Topeka is in the rearview and, once again, it did not fail to live up to its reputation for wild happenings, both on and off the track. We've run the Topeka race in just about every part of the schedule over the last 20 or so years, and even ran it twice per year for a while there. We've been rained on, seen tornadoes form right over the pits, withstood amazing winds that only a denizen of the plains could appreciate, and have also lived through blistering heat and truly freezing cold. I can't remember the exact year, but I'm guessing it was about 2001 or thereabouts when we had a day of racing cancelled because it was just too frigid to be there, much less race. Like in the 20s cold.
The place is at the same time a joy and an enigma, but I think it's the enigma part that makes it a favorite of so many of us. You never know what you're going to get when you go to Topeka, but you know it will be interesting. This year, true to form, the forecasts all looked dire and many of them used big scary words like "violent" or "damaging" or even "life threatening" just to get our attention. By the time I was rolling out of there yesterday, with Nick Casertano in tow as we headed for Kansas City International Airport, we'd gotten a taste of almost all of the above, save perhaps the below-freezing temperature part. We had sunshine, we had cloud cover, we had wind, we had even more wind, and we had some legit violent storms over the course of the three days. We also got all four qualifying runs in and completed the race right on time. Amazing...
Okay, right up front I have to admit this. The worst of the weather was due to hit us overnight on Saturday, and then again on Sunday afternoon. We all knew this, and many teams (including ours) took precautions before leaving the track on Saturday, by taking down awnings and strapping everything else down. It was truly a "batten down the hatches" departure for the pros. I headed back to the hotel as a few threatening clouds approached but no rain ever hit my windshield, even though I took a detour to pick up a double-Steakburger at Steak 'N Shake. Once I arrived at the hotel, there were plenty of parking spots left because a PR guy like me almost always (okay, always) gets out of the track before the crew guys, so therefore none of the support or tow vehicles were back there yet. I took a minute, surmised which way was south, and parked my rental car in a snug little spot right up against the building, on the northeast side. All of the storms were predicted to be coming up from the southwest, so I wanted to park on the "lee" side of the storm and get a little protection from the three-story hotel building.
I went into my room, ate my dinner, did a few things on-line, and decided I was unduly tired and ready for bed, at 10:00 p.m. Remembering the almost-guaranteed forecasts, I actually did sleep nearly fully clothed, wearing socks, sweats, and a t-shirt, while I also placed my shoes, unlaced, right next to the bed. If the sirens were going to go off at 3:00 a.m., or if the manager came pounding on the door, I wanted to be prepared.
I laid down, put my earbuds in with the sounds of Evans Blue rocking in my head, and fell asleep before the first song was over. I woke up at 6:30 a.m. when a flash of lightning lit up the room and a clap of thunder shook the window. We'd already discussed the fact that it might be pouring on Sunday morning, and it might also rain all day. Annette sent me a text, not much after my lightning bolt wake-up call, reminding me there was no awning on the hospitality area, so there was limited space to stay dry in our pit once the race car was out, so I might want to consider that before I left the hotel. I decided to give it an hour to see if the rain would stop.
It did, and by 8:00 I was rolling for the track with low overcast and a temperature of 61 degrees. With the typical howling Topeka wind abetting it, the temp felt much colder and I was tempted to grab my sweatshirt out of my suitcase in the trunk when I parked on the lovely and greatly-appreciated asphalt parking area near the Media Center at HPT. Parking and pavement go together. Just sayin'... Thank you Heartland Park!
And then the clouds blew away and the sun came out, and when that happened the temperature began to rise and it was noticeable how quickly it was going up. Just as we were getting ready for the first round, there was not a cloud in the sky.
But I digress... The key to this story was the fact I slept all night and had no idea if any storms had rolled through. As I pulled onto the HPT property I thankfully noted that no campers or motorhomes appeared to be anything but upright in the camping areas, and although it was clearly wet it didn't look like we'd had a deluge. At this point, I was still blissfully ignorant.
A little while after I got to the pit, I was up in the lounge with Tim, telling him I'd slept like a brick but it appeared not too much had happened. He turned his head at me and did a bit of a cartoon double-take (a cowbell sound effect would've worked) and he said "Are you kiddin' me?" Turns out, I slept through pouring rain, massive thunder, whipping wind, and hail. He said that at one point it sounded like a truck full of pebbles were dumped on his motorhome, and the wind was making so much noise he and Krista were trying to figure out what the plan was if it started rocking.
Everyone got out of it okay, although I'm sure a lot of the fine loyal folks in the campground got hammered (and I mean that in the sense they got hit hard by the storm, although the other alternative is probably accurate as well). Me? I had no idea...
As you know, we qualified well again but we did so on Friday and that allowed us to "try some things" on Saturday. All season long we've been wanting the chance to do that, because we don't have the wherewithal to test exhaustively, but a bunch of not-so-good Friday efforts were then followed by a string of races where rain ate up half of qualifying, and up until this past Saturday we had never yet come into the second day of qualifying in such a strong spot, where we knew we were safe and could try a different blower or a different clutch set-up. We made two full passes, messing around with some new stuff, but neither was an improvement and we slid to the seventh spot on the grid. For that, we got the distinct pleasure of racing Ron Capps in round one. Thank you very much.
What happened on Sunday was not just a dropped cylinder and a loss. Whether the other negatives had anything to do with it or not, I do not know, but when I got to the track Krista said "Nick isn't feeling well" referring to Nitro Nick Shaff, our high-energy cylinder head guy. He didn't look too bad, but over the course of the next hour he got progressively worse, in a nauseous way, and by 10:00 a.m. it was clear he was too ill to continue. He was truly sick to his stomach in an epic way, and after a number of bouts with that he was too weak to stand up, much less work. We confined him to the floor of the lounge, with a blanket over him, and then realized we'd better figure out how we were going to start the car and make it run. Nick starts it for us, and he sets the wheelie bar after the burnout...
Fortunately, Rich Schendel was there and he can do just about everything there is to do on the car, so Richie stepped in and handled Nick's duties. With all of those distractions, did we miss something that caused us to put a hole out and lose? Who knows, but I can say with certainty that we were all worried about Nick and a bit off our game. Hopefully, he's recovered completely by now. On Sunday we couldn't tell if it was a horrible flu bug or food poisoning, but it really didn't matter. He was down for the count.
With our hospitality area halfway torn down on Sunday, I had no place to work there so I took my computer to the outstanding Media Center at HPT. The press room used to be in the tower behind the starting line, which in Topeka made it about 12.75 miles from the pro pits (only a slight exaggeration). When they did a massive update and renovation on the place, just a few years ago, they built an incredible building right near the finish line for both the drag strip and the road course, with a major league Media Center overlooking the whole thing. It's very nice, and it's a two minute stroll from the pits.
While I do prefer to work out of my team's pit, so that I'm right in the middle of the action and can help out with the body, decals, and other small moron-proof duties, it's always fun to spend a day with Elon Werner, Dave Densmore, Todd Myers, and the rest of my PR colleagues. All of my peers are very professional and are world-class at what they do, but it would be incorrect to say "Nobody has any fun in the press room." It's always fun. These people are my extended family and my "neighborhood friends" and I enjoy being with them. My neighborhood, with all my friends and neighbors, just happens to move around the country every week...
Other Topeka ramblings...
On Friday, I hosted Bob Rennison in our pit. Bob is the play-by-play announcer for the Missouri Mavericks, a minor league hockey team based in Independence, Mo., right outside of Kansas City. That, in itself, is cool. But, the reason I had Bob come out is because we'd been corresponding on Facebook recently and we go way back. In 1994, I was named General Manager of the Kansas City Attack indoor soccer team, playing at Kemper Arena. After getting started there, I knew I needed a radio announcer, so I put the word out in the KC area that I was accepting tapes and resumes. Our owner was of the opinion that I should hire a big-name sports guy in town, someone well known and highly respected from the TV or radio realm. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn't, depending on the motivation level of the big-time announcer. I, on the other hand, wanted to find a guy who would give his left arm for the job, and eat, breathe, and live Attack soccer 24/7. I wanted a good announcer, for sure, but I wanted someone who would bleed Attack colors (red, white, and blue, BTW) and one of the first tapes I listened to was from Bob, doing a few minutes of a Kansas City Blades hockey game. He was good.
He was also completely unknown, and he'd never done indoor soccer. That didn't bother me, on either count, because indoor soccer and hockey are very similar in the way they flow and I knew he'd be a good announcer. Being an unknown was actually a plus for me. I knew I'd found the guy who would not only passionately call the games, but also be a loyal ambassador for the team, putting his heart and soul into it. Bob did a great job for us, and I had a bit of fun on a few road trips, sitting in the booth with him and doing the color commentary.
As the years went by, Bob would often call me for mentoring and advice, and I was lucky enough to give him some good stuff to build on. I'm proud of him, and fondly remember our days together.
Friday was his first day ever at a drag race, and he had a great time. I introduced him to Alan Reinhart, Joe Castello, and a number of other people who were all so gracious with their time (Bob always has a LOT of questions, which is a good thing). A fun time was had, an old friendship reconnected, and it was good in all ways.
Once the race was over on Sunday, I got my recap written in the Media Center and then headed back over to the pit to help out. The way Heartland Park is set up, and with so much paved parking in the pits, our support trailer was only about 75-yards from our pit, so we could disassemble the hospitality area and simply walk the poles, crates, and other stuff down there. That's good, because the rules state that you can't move any trailers until one hour after the final round, but this way we were able to get completely torn down and packed up by the time the finals were running. Yay for small fortunate things.
Nick C. and I had been seriously concerned about making our 7:30 flights out of MCI, figuring we'd win some rounds and not have time to make the 90-minute drive with enough time to spare to return the rental car, check in, and get through security. Instead, we were rolling at just after 2:00. I dropped him off at the curb, so that he could see if Southwest could get him back to Philly any earlier, and I then went for a bite to eat, still having almost three hours to kill before my flight. I found a pretty decent Mexican joint and had a good dinner, then headed back to the airport.
I was still there way too early, but I found a quiet place to sit and did some more work on my laptop, then finally decided to get through the security area into the gaggle of gates it serviced. MCI had to be seriously retrofitted after all the TSA changes were made, because it was built in a different time. The big C-shaped terminals are designed to make it easy to get from the curb to your gate, since you're never more than a short walk away, but having to install more serious security meant carving up the gates into units so that the TSA lines would service anywhere from four to six gates, which were then enclosed in glass. It's a bit like being locked in a cage, but fortunately they've added bathrooms and even a restaurant or two inside security. Not too long ago, if you needed to answer the call of nature you had to escape back to the world outside the glass fishbowl and then reenter through the TSA line. It's better now.
Anyway, I found a chair to sit in and, lo and behold, there sat David Grubnic as well. We sat and talked and watched the black clouds form. We also kept an eye on a Memphis-bound flight that had boarded nearly two hours earlier, but was now stuck in a "ground hold" because of bad weather in Memphis. That plane was tying up our gate, and Grubby was sweating out a very tight connection at MSP, to get him home to Bozeman. As the minutes ticked by, his prospects got more and more bleak. He was on the phone constantly, with the Delta Platinum Desk, trying to find alternate ways home but the bottom line was this: If we were late getting into MSP, and it seemed impossible we wouldn't be, he'd miss the last flight to Bozeman and all the Monday flights were full. Still, he made the call to wait for our flight to just get to Minneapolis, because at least being at MSP gave him the most possible options on Monday.
They did announce a gate change, to the one next door, but our inbound aircraft was dodging weather and trying to get on the ground before it hit, so more minutes ticked away and we got later and later. The plane finally did get on the ground, and the passengers got off, but then the pilots were standing right next to us, at the podium, looking at radar and it wasn't good. They were nice enough guys to chat with us and keep us "in the loop" with way more information than was being disseminated over the P.A., but everything was clearly up in the air.
As it turned out, the storm hit right when we were supposed to be boarding, and it was a pretty good downpour for about 30-minutes, with lightning and whipping winds thrown in. The Memphis flight was cancelled and our flight was officially delayed so long that about 2/3 of the people in the gate (including Grubby) had no way to make their MSP connections and all of them not named Grubnic elected to go back home and try again the next day, leaving just about 20 of us for the actual plane, if it were to ever leave. The only thing worrying me was us not going at all, since I was just going to the Twin Cities and I'm actually in Woodbury now. I'm headed to the airport again in a couple of hours, to fly the rest of the way out to Spokane.
We did finally leave, and saw the real concern in our flight attendant's eyes and heard it in her voice, after the pilot said "I'm not going to sugarcoat it and tell you it won't be bumpy if we get out of here. It will be bumpy." It turned out not to be that bad, but we had to fly a huge circuitous route to avoid the storms, flying due west out of MCI, over Topeka and out to the middle of Kansas before we turned right and headed up to MSP. When we landed, Grubby dashed straight for the Service Center after a handshake, and I headed straight out here, arriving just short of midnight.
Reconnecting with Bob Rennison. A fine man and a great play-by-play voice.
So that was fun. And now I'm looking forward to getting back to our lovely Liberty Lake home tonight, to see two fuzzy boyz who have missed me. I know I've missed them! Barbara has been in New York for the last couple of days, and she'll be getting home tomorrow. Then, we'll all be a loving family for at least a week!
I'm going to stop in here again, next Wednesday on my way to Newark for the Englishtown race. Barb and I have both discovered and have enjoyed the ease of turning our MSP layovers into brief overnight trips, getting in here in the afternoon and then not making our connection until the next day. It's always good to be back here!
Speaking of E-Town, we'll be staying in a different hotel this year, in a different town, so that will be a new adventure. We're staying in Freehold, N.J., which is just a little south of the track, but unlike most (not all) of our other race towns Englishtown isn't one of those places where you can simply "head north" and find your way. Just like Reading, its roads are from a much earlier time and they all wind around and turn you in circles. Getting to E-Town or Maple Grove is always an adventure and always an annual rite of "How did we do this before?" so when you throw in a new hotel in a new area, the learning curve starts over. We'll figure it out. We'll just go north! And we'll hope we don't end up in Newark, or Hoboken, or Atlantic City. It could happen...
Back again soon, gang. Thanks for reading!
To quote the inimitable Grateful Dead "What a long strange trip it's been..." and those sentiments have been floating around in my head for quite some time. I consider it to have been a long strange trip from the time I was born to this very second, as I sit here in my office out in Liberty Lake, Wa. writing another installment for a blog I've been writing since August of 2005, when Phil Burgess challenged a few of us to pen these missives for a whole entire month and my instant reaction to that was "How in the world can anyone come up with enough material to write one of these blog things for a whole month?" It will be eight years this August.
And, as I also handle my duties as columnist for the National Dragster magazine and blog writer for my "Bob On Baseball" stories, I marvel at the pure happenstance that has somehow brought me to all of these adventures. Who'da thunk? You throw in my PR duties and all the social media we rely on (and lean on) these days, and I'm doing far more writing than I've ever done. That's saying something, considering I've been writing a lot since I learned to type. What a long strange trip it's been, indeed!
And then, finally, there's just this last week. We got washed out, rained on, wind blown, and tossed out of Atlanta last Saturday. I was able to get back to Minnesota that night, and spent a couple more days there, takin' care of business (that's a shout-out to my buddy Fred Turner, who is a road warrior these days as he tours with Randy Bachman). I got back here on Tuesday night and everything has seemed a couple of days off since then. I'm admittedly a creature of habit and routine, and when you throw a wrench into the machine that is the Mello Yello tour, it throws everything off. Flying out on Saturday night? Crazy. I'm still not sure what day it is, but with this being the next race week, it does feel like Monday. Can't trust that day... Monday Monday.
By the time I got back out here to Liberty Lake, it was about to be Wednesday and most of the rest of the NHRA world was already beginning the process of returning to Atlanta Dragway, to try it all again. Not me, though, as the return trip was just going to be too expensive for something I could do remote-control from home. Had we continued with hospitality for our LRS guests, I would've spent the necessary small fortune to be there, but with only PR and video duties on my plate I stayed behind, and Krista Wilkerson was kind enough to pinch hit for me with the video camera.
By Friday morning, it was time to assume my position behind my desk, bright and early, and utilize the magic of the interwebs to virtually connect myself to the event. I could almost smell the nitro...
On Friday, I had the "Live Timing" app at NHRA.com up on the screen the whole time, while I eavesdropped on Alan Reinhart doing the PA work, via the audiocast. Alan obviously (and hilariously) knew I wasn't at the track, and that became evident after Tim's first run when he said "And Wilkerson runs a 4.123 at 301.87 mph. Get that Wilber?" I, quite literally, laughed out loud.
Earlier in the day, first thing in the morning actually, my phone chimed and I had a text from Wilk, with a photo attached. That photo leads off today's gallery, and it's a carefully staged shot of the whole team surrounding Tim in our pit area, as Wilk watches something very important on a laptop. The caption was "Bottom of the ninth, two runners on, two outs. Here's the pitch... Over the centerfield fence and the crowd goes wild!!!" I loved it.
I followed all the action and, once again, came to the realization that I can not only do the PR stuff pretty much just as well from my office, in many regards I can do it better, if doing more is a better thing (and I think it is). When I'm at the track, there is so much going on all the time, from hospitality to warm-ups, to conversations, and even just the time consuming walking around to get from the pit to the track and back. After we make a lap, I get back to the pit as quickly as I can, whether I'm walking or on a golf cart, and then I dash to my laptop to fire off a tweet or two, and hit Facebook with an update, and that might be 15-20 minutes after we ran. On Friday, I was tweeting and posting in real time, as the stuff happened. After the lap, a quick call to Tim and I was up to speed on everything that happened, and then instead of moving on to something else I could stay right there on social media, getting more in-depth and interacting with fans from around the globe. Pretty cool, actually.
On the first run Friday, Tim felt a slight "funny" vibration near the finish line and clicked it off a little early. I might never have even realized that if I was at the track, and once I did it might be a few hours after the fact. Tim mentioned it to Krista, though, who called me at once to tell me about it. A few minutes later, I called him and he said "Yeah, it started vibrating out there so I shut it off. Once we got back here, B2 came up to the lounge and said 'Well, I know what it made that funny vibration' and when I asked him why he said that all the wheel weights were gone from one of the rear wheels. I guess they flew off."
We made two great qualifying laps, once again, and my first thought on that was that this whole deal where we've only made two qualifying passes at the last three races has really played right into our hands, but only because it was in Charlotte where we finally and firmly got ahold of our clutch wear. Earlier in the year, when we seemed utterly incapable of putting two decent runs back-to-back, trying to get in the show on two laps might've been a nightmare, but once we got to Charlotte it was a beautiful thing. When Wilk gets a handle on the race car, it might not be the fastest car there but it will almost certainly be the most consistent, and at the last three races we've qualified 4th, 2nd, and 4th all while only making two laps. And every one of those laps was good. We got 'em right where we want 'em...
Sunday morning started so early for me I had to set my iPhone alarm to make sure I wasn't late to work. With the race starting at 11:00 ET, that meant the first pair would be launching at 8:00 for me, so I felt the need to be behind my desk with all systems fired up by 7:30.
This time, I could really be dialed into the action because ESPN3.com was on "live" and with that, the live timing, and the audiocast I felt like I was sitting in Mission Control. This whole internet thing... I think it might catch on.
As you know, we put two more great laps on the board, beat two more really good teams, and got another semifinal finish. It was all good, and there it was another Saturday night, one week later than the rain-out, and I was home. (See reference above regarding long strange trips).
All that being said, I'm really looking forward to getting to Topeka this week. I'm leaving Wednesday because I do have a couple of meetings in Minnesota on Thursday, and then I'll make the quick flight down to Kansas City on Thursday evening. I don't land until 9:30, so I'm guessing it might be close to 11:00 that night before I roll into Topeka.
It's always one of my favorite stops, every year. The first drag race I ever saw was at Heartland Park, the year I was the general manager there, and I'll always carry those memories and connections with me. Without Heartland Park in general, and Bill Kentling in specific, it's likely that none of you would know me today and I have no clue what I might instead be doing. That job was one of those pivotal moments when everything changes. I was still young and an idiot, and hadn't learned anything at all about how to succeed and do it the right way when I got there, but it was the first step that put me on the path that brought me here today. That's why I love going back there.
The weather has been spectacular out here in the Inland Northwest for a whole week, and that means the boyz have had the chance to be outside in their pop-up tent, Barb and I have been on a number of fun bike rides, and the sun has been shining, which brightens everyone's mood. Today is Monday, though. Can't trust that day. It's been raining steadily for hours, but it's a nice consistent spring rain and it sounds good hitting the roof and rattling the gutters.
Unfortunately, there was a big high school or college golf tournament set for today, on the course where we live. The first foursome hit the 2nd green, right outside our bedroom window, at around 8:00 and at that time it was fine. Then, by 11:00 or so the rain started coming down and it was doing so in copious quantities, but the golf went on. Those poor kids were soaked...
My day started really early today, because Barb was flying to New York (LGA) on a 7:20 flight this morning. We were rolling out of the driveway at about 6:30 to get her there in time. I drove her there because we're going to be doing our standard "ships passing in the night" routine for a while, leaving cars at airports for each other. She gets back here a day or so after I leave for Topeka, so I'll park at the airport and let her know where the car is. This is why we each carry a set of each other's keys...
A few minutes ago, I got an email from her with her version of "The View From My Window" and I have to share that with you in the gallery. She's staying at the Waldorf Astoria, with a spectacular view out of her window, of Park Avenue in Manhattan. Sweet!
Oh, and if you were watching the race either on ESPN3 or later on TV, on ESPN2, you saw the segment where they showed some of the fun and games we had with Cruz Pedregon's guys, after they beat us in Houston, and the bit about Bob Tasca's guys rescuing us when our big rig broke down in Alabama. They also showed the mock (hilarious) invoice Bob Tasca delivered to us after we finally got parked at Atlanta Dragway. I've included it in the gallery too, in the hope that the enlarged version will be big enough to read. Pretty funny stuff... Here's hoping you can enlarge it enough to read it. The last line is "15% surcharge just because"
Oh... And I just had to take a blurry phone pic as I was getting ready to dive in to do all my PR work during the race. As you'll see, I had an assistant working with me. His name was Buster. The pic also shows my laptop and my cup of McDonald's coffee, so I had all the essentials at the ready. I put that photo on Facebook and my nephew Del III (who wrote the Ronald Reagan book) posted "A cat, a cup of coffee, and a $2000 MacBook pro. What could possibly go wrong?" LOL...
"And the crowd goes wild!" Cracked me up.
Well, I'm about out of material. Just for today, though.
I figured I'd never have enough good material for a month when we started this, so now I figure if I can make it eight years the supply must somehow be endless. Here's hoping.
I also need to get a new Bob On Baseball written soon, and I'll probably focus on the crazy year of 1981, when the Blue Jays moved me out to Fresno for one year, to scout the central part of California. It was a bizarre year, in a lot of ways, and it was full of crazy characters. The major leagues had a strike in midsummer, and after a while the Blue Jays took all of their scouts off the road, to cut costs. I had to try to scout all the teams in the Class-A California League as they came through Fresno to play the Fresno Giants, plus most of that team lived around the same pool at the same apartment complex where I lived. We probably broke a thousand tampering rules, because many of us became great friends and one of the pitchers actually moved into my spare bedroom for the summer. And then there was the World Series, Dodgers vs Yankees, and I was invited to go along for the L.A. games with our team President (Peter Bavasi), our general manager (Pat Gillick), and our manager (Bobby Cox). I could write a book about the craziness that ensued and the surreal experience of hanging with those guys at the rooftop bar at the Hilton in Hollywood, sitting around chatting with Reggie Jackson, Tommy John, and Yogi Berra as if I was hanging out with my college buddies. Can't give away too many details here. I need to flesh it out and write it for Bob On Baseball!!!
Take care, all. Back at ya soon.
Hey everyone. I've only got a few minutes for this, but since I'm going to be running around like crazy for the next few days and have been running around like crazy over the last few, I thought it was worth it to check in even if this is a short one.
As you know, we all made a phantom trip to Commerce, Ga. last weekend. It's as if it never happened, because there's no record of it. Well, I take that back, there are plenty of records laying around, including my receipts from Delta, Hertz, the Holiday Inn Express, a gas station, and the parking garage at MSP. So, there is a paper trail and it's all related to a race that didn't happen.
With my budget, as well as the team's, both being tighter than a Neil Peart snare drum, and with us not having hospitality this weekend, I'm going to do the PR work remote control from beautiful Liberty Lake, a place where I have not been since April 15. It seems like forever, and that really is a long time to be away from your wife, your favorite felines, and your home. I'll be there tonight, and I've been officially warned that Boofus and Buster are planning a surprise mauling of me, complete with massive shedding of hair and major rubbing on ankles. I can't wait to get there.
Basically, much of the Commerce experience was just this side of miserable. My travel went smoothly, and frankly the whole oddball plan of flying to ATL and then connecting to a flight up to Greenville so that I could drive halfway back to Atlanta (which is where Commerce is) went as well as any flight could go. The drive down to Braselton, where our hotel was, wasn't that bad at all and before you knew it I was unpacking and relaxing, thinking about qualifying the next day.
And then it was the next day. And it rained. And it drizzled. And it teased us by stopping long enough for the Safety Safari to get the track dry but once again the precip began to fall before the nitro cars could make a lap. And, it was a VERY long day. I got out there around 10:00 a.m. on a day when the schedule didn't have us making our first lap until 5:00, so I knew going in it was going to be a long one, but when you spend the day in the rain time slows down, just like it did in high school math class. This one never seemed to end... Finally, when it looked like we might actually get a lap in, they announced that the entire goal at that point was to do just that, and get one lap in the books. And then it rained again.
Overnight, on Friday night, the rains kept coming but what was worse was the temperature. It wasn't exactly warm out there on Friday, but by Saturday morning it was not only still gloomy and wet, it was also downright chilly, barely hitting 50 degrees. Because we're all geniuses, who all did so well in both geography and meteorology when we were in school, we all knew that it's generally already getting very hot and humid by the first week of May down in Georgia. So... Absolutely none of us brought clothes for a 50-degree day, with 15 mph winds, and lashing rain storms. I was lucky to have one light jacket with me, and I only threw that in the bag because rain was in the forecast and I figured I might need to put something over my head to keep from getting drenched.
We left the hotel at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday, in the rain. We trudged into the ghost-town pits around 8:30, in the rain. Teeth were chattering. And the rain kept coming...
I was surprised about two things, as I walked in circles within our hospitality area. 1. Fans were actually arriving in the rain. 2. Many of them were wearing shorts and t-shirts. Ha! Not even the locals came prepared for the weather we had.
And it rained. And we considered building an ark, but nobody knew what a cubit was or how to measure one.
This single photo, today, tells the story like a thousand words. It was ugly with a capital "Ug".
Looking at various radar sites, and simply being out in it, there was no getting around the fact we weren't going to race on Saturday. Everyone sorta knew it, and the forecast for Sunday and Monday was simply more of the same, so NHRA did the right thing and called the whole thing off. It was still morning when they pulled the plug, and everyone leapt into action in terms of travel, hotels, and other details that had to be handled. I got on the phone with Delta and they got me on a 4:30 flight out of Greenville that afternoon, connecting back in ATL. Since it was also still morning, I had the chance to get back to the hotel, throw all my carefully unpacked stuff back into my bag, and check out of my room, saving us $100 for that night.
When I did that, I batted my eyelashes at the young girl working the desk and begged her for an hour extension to the check-out time for the rest of our guys, who were also getting out of Dodge (Braselton). She was a little (actually quite a bit) confused by the whole thing, and all she said as "Kyle is my manager, and Kyle isn't here, and I don't know what to do." I walked her through it, and all was fine.
My challenge was to drive the 27 miles west to Braselton, get checked out, and then turn around and drive all the way back up to GSP for my flight. Made it with two hours to spare.
I was in the front cabin for the little short flight down to ATL, so no big deal, but it didn't look like I'd be upgraded for the longer flight up to MSP. The Delta agent had gotten me seat with extra legroom, so I was prepared for that, but what I was also prepared for was missing my connection. When I rebooked my flights on the phone, I was so happy to be able to get out of there that night I never asked how long the layover was. It was only after I got to GSP that I realized it was only 40 minutes...
If you've ever connected at ATL, you know a 40-minute layover is simply asking for it. It's not risky, it's silly. It's made worse when you arrive on a regional jet and leave on a big jet, because your gates are going to be at least two or three concourses apart, and of course (of course!) both of your gates are going to be at the very end of those two distant concourses. That's just how it works.
Everything needed to go smoothly, and at first it appeared everything was. My plane got into GSP early, so we were all there and boarded a few minutes before schedule, and we took off right on time. I thought it was odd that the pilot came on and said our flying time would be 39 minutes, because on the way up it had only been a 29 minute flight, but I soon figured out they were accounting for the bad weather, the instrument approach, and the vectoring we'd be doing to get into ATL during a driving rain storm. The minutes ticked away fast, and all the while I was doing the math to figure out how much time I'd have to sprint to the escalators, get down to the subway tram, get over to the A concourse, and run to my flight. Each time I did the math, it got shorter.
Finally, we made the last turn for the runway and I felt and heard the landing gear going down. At this point, it got fun (in a bad fun sort of way.) I felt the floor shaking a little and then simultaneously I heard the flight attendant in the rear of the plane get on the speakers and yell "Sir, get in your seat. You have to sit down, we're landing!" right as a guy walked briskly by my aisle seat, headed for the bathroom. The flight attendant up front jumped out of her seat and was about to tackle the dude, but he got to the bathroom door before she could and he went in. The doofus said "I can't wait another two minutes..." The flight attendant was pounding on the door and yelling at the guy, but she was getting nowhere.
She then got on the phone and called the flight deck. Keep in mind we're on final approach, the gear are down, and we're about 2,000 feet off the ground. She talked to the pilots, and started pounding on the lavatory door again. I just knew they'd have to abort the landing and that would make me miss my connection, and I was fully prepared to let Bathroom Boy hear about it when he came out. Just then, he casually opened the door, said "Thank you" to the flight attendant, and began a leisurely stroll back to his seat without a care in the world, until the aforementioned flight attendant grabbed him by the collar and marched him, at jogging speed, back to his seat. She got back to her seat just as our wheels touched the ground. Whew...
I've been flying too much for far too long, but that was one I'd never seen before.
I did some broken-field running, dodging in and out and making my way to my other gate, and I showed up just as they were boarding the final passengers. I handed my boarding pass to the agent, and instead of getting a beep and a green light, a new boarding pass spit out of the machine like a receipt at the gas pump, and it was for a seat in the front cabin! I earned that one...
So, I got back to Woodbury on Saturday night, which felt like maybe Sunday night but more like Monday night, and I've been off a day or two ever since. Now, it's Tuesday and I'll be flying back to Spokane tonight, getting in there around 10:30. I think Buster is driving to the airport to pick me up.
Well, I have two more errands to run before I grab some dinner and head out to MSP. Gotta sign off now, but I'll be doing all my normal PR updating and social media work this weekend, while my guys and my boss are back in Commerce, hopefully winning a race without me. If that's what it takes, I'll take one for the team.
Wow, so here it is Wednesday afternoon and I'm finally finding the time (and energy) to write this blog installment. I bet some of you have been eager to hear the inside story about Houston, with all the amazing things that happened there, and I'm very sorry it's taken me this long to get to it, but a conspiracy of strangeness and hard deadlines have kept me busy. I shall now, to the best of my limited ability, attempt to relay the story.
First of all, it was clear we were going to have something for the rest of the class on Friday. Simply put, it was our best Friday in so long I don't remember the last one that went that well. We were second best in each session, to not only earn the No. 2 spot in the field but to also pick up four of the little bonus points that have such an impact on things. We were looking forward to Saturday, but the 30 percent chance of scattered showers turned into drizzle for hours, and then a real thunderstorm with lightning very nearby, so that was the end of that.
We had hospitality on Saturday, and a surprisingly large number of the people on the LRS invite list actually braved the weather and showed up, but Dave (who was taking Annette's place at this race, to give her a break) and I had to improvise greatly as the day went on. We have a regular routine surrounding things like when we serve lunch, when I do my stand-up schtick, when we give prizes away, and stuff like that, and all those things are based on when the two sessions are run. With no sessions run, we had to kind of make it up as went, but everyone seemed to be happy and have fun.
It was actually kind of difficult to do our raffle give-aways, because during the lighter drizzle or when the rained would let up for a while, a lot of our guests wandered off to see the sights and stroll around. We always tell them that we'll do the give-aways between sessions, but the folks we had in the hospitality area looked like they needed to be entertained so we decided to have some fun and give some stuff away. Typically, at a normal race, I might have to call 20 numbers to give 15 items away (because people don't always just hang around with us, and that's totally up to them) but in Houston I almost used up all the raffle tickets to finally give the last blower belt away. We had fun though, and they enjoyed my corny line about how our hot dogs had been caught just the day before and were flown in fresh. Slays 'em every time.
When the thunder and lightning started, and the day was cancelled, I waited for a brief respite in the storm and headed off to my car, which was (luckily) parked on asphalt right behind the tower. I had an umbrella, so I didn't get soaked, but upon arrival behind the aforementioned tower I saw the new Royal Purple Raceway River, a huge (and deep) body of water that couldn't be gotten through with the standard hop, skip, and jump. The only way through was to walk right on in and get your shoes covered by the water, all the way up to your ankles. Later that night, the hair dryer in my hotel room came in handy, and that's an item I don't normally use (as you might imagine).
On Sunday, I got up early and peered out the window to see more threatening leaden clouds, and a hotel parking lot still covered in water, as if the rain had just stopped. It didn't look good. That's the thing about Baytown, though, and it's all based on being so close to the Gulf of Mexico. Clouds and rain can just form and sit there, hardly moving, for days. Drive 20 miles north, though, and it's sunny. The key to my hotel window view, though, turned out to be the fact my room faced east.
At 7:00 a.m. I headed down to the lobby, all dressed up in my LRS finest, and I checked out (I had a room reserved right up by IAH for that night). Jon Dunn, Big Jim's son, was in the lobby and he said "Hi Bob. You're not going to need that umbrella today." I thought he was just exercising the power of positive thinking, but then I looked out the lobby windows, which faced west, and it was all blue sky. The weather was, by Sunday, coming from that direction, so what I'd seen out of my window was the stuff that was already on its way to the east. Turned out the forecasters went 0-for-2 on Saturday and Sunday, considering we were supposed to get Saturday in and Sunday had been listed as a dreary all-day rain event for days. It worked out fine for us.
The rain did impact the race, however, in many ways. First of all, the parking lots and the sportsman pits at Houston are not paved. They were a mess for everyone involved, and frankly some of the sportsman pits were a calamitous mess. They might want to think about doing something about that... Secondly, all the rain had an impact on the track, as that much water can seep under all the rubber that's been laid down. It was up to the stellar work of the Safety Safari to give us something we could even come close to racing on, and they didn't have much time.
As great as those men and women are, it was too great a task to completely get the track back to how it was on Friday. They would've needed the whole day on Sunday, to literally start over and re-prep the track. They gave us a surface that was good enough, and a real challenge, but I figured my guy might have an advantage out there. That Wilk guy, he's pretty good on sketchy tracks. On the flip side, as our reward for qualifying No. 2, we raced the 15th qualifier. The whole field was sort of topsy-turvy, basically, because only having two qualifying runs left great cars scattered all over the ladder. After all of our hard work to qualify No. 2, we had to run Del Worsham in round one.
After we watched a few Top Fuel cars struggle to get down the track, in round one, I told someone "The problem here is our opponent. On a tricky track, Del is not the guy you want to race. Force might be the only one in his league when it comes to pedaling a car."
As it turned out, Wilk was the one who felt the tires rattle and he quickly slapped the pedal. The LRS car hooked back up, and we won the lap going away. It was a big round win for us, because Charlotte got us back into the top 10 and we wanted to stay there.
In round two, we faced the guy I just mentioned above, a certain 15-time champ, but we kept lane choice because we were low e.t. of round one. Wilk absolutely nailed the tune-up, and we powered right down through there (driver terminology for use during top-end interviews) and won again. It was all good, and our young crew was getting a workout.
We had Ron Capps in the semifinal, and again we had lane choice. And again Wilk nailed the tune-up and we made a stellar lap. It was on to the final, and we still had lane choice. That choice didn't seem to matter though, because Cruz Pedregon had been winning right along with us and he was actually choosing the other lane, so that was kind of a moot point.
The key thing, though, was the fact our crew had to service the car for the final. As you all know, we were on "live" TV and to do that we had to service the car and be back up there in 55 minutes. We'd been timing the guys all weekend, and they were getting it done in 65, then 62, then 60, and thereabouts right up until the final. It was going to be a challenge, made even greater by the necessary presence of a gaggle of ESPN folks in the pit.
By the time we got back from the lap, Tom Leskovan and Marc Denner, from the Tasca team, were already there. Mike Kern and Tony Smith, from the Zizzo team, were right behind them. Having extra hands is great, but the only good help is good help, if you follow me. Just having extra hands is actually a detriment if all they're doing is getting in the way, because only so many people can work on the car at once. Those four guys were the "good" kind of help though, and all knew where they could pitch in to pick up a few service duties that would free our guys up for their main jobs. And the clock was ticking.
We did an engine swap before the final, as a way to shortcut the time it takes to pull out a rack of pistons and put new ones in. Everyone was working so hard, but the stress was just palpable. I've been through far too many pre-final service efforts to even guess the number, but I've never felt stress and energy like this. The bright red numbers on our digital counter were practically mocking us, but I did notice that we were ready to fire and I hadn't heard another fuel car light up yet. That was good.
At the 42-minute mark, Tim spun the motor. I had already started to tweet on Twitter, and had typed "42 minutes and we have the engine fired" when I heard the popping and backfiring. The car didn't light. And people were watching from coast-to-coast. Smile!
They tried again, but Tim knew the problem because we'd had it happen before. When he pedaled the car in Charlotte, in the final round, this particular motor and mag drive were in the car. The boss knew immediately that the mag drive had jump a tooth or two when he pedaled it, and therefore the timing was out of phase. The guys fixed that, in about six minutes, and at just short of 50 minutes we were running. Whew...
Still, NHRA Pit Control was right there, literally pointing at their watches. Our guys were filthy, sweating, and exhausted, but they put the car on the ground, got the body on it, and put their starting line shirts on. I grabbed the video camera and headed for the starting line. When I arrived, the Pro Stock finals were happening, and we all know that Funny Car follows Pro Stock in the final round. I stood off to the side and waited. I noticed that the two Top Fuel teams were there, but no Funny Cars were in sight. And I waited.
I finally walked under the tower so that I could see the staging lanes, but nothing... Not our car and not Cruz's car. Nothing.
Then, our bright red Ford tow vehicle came into sight, with the LRS Shelby right behind it. We made it...
Cruz and his team weren't too far behind, but our TV window was closing fast, and as we waited for them to finish strapping Cruz in, one of the starting line guys came over and said "They're on the clock. They have one minute. If they're not ready, you WILL fire up." Waiting for them, as we would at any other race, was not an option.
With seconds to spare, Cruz's guys got it done and we both fired up. Then we smoked the tires.
I really thought we were going to win this race, and I don't always feel that way before a final. It just seemed right. But, I'll give tons of credit to Cruz and his guys. They got it done, and they ran a great lap. We were trying to run our sixth straight great lap, after not really being able to string two good runs together at any race all year, and we missed.
Mostly, though, I just felt bad for our guys. They worked so hard, and put so much into it, they really needed the reward of being able to go crazy on TV, and then celebrate afterward. Instead, it was a group of exhausted guys with slumped shoulders who went back to our pit. They deserved better, but we got whipped and that's how it goes.
Tim joked later that he'd told Krista and the guys, earlier in the week, that we were guaranteed to go to the final, because the 55-minute turn-around was probably something we weren't ready for and we'd have to thrash through it on live television. He was right, but we got there.
There was no time for sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves though. I had to write my post-race feature, and then we had to tear the hospitality area down. My brain was clearly not too tired, fortunately, because I breezed through the writing part in about 20 minutes. 90 minutes after that, we had the hospitality area all disassembled loaded into the support trailer. At that point, I became a taxi driver.
Tim and Krista needed to get to Hobby Airport, Nick Casertano had a flight out of Intercontinental, and Dave and I both had hotel rooms waiting for us up there. We drove to the south side of Houston and dropped the Wilks off with time to spare, then we drove north and got Nicky to his flight on the other side of Houston in plenty of time. I had booked a room at the Sheraton a month ago, but Dave needed to alter his plans and find a place that night, and he found a room at a La Quinta.
I slept like a brick.
Nelson "Nelly" Jones, my friend who is an ESPN camera operator, was on my flight the next morning and we had a great chat about the live TV and how well everyone performed on the show. From the camera guys, to the directors, and of course the on-air talent, everyone excelled. I can't wait to see it on the DVR when I get back to Spokane. All I've heard, from far and wide, is that it was fantastic television and very gripping entertainment. I somehow sensed it was, as it was happening.
And congrats to my buddy Bob Vandergriff for winning Top Fuel. His team is full of guys I know well or have worked with in the past, starting with Rob Flynn. My longtime CSK teammate Tom Abbett (aka Tommy Nitro) came in for the weekend just to help out, since those guys were running three cars in Houston and they needed an extra hand. Tommy comes out of retirement for one race, and they win. Maybe we can get him to come help us, next...
How great to have Neighbor Dave back with us? Very great!
Before I wrap this up, a few more Houston tidbits...
Prior to the semifinal, a crew came in and put a robotic camera in our pit. How weird to watch it snooping around, looking left and right, focusing in on the crew. Big Brother was watching!
Also before the semi, when we got ready to run the Safety Safari guy who tells us when to fire up came over and said "Be ready to go, but we're in a commercial right now. We'll come out of commercial in 45 seconds." That would be the first time I've ever heard those words spoken to us on a race day. The beauty of live TV! Like other big league sports, we were in a "TV timeout."
My buddy Dennis Peek and his bride Keena were there. Dennis is an accomplished musician, and we always have a great time talking about music and racing.
Our best fans around, Jim and Nancy Butler, were there and I met up with them for dinner on Thursday night. Chuy's has always been my favorite Tex-Mex restaurant from when we lived in Austin, and they had just opened a new one over by NASA on the southeast side of Houston, so we went there. It was between Chuy's and Lupe Tortilla, and I knew we couldn't go wrong at either. One word: Bueno!
During qualifying, Tim got to meet a whole bunch of Jr. Dragster drivers, who were all points leaders in their program there. GREAT kids, and really polite and well spoken. Daniel Wilkerson started in the Jr. Dragster program, so Tim always enjoys meeting those young drivers and giving them some pointers. Cool deal!
Sunday, while we raced and kept winning rounds, the whole social media side of my job was right there at the forefront. After every lap I was tweeting and posting on Facebook, and it was really cool to see how much interaction we were getting, from all around the world. We now have 793 members on our Facebook "Team Wilkerson Fan Page" and by the end of the day on Sunday we were up to 3,080 followers on Twitter. That was really fun.
And speaking of social media, I have this important announcement to make.... Listen up!
If you have been on my email distribution list, for all the email updates I send out each night during a race, but mysteriously you haven't been getting anything lately, it's my fault. I was deleting a few names from one email group I had in place (called "Blog Reader Group") because people change jobs or otherwise change email addresses and before long you're getting a ton of "bounce back" notices whenever you send something out.
I built that group a few years ago, when I wrote on here that anyone who reads the blog and wants the updates should just send me a request. Well, the other day I was editing as I just said and I accidentally deleted the whole group! Yikes... My bad.
It wasn't until the next day that I noticed my mistake, so it was too late to "Undo" the deletion. If you didn't get any updates from Houston, but you want them from here on out, send me a note. I'll get you back on-board for all the PR stuff.
Okay, that's it. I've had so much writing to do since I got back here after the race my fingers are tired. My brain is too. But, tomorrow morning it's back to the airport and off to Atlanta we go!
Let's win that one...