Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Brian Lohnes Interview

Here's another one of those people who seemingly pops up in every magazine I crack open. Brian has a gift for placing himself wherever the action is and quickly verifying what the real story is. We've never met, but when I was 'virtually' introduced to Brian (via Chad Reynolds at BangShift), I found him to be honest, open and direct. Just my kind of guy and perfect for an interview!

We decided to play this one in real time, like two strangers meeting in the pits at a race somewhere. Brian was actually kicked back with his feet on his designer desk in his sumptuous BangShift office, high above the grit and din of Boston. I was here in the bunker. This was good practice for our inevitable junction at some future event. When that happens, I'll have enough insight into his psyche to ask the questions I probably should've asked here.

Hey Brian - Good to finally meet you! First things first - Is your last name pronounced 'Lowknees', or 'Lowness'?

It's pronounced 'Loans'.

Ah, thanks. So, what are you doing here? I mean, what brought you to this point in your life? Did you come from an automotive or journalistic background, or what?

So my spacecraft crashed into Earth and....
I often ask myself how the heck I got to this point, but it really is the same way most guys have, by working hard and taking advantage of any breaks or opportunities that have presented themselves. I went to college and got a Journalism degree. I graduated and started driving a water truck because I had gotten a CDL from working as a student mechanic at the campus bus garage at UMass. Having been offered some local newspaper jobs for lower pay than I was making at the bus garage, I decided to just get a job and focus all my free time on getting an automotive media career going.

During college, I started doing something that I still do today, announcing auto races. I started doing SCCA road races in New England and eventually got the balls to call Lebanon Valley Dragway in New York and ask the track manager (then a guy named Glenn Grow) to be their weekend announcer. I did Saturday test and tune days and whatever else they needed me for. I really loved it and started announcing at Lebanon and New England Dragway in Epping, NH. Working the strips in New England eventually got me recognized by the International Hot Rod Association and I have worked as a national event drag racing announcer for them since 2006. I used to pull a lot heavier announcing schedule, but with my little guys around now, I only do a couple races a year with them. I REALLY love announcing the drags.

Yeah, I'm finding that to be a really common denominator amongst automotive journalists - just as comfy with a mic as a keyboard.

Well, jumping back a bit before the announcing stuff started, my first piece of published automotive writing was run on a now defunct website called Nitronic Research - some weirdo Coonce guy started that deal. My piece was a story about Pro Mods and it was my first big break. I went to a race in Virginia to write the story and while there I met Bobby Bennett of CompetitionPlus.com. I ended up working for Bobby in one capacity or another for a couple years and actually worked for him full time writing drag race stories and working PR for a Pro Mod team in 2005. I ended up having to go back to "real work" to pay the bills, but the time with Comp Plus introduced me to many people in drag racing, the aftermarket, and in the magazine industry. It was from those connections that I began writing freelance for magazines like Hot Rod, Drag Race Action, Diesel Power, and others.

For the unabridged version, buy me a beer. I'll keep you entertained for hours with stories ranging from weird to totally sublime. I like to think I made a lot of my own luck by working hard and getting myself to the places I needed to be. For anyone out there that is wanting to do this stuff, the best advice I can give them is to be too stupid to quit. Work harder than anyone else and eventually you'll get there.

Back in the day, I'd often leave work on a Friday, haul ass all night to a drag strip, spend the weekend shooting photos and sleeping in my truck, only to get home with enough time to shower and drag myself back into the office. I still do the same thing a lot now, but having saved a couple of bucks, I at least sleep in a budget motel. I still hold a job in the real world and BangShift gets produced at night, on weekends, and whenever I can jam on it during my "free" time. I'll sleep when I'm dead.

You stay in motels?! That must be awesome! Otherwise, you just described my lifestyle, too: It sucks and I wouldn't trade it for anything. But you can't just dangle 'weird to totally sublime stories' out there without following up! I've heard of those Coonce and Bennet characters - if that's the kind of company you keep, you must have some tall tails! Do tell...

As far as the weird and wild stuff, there's been a bunch of that, but
certainly not at the level of guys who have been doing this announcing and
reporting stuff for decades!

The weirdest event I ever did was an IHRA national event in San Antonio,
Texas back in 2007. The track operator at the time had the track laser
ground to true up the racing surface. This is a procedure where a
machine slowly, and I mean slooowly, creeps down the track with some
large spinning discs in front of it. The thing looks like a floor
polisher on steroids. Anyway, it'll remove some asphalt or concrete and
ensure that the track is perfectly level. This is important for cars
like Top Fuelers that have no suspension, and even slight variations in
the track can cause them to strike the tires.
Anyway, they grind the track, but no one really bothered to find out how
thick the asphalt layer was before they did this. Looking at it on
Friday with my announcing partner, the legendary Steve LeTempt,
everything appeared OK. Boy were we wrong!
Sportsman racing went fine during the day, but the shit hit the fan on
Friday night when Top Fuel qualifying happened. Bobby Lagana was
powering down the right lane when the car spun the tires hard, pitched
sideways and coasted to the end of the course. There was immediate
screaming on the radio to stop the race!
The asphalt was tissue paper thin and the 8,000hp dragster, making all
that down force with its huge rear wing, literally turned the track into
a gravel road. The race track was 100% FUBAR, and so we thought the
weekend was too.
I did the sensible thing and got drunker than hell with a bunch of the
racers, assuming that there was a zero percent chance I'd be doing
anything other than flying home the next day. Well, even my hangover
addled vision could see the heavy equipment on the track when me and
LeTempt arrived on Saturday morning.  They had repaved about 2,000ft
of the track overnight!
We ran the rest of the race as an eighth mile contest, all professional
categories included! So that makes me one of the only guys since 1974
(the last time the IHRA had an eighth mile event with fuel cars) to
announce a national event with nitro on the eighth mile! George Howard
had an event a few years ago that drew nitro cars on the eighth mile but
that was not a sanctioned national event. It was a ballsy decision to
repave the track, lots of the racers were freaking out, but the whole
thing came off pretty well!

I once announced a race where we were not allowed to announce the real
name of one of the "main performers" because this gentleman was playing
a bit of cat and mouse with the feds who wanted a LOT of tax money. I
assume that he was burning that tax money as nitro.

I announced an SCCA road race one time where a wreck on the pace lap
wiped out the majority of the field. That was a tough one to announce
and not start screaming, "What the F was THAT?!"

Back when IHRA operated with a 3-4 man announcing crew, I was often the
top end announcer. I'd be down at the end of the track, waiting on the
return road for the racers to pull off and get them on the PA. That's
also where the TV people were. There were some great driver
confrontations, burning race cars, and even one good scrum involving a
crew chief and the IHRA's television "face" at the time! None of that
made it to the small screen.

Oh man, classic stuff! So, this begs the question: Do you think speaking into a PA system has influenced how you write? I mean: Once you've felt the rush of thinking on your feet as the action is happening, then instantly transforming those thoughts into useful information and transferring it to thousands of fans who just experienced the same thing you did - that's a major challenge that can only be accomplished with mass quantities of
adrenaline, right? That's part of your background now. Doesn't it inform
how you communicate in all avenues? Or is it completely different,
sitting at a keyboard?

I think it has influenced how I write to some degree, but honestly,
writing a lot has made me a better announcer. I read so much stuff and
get so many e-mails and notes from people for blog items, it really
keeps me up on the latest stuff that is going on. Some of the
connections I have made through the blog come in really handy when I am
preparing for a race.

The adrenaline thing is a little different for me, I think. I don't get
all pumped up, walking out in front of the crowd to do a pre-race
ceremony or driver introductions. Don't get me wrong, I'm still excited
and ready to whip the crowd into a frenzy, but it is the actual
competition that sends me into orbit. Seeing two guys in Nostalgia Nitro
Funny Cars run side by side and finish two hun' apart at the finish
really gets me going. You can really take moments like that and get the
crowd so cranked up that they are about ready to pull the grandstands down.

Drag races are unique to all other motorsports events because of the ebb
and flow of the excitement and action. You have several cycles of
competition for all the classes, so you really need to be a different
person stylistically when you are working through Super Comp than you do
when Top Fuel rolls out. You have to be respectful and engaged the whole
weekend, but you need to find that next gear, both mentally and
emotionally, when the heavy guns come out.

I think I can channel the same type of emotions, occasionally, through
the keyboard. Like recently, Mopar sent out a press release that one of
the V10 powered drag pack cars had set a record in Stock eliminator. My
opinion is that those cars are not legit stockers, so after reading it,
I wrote an item that had the title, "Frankenstein Bastard Car sets NHRA
Record". Chad called me and said, "Hey, I love that, but..." He was
right, it was over the top, so he edited the title. The point of that,
is at the drags you see and react, split second - and it is honest. The
same thing happened when I wrote that item - I saw and reacted.

My goals, ever since I started announcing races was to be honest,
brutally at times, as well as to educate and entertain people. I think
the same goes for BangShift.

Speaking of which, how much time do you spend working on BangShift?
The word on the street is, you've fallen apart since the site took off -
really let yourself go. Is it true that you only sleep every third night
and only wear a bathrobe? My sources tell me you haven't brushed your
teeth or trimmed your nails in five years. Is that really what it takes
to keep this machine oiled, or do you just prefer the casual look?

Hey, remember: Prior to BangShift, I was a freelancer (while keeping my real job) for magazines like Hot Rod, Drag Racing Action, Hot Rod Deluxe, Diesel Power, Drag Review, etc. So I've been doing the deadline thrash for many years now.

Becuase I still hold a full time job in the "real world" of American big
business, I write BangShift at night...usually damned late at night.
Typically I work on the site for 5-6 hours a night, starting between
8:30 and 10pm. There's been more than a few nights that I have simply
taken a shower and gone straight to work without any sleep, especially
after spending hours writing a big feature story or something.
Ironically, I can't stand coffee.

I've definitely packed on some tonnage since this thing got rolling and
started making hay, which I am working on knocking off now. I'm married
to an awesome woman who wouldn't allow a total Howard Hughes situation,
so my personal grooming is still up to the standards of a semi-civilized

Oh, on the teeth: My parents sprang for braces when I was a kid. If I
let the chicklets go south, my dad would probably knock 'em out!

Hey, the keyboard lifestyle is catching up with me in the same way. Thank God for a hyper dog who needs walked twice a day, minimum, and a beater daily driver that keeps me scrambling. Speaking of which, I'm deeply in love with your truck (saw it on BangShift) and it made me wonder what else you're working on. Is there a particular car that you're known for? What's your daily driver? Are you a hands-on builder type? And what would you LIKE to be building/driving?

Hands on? Hell yes. I do everything I can (and some things I probably 
shouldn't). I will say that I know when something is out of my league 
and I'll send it to a shop, like the floors on my project truck Goliath. 
The cab was total junk and needed every piece of sheet metal below the 
belt line replaced. I had a local chassis shop who's operator is a 
friend of mine do the work, because it would have taken me months and 
probably come out horrible.

Cars I am known for? Probably two at this point, one of which actually 
functions. There's Goliath, the 1966 C50 that I have been documenting on 
the site and Attilla the Jav, a AMC Javelin that David Freiburger gave 
to me and BangShift members relayed across the country, trailer to 
trailer, from LA to Erie, PA where I picked it up. It was an old dirt 
track stock car and it needs LOTS of work.

Goliath is cool because I was tipped off to the truck by a BS member who 
lives in Maine and saw it for sale. I saw it and had to own it, but it 
took me about 5 months to actually buy the thing. I've been wrenching on 
it since I got it and have done the brakes, replaced all the rings and a 
piston, gone through the steering, and on and on, as well as having had 
the cab floor replaced. The truck is freaking massive and slow and 
awesome. It still needs some work, but I drove it to a car show about 50 
miles one way last weekend so the good news is that it didn't blow up 
and one of my goals for the truck was reached. Like I said though, it's 
not done. Just pretty damned close.

My daily driver is a 2008 F-250 truck, that has been used and abused in 
untold ways, like all trucks should be.

What do I want to be building/driving? Obviously the Javelin is 
something that I eventually need to get my ass moving on, but I'm 
currently hung up on the idea of owning and driving something with a 
Roots blown Nailhead in it.

I've been amassing parts to build a pretty stout 360ci AMC engine for 
the Javelin, so that heap will be the next thing that I really get 
cracking on. It'll be a racer type deal, not a street car, as the 
starting point is essentially a rolling caged shell, and the cage part 
is fairly suspect.

Wow! I somehow missed the Javelin. I have a soft spot in my head for AMC products anyway, but being a retired racer sure gives it bonus hero points with me. So, if you were a car, what kind would you be?

Let's say a 1968 Chevy Biscayne with the COPO ordered high performance
427 and an M22 Rockcrusher behind it. A little beefy around the
waistline, a car not everyone knew about, and a machine that would
absolutely deliver the goods against far better known competition when
the green light came on.

Ha! That's so perfect: Brian the sleeper! Bonus question: Where would you like to see yourself in 20 years?

Man, that's one hell of a long time. I'd like to see myself on a Friday
night during the summer, with both of my boys (they're 2 and 4 now) over
at the garage with me, maybe tipping a beer or two with my wife Kerri
smiling beside me. Nothing else really matters much in the grand scheme
of things. I'd love to have 23 years in at BangShift at that point, with
a bunch of great people working for us and doing cool stuff each day.
Twenty years...jeez man, I'm only 31 now as it is. Let's not rush it! HA!

Okay, sorry man. Any last words?

Yeah. I need to thank my wife, Kerri. We've been together since we were 15
years old - about half our lives now. She has been there to see me at my
best and worst. She's seen potential opportunities come my way, some
good, some bad. She's a guiding force in my life and someone who keeps
me bolted to the ground. She also believes in BangShift just as much as
Chad and I do and without her support, understanding, and love, I'd be
personally and professionally sunk.

I need to personally thank everyone who reads the site, be it daily,
weekly, monthly, whatever. It honestly means a lot. We're advancing this
thing every day and it has really been something to watch it grow and
work with Chad to shepherd it along. The companies we have supporting
us, believing in us and helping us, 'get it'. More companies are getting
it and we're working on some larger scale stuff for the future that
could potentially take us to the next level. Both Chad and I are too
dumb to quit - a trait that has served us both well at different times in
our lives and it is certainly working for us now.

Hey, you guys have several things working for you and number one seems to be integrity.  So I'm honored that you took the time for this. It's been a real pleasure Brian - thanks again.

You're honored? Holy crap man, I'm honored! I'm a zero and you are
making me feel like big stuff! I owe you a beer (or soda depending on
your taste!)

Coffee for me, please: Two creams, two sugars.

Okay, is he gone now? Just for the record, Brian Lohnes is big stuff.