The Nitro Joint w / "Chicago Jon" Hoffman

Happy 30th Anniversary to Me

"This guy gave me a MATCH, for Christ’s sake!!"

-- Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) venting about porous security in BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984)

Happy Anniversary, to ME! It's hard not to hear mention of an anniversary and not think of Fred Flintsone and Barney Rubble rhino-stomping through an anniversary song on piano with a couple Bedrock cops along for backup, but that was a WEDDING. No, race fans, this month is the thirtieth anniversary of Chicago Jon Productions, so pull up a stump and allow me to regale with this tale. It all started...


Well, actually I started taking pictures as young as seven, and my first race was 1971, so pictures and racing became the norm (and dream) early on. It was an "alright, THAT'S IT!" - moment in 1987 (a story for another day) when I decided to make it happen. My divorce bills had gone away by 1988, and at Indy that Labor Day weekend Gene Snow set the world on its ear with a 5.00 elapsed time. (People were not giving respect to Eddie Hill’s ‘four,’ run earlier at an IHRA race.)


So, I made the decision to hit the road and capture the first ‘four’ in Top Fuel, NHRA style. The next three races were Reading, Houston and Phoenix. I went to the travel agent and the cheapest plane ticket would be Houston, but I was still broke from Indy, so I had to sweat out the Keystone Nationals. Behold, the record didn't happen, so I went back to the agent and booked airfare and a car.


What's a business without business cards, right? There was a print shop right across the street from where I lived, so over I went, browsed through some formats, and started jotting down phone numbers and addresses. Then the owner says, "And what's the company’s name?" And...I totally flat-lined. It never occurred what I was going to call this joint! Now, we have to back up to my merry gang of thieves at the campground in Indy. One of our group is an accomplished video man, so Bill was anointed with the moniker 'Diamond Bill Productions' (a spin on Diamond P Productions, who handled the syndication deal of the era). These same campground cohorts had hung the handle 'Chicago Jon' on me some time back, so, much like the old 'Reeses Cup commercial', I mashed the two properties together and blurted out, "Ummm...CHICAGO JON PRODUCTIONS!" Coughed up a wacky catch-phrase to boot, placed the order, and it would be ready the day before my flight left Midway.

My wing-man Randy drives me to the airport, and I'm chugging a bottle of champagne to celebrate. We pull into the lot, and as I see that classic old tower, I have Del Shannon’s immortal RUNAWAY going through my head. My favorite TV show at that time was CRIME STORY, which starred former Chicago cop Dennis Farina as...a CHICAGO COP! Set in the '60s, the opening featured said song, and at its conclusion Farina and his crew all strike bad-ass "cop poses" by the Midway tower. That show was a gem that just didn't catch on, not for the lack of talent. The list of people who would break out big and soon that were on it is boggling: Gary Sinese, Lorraine Bracco, Michael Madsen, Kevin Spacey, Andrew Dice Clay, Ving Rames, the list goes on. Anyway, it's the perfect send off, Randy pours me onto the plane, and I'm officially off. There is just one hitch in the 'giddy-up' for the weekend, I have a brutal head cold. This comes into play later, in an ugly fashion....


After a layover in St. Louis, I finally set foot on Texas soil around lunch time. The bubbly has worn off, and the first of countless bottles of Day and Nite Quill get chugged down. Pending on what time of day it was, my tongue would be orange or green for the next three days. And as far as that BUBBLY was concerned, boy-howdy, THAT was one of the finest offerings the local 7-11 had to offer, I think its vintage was "Tuesday".


Grab the car and boogie to the track, which is pretty easy to find, just follow the freshly hung FRAM signs. The track is all new and very nice, but it struck me as "Motorplex, on a Meister Brau budget". A session, and then a tour of the pits where I hear Bill Mullins holding court, telling those assembled that going to a big show race without a sponsor is like going to a gun fight with a knife. But it was after taking a shot of Steve Hodkinson’s shattered body that the unthinkable happens. While changing lenses, in a cold-medicine haze, I drop my camera, which lands with a sickening thud. The only 35mm I own at this point! Like a drunk chick back stage at a Motley Crue concert, I'm pretty much screwed. Well, Sunday’s eliminations will just have to be all in video, but I hadn't wanted it to pan out like this, CLEARLY.


Saturday night’s dinner is at a nice place next to the Best Western where I am staying. In the PARKING LOT. There wasn't enough money to get a room, so I decided to find the place with the most amount of high-profile racers’ trucks at it and sleep in the car. Fortunately for me, the back seat of a Dodge Shadow is about as big as...screw it, I should'a just slept in my camera bag, there would've been more room. Connie Kalitta and Roland Leong are at the next table, but my flu-clogged ears are having trouble figuring out what they are saying. (I KNOW Connie called someone a puss, but not sure who.) Having ordered breaded shrimp didn't help matters any, being a loud and crunchy dish. AND, I didn't really have an appetite, with the cold and all. I bag Saturday, turn my tongue green and attempt sleep.


Sunday arrives, and I'm quick to stake out a spot in the top row, of COURSE at the 1,000-foot mark. Strike up a conversation with a great fellow, Bill Adams Sr., whose work surfaced regularly in National Dragster. Super nice gentleman and we had each other laughing pretty good. And I'm getting some good video, but I know the length of time the batteries I have will give me, and it won't be a whole day. Sometime after round two, my head starts to clear and I grab some food. Not just ANY food, but the wonder that is 'Frito Pie', a story I've told before.


After gobbling this feast down, I bump into a buddy, Chris, who works on the “Showtime” Funny Car. He gives me his racer pass and implores me to go out to the starting line. I say sure, I'll give it a shot. I don't expect it to WORK, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. In the semis, now in the seat that I actually ordered, which actually SUCKS, Eddie Hill runs a four, and I get an excellent video of the back of everyone’s heads. OK, with nothing to lose, and a pocketful of chutzpah, I wait for the finals, and 'the right moment'.


Just before the alcohol cars towed up to the bleach box, I make my move. Acting both tired and nonchalant, I nod to the guards and say "almost time to go home, right guys?" They nod and smile, and turn their attention back to the track. Didn't even look at the badge dangling on my luau shirt! Position myself on the west side, just even with the start, and begin filming the finals. Even with my heart racing at a mile a minute, I proceed to shoot everything in total perfection. The Top Fuel final is Hill versus Joey Amato, and we all know the ending to this deal. Hill, who had to borrow a blower from Earl Whiting just to QUALIFY, beats Amato with the first final round four, a 4.93 for the ages. Not ten minutes later, I'm in a mob of humanity with the Hills and numerous others under the track tower, as a wicked-bad storm is now pounding the track. (Some kid got hit by lightning!) The batteries had finally croaked by this point, but much like the Miracle of the Maccabees, the oil, errr, POWER lasted longer than it had ever lasted before. Perhaps the Almighty threw me a bone in light of my damaged 35mm.


Reconnected with Brother Chris back at the motel, and suffice to say, the party was ON! It's a fair bet to say, you know it's a bash when the STRIPPERS show up around midnight to check in on US! Early Monday morning I get back to Houston/Hobby airport with seconds to spare, again pour myself onto a plane, and begin the final phase of this dream of a weekend. My roommate is too loaded to come get me, so she sends a Lincoln town-car. She must've been slurring when she gave the driver instructions, because the placard he's holding while standing at the curb says 'CHICANO JOHN'. Well, close.


And THAT, my friends, is the bizarre and TRUE story of the first official outing of Chicago Jon Productions. I'll be celebrating with some cheap champagne and a heap of Frito Pie; I recommend you do the same. Till next time, time for me to say, CCC-YYAAAAAAA!  



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