Thursday, September 04, 2014
Whew. What a month we just spent in Indy. Wait. What? We were only there for five days? Impossible! Everything about Indy is so big, so grand, so high-powered and tense, it's unlike any other drag race in the world. It's just incredible.
I, personally, actually made this year's Indy experience as efficient as it could be, by not flying down until Friday morning and then flying back on Monday night. That's about as good as you can do it if you're still going to be there for all the sessions and eliminations, but I'll probably never do it again. Why? Because the whole Friday deal worked perfectly and everything was on-time. I even had time to go out to hotel first and change into my track clothes, before driving back down to Lucas Oil Raceway for the Friday night session. I guess the pessimistic worry-wart in me figures I dodged the odds with that, and the next time I try it my flight will be cancelled.
I've been writing so much lately my right wrist is actually a little sore. I have a new "Behind The Ropes" column due for National Dragster, on Monday, so I've been writing and editing that the last couple of days. It actually started out as a completely different topic, and I wrote the whole thing on Tuesday. But then I began the editing process and I just didn't like how it read and was formulated, so I basically wadded it up and threw it away. Yesterday I wrote a completely new one, and it's about the epic scale of Indy and what it means. Much better.
I won't even attempt to chronologically replay the U.S. Nationals here, so let's just ramble…
The most important thing comes first. That had to be one of the best attended U.S. Nationals I've ever seen. Crowds ranged from big to gigantic, and Saturday and Sunday were both pretty epic. The threat of bad weather was hanging over us each day, and on Monday it looked so bad I think it kept some people away, but we got every session and every round in and the fans were truly out in force.
Indy is one of those places where memories get a little foggy about "the good old days" and people tend to remember the races from the 70s or 80s as having 100,000 people there. In reality, that never happened. Actually, once they built the new super-sized permanent grandstand on the pro pit side of the venue, capacity had to increase by at least 20 percent, so the place has more seats than it ever did back then and this year we filled that big new seating area. No tarps covering sections, no gaping holes of empty bleachers, just people. Lots and lots of them. And the big grandstand on the other side also held a healthy amount of human beings as well. On top of that, the Top Eliminator Club seats were sold-out. Amazing.
The Traxxas Shootout stuff was fun, although we lost a tough one to some guy named Force in round one on Sunday. At the press conference, in the Top Eliminator tent, each driver was interviewed by Alan Reinhart and Ron Capps talked about how "It's not about the money, it's about the honor and accomplishment of winning such a tough race against seven other drivers who are among the best in the world." Wilk got interviewed next and his first line was "First off, I just want to disagree with everything Ron Capps just said. To me, it's absolutely about the money." That got big laughs, from the fans and other racers.
This year's trophy for the eight Traxxas drivers was actually a Traxxas truck on a beautiful pedestal, and on the base of Tim's trophy it said "Winner. Fan Vote". I had to take a photo of that, because I'm still stunned by the outpouring of support we got in that Facebook vote. Wilk's Warriors are the best. Period.
I've said before that one of the things I love the most about Indy is the fact our legends walk among us there. Turn a corner, and there's Don "The Snake" Prudhomme and Tom "The Mongoose" McEwen. Turn another corner and bump into Big Daddy Don Garlits, or Shirly Muldowney. For a baseball guy like me, that's like going to the All-Star game and seeing Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and and Mickey Mantle stroll by. We lose more legends every year, but we're still very lucky to have so many NHRA legends and pioneers still with us.
Indy is a marathon for sure, but not just because there's an added fifth qualifying session, or because the Traxxas Shootout makes it two races in one, or because it stretches into Monday. It's all of those things, but I think it's just the pressure and the very long days that take it out of us so much. Four days, a couple of which stretch into the 12-13 hour range, and a lot of tension. By Monday night, you're truly drained, but it's a good version of being tired.
Blogger's Note: I'm sitting here in Woodbury typing this, and a Bald Eagle just flew by the window. That never fails to get my attention.
Okay, back to Indy. We ran well, pretty much all through qualifying. We really only made one bad run, and we gave Force everything he could handle in the Traxxas opening round. Our 4.02 was stout enough to put us in the top half of one of the toughest fields ever. Matt Hagan made the first three-second Funny Car run in the history of Indy, and 12 other drivers ran in the 4.0s.
Of course, what everyone was focused on the most in round one was our ongoing battle with Fast Jack for the 10th spot in the Countdown. Jack earned some bonus points, and he out-qualified us, so by the time the first round happened he'd shaved the deficit to 10 points. We faced Tommy Johnson and he faced Blake Alexander. It wasn't difficult to envision that going the wrong way for us.
We were the sixth pair, and Jack was part of the second, so we had the opportunity to watch Jack and Blake run before we did. While I actually was pretty confident that Paul Smith, and his sons John and Mike, would tune Blake's car well enough to make Jack earn it, I really don't think anyone expected Jack's car to lose traction almost at the hit. Blake made a great run, and we were in the playoffs.
I watched that from right behind the line, so I headed back to our car further back in the lanes, and it was neat to get so many winks and nods from guys on other teams. Our guys were pretty pumped up, and at that point I was thinking "Okay, pressure's off. Let's just go have some fun now." And then we smoked the tires. That was not in the script.
Tim and Jack met up a little later, and both were so gracious, just like you'd expect. I figure there had to be dozens of individual moments throughout the season where both of us would like to go back and get a do-over, and neither team ever really took charge and put some distance on the other. We're fortunate to be in the playoffs, and now it's time to get hot and reward all of our fans who so loyally stand behind us. If you're in it, you can win it.
People. Lots and lots of people. What a GREAT Indy it was.
We began the very sweaty job of tearing things down on Monday afternoon, and after I finished my PR work I took a look at Delta's website and saw there were a couple of earlier flights, before my scheduled 7:30 departure. I got on the phone and landed a standby seat on the 6:00 flight, and headed for the airport as the semifinals were happening.
Once inside the concourse, I headed to the Sky Club and was finishing up some other work when I heard a familiar Aussie-accented voice say "Is this the media room?" It was great to see David Grubnic again. He'd been helping out the Rapisarda team all weekend, and I'd go so far as to say his tuning input was immediately effective. Dom Lagana was driving the car, and Aussie Dave was able to help get him all the way up into the No. 8 spot, running a stout 3.78 in the process. After that run, word shot back through the staging lanes like a wild fire, as teams relayed along the info that Lagana had run so quick and that Grubby was helping with the tune-up.
We chatted for a while and he asked me what flight I was on. I told him I had been on the last flight out but was standby on the earlier one, and he went to the desk and did the same thing. We both got on, both were in the front cabin, and we were joined there by Les Williams, from Greg Anderson and Jason Line's team. You know Les, he's the guy with the cowboy hat who always clears the smoke from Jason and Greg's cars after the burnout. Great guy, really friendly, and he lives in Duluth. When Grubby and I got to the gate, Les walked up and said "So this must be the losers' standby flight, huh." Yep. I never wanted to be on that flight, but it was good to get home about 90 minutes earlier. Sure hope to see Grubby some more. Any team would be wise to bring him in as a tuner, I'll say that.
Now, we have a week off before beginning the playoffs in Charlotte. We don't have hospitality there, so I'l be doing the PR work remote-control, but after that I'll be going to all the other races, even though we don't have hospitality in Vegas or Pomona. I just want to be at both of those races, so I'll foot the bill to be there. Hard to believe we're wrapping up another year. Man oh man, did that ever go by in a flash. Next stop for me will be Dallas.
And tonight, just to reinforce the whole "How did it get to be September already?" theme, the NFL season starts. Geez… In a blink it will be Super Bowl Sunday. Well, a blink and quite a few trips to scrape snow off our Spokane driveway…
Take care everyone. And once again, THANK YOU for all the support and all the Traxxas votes. Wilk's Warriors are the best!
This will be a short little blog today. Call it concise. Or efficient. It's simply here to give an enormous shout-out to the best fans in the sport of drag racing.
The back of our 2014 souvenir t-shirt has a tag line at the bottom, and it reads "Wilk's Warriors. We. Are. Everywhere." It could also read "We. Are. Amazing." and it would be just as accurate. Truly amazing.
In my last blog I mentioned the online fan voting for the eighth spot in the Traxxas Funny Car shootout, and how Wilk was in that vote because we did not win a race this year, or last year. In 2013, we had Robert Hight in the vote with us, but we managed to fend him off and win the fan vote. I don't recall the exact percentage of the vote we earned, but it was somewhere in the 38 percent range, I think. Maybe 40.
My friend Elon Werner, pound for pound as good as any PR person in the biz, even called as soon as the vote ended to congratulate me, Wilk, and the team on what I think everyone considered a fairly amazing upset win. We then took our advantage in terms of ping-pong balls in the hopper to get the wild-card spot in the field.
This year, we were up against another tough group, which included Fast Jack Beckman, Matt Hagan, Del Worsham, Bob Tasca and Tony Pedregon. I took the same campaign approach as I did last year, by focusing on three efficient means of getting the word out, and hopefully getting the vote out. I appealed to Wilk's Warriors directly, via Facebook, Twitter, and this blog. Once again they delivered.
I also reprised my method of getting attention by creating a new series of "Vote For Wilk" campaign posters, and used those on the Facebook and Twitter posts to draw attention.
Now keep this in mind: An online vote like this is about more than just quantity. It's about fervent loyalty, not just the act of following. It's about being Wilk's Warriors. Matt Hagan has about 24,000 followers on Twitter. Fast Jack has about 13,000. All absolutely fantastic, terrific, and engaged fans, and there are lots of them. Team Wilk has roughly 4,350 followers on Twitter and another 1,300 or so members in our Facebook Fan Group, although even those numbers are deceptive because most of those individuals follow us both ways. We were clearly outnumbered, by a lot in some cases, but we couldn't be outworked.
From the first moments of the vote, the Warriors sprang into action and grabbed the lead. And we held it nonstop until the voting ended on Tuesday. As Bob Frey loved to say "Tim Wilkerson never trailed in this drag race." In the end, Wilk earned 38 ping-pong balls with his 38 percent of the vote. Fast Jack was a strong second, with 29 percent, then Del at 13 percent, Matt at 10, and Bob and Tony with five percent each.
The reason? Wilk's Warriors did exactly what they did last year. They bought in, they invested in their hero, and they didn't just vote, they campaigned. All I had to do was mobilize this amazing group, and they did the rest.
Today, at midday in downtown Indianapolis, the drivers gathered to put their color-coded ping-pong balls in the lottery hopper, and just like last year Wilk's vote advantage gave him the edge and we are once again headed to the Traxxas Nitro Shootout.
Here's the NHRA YouTube video of the actual selection: bit.ly/WilkTNS
Yep, winning three rounds in this deal would mean an awful lot to this team. $100,000 is a lot of money.
I'm all for that, but what I'm already to the finish line about is the effort so many people put into this. Voting on all their devices, spreading the word to family, friends, and coworkers. As far as I know, no dogs or cats voted and nobody found a secret way to vote twice from the same iPad, but it was clear from Day One that Wilk's fan base was engaged and energized. They were all-in. In political terms, the other teams might have had more registered voters in the polls, but we had the better ground game. I am so proud to be associated with these fans.
Campaign posters, 2014-style...
Amazing. Fantastic. Tireless.
But you know what? I kind of expected it. I did have my doubts, and mostly I doubted whether I had the creativity and energy to get the ball rolling and keep the votes coming, but once it started and we grabbed the early lead, I never felt like we were in danger of losing it. There was just too much energy out there.
Of course, having 38 ping-pong balls was great, but we still needed the luck of the lottery to get us in. Krista Wilkerson was there with Tim for the lottery, and she was my eyes, ears, and texting thumbs on-site. She's also convinced she gives off bad luck waves, so she basically stood all the way across Monument Circle from the stage, where she continuously fired off a series of texts that were nothing short of hilarious.
So, in summary… THANK YOU! Wilk fans are simply the best.
Now, let's go win the Traxxas Shootout and the U.S. Nationals. Are ya in?
Before I delve deeply into Brainerd musings (and there are a few musings) let's get right to the really important stuff. Once again, it's time to vote for the eighth Funny Car contestant in the $100,000 Traxxas Funny Car Shootout, which will be held during the U.S. Nationals in Indy.
Once again, we need Wilk's Warriors everywhere to unite, spread the word, share the love, and vote! We did it last year, lapping the field and earning enough ping-pong balls to get the spot, and we aim to do it again. We're always up against tough competition in this fan vote, and this year is no different, with Fast Jack Beckman, Matt Hagan, Del Worsham, and a bunch of other popular and talented drivers on the ballot.
Here's all I ask, for all of you who are actually on Facebook… We want your vote! If you want to see Wilk in the Traxxas Shootout, go to this Facebook link and vote for Tim.
You can vote once per device, so don't forget to vote on your computer, on your phone, and on your tablet. And share the word with family and friends. Get out the vote!!!
I'm Bob Wilber and I approved this message.
So there you have it. Now let's talk Brainerd…
What a pleasure it is to go to a race and not have to get on an airplane. The scenic drive up to Brainerd is a great way to make the transition from "office work" to "track work" and I'm always excited to get there. This time, my arrival featured a totally unexpected bonus, for which I'm still appreciative, and all I can say is "Thank You!" to the fine folks at Madden's Resort.
I had reserved a standard room at the resort, but when I checked in I discovered that they'd put me in one of their quaint and charming cabins, up on top of a hill overlooking Wilson Bay on Gull Lake. These cabins are really cool, and very nice, so I was shaking my head at my good fortune as I took my bag inside. Then, I saw an envelope on top of the mini-fridge and in it was a card from a Madden's staff member, thanking me for the nice mention in the blog! Never in a million years did I think anyone at Madden's Resort would even know about this blog, much less read it. I was honored and touched by the thought, and I'll now be a loyal Madden's customer for life. Very cool and very much appreciated. And the cabin was great!
The race itself reminded me of "A Tale of Two Cities" in some ways. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…" Also, over the course of three days it seemed like we were in two very different seasons of the year. Friday and most of Saturday were simply oppressive, in terms of the heat and the humidity. We did great in Q1, actually tying Courtney Force for low e.t. of the session (although she got the top spot on speed) and that earned us two valuable bonus points. After that, we couldn't hit water if we fell out of a boat. We ended up sliding all the way to the 13th spot and had to race Tommy Johnson in round one on Sunday.
When dawn broke on race day, everything had changed. It rained overnight and it was foggy, misty, and drizzly on Sunday morning. And Sunday afternoon. And Sunday night. It was also downright chilly, and we all scrambled for sweatshirts and jackets as the thermometer struggled to top the 60-degree mark. It was one of those days where it was almost impossible to comprehend the shift in the weather, and the heat and muggy atmosphere from the day before seemed like ancient history. It felt like we'd qualified in the dog days of summer but then rescheduled the race for two months later.
With that shift came a completely different set of conditions, and with the ongoing rain and mist came the need for patience. Time and time again we'd be about to go, and it would sprinkle again. Time and time again the Safety Safari would do their amazing work and put the track back together for us. And again. And again. I think the biggest challenge for them was keeping enough fuel in their trucks, tractors, and jet dryers. Safety Safari = The Best.
And after all of that. After all the waiting, the getting wet, and the standing around wondering if we were ever going to get to race, the super-tight track and the cool conditions overpowered our race car, and we shook hard at the hit. Day over.
We went into eliminations with a 36-point lead on Fast Jack, and he won in the first round. As it turned out, his teammate Ron Capps beat him on a little baby hole-shot (Alan Reinhart term) in round two, so at least we go into Indy still in the 10th spot. We surely do have some work to do when we get there. Ron Capps and John Force still have some work to do, as well. The Funny Car final never happened, so they're going to complete the Brainerd race during qualifying in Indy. It was one of those days...
Okay, Brainerd ramblings…
Barbara came up on Saturday morning and spent two days at the track. It was her first appearance of the year, and with her crazy busy schedule it will almost certainly be her last. In addition to her consistently challenging work schedule, she's also going to start teaching at St. Mary's University in Minneapolis this fall, so any travel to the remaining 2014 races is probably not going to happen, but it was fantastic to have her with me in Brainerd. And I think she had some fun.
As always, there was a ton of help with traffic flow at BIR, and it was never that tough to get in or out, but that traffic assistance didn't extend to parking assistance in the racer's lot. Once you pulled in, it was simply up to each driver to find a spot and try to keep it in order, which is usually never a good thing, and on Friday when I pulled in on the end of a row and parked behind another car, I actually had the thought "No one would be dumb enough to park behind me, right? It's obvious these rows are going to be two cars each, right?" Sure enough, I came out to my car on Friday evening after we got done, and someone had actually parked behind me. I had just enough room to get out, but I stared in disbelief that someone would look at the situation and think "This ought to work. I'll just block the aisle and maybe block this other car…" Really? It can't be that hard, but apparently it was for one driver. For the record, everyone else seemed to figure out how to make double rows and keep the aisles clear. Sheesh.
On Sunday night, after we wrapped everything up, Barb and I headed over to Grand Casino Mille Lacs, about 40 miles from Brainerd, and that drive only took us about an hour and a half. Ugh. The little road around Mille Lacs can often be congested, and this time the word "congested" could be defined as "walking speed or slower" for about an hour. We finally got there, got checked in, and had a good dinner followed by some good and/or bad luck on the slots before turning in. I had the good side of it, coming out a little ahead by the end of the night, while Barb had the bad part, receiving no love whatsoever from the machines. It was one those deals where she'd burn straight through $100 on a dollar machine and then I'd shift over and play it, and I'd win. As a couple, we went home with a slightly smaller stash of cash than we started with, but at least it wasn't a total shutout. Hey, they don't build those casinos and hotels because they typically lose money…
I mentioned in the previous blog that our longtime friend Breanna Rachac was going to make her National Event debut in Super Gas, and guess what… She won two rounds! Way to go, Breanna. It was fun to watch her race.
Gary Gerould and I suffer the consequences of a Dave Rieff photobomb.
Tom "Shorty" Shannon also competed in Super Gas, and he won in the first round as well. On top of that, he fed us brilliantly for three days. Much appreciated, sir. And if any of you are ever near Cottage Grove, Minn., make sure to stop in Shorty's American Motorsports Bar & Grill for some Walleye Fingers, or other great grub.
We pitted next to a very familiar transporter and race car, as Brian Stewart made his second appearance in the Funny Car class, and Daniel Wilkerson was there to help out. After all, it was his former car and transporter. They were unable to qualify, but it was great to see D Wilk again.
With the Media Center being on the far side of the Brainerd track, up at the top of the left-side grandstand, and with the facility itself being one of those sprawling venues where nothing is ever close, transportation to and from the working PR area was at a premium. We all looked out for each other with golf cart or scooter rides, whenever possible, but the sight of Elon Werner borrowing Nicole Erickson's cute girly bicycle and riding it back out to the JFR pits was worth the price of admission. I might be scarred for life.
Well, that's about it I guess. We need to get ready for Indy, qualify well there, and win some rounds. If we do that, good things will happen.
And don't forget to vote for Wilk! Spread the word, spread the votes, and wear your Wilk Warrior colors with pride!
After a merciful weekend off, we now head to Brainerd. Funny how the title of the classic movie "Fargo" refers to a North Dakota city on the western Minnesota border, but 99 percent of the flick happens in the Twin Cities or Brainerd. I guess Fargo just seemed like a better name.
Anyway, as a public service I'm willing to ease the travel worries of many of you who might be considering a trip to the little burgh in the woods where Marge Gunderson hunted down the evil killers in the movie. If you live in New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, the Quad Cities, or even St. Paul, simply put your boat in the Mississippi River and go north. When you reach Brainerd, dock the boat and hitchhike to the track. Piece-o-cake, and with NHRA fans being such upstanding people, you'll get a ride in no time. Wear your Got Wilk? shirt and you'll get picked up even more quickly. You're welcome.
Since there was no race to report on after last weekend, I guess we'll just look forward with much anticipation to the Brainerd weekend coming up. It's truly (and literally, and really, and I mean it) my favorite race of the year. I'll be heading up tomorrow, and it's always a treat to travel to a race without having to even step foot in an airport. Also, thanks to our longtime fan and team friend Erica Moon, I've been tipped off that one of the optional routes from the Twin Cities (the one that goes north out of Elk River to Lake Mille Lacs) is under construction, so I'll be taking the primary route up toward St. Cloud and then north through Little Falls. Thanks Erica!
You already know that the Brainerd race is 100 percent unique on the tour, because a vast majority of the fans arrive as early as today, set up their campgrounds within the track property, and never leave until Sunday or Monday. That makes for a festive atmosphere and it also makes inbound and outbound traffic a breeze for those of us staying in hotels. Yay for that! It's a fabulous race, and I'm told a lot of people have a ton of fun at a place called The Zoo. I'm not that big into caged animals, so I'm not absolutely sure of these stories…
Being in mid-August, Brainerd can experience all sorts of weather during the weekend, and the forecast for the race is mostly good, with a chance of scattered storms on Saturday and Sunday. I'd say about 90 percent of the country has a chance of scattered storms this time of year, so that's not too bad. Brainerd is just far enough north from the Twin Cities to have a slightly different climate, and being such a small town, out in the woods surrounded by lakes, plays into that. There have been many Brainerd races where it's still very much summer in St. Paul but at the race I've detected the first hints of autumn in the air. You know that first late-summer day when the humidity drops and in the morning you just know it's about to be transition time. I dig that…
Speaking of the weather (or more precisely, writing about the weather) I'm typing this blog installment on my laptop, which is always the case, but this time the description is totally accurate. It's a gorgeous day in Woodbury, and my two assistants and I are on the screened porch enjoying the delicious breeze and the sounds of birds chirping, the leaves rustling, and roofers nailing shingles onto yet another new house. The Twin Cities' housing market recovered pretty quickly after the recession, and once the backlog of foreclosures was mostly erased the new housing starts in this part of the metro area have been startling. There are new houses and entire new developments popping up like mushrooms. That's a good thing, so I choose to believe that the sound of roofers on a new house is a pleasant bit of atmosphere.
Let's do a little Brainerd rambling…
Those of you who are putting your boats in the water down in New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, or the Quad Cities wouldn't recognize the Mighty Mississippi up Brainerd way. It's a lovely little stream with clear water, and it's barely noticeable from the overpass. There's no Mississippi bridge in Brainerd. It's really just an overpass. I took a photo of the Not-Yet-Mighty Mississippi a few years ago, so since today's blog is mostly reminiscing, I'll post that one again today.
I got a text from my buddy Jeff Finger the other day. He's the former Colorado Avalanche and Toronto Maple Leaf defensemen ("defenceman" for my Canadian friends) who is a huge NHRA fan and now a big Wilk backer. He watches us every weekend we're on TV, and has come to the Brainerd race with his dad a few times. Unfortunately, he's not going to be able to make it this weekend, but he wanted to each out and wish us luck. Good guy, whose career was cut short by a series of nagging injuries and then finally concussions.
This time last year, the entire team dropped by Woodbury on their way up and we had that fun dinner over at Neighbor Dave's house. After this backbreaking string of 10 races in 12 weeks, they needed a little rest and had a lot of shop work to do, so no time to do that this year. In some ways, that cool Circle K car seems to have happened eons ago, but in others it seems like it was yesterday. In truth, it was about 365 yesterdays ago.
And no, I shall never forget my ongoing saga with the vinyl on the left side of that car. I spent hours trying to repair and tape up the rips that formed, but it was all to no avail when nearly the entire left side of the wrap blew off. It does seem like yesterday when I was up in the lounge after that run and Wilk came in, wearing his fire suit and still all wound up after just getting out of the car, saying with a laugh "Uh, you better take a look at the body now…" All I could do was grab a razor blade and start cutting off all the wrinkled and ruined vinyl. Made for a nice ESPN segment though. The cameras don't show up just so Jamie Howe can report "Tim Wilkerson and his team just got back to the pit after that big win, and the huge news is that the Circle K vinyl on the car still looks great! Back to you, Dave."
I've stayed in a lot of different places up in Brainerd, but the truth is I've rarely ever stayed in Brainerd itself. There was an old Holiday Inn on the road heading into town, back when I first started in this business, but it was about as high class as it got for that little town back then so we never stayed there until it was rebranded about three times (and not in an upward trajectory). We finally stayed there a few years ago, and it could be described in two words: Bed Bugs.
For most of the Worsham years, we stayed at a "rustic" little Days Inn up in Nisswa, about 10 minutes north of the track, where the carpets might have been stained and the beds might have been awful, but the rates made up for it by being sky-high (which reminds me of the old baseball joke "I might be slow, but at least I can't hit"). We also used to stay in Baxter, right next to the old amusement park that's no longer there, featuring the Paul Bunyan statue that now stands outside a bowling alley, at a little dump that was so bad I've somehow forgotten the chain. That charming little inn had a five-night minimum. The fact Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox now have to stand outside a bowling alley is just wrong, but at least they still exist.
Ever since I've joined Team Wilk I've stayed at a different hotel than the guys in Brainerd, because Tim has a longstanding relationship with the people at little motel called the Chaparral Bunkhouse, and they only have enough rooms for our crew guys. Lately, I've taken to booking my room at one of the three rustic resorts on Gull Lake (and this time I mean rustic in the complimentary way). This year it will be my second time staying at Madden's. Cragun's was sold out and Grandview Lodge, which is really a nice place, had rates that could only be described as stratospheric. The rate at Madden's is just short of being on the edge of outer space, but Brainerd is one of those markets where they have a vast overabundance of hotel rooms for about 360 days a year. On those other five days, racers and race fans make up a huge part of their annual business. When something like a Holiday Inn Express can cost you $250 a night with a four-night minimum, and the view out of your window is a parking lot or the dumpster behind a Perkins, you might as well spend another couple of bucks to get a lakeside room at Madden's. As I told Tim "You know, if you're going to pay ridiculous money for a hotel room up there, after a long day at the track I'd just as soon have a patio that looks out over Gull Lake, so I can wind down watching all the boats come in."
When I first started in this business, I was usually broke and I always worked at it very hard to find the cheapest rooms, the least expensive rental cars, and the lowest airfare no matter what airline I had to fly or how many stops I had to make. In those years when we lived in Austin and our CSK team had a deal with now-defunct Vanguard Airlines, I'd often make the three and a half hour drive up to Dallas DFW airport to catch a free flight on Vanguard that would connect in Kansas City and have about 50/50 chance of ever getting me where I needed to be. It was always an adventure, and rarely a good one.
After a number of years of doing that throughout each long season, when I finally was in the black in terms of my annual P&L statement, I came to realize that your body and your mental health are as important as anything, and that if you simply flew the same airline all the time (to get that elite status that would remove the stress and put you in one of the comfortable seats), rented cars from one of the better agencies (which also gave you elite status and free upgrades), and made sure you had a good bed and a quiet room to stay in, over the long haul it really wasn't that much more expensive and at the end of each weekend you were far less worn out. Hence, no more Days Inn in Nisswa and no more Vanguard Airlines. It's worth it. I used to beat the bushes to save $20 on an airfare, or $10 on a rental car, and in the end it was better to just stick with Delta (rest in peace, Northwest) and Hertz.
I don't think it's there anymore, but there used to be a little place on the road to the track where a guy sold wood carvings he made from tree trunks. Barbara and I stopped there once, way back in around 2003 or so, and saw a great carving of a bear sitting under a pine tree. We couldn't resist and we bought it. It hung on the fence next to our hot tub at our old house, and it will always hang next to whatever house or hot tub we own.
You can buy cheese curds and mini-donuts at the track. So there's that!
My current work station, with one of my assistants guarding me.
It's the one race where I usually wear one of my Minnesota sports team hats instead of one of my racing hats, when I'm at the track. Sometimes I swap them out and wear a different one every day, going with Twins, Wild, and then either Vikings or Timberwolves. I haven't made that call yet. I also don't have a Vikings hat here, so that kind of eliminates them unless Adrian Peterson wants to FedEx one to me. Yo, AP...
I also love chatting with fans who are surprised to meet a guy from the Twin Cities who works for a famous Funny Car driver from Illinois. Wearing a Twins hat will often start those conversations.
The great news for this year is that Barbara has a plan to come up on Saturday morning! Woo Hoo!!! I'm really excited to have her at a race again, and she likes Madden's too so it's all good, as long as her trip to Boston doesn't get extended or include any canceled flights. Then, we'll escape the nightly rate madness at Madden's on Sunday, and after the race we'll drive over to the big casino/hotel at Lake Mille Lacs where the rate is $49 for a beautiful room, and that's clearly based on the mathematical odds of us spending way more than that on a couple of slot machines. We can also stop and see the giant Walleye statue, as we have in the past. And yes, as reported here a few years ago, the literal translation of Lake Mille Lacs is Lake One Thousand Lakes. You can learn things like that at the Department of Redundancy Department.
Dan Wilkerson will be there, with his old Funny Car, but since Team Wilkerson no longer owns that car he won't be driving it. As most of you know, Tim sold that entire operation to Brian Stewart, who lives here in the Twin Cities (Inver Grove Heights.) Daniel will be helping out in the tuning department, as he did in Chicago when those guys made their debut.
Oh, and also on the good news side of things, I got a call from Tom "Shorty" Shannon, our friend who owns American Motorsports Bar & Grill near here, in Cottage Grove, and he will once again be feeding us with his incredible culinary offerings this weekend. The guys have been talking about his french fries for weeks. He's also going to be racing there himself, in the Super Gas class. I wonder who is sponsor will be? Some "car bar" in Cottage Grove, I assume.
Also racing in Super Gas will be Breanna Rachac, who we've known for at least a decade as a fan. She's a longtime blog reader, and was the girl who made up a sign that said "Big Man Fan Club" when Tom Leskovan and I were both on the CSK team. The next year she decided to honor Chase Steele with a similar sign. She's always been a sportsman racer, but as far as I know this will be the first time she has actually raced at the Brainerd national event. She's also in Super Gas, so maybe she'll face Shorty at some point. That would be cool! Best of luck to both of them
Can't wait to get up there. I think it's safe to say that no other track on the tour has fans who have as much fun as the Brainerd fans. They're the best.
Now let's go win some more rounds.