Not in its original wrapper...Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Brainerd, we loved ya! We've just wrapped up a heck of a Brainerd race, putting a wrap and a ribbon on it, and that pretty much wraps up what we've been doing. And then there was the wrap, but that's another story. Photos to follow!

Anyway, after the great displays in Shoreview and Elk River, the guys all headed north to Brainerd and I followed them up the next day. Lucky for me, I hit three major traffic tie-ups in Minneapolis (trying to outsmart the construction I was already aware of on the 694 loop) and then plodded through a large construction zone on 169 headed north, and my door-to-door Brainerd trip took almost four and a half hours. It can be done in two and a half, if everything goes 100 percent smoothly, but the only time things go that perfectly is when you're actually hoping to see a delay. It was nice to get to Cragun's and check into my room.

I also learned that I've been wasting money at Cragun's the last few times I've stayed there. In order to have room to stretch out and prepare a few meals, I had been reserving one of their Shoreline Suite rooms the last few years, and they were really nice. This time around, they didn't have any of those available so I just went with a standard King room, and holy cow the thing was almost as big as the suite! It was a very comfortable room, with a living area and king-sized bed, with a wood-burning fireplace. I can't remember the last hotel room I was in that had an actual wood-burning fireplace... They even had a small stack of wood right there in the room.

Cragun's is not flashy or glitzy (in case you're ever in the Brainerd Lakes region and are thinking of staying there) but its "rustic" quality is really pretty nice, and the lakeshore is fantastic. Plus it's got a good family vibe, so there's that.

Once we got to the race track, all of our attention turned to getting into the show solidly and then winning rounds on Sunday. When we put a cylinder out right at the hit of the throttle, in Q1 on Friday, the car made a move to the left and Tim clicked it off, so we were basically at the bottom of the heap going into Q2, when the conditions were obviously going to be the best they'd be all weekend.

Usually, the only time we feel any nerves during qualifying is if you put yourself in that unfortunate spot of being outside the field going into Q4 on Saturday. If that's the case, it's pretty hard not to be nervous, but we could all look at the schedule, and look at the points standings, and realize Q2 was a critical run. If we messed up there, we might not have a chance to even get in the top half of the field on Saturday, when both runs were in the middle of the afternoon (as it turned out, there was enough cloud cover and a cool enough track on Saturday to actually run that well, but there was no way to know that on Friday night.) So, I know we were all a little tense for Q2. It "felt" like a really important lap.

Wilk, therefore, went right out there and made it happen. Our 4.056 was low when we ran it, and it stayed that way for a long time until a couple of other guys ran better, but we earned a bonus point and right about now, even one little bonus point felt like a million bucks.

Now here's the interesting thing... The car ran over 312 mph in Q2, and when it came back from that lap the vinyl all looked good. Speed was not the issue in terms of keeping the vinyl on the car.

On Saturday, we smoked the tires twice. After the first one, the left side of the car came back quite a bit distorted, wrinkled, ripped, and bubbled. I got to work massaging it, pushing it back into place, and in some spots I had to cut it and lay the vinyl down again to get it to look somewhat normal. After Q4, when we once again smoked the tires, it came back looking REALLY bad. It was a major effort to put it back into so-so shape, and I used a ton of heavy-duty clear "helicopter tape" ( a clear tape that's so strong they use it on helicopters) to smooth it all down and give it some integrity. For some reason, the heat from the headers was doing the damage on runs when we smoked the tires, but only on the left side of the car. Very odd.

On Sunday, I arrived at the track at my normal hour and then went down to the media tower to get a ladder sheet. The inimitable Elon Werner and sidekick Dave Densmore were coming out of the luxurious and spacious media center (slight sarcasm alert) and Elon actually had to say "Okay, I kid around a lot but this time I'm not kidding. I'm being totally serious. Jeff Arend broke his heel jumping over a fence so he can't drive. You guys have a single in round one."

My quizzical look clearly tipped off my skepticism, which I'm sure Elon expected because he does, for the record, kid around just a little... "No, really. It's official" he said again. As soon as my two JFR colleagues departed, I called Tim in the pits and told him. At this point, we still were not 100 percent convinced of the veracity of this rumor.

But, by the time I got back to the pit, Big Jim Dunn had come over to inform Tim that Jeff was, indeed, too injured to drive. That was a classy thing to do, and Big Jim added "So if you want to test anything or go for low e.t., you ought to do that..." Bingo. Turns out, we had the same blower on the car for the two runs when we dropped cylinders, and it was going to be in the rotation on Sunday if we got as far as the semifinals. We'd cleaned it up and serviced it, but at that point all you can do is hope that the thing isn't causing the dropped holes. With the single, we could run that blower in round one and not worry about it. We were either going to run great, and get lane choice, or that blower was going to cause us to drop a hole again. The latter happened, so Tim lifted and coasted down the track, but we got the win light running our single. And that blower went under the bench and was "retired" for the rest of the weekend.

We faced Robert Hight in round two, as many of you I'm sure have seen, and we really put a pretty good lap on the board. Put it this way, we ran (by far) well enough for Robert's car to need an outstanding lap to beat us (we call that putting ourselves in a position to win and making the other guy earn it) and when his run wasn't flawless we beat him going away.

Of course, what had everybody buzzing was the fact the wrap on the left side of the car basically disintegrated at around 660 feet, and by the time the car crossed the finish line it was mostly gone from the side-window to the tail light. Shredded. Confetti. Gone.

When the car got back to the pit, I was up in the lounge when Krista and Tim bounded in, excitedly, and while Krista had a look of horror on her face Tim just said "I'd hate to be you, but you can't fix it now." I went outside and looked, and Barbara's face was nearly white as if we'd destroyed the car. To me, it was by that time kind of funny. I'd worked awfully hard to keep repairing that side of the car, and now there was nothing left to repair! Tim agreed with my instant assessment, which was that our only option was going to be trimming off all the loose vinyl that remained, and running it blank on that side in the semi. That was the only choice we had.

In retrospect, it would've been smart to have our vinyl guys make up a few spare Circle K logos (just the logo, not the full wrap) in case anything like this happened. If we had one of those, I could've at least put the big Circle K on the side, but we only had a handful of much smaller ones made, and we put them in spots where the cameras might catch them at the starting line.

Dave Kroona, the guy who made this all happen and the owner of the two stores where we did the displays, understood the situation completely (he's a former racer himself, so he understands the tempestuous nature of race cars) and he was just happy we were going rounds and getting a LOT of television time. Hey, if you can't be good be spectacular and if you can be good, like we were in round two, you can really cap it off by also being spectacular. That was us. Good and spectacular! Dave was also happy that the right side of the car was undamaged all weekend (it's a mystery why it only hurt the left side) because the main grandstands in Brainerd are on the right side of the track.

The ESPN2 camera (with its pet operator, Matt Ilas) was in the pit by the time I was getting ready to do some trimming, and Matt took some shots of me working with a very technical tool to remove the shreds of torn vinyl. It's a purpose built tool, very difficult to operate, and it works great for removing shredded vinyl. It's call a razor blade. Please, folks, don't try this at home! I'm a trained professional.

We also then did an ESPN2 piece that was on the show Sunday night, where I held up the remains of the torn Circle K part of the wrap, staring through two holes in it right at the lens, and then Jamie Howe interviewed Wilk. At that point, Mike Dunn referred to me as a former major league pitcher. Well... Maybe I slept through that part of my career. I did pitch a little, but only in the minors in terms of real games. I also spent one day with the Oakland A's, wearing a big league uniform when the A's were in Kansas City, and I did pitch in the bullpen that day, but I wasn't on the roster or anything. So, if you add all of those facts up, maybe you could say I'm a former major league pitcher, but you really can't. I'm a former minor league wash-out. But I appreciate the kind words from Mike, and maybe it's worthwhile for me to contact the MLB Players Association to check on that major league pension I never got... Worth a shot. Mike Dunn said it!

We smoked the tires in the semis, and Wilk was pretty mad at himself for doing that, but in my mind it was a very good day and a successful Brainerd weekend. We came into the race in 8th place, but only three points ahead of Bob Tasca and a round ahead of both Robert and Del. We left with a lead that's slightly more than four rounds over Del, who is in 11th right now, so we gave ourselves a little bit of breathing room going into Indy. It's not enough, and we can still be knocked out of this thing, but I'm confident Wilk will get us some more points at "The Big Go" and we'll be in the playoffs. Good work, all-around, by our guys and our driver.

Other Brainerd jottings...

My buddy Jeff Finger was there, along with his dad John. You remember him, right? Jeff played for the Colorado Avalanche and the Toronto Maple Leafs, but his career was cut short by as series of nagging injuries and a couple of concussions a couple of years ago. Wanting to have a good quality of life and not have to deal with more permanent effects from the concussions made it an easy decision for him to retire, and it's really cool that he and his father enjoy each other's company so much they'll get in the truck and drive from Pennsylvania to Brainerd just to go to a drag race. Seriously, that's what they did.

And when we were going rounds, Jeff jumped right in to be the guy who cleaned the windows and the windshield, crawling under the body to get access through the injector opening. I got the impression he never enjoyed window washing as much as he did on Sunday...

Nick Casertano had a 7:30 flight booked, out of Minneapolis, and our consensus going into the day was that if we made it to the final, he'd be spending the night with Barb and me, because there'd be no way to make that. If we made the semifinals, it would be close. Fortunately, since Barbara had driven up separately on Saturday morning, she was available to drive Nick back down to MSP and, despite some horrible traffic on I-94, she got him there with air to spare. Thanks Sweetie! I'm sure Nick's wife Shannon, and their little girl Ally, appreciated it too.

If you saw, on TV, the guy in the pits who was dressed and costumed as a life-sized Wally, you were probably impressed. Let me state, for the record, that he was even better in person. The dude WAS a life-sized Wally. It was one of the best costumes I've ever seen.

The weather in Brainerd was perfect.

The crowd in Brainerd was outstanding. It's always tough to gauge how many people are at the Brainerd race by looking at the grandstands, because a large number of people in attendance skip entire days of watching the racing. They're camping, having fun in The Zoo, and enjoying all the other incredible stuff this unique race has to offer, but the main stands were pretty well covered with people for all three days. And all I hear about from naysayers is that our attendance is horrible, the sky is falling, and the world ends tomorrow. The funny thing is, those negative types aren't actually at the events. The Brainerd crowd was great. Period. And man, those people have a patent on ways to have fun.

Annette wasn't there, because she took her mom on vacation to Alaska this past week, but Rich came up and he once again illustrated his classic MacGyver ability to fix and fabricate things. The on/off button on our video camera finally broke to the point of being inoperable during the Seattle race, so Rich disassembled everything and made an entire new switch out of the piece of plastic they include as a "spreader" in those little packets of crackers and cheese. Seriously! The guy is amazing.

Here's hoping my buddy Jeff Arend heals quickly (more specifically that his heel heals quickly, so he can wear heels again, since he is a "drag" racer). He texted me on Sunday morning, wishing us well, which is just another indication of what a good guy he is. Get better, eh!

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What a beauty!
And now the truly important part of this blog...


Yep, it's that time of year again and we put ourselves in this spot by not winning a race so far this year. We've been to six semifinals, and have been runner-up once already, but we haven't won and that means we're in the fan vote for the final slot in the Traxxas Shootout.

As a quick refresher, this is how it works: You go to the NHRA page on Facebook (I'll post a link below) and if you haven't already "Liked" the page you should do so. Then go to the Traxxas Voting page, and click on the little button next to Wilk's picture. You can only vote once, so make your vote count!

The percentage of the vote we earn will also be the number of lottery balls we have in the hopper. Right now, Wilk and Robert are nearly tied, at around 33 percent, so if the lottery were held today we'd each have a 33 percent chance of winning. It isn't today, though, it's next Wednesday so we need your vote.

Can I count on you? Go here and vote:

Thanks everyone... Back again soon.

Wilber, out!