JUST CALL HIM ‘SPONGE BOBBY’ BODE
Funny Car racer Bobby Bode surprised even himself last October 24, when he debuted here as an Arizona State University freshman majoring in business administration.
At the time, so many aspects of his life were new experiences: late-night math exams via computer, for example, not to mention trying to juggle his need to study and his desire to concentrate on his racing career.
“It’s pretty hard,” he said of trying to hit the books after hitting the throttle of an 11,000-horsepower Funny Car. (Take that, campus cruisers at Tempe!)
“I came back on Sunday night. Between then and now,” Bode said on the eve of his second race, at Las Vegas, “it was hard to work on my homework, because I just kept watching replays of the race and everything.”
Once he got back to campus, he said, “Now that I’m back and thinking about everything that happened, it still feels like ‘Wow, I really did that!’ I took a lot of pictures with a lot of young kids. It's cool, because when I was that young, I would do the same thing with Tony Schumacher and John Force with a used part and then they’d it and I’d get a picture with them. So it's pretty cool to be where they were.”
As for his debut performance last fall, he said, “I was in total shock that I qualified seventh, because my dad [Bob Bode] hasn't even qualified that good in years. So for my first time, I was pretty ecstatic about that,” he said.
He said his father told him, “Dang. I haven't qualified that high in forever, and then you just come out in your first race and do it.” And then dad teased fellow Funny Car owner-driver Tim Wilkerson, who collaborates on the tune-up decisions for the teenager, “How come you couldn't have given me that race car?”
The Bode family bought the Ford Mustang from him about two years ago, and Wilkerson has helped them a lot since then.
Bobby Bode said, “He's brought me a long way from the tuning aspect of this for, like, the past two years. So I've learned a lot the past couple years from him.
“Well, honestly, from two years ago when I got the car from Tim, Tim wanted me to learn how to do it and he never really showed my dad how to do it,” he said. “So my dad, he still helps sometimes, but most of the stuff he doesn't really understand because I'm always doing it. But once in awhile he'll help whenever he knows something.”
He said Wilkerson is “more of a car chief for the mechanical aspect of it.”
Wilkerson said, “They’re a good group of kids, and I just wanted to see them perform better. If we can keep them from being on fire and still have fun, that’s all we’re trying to do.
“Even when Bob Sr. was driving, I told him that Bob Jr. was going to be the guy to talk to. I’m not talking to anybody else, just to Bobby – and if he tells you guys to stand on your left foot and wiggle your arm when you torque the head, then that’s what you’re going to do. I’m being facetious,” Wilkerson said, “but that’s the way I put it. Just do it how we want to do it and see how it works out.
“He makes some moves and does stuff wrong and he comes and gets me and I’m like, ‘Where the hell did you figure out what you wanted to do?’ He says, ‘Well, I looked at this and I thought if I did that . . .’ He did exactly what you told him and he’d say, ‘Yeah, I didn’t like that.’ We’ve had some runs last year where we thought, ‘That should have worked.’ Would-a, could-a, should-a’s don’t work with race cars,” the veteran Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang racer said.
“They’ll be all right. It’s not easy, but it doesn’t need to be as hard as people make it,” Wilkerson said. “The quality of your parts and just staying inside a little tune-up box, you can run good most of the time and not get yourself in trouble.”
Bobby Bode is grateful for the advice. He said, “Tim helps us so much, compared to other people that are in the same situation. I think that he helps us a lot more because me and my dad have a similar relationship like he and Dan [Wilkerson] had growing up. It's so similar to him, and he knows how to work with us because he's done it before. He's so helpful. We would not be where we were today without his help.”
He said Wilkerson constantly makes him think about what he is doing and shows him how to think through a problem.
“All the time. He doesn't do actual brain teasers, but when we're working on something and we’re kind of confused . . . for example, if we should torque something to a higher or lower number . . . then he gives us an example of what the difference would be and then most of them are pretty funny. I hear all the jokes he tells us, and I laugh at almost every joke. He just makes everything easier to understand,” Bode said. “He'd be a great teacher. I mean, compared to a lot of my college professors, I think he’d be way up there.”
Bobby Bode says his dad isn’t jealous of the working relationship he has with Wilkerson.
“I don't think he thinks about it like that. I think he's more thinking, ‘I’m so glad Tim's helping us,’ because I've talked to him a couple times about how ‘Tim always tells me more stuff about the tune-up and everything’ and then he says, ‘That's good. Tim's going to help us out a lot.’ So I think he thinks about it being more beneficial the way we’re doing it where Tim helps me than if he was involved.” Besides, he said he and his dad “argue all the time about the race car, like, ‘It should be this way’ – ‘No, it should be this way.’
“I try to explain why it should be my way, and then if he still doesn't like it he just says, ‘I'm paying the bills, so we're going to do it my way.’ Every once in a while, he'll just shut my ideas down. Most of the time we compromise right after a lot of arguing back and forth. So that's good.”
Through all the dynamics, Bobby Bode is soaking it all up. He knows he can benefit from advice, even though dad Bob and mom Alice have been bringing him to the drag races since he was two months old and later collected autographs of the pros (“I had a binder, and I'd have all the hero cards in it and all that”). It’s really hard to describe to someone unless you do it. You can't put it into words because there's nothing like it. It's just so hard to describe.
And he certainly would like to have a bunch of memories like his dad made in August 2010, at Brainerd, Minn.
“I definitely remember the weekend when my dad won in 2010. I was eight. I remember sitting in the stands for the final and everyone was cheering and stuff. So that was pretty cool,” he said.
“It was funny, because before their round, I got a blue snow cone, and I was eating it during the final And then I saw that he won. I was cheering. In the winner's circle picture, I had blue lips from the snow cone. The picture was on National Dragster, on the cover. I had blue lips in it. So that's probably the biggest memory that stands out to me from when I was younger.”
The Deer Park, Ill., native probably won’t have blue lips in the first winners-circle picture of his own. But he’s not concerned about that right now. He’s just looking for his first round-win.
Last year, in his debut, he exited in the first round against Blake Alexander, despite a quicker reaction time (a respectable .064 seconds). He missed the cut at the Finals at Las Vegas in his next outing. He has had just two appearances this season. At the Gatornationals, he lost to Robert Hight in the opening round, and he tried his hand at the four-wides at Las Vegas and fell just short of advancing from his quad as Ron Capps and Bob Tasca moved on.
By all accounts, Bode is progressing well, especially as the Funny Car class’ youngest Funny Car competitor. He began at age 18 years and six months.
“We were trying to get my license when I was still 17, earlier this year, but then COVID kind of screwed everything up,” he said. “I am thankful that I got to race” in 2020, “because in June or July, when I first started the licensing, I thought I might not be able to do it till . The second Indy race, that's when I started. I finished it in St. Louis at the national event there. It was the day that [Top Fuel racer] Krista Baldwin got her license, too.
And if anyone happened to wonder who was Bobby Bode’s back-up girl a year ago at Houston . . . She’s one of Del Worsham’s twin daughters, Kate.
“I grew up with Del Worsham’s daughters [Kate and Maddie]. Kate, she was actually my backup girl this weekend. I was meaning to thank her in my [top-end] interview so people know who she was, but I blanked in the moment. She was actually really good at it. It was her first time ever [as a so-called back-up girl]. She said she was nervous, and then my mom was giving her tips and stuff. She did really good for her first time. They used to race Juniors when they were probably 15 or 16 but then both of them stopped because they were more involved in clubs and stuff at school like sports and stuff. So they wanted to focus on that but they still go to most of the races. She's been going to a lot of races lately. They're really good people.”
Bode said he has found more drag-racing fans among his peers at college than he did at home in suburban Chicago. “I was kind of surprised,” he said, “because back home in Chicago at my high school and stuff, people weren't huge fans of it. But then I came down here [to Arizona] and everyone said, ‘You drag race?’ and I’d say, ‘Yeah,’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, I went to those all the time in California back home.’ So I was kind of surprised that a lot more people out here knew about it.”
He gets the usual questions from curious students. “They're like, ‘300 miles per hour. What does that feel like?’ I just say, “It's just crazy. You can't put it into words,’” he said. “The car just never stops accelerating. It feels fast, but in the moment when you're doing it, your brain slows everything down.”
Bode said, “I got my Super Comp license, too, but I never raced in competition with that. I just went to Frank Hawley’s School, too, and then got my license there. I made some passes in his Top Alcohol car, but pretty much I went from Juniors to Funny Car.”
And it appears he has that Mustang Funny Car to himself, now that his father and Funny Car racer Paul Lee signed off on his license.
“I think Dad officially retired, because he said once I got my license that he was going to just stop and he'd be OK with it,” Bode said. “So I think that unless some event comes up here where I can't make a race, I think I’ll be driving at every race from now on. We're just going to keep doing it like we've always done it: probably eight to 10, races depending on the location, how far they are, and all that. If we get more funding, we try to hit more races.”
Bobby Bode said he’d like to ease into running the Ar-bee Transparent Products company his late grandfather started and that his dad runs: “If it works out, I'd like to. But if not, if he sells it or something happens, then I’d like to make my own business, just like he did, and grow it and all that. You have to be super-organized.”
He said he likely will stay in the manufacturing sector “because I have a lot of knowledge about that because I've been around my dad's business since I was young. I actually worked there and got a paycheck. I started working there when I was 14, in the summers. And then weekends, we would always work on the race car. The race car work never got me a paycheck.”
The younger Bode had learned perhaps the biggest lesson he ever will need to have drilled into his psyche. That’s because he has heard his dad say repeatedly, “The business is what makes the money. The race car is what spends the money.”