Chapel Hill: Sports

August 6, 2014

Dick Forbis: ‘the wizard behind the curtain’

When hundreds, sometimes thousands of runners head out on a road race – and more importantly, as they finish – Dick Forbis is hidden inside his Cardinal Race Services trailer, or sitting under a tent banging away at his laptop, or scurrying around beneath the wide brim of his straw cowboy hat, wielding an electronic stopwatch like a six-shooter.

The friendly face that road racers are most eager to see may be one they’re least likely to remember. To runners just across the finish line of so many local races, bathed in sweat, glowing with accomplishment, their veins cursing with endorphins, the individual manning the timing software is a welcome but faceless blur.

Dick Forbis prefers it that way — his talents hidden under the thin veil of “Cardinal Race Services.”

To the few who make up the inner-workings of a local road race — those who remain behind while others run — Forbis is the one hidden inside his Cardinal Race Services trailer, or sitting under a tent banging away at his laptop, or scurrying around beneath the wide brim of his straw cowboy hat, wielding an electronic stopwatch like a six-shooter.

Still, investigate Cardinal Race Services, and the contact information is that of Forbis. For all the flamboyance of a finish line experience, he is the “wizard behind the curtain,” validating the courage and heart of thousands of local runners each year.

Fittingly, the last person runners see as they finish a local race is the first person race directors call when they want to stage an event.

Originally from Charlotte, Forbis graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1967 and got his Ph.D. in chemistry at Illinois. After working with DuPont in Delaware for nearly 25 years, he moved back to North Carolina and worked at a UNC chemistry lab.

Forbis took up running seriously in graduate school, and was an elite marathoner, according to Rona Van Willigen. Her husband, Bobby Biles, co-founded the local Cardinal Track Club with Forbis in the early 1990s.

“I believe he eventually ran a 2:40 or 2:45 marathon,” Van Willigen said in a 2005 interview.

Forbis said Cardinal sprung from a small group who were running on Sunday mornings from Biles’ Fleet Feet store in Carrboro. Shortly thereafter, Forbis began taking an interest in local road races, particularly those trying to gain a foothold.

“Very few races in Chapel Hill — especially student-run races — were on USATF certified courses,” he said. “I think a lot of runners like to see courses be accurate, so I encouraged that, but I also offered them a way to do it cheaply.

For sororities or campus-based races, Forbis typically only charged the $25 minimum fee to have USA Track & Field certify a race course.

Van Willigen said Forbis wears his love for local running on his sleeve. “He just does it for the love of the sport.”

“Ten years ago Dick was instrumental in helping me get my first 5K series — Run for the Kids — off the ground,” said local runner and Christine Cotton, who is now race director for the Public School Foundation’s 5K for Fitness. “To raise money for the UNC Children’s Hospital …we planned 5Ks across the state on five UNC campuses on the same day. I could not have made that series work without Dick’s calming presence.”

As road racing became more and more popular locally, race participation swelled but advances in technology made handling larger crowds easier.

“Cardinal’s first race was the Franklin Street Mile in the late 1990s,” Forbis said. Gary Slade and Forbis timed it with a program called RaceTrak.

After Slade moved to Australia, Forbis brought the technology to bear on the Fiesta del Pueblo (now the Carrboro 10K).

“Then came manual scoring of the Four on the Fourth four-mile run and Gallop and Gorge,” Forbis said, “which was becoming more and more popular. We knew we’d have more than 800 people running that Thanksgiving race, so we had to have chutes that opened and closed, bib pull tags, and ways to make sure you have all the times, even if somehow you miss a runner. It was such a headache.”

The obvious alternative was a move to chip timing which was being used at more and more large races.

Following a move by Biles and Van Willigen to New Mexico, Forbis partnered with Keith Mathis through 2013. Today, Cardinal Race Services is primarily Forbis and his wife, with occasional help from local high school and college students like Colin and Leigha Vilen. Forbis also employs technology to help timers essentially be in two places at the same time.

“I started using a mobile ‘hot spot,’” Forbis said. “That way, timers at another race can email me the time file for that race. Wherever I am at another race, I enter the time file into the software and then email them back the final results.”

This comes in handy, as Cardinal Race Services now offers timing services at around 40 races each year, spanning an area as far east as the Outer Banks and as far west as Burlington.

Forbis said the start-to-finish options available to local race directors has been strengthened by collaborations with Fleet Feet community outreach and marketing in Carrboro and with SportOften.

“SportOften is who you go to set up registration for a race, and Cardinal Race Services is who you’d see to set up the timing and scoring of the race,” Forbis said. “A race can use all three of our organizations — Fleet Feet for a sponsor, awards, and marketing; me for timing and scoring, and SportOften for registration.”

Over the two decades since co-founding the Cardinal Track Club and over almost as long timing local races, Forbis said it’s not been about the finish line but the journey, marked by growing accessibility of races to more and more runners.

“It’s so gratifying to see the number of non-traditional road runners out at a race,” Forbis said. “You see…whole families, youngsters, older adults of both genders: all because it’s a great lifestyle, and they’re enjoying the time with other people. Maybe they’re not experts, but they’re putting in miles, sweating hard, but they’re so proud at the finish.”

“Dick is a gem and an unparalleled mentor,” Cotton said, “and technically speaking, working with Dick (means) knowing every detail will be handled. As a race director, with so many details to manage, not having to worry about the bibs, the timing, the results: that’s just great.”

Cotton contends that Forbis has a lot to do with local road racing’s accessibility — making each runner feel important, from front-runners to final finishers. For that impartiality as well as the wisdom, heart, and courage any road race instills, however, runners need Cardinal Race Services’ Dick Forbis: the wizard behind the curtain.

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