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...
Sometimes I sit down to write these blogs and words just appear, and they're often things I wasn't even thinking at the time. Take, for example, today's headline. Have you ever heard that term before? Ever seen it in print? I guess I "arrived" at that headline because I'm in the middle of a short gap between Charlotte and Houston, and I'm spending that time in Woodbury. The word "gap" popped into my head, and you'd think a former baseball player like me might come up with some reference to the spaces between left, center, and right field. But no... The term "Mind The Gap" came to mind.
If you've ever been to London, you've probably ridden the city's superbly efficient subway system, officially known as the London Underground but known to all the "the tube". If you've ventured down into the labyrinth that is the interconnected series of tube stations, you've seen the term "Mind The Gap" at the edge of the platform, reminding riders that there is a space between the edge of the platform and the subway cars. So, mind the gap! That's what I'm doing...
Even though it's Wednesday and I'm in Minnesota, I still have a long list of things to accomplish (and write) today, so my time is limited. It's not precious, it's just limited. So, I'm going to plow through this as a quick series of rambling memories about Charlotte.
The NHRA vs NASCAR softball game remained a big topic of conversation all weekend, with the racers, the media, the NHRA staff, and the fans. That's exactly what we wanted, to plant this seed and watch it grow, and I think we accomplished what we were after. Frankly, I was a little afraid that the score was so lopsided the NASCAR guys might not want to play again, but after seeing this hilarious video I'm not worried about that.
This video was shot totally from the NASCAR perspective, and it will give you an idea of how much fun we had and just how much the NHRA team put it to them. I'm happy to hear them talking about a rematch and revenge!
On Friday, at zMAX, we were all watching the weather radar and looking at the hour-by-hour forecasts. Let's face it, we'd been watching that stuff for days and we were all quite aware that just about every weather website was calling for heavy rain in the afternoon, just at exactly the time we were scheduled to run. It held off for most of the day, and we were actually getting a little optimistic that we might, possibly, maybe, get one session in. Pro stock was running, and we were in the lanes when the sky opened up.
But here's the funny part. I had taken Krista Wilkerson up to the lanes in the golf cart and after I dropped her off near the ladies restroom, I thought I'd dash back to the pit to get some eye drops. The pollen in Charlotte was like something from an alien planet, coating everything with a layer of yellow spores, and it was really irritating my eyes, so I needed a squirt of Systane to calm the itching. I drove the cart back to the pit, and just as I pulled up in front of our hospitality area, it started to pour, all at once as if someone turned on the rain valve. And then I realized Krista was still up by the staging lanes!
I drove through the downpour and arrived at the lanes, but couldn't see her. I parked over by the restroom she'd gone in, but she never came out. I wasn't sure what to do, but finally figured she had come up with a plan on her own because she was nowhere to be found. Back to the pit I went, with the storm drenching me as I drove, and there she stood, dry as could be and wondering where I was. That massive main grandstand had been her savior, as she simply walked back to the pro pits underneath the stands, fully protected from the weather. I got soaked.
NHRA called off the racing pretty quickly on Friday, mostly because there was violent weather in the area and it was far more prudent to make sure everyone was safe rather than hold on and see if the weather might pass, so it was back to the Hilton for another version of their spectacular Cobb Salad as my healthy dinner.
Saturday then became an "all or nothing" deal in terms of qualifying, and with 17 cars there we all knew there'd be just one unlucky team who wouldn't get to play on Sunday. The goal was to not be that team. We didn't do very well in the first session, and we were in a bit of peril as we got ready to make our final lap. With four cars going at once, it was hard to do the math as to how far we could fall or what might happen, but it was clear we needed to make a good pass just to make sure we were in the show. A 4.095 was not just good, it was the best lap of the session and it earned us three bonus points.
That lap moved us up to the No. 4 spot on the grid, but with only two sessions having been run, the whole ladder was littered with drivers who "normally" qualify higher or lower than they did on that day, and our opening-round "quad" had us up against Courtney Force, Del Worsham, and Cruz Pedregon. So much for the "benefit" of qualifying well! And, with the race featuring just four sets of four cars, instead of eight sets of two, qualifying fourth also meant we'd run last in round one, because we had the fourth choice for a pairing and nobody wants to go last.
We managed to pick up a big win in that one, when Tim pedaled the car and expertly got it to the other end, and that moved us on to round two against Cruz (who advanced with us), Robert Hight, and Chad Head, who had stunned everyone by qualifying No. 1 by a mile. This time, Wilk nailed the tune-up (after an absolute mad thrash in the pit as the guys chased an ignition problem and barely got the car up to the line) and we moved on to the third round, which would produce the winner, the runner-up, and two semifinalists. As you know, we came up short there but two round wins were big and we moved up to ninth in the points.
The crowd on Sunday, at massive (gigantic) zMAX was good. Don't let anyone tell you "there was no one there" because there were empty seats. The crowd we had on Sunday would not have fit in a lot of our other tracks on the tour, so you can't go by the view. The crowd on Saturday, however, was nothing short of amazing. Early on during that sunny Saturday, I got a sense that there were a lot of people in the pits, even early in the morning, and just before noon I needed to run up to the tower for something, so I knew I'd have a chance to check out the number of people coming in and see how many were in the ticket lines. It's the old soccer GM coming out in me... I always keep an eye on the crowd and the ticket lines. I wasn't prepared for what I saw. At the ticket booth near the staging lanes, they were lined up all the way out to the road at every window. We were clearly having a huge "walk-up" sale on Saturday, adding to the solid advance sale for the race.
At the softball game, I was chatting with a couple of sales people from zMAX and I asked them how ticket sales were going. They said "We're way ahead of last year, and the sales are still rocking, so if we get any kind of walk-up at all we'll have a great crowd." It was, indeed, a GREAT crowd on Saturday.
Lex and Gerda Joon were there, having flown in from The Netherlands for the race. They have their "green cards" now, so they can live and work in the USA as soon as they get their racing program set, and it's always great to see them. They actually flew into Chicago and drove down to Charlotte just to see some American countryside and have a bit of a road trip.
I'm happy and proud to say that I played a small role in the process of getting those green cards. It normally takes up to a decade to secure them, but there are exceptions for people of extraordinary skills, including athletes. Last year, Gerda asked if I'd pitch in and write a letter on their behalf, to be sent to US Immigration, and she gave me a packet of information with all sorts of instructions on how to do that. It seemed a bit daunting, and I wasn't sure I really understood what I was supposed to provide, so I let it sit for a few weeks, possibly in the hope it would write itself.
Gerda sent me an email asking if I'd had a chance to do it yet, which got me motivated, and rather than really follow all the complicated formats I just wrote a letter, a "To Whom It May Concern" letter about Lex Joon the Top Fuel driver. My key point was this: There aren't 100 people on the planet Earth who do what he does, and as a proven professional with a European championship on his record, he would definitely be one of those extraordinary people for whom they make exceptions. Gerda told me in Charlotte that my letter was a key part of the process, so I'm proud and happy to have done that. And I'm glad it didn't write itself. Who knows what the letter would've said if it wrote itself. Probably nothing coherent.
On Saturday night, Todd Myers (PR guru for Kalitta Racing) and I headed south to the Charlotte Knights ballpark, to watch a little Triple-A baseball. Much fun was had, although my "scouting report" on the Charlotte team was basically this: If the Chicago White Sox need to bring up some fresh talent from the minor leagues this year, they're probably not going to find much at Charlotte. They may have some strong pitching I didn't get to see, but otherwise they were a pretty standard group of Triple-A guys, and no one really stood out as a huge prospect, at least in my mind.
Amazing crowd, on Saturday.
They were playing Atlanta's Triple-A team, the Gwinnett Braves, and they actually had a real big leaguer playing for them. Freddie Freeman was working his way back on an injury rehab assignment, and he basically crushed the ball all night.
Sunday night, after racing in the final round, I was faced with a choice to make. If I dashed out of there right away, I might possibly make my flight but I wouldn't have time to do all of my post-race PR work. Nick Casertano had a flight about the same time as mine, so I made the call to get him to the airport and then rebook my flight for Monday, so that I could go back to the hotel, check back in again, and have the time (and peace and quiet) to do my work. Nick and I weren't sure how bad the traffic was going to be, since we were leaving at the same time as all the fans, and for the first 20 minutes I was relatively sure there was no way he'd make his plane. During those first 20 minutes, we drove approximately 100 yards... We finally got on the interstate, and after about five miles the traffic jam eased up and we got him to the airport just in time. He was basically jumping out of my car and saying goodbye before I stopped. Just made it...
And now it's Wednesday, and we head out to Houston tomorrow. After that, back here to Minnesota one more time before we head straight to Atlanta the next week. Neighbor Dave will be in Houston, pinch-hitting for Annette to take care of hospitality, so it will be great to have him there.
On Sunday, of course, we'll get to experience what it's like when ESPN2 and NHRA collaborate to get the semifinals and finals on "live" TV. I hope we get to experience it first hand, of course. If we're in the final, we will have had a great day and we'll try to cap it off by celebrating on coast-to-coast television, as it happens!
Well, this was kind of a rambling disjointed mess but I wanted to get something posted here during "the gap". Mind the gap!