this somewhere", I saw the games on TV with Dad and my brother, 'Longest 8 miles') A final season game win and a playoff loss (in OVERTIME) is how the stat-books will show Matte’s "quarterback career", but pretty damn good, for a guy with crib-notes taped to his arm.


And so, that my first DRO cover shot, with a new camera, a handful of 3x5 cards in my bag, and maybe 60 seconds of coaching from friends, will go down in history as my "Tom Matte" moment. Loudy, who loved his team so much that, win or lose, would show up at the airport with a record player to welcome them home by playing the Colts Fight Song. His wife made birthday cakes for the players, and when he passed away, several former Colts served as pallbearers. And so, I dedicate this column, and the cover that fuels it, to that wonderful man.


And to all of you out there, who may get thrown into a tough situation, with "the instructions taped to your wrist", well, I suggest you heed the words Loudy would play on that record player, and "Go In And Strike Like LIGHTNING BOLTS"


It's summer, so get out there, and have some FUN!! Just don't bring home 3K+ pictures. I AM Chicago Jon, time for me to once again say … C-YAAAAAAAAA!!!!!  



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