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Testing is a beautiful thingWednesday, January 28, 2015

So I went on a trip and I met the new guys. End of story.

Okay, the trip was to Phoenix, via the Twin Cities (because who doesn't like to make a huge loop around 2/3 of the USA?) and the reason for the journey was twofold. We were testing, and not just "going through the motions to learn the plays" testing, but really making hard laps to see where we are in the process, and we had our four new guys with us to get the season started. It was a great trip.

I headed to Minnesota earlier in the week, to take care of a few things there, and while I was there I got together with Neighbor Dave and Neighbor Nichol for dinner one night, which was great. We didn't go too high-brow or uber-expensive, but we went to a place all three of us like: Olive Garden! The food was typically great, but our young waiter (who couldn't tell us if the wine we ordered was good or not, because he wasn't yet 21) accidentally dropped his tray, which contained three fragile wine glasses and three full glasses of ice water. Bam!

Our table took the brunt of the broken glasses, and we pretty much had a mess on our hands, but the poor people at the table next to us got the deluge of ice water. I felt bad for everyone, including the kid who was serving us. He was really feeling bad about it, and it was one of those moments where I was afraid he was just going to crumble and make a run for it. The manager came out and comped our full dinner, as well as the meal for the folks sitting next to us, and all was well with the world. We tipped the young man as if the service had been stellar and we'd paid full price. He mentioned that a couple of other servers had comforted him and told him that it happens to everyone, so I think that pulled him back from the edge.

Then, on Friday I took an evening flight from MSP down to Sky Harbor, where I was greeted by an airport terminal absolutely covered in Super Bowl banners and merchandise. Is there a big game, or something, going on down there in Phoenix?

While I was flying, the guys bolted the car together and made a lap. Just a 330-foot launch? Only to half-track? Nope. A 4.04 at 313 mph, although Wilk lifted just a little early. That's a heck of a way to start the year. I didn't get there in time to see that, but Dave Shaff was my interim PR guy there, and he posted some great shots of Facebook so I was dialed in at 33,000 feet.

I was up and at 'em early on Saturday, and off to the track. It was a "closed" test session, so fans weren't allowed, but they had a large staff on-site and the facility was actually hosting three different events at the same time, with one on the road course, our drag racing test session, and the Bondurant School, so the place was hopping. A number of NHRA Mello Yello series teams had gone the other direction, to south Florida, to do their testing, but we had a sizable contingent out in Phoenix, along with some sportsman teams and a few Nostalgia teams. Still, you can spread out and take all the room you want when the pits are that empty, and you can park your personal vehicles right there in the pit, as well. No trudging in from some distant lot on a day like this.

My first order of business was to meet the new guys, although I started with Richard Hartman and that wasn't technically "meeting" him, since I've known him forever. Quickly enough, though, I shook hands with Joe Serena, Mark Dritt, and Daniel Grinnell. We had a big crew out there, because Dave Shaff, Brandon (B2) Burgess, and Rich Schendel were also along, to help everyone acclimate and learn their roles.

As for those last three, it looks like they'll be coming to the first stretch of races, to assist and tutor the new guys. That will be a big help. Nitro Nick Shaff and Ryan Wirth round out the squad, as holdovers.

Richard's value was immediately obvious, as he moved around the car and helped all the guys, whether it was the clutch, the blower, or anything else. Nitro Nick will be doing the clutch this year, so although he's a longtime veteran on the team, he was acclimating to something completely different. Ryan will stick with the left side of the motor.

Joe Serena will work on the top of the motor as well. He's a longtime friend of our organization, and he lives just outside Springfield, so he's a local boy. He's been out to a few races in the past, so we know him and he has a pretty good handle on what's involved. Although Joe and I have just been acquaintances, it's still great to see another familiar and friendly face in the pit area.

Mark Dritt, who is from Cincinnati, will become our cylinder head specialist. He's a focused young man, and I suspect he'll do very well. And because this was a closed test, we weren't under any time pressure or schedule, so everyone had a chance to take their time and do things methodically, which meant Nitro Nick could take a look at the heads with Mark. That's what you call learning from the best.

Daniel Grinnell is from Plano, Texas and he has worked for Terry McMillen in the past. This year, he had made the switch to another Top Fuel team and had only been there a matter of days when their funding vaporized (it was a big story and I'm sure you heard about it). We still had a spot to fill, though, so he'll be our new bottom-end guy.

All of the guys seem to already have good chemistry, and they all seem like great guys, so I'm looking forward to working with them throughout the year. Let's go racing!

Around noon, on Saturday, they bolted the LRS Ford together again, and we dragged it up there to make another pass. Tim explained that we had run some different clutch levers on Friday, and the car ran well. This time, he changed to some other levers, and he expected them to act quite a bit differently, so he had to come at the tune-up from a different angle.

What did we run, with different stuff in the clutch? Another 4.04 at 313 mph. Now that impressed me! Tim was really happy with both runs, and he stepped up our incremental numbers a bit, kind of improving the overall "flow" of the lap so that the car was not too passive or too aggressive at any point on the track.

All of that is good, and what's better was that Tim and the guys put two such amazingly consistent laps together, despite changing things up. And it was great that we had the chance to be out there at Wild Horse Pass to make those two competitive runs. With our budget, we haven't been able to do much more than make a few practice half-laps before Pomona for a number of years, so it was really good to see those 4.04s and run the car hard. That will help us a lot, I think.

With those two solid laps in the book, Tim figured the guys had done what he had set out to do, so they serviced the car and packed it up. Mission accomplished.

Earlier in the week, when I was posting my travel plans on Facebook, Jim Schoenberger made a comment about giving him a call when I was in town. If you've been with my blog from the start, and you have a very good memory, the name Jim Schoenberger might ring a bell. He was one of the ranking executives in charge of the CSK sponsorship of the Worsham team, for about the last half of our time with them, and we always got along great. We quickly made dinner plans for Saturday night, and I was really looking forward to it.

Jim took me to Fleming's, so I shouldn't even have to write about how incredible the meal was, and all I can say is that it would've been a total shame had we not gotten together. We caught up on what's been going on in our lives, we shared stories about many of the other true characters who worked at CSK in those days, and we laughed a lot. I consider Jim a true "Renaissance Man" and he's a fascinating joy to be with. He's incredibly smart, he's traveled the world, is hilariously funny, and he has that sharp insightful wit that allows you to start a sentence and have him finish it with you, because he can almost always see where you're going with it. I told Barbara, after I got back to the hotel, that the food was incredible and the company was impeccable.

Sunday morning came early, and back to the airport I went, to make the short hop up to Salt Lake City, and then the next short hop up to Spokane. It's great to be home. It's also 12:45 and Boofus and Buster haven't made a move to get out of bed yet. It's a good gig, if you can get it.

This week, we've finalized our uniform design and gotten those into production. Once we have them, I'll take new head-shots of all the guys. In Phoenix, I just took some informal pics of the four new guys, and have gotten them added to our website. I also finalized our first 2015 souvenir t-shirt with Greg Ozubko, and I think you'll all love it. As soon as we get them in our hands, they'll be for sale in the Pirana-Z trailer at the races, and on our website.

Greg and I were struggling to come up with something new, and I was pretty much stuck trying to come up with any new concept other than your standard run-of-the-mill race car image with lots of flames, but then I remembered the best selling shirt we ever did back in the Worsham days. It was such a simple shirt, but people loved it. It was the "Top 10 Reasons Why I'm A Del Worsham Fan" and I wrote the whole lot of it in about five minutes in a burst of creativity. People loved it, and we sold out of it a number of times…


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Lots of room to spread out!
 
So, I started to think about that and I came up with what I thought might be a good concept. The shirt will have a cool standard image on the front, of the race car and Wilk's name, but the fun stuff is on the back. It's the "Team Wilkerson Organizational Chart".

Like any business flow-chart, it starts with a box at the top that says "Owner" and Wilk's name is under that title. Then there's a box for "Tuner" and his name is under that title. Then there's a box for "Driver" and you know where I'm going with this… Below those three boxes are a series of boxes marked "Crew" and below that, as the foundation for the entire organization, are a billion little boxes all denoted as "Wilk's Warriors".

Wilk's Warriors are the bedrock for all the boxes at the top. I can say that with certainty. As soon as I have one of the shirts in my hand, and we have them up for sale, you'll hear about it here.

There's been quite a bit of other stuff cooking, in terms of how our pit is going to look and how the car is going to look, but for Pomona and Phoenix we'll still be in the same mode as last year, so I'll wait to spring those new things on you when they materialize. Oh, and LRS decided not to do a customer event in Phoenix this year, so you know what that means for me…

I had already bought my Delta ticket for Phoenix, but when I heard that we weren't doing hospitality I was able to change that ticket and turn it into my Houston flight. I even got about $200 refunded when I did that. I like Phoenix, and love the fans there, so I'll be disappointed to do that race from home, but at least I got to spend a fun day at the track on Saturday.

And I met the new guys. End of story.

Wilber, out!

New faces, old faces…Tuesday, January 13, 2015

I'm back! A series of holidays conveniently located in the middle of their various weeks, which creates pretty much an entire week off for some people, as well as more airplanes and more rental cars, conspired to keep me away from here for a while, but I'm back and raring to go. To be frank, I also needed to recharge my writing batteries so that I'm at full-power heading into this season.

I've been writing this blog for nine and a half years, which is crazy enough, and although I've never once felt "tired of it" I will admit that the keyboard clacking takes its toll both mentally and physically. My brain simply wanted a quick break, so I've spent the last couple of weeks doing a lot of file work as I prep for the new campaign, and I've already spent a small fortune on flights to book the first four trips of the season. My American Express card said "Ouch" one more time, after being so beaten up on our Hawaiian trip, but it's a fact of life and it has to be done. Booking some of it a little earlier can save a few pennies, as well.

Tim and I haven't settled on exactly which races I'll be actually traveling to versus doing the PR work from home, but the "stay at home" list will at least be the same number as last year and it's probably going to be slightly larger, as we continue to look for ways to keep the budget trimmed. Some race markets are hard to get to, in terms of travel, and the hotel rates are jacked up to the sky when the tour comes to town, so if we can find a way to get around one or two of those, we can save some more real money.

When I first started skipping the travel part of the equation, to a select few races a couple of years ago, it was really a difficult transition for me. I love being at the race track, and I still love the power and the incredible sensory overload of every NHRA event, but the travel not only gets old after a couple of decades, it also seems to just keep getting more and more expensive. So, even though I very much miss my "NHRA family" when I'm not there, I've adjusted to doing the work from my office and it's helped me get through the seasons with a little less wear and tear on my own personal chassis. It's also saved the team and me some dough, and that all helps.

As we prepare for the new season (with my batteries fully charged) the key word for 2015 will probably be "transition" for Team Wilk, but frankly that's nothing new and we've been-there-done-that many times. If you've been paying close attention this off-season, you know it's been one of transition for a lot of teams, with some of it good and some of it not so good. For us, a couple of our guys got offers to go elsewhere and they decided to do that. We also knew that B2 (Brandon Burgess) had decided to get off the road to spend more time with his father, which in and of itself is a very noble and "right" thing for him to do. Bottom line, we were going to have to make some changes and add some new faces, and I think Tim has done that very well. In baseball, they call the winter the "Hot Stove League" because all you can do is sit around on cold winter days and talk trades, make deals, and talk about the game. In our version of the "Hot Stove League" we signed some free agents and drafted well, too.

The biggest addition, in terms of experience and knowledge, comes in the form of Richard Hartman. We don't really have titles on our crew, but I think it would be fair to say that on many other teams Richard would be called something like a "Car Chief" and his role will be to provide another set of eyes, especially during the service and assembly process, while he'll also act as a sounding board and "right-hand man" for Wilk.

I've known Richard for a long time. Like, a LONG time. He and my former boss, Del Worsham, are so much alike it's uncanny, starting with the fact both of them grew up in families where there was a real race car in the garage, and they were working on those cars when they were still young kids. Richard started helping his dad, Virgil, when he was in the neighborhood of eight years old, just like Del started handing wrenches to Chuck (or using them himself) when he was about that age. They've both driven professionally, they've tuned these monsters, and they're both fully capable of building a car from the ground up.

The funny thing about how long I've known Richard is the fact we've never really been close friends. Oh, we've known each other since Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble drag raced (hard to do a burnout when you're launching the car with your feet) but until about a week ago I never even had his phone number. He's a great guy, and we've regularly stopped and chatted in the lanes during race weekends, mostly because he's spent the last four years tuning a Top Fuel car so we'd see each other and say "How'd ya do?" after any lap one of us could hear but not see.

And although I have no clue where one particular stack of old photos are today, for many years I'd be flipping through old 35mm prints and I'd consistently stumble onto the pictures I had taken during my first national event, back when I was the GM at Heartland Park in 1991. I wasn't all that familiar with most of the teams and drivers at the time, but for some reason I was apparently attracted to the Funny Car sponsored by Raybestos. Of all the shots I took from the tower or out by the guard wall, that Raybestos car seemed to be in at least half of them. Richard Hartman drove that car. Weird.

This is also another sort of a "full circle" deal for Richard and me. Back in the very early days of the CSK sponsorship, the marketing executives there were beginning some discussions with us about running two Funny Cars (yes, the memorable birth of the blue team) and the first guy Del wanted to put in the blue car was Richard. The CSK guys were still pretty new to the sport, and although Del and I knew what a talented guy Richard was, the executives gave us kind of a blank stare, and said "Who?"

We told them all about Richard, and for a while we really felt like he was going to be the guy. We were all excited about it, but in the end the CSK folks decided the last name Pedregon was more exciting, so Frankie got the gig. It was a tough moment when I had to break that news to Richard, but here we are about 15 years later (if my math is correct) and Richard Hartman and I will finally be on the same team. I'm really looking forward to it, and I'm very excited about what he can bring to this group.

As for the other crew positions and who will be doing what, I think I'll hold off on that until after we do something really important next week. Yes, boys and berries, ladies and germs, we're going pre-season testing! Off to Phoenix next week, to accomplish a number of things. Sure, it's always good to make a couple of solid laps on the track, but over the years I've discovered that no matter how fast you go or how quick your numbers are when you're testing, you still show up in Pomona with a 0-0 record and no points. The key thing, especially for us this year, is to get out there and do the work, to find our pace with some new guys, and to start the process of growing from a group of people into a team. As important as that is, I thought it was absolutely worth my time and money to be there with them, and it will be great to meet the new guys and watch this team have its first "workouts" in spring training.

I'll be heading down to (hopefully) warm and sunny Phoenix late next week, and will come back to Spokane on Sunday January 25, but I'll have the chance to spend all day out at the track on that Saturday, and I will have my camera with me. A full report will follow, as will new head-shots for our website.

And, at some point yet to be determined, I'll be showing the world our new paint scheme for 2015. We asked Greg Ozubko (who designs our cars) to take a shot at keeping the same overall theme, but tweaking the colors or the stripes a little, and he came up with some fantastic new looks. Dick Levi and Shannon Heisler, at LRS, liked version No. 1, and as of right now that will be our primary look for 2015. At first, when you see it, you might not see many changes, but once you actually do a side-by-side analysis, it's quite different. And it's gorgeous. Of course it is.

On that new scheme you will see a bevy of familiar names, starting (of course) with Levi, Ray & Shoup. I'm happy and proud to say that not only are the fine folks at LRS excited for the new year, but our wonderfully supportive associate sponsors are just as thrilled to be on-board again, backing us in so many valuable ways. You'll once again see Summit Racing Equipment, Curry's Transportation, Rottler Manufacturing, Performance Roofing Systems, Diversified Yacht Services, and many other familiar logos when the Team Wilk Mustang hits the track. Professional drag racing is a business, and the business has to make sense for the sponsors, but it's also very much like family. Our family is pretty great.

I was writing a little earlier about photos of race cars, and I do believe I mentioned in a previous blog that Whit Bazemore had taken an incredible photo of our car at night, and that he was sending me a print of it. I got a note from Whit just the other day, saying the print was done and it looks every bit as amazing as he'd hoped, so I should have it soon. The day it arrives I'll be taking it to the frame shop. Can't wait. It's definitely the kind of photo that will grace an important spot on one wall in my office.

And, in other news that is connected to the theme of recharging my writing batteries before this season gets underway, a key part of that has to do with the fact the National Dragster editors have asked me to once again provide a regular series of columns for the magazine. This will be my third season writing "Behind The Ropes" and it's been a real privilege to do it. I'll be writing seven installments of the column this year, with the first one appearing in the Gainesville souvenir issue. I'm very much looking forward to it, and with these blogs also continuing, and my regular PR work necessitating a few thousand words each weekend, my guess is that we'll be once again looking at the creation of something in the neighborhood of 200,000 fresh words in 2015. Probably more, actually. That's a big neighborhood…

And now, to wrap up this first blog of 2015, I feel compelled to go in a different direction, but it's one you all know to be important to me. Plus, it involves things like old photographs and blog writing.

Over at The Perfect Game Foundation website, where I write my "Bob On Baseball" blog, my brother Del continues to do great work assisting aspiring young women and men, who have the talent and desire to succeed on the business side of sports but not the network to get them started, with professional sports franchises. One of those young people is now being considered for a position in broadcasting and media relations with the Johnson City Cardinals, in the Appalachian League.

When brother Del and the team's GM were discussing this, Del told him of our family history not just in baseball but also with the Cardinals (the Johnson City team has been the Rookie-level farm team for St. Louis seemingly forever) and the GM asked Del if he, or our dad, had ever played there. Neither of them did, but I played against the Johnson City Cardinals in 1978, when I was the property of the Detroit Tigers and playing for the Paintsville Hilanders. That news started some new email threads, and the Johnson City guys were thrilled to read the "Bob On Baseball" installment in which I described every minor league park I ever played in, while making sure to mention that Johnson City was one of my all-time favorites.

With those memories in mind, I dug out a few old faded photos from that summer in the Appalachian League and in doing so found a treasure trove. Tucked into the back slot of an old musty scrapbook, turned around backward so that it was unclear what they were, I found a series of photographic proof sheets. What's a proof sheet, you ask? Well, back the old days when we used film instead of pixels, a professional photographer would shoot as many photos as possible when covering an event like a baseball game. The old line was "film is cheap" and in the big scheme of things it was. Raw film was cheap. Any decent-sized newspaper would buy Kodak Tri-X film by the pallet. It was the darkroom time and the actual printing of photos that was expensive.

So, after shooting an event, the photographers would bring back the raw film and develop the negatives, then cut them up into rows of five frames each. Then, in the darkroom they'd simply lay those strips on unexposed 8x10 print paper and expose all the frames in their real size (this is why proof sheets were also often called "contact sheets" because the film was laying on top of the paper).

To then go through all of those frames, and find the ones the Sports Editor would want for the paper, entailed the use of a magnifying glass called a loupe. If you've ever looked at a diamond when buying a ring, you've used something similar. For decades and decades, editors and photographers spent endless hours bent over at the waist, peering through a loupe at individual frames on proof sheets, so that they could see the details and the focus. Then, they'd pick out the one or two shots they wanted and print those.

Yes, I'm old enough to remember all of this, and I printed a few proof sheets in my time, but the last loupe I owned disappeared when college ended. So, not only had I not seen these particular proof sheets in decades, I'd never actually looked at the shots with a loupe. They had been shot by a photographer with the Louisville Courier Journal, when she came to a Johnson City Cardinals' home game to take photos for a story the paper was going to run about our Paintsville Hilanders. She was kind enough to send me the proofs a few weeks later (we were in Johnson City to wrap up the season, so she sent them to my parents’ house) and I'm sure I found a regular magnifying glass to look at them back then, but then I put them away and lost track of them over the passage of time.

To find them again was a thrill, and even though I still don't own a loupe, I discovered that I could simply take close-up shots of each frame with my Nikon and blow them up that way. I had NEVER seen these photos in all their black & white glory. Talk about a trip back in time.

I'll include a few in the gallery because I find them pretty interesting from the human perspective. Here were a bunch of 18 to 21-year-old guys, almost none of whom knew each other when we signed our contracts in June and then assembled in the coal-mining hills of rural Kentucky to begin our professional careers. In these proof sheet photos, we're finishing out the final weekend of our first professional season in lovely Johnson City, while feeling both thrilled to have done this but sad to see it was coming to an end. We'd become a tightly knit family by then, and we pulled for each other and supported one another like brothers.

There's one particular shot of me sitting on the edge of the dugout steps, watching the game. Blowing that shot up, I saw something interesting and it was the look on my face. I'm a pro baseball player, loving what I'm doing and very much focused on the game, but it looks to me as if there's a slight bit of sadness on my face, because I know in just a couple of more days we'll all be going home, scattering to different parts of the country, and we'd be lucky if any of us ever connected or played together again.

On the Paintsville team, we were an odd collection of guys from different organizations (it was a co-op team filled out with guys who belonged to the Tigers, Twins, Orioles, and White Sox, with the rest of the roster made up of undrafted free-agents) so it was unlikely many of us would ever play together again. That was the last time I ever saw Vince Bienek, clearly our best player, who was a great guy and a real leader. We've reconnected on Facebook and it's been terrific to share our current lives with each other. We hope to get together again soon.


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From back in the day, the driver of that Raybestos car. A young Richard Hartman.
 
Chino Cadahia was our catcher. He was Cuban and very talented, but his boyish face and his love of good humor are what I remember most. Chino went on to spend the next four decades in pro ball, ending up as a coach in the big leagues for a long time. Jose Rodriguez was our shortstop, and he arrived in Paintsville speaking almost no English, needing Chino to translate for him. At the end of that summer, he was conversing with his teammates just fine. My best buddy on that club ended up being Roy Dixon, a fellow outfielder who was very sharp and very witty. We passed the time shagging fly balls during batting practice, or on those long bus rides, cracking each other up. It was a cast of characters truly unlike any other group of guys I played with. A summer I'll never forget. You can imagine why it was such a big deal for me to finally get to see those professionally shot photos in a larger format.

If it's been a while since you read about that group, or if you've never read this at all, these rediscovered photos bring new life to that summer in Paintsville, as I documented it in this particular Bob On Baseball blog:

http://www.perfectgamefound.org/where-exactly-is-paintsville/

What a great trip down memory lane.  From my first national event, shooting a bunch of shots of that Raybestos car driven by Richard Hartman, to going further back in time and rediscovering some precious memories from a summer in the Appalachian League. And if you're ever in the Johnson City-Bristol-Kingsport area during the summer, stop in and see the JC Cardinals play. It's the same great ballpark.

Now let's go drag racing. Are you ready? First stop, Phoenix. Time to meet the new guys and work out the kinks. Pomona will be here before you know it.

Wilber, out!

Happy New Year, and Aloha!Tuesday, December 30, 2014

I'm busy as can be today, with far too much travel on my recent agenda and more coming in the morning tomorrow, but I wanted to take a second (or an hour) to clack away on the keyboard in order to wish everyone a very HAPPY NEW YEAR and a very prosperous and healthy 2015. And yes, for the record I believe you can use all-caps to wish someone the best as the calendar flips over to yet another new year. You only get to play that "All Caps Card" once per year, though. It's a rule.

Barbara and I are off to MSP tomorrow morning, so that we can join all of our friends for a special party dedicated strictly to the celebration of our anniversary. It will be 17 years tomorrow. And they said it would never last! There's also some ancillary celebrating going on right at midnight, but it's clear to me that such stuff is secondary to our anniversary. Right?

We're making it a quick jaunt back there, and have reserved the "Lower Level Suite" at the Jacobsen's "Bed & Breakfast" so that once the celebrating is over we can all walk home and go straight to bed. We've been known to be tempted to do that after the ball drops in Times Square, since that comes an hour early in the Central Time Zone, but we usually make it to midnight. Gosh I hope there's no dancing this year… At my age, you could pull a hamstring doing that stuff.

Looking back, we just returned a couple of days ago from Hawaii and, by all accounts, Barbara and I consider it to be one of the best vacations we've ever taken (and that's saying something). It was all just fabulous. Rather than wax poetic about every hour of every day, I'll let the photos do the talking because each one of them is worth a thousand words. The short version of the story is this:

We flew to Honolulu on the 17th, getting in there at night and checking in at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Resort on Waikiki Beach. We had a corner room on the 27th floor, and it was incredible. Jim and Nancy Butler had been there just ahead of us (we missed each other by mere hours as they flew out just before we landed) and the number one thing on their must-do list was to have breakfast at this little place called the Aloha Kitchen, just a block off the main drag. We couldn't let Jim and Nancy down, now could we?

What was odd was the fact tourists are, by nature, apparently not very adventurous. There was as dump of a breakfast place right across the street from the Hilton, and it looked like a poor man's version of a run-down diner where, frankly, I'd be worried about everything even being clean, much less good. Really. There was absolutely no reason to think you'd ever want to go there, but it was right across the street from the resort and every morning the line was out the door. And no on in the line seemed very happy to be there.

If they would've walked a block and a half up the side street, they would've discovered the Aloha Kitchen, and their minds would've been blown. It's tiny, almost impossible to see, but they served us the most magnificent breakfast imaginable, all with charm and attention. Barbara had the French Toast, and the slices were about twice the size of your standard "Texas Toast" at a steak house. I splurged and had the Eggs Benedict with Salmon breakfast, and it was Spec-Tac-U-Lar. If you're ever in Honolulu, don't miss it. It's just a block or so off Ala Moana on Ena Road. Worth it!

The first trip Barbara and I ever made to Hawaii was the one during which we got married, on the beach in Maui. Before we went over to Maui, however, way back then in 1997, we started our trip on Oahu and we stayed at a charming hotel called The New Otani, which is up at the other end of Waikiki at the foot of Diamond Head. We loved The New Otani back then, and have stayed there another time, but the truly special thing about that hotel was its main restaurant, the Hau Tree Lanai.

So, we made it a point to get reservations for the night of the 18th, and it once again delivered. It's a very special place in our lives, and I can't imagine being in Honolulu and not having at least one dinner at the Hau Tree. You sit outside, under the giant Hau Tree, and listen to the surf while enjoying a fabulous meal. I always go with the Filet Mignon with peppercorn sauce. That was the first thing I ever ordered there, and I've stuck with a good thing. Oh my gosh, I'm salivating right now.

The next night, we got together with Barb's new colleague from Itron and his wife, who were not only in Honolulu the same time we were, but were also staying at the Hilton resort. Small world. On the agenda was something I'll never forget, but will also likely never do again. My American Express card was seriously bruised by the experience, but it was truly something special.

We took a taxi over to a Five-Diamond restaurant called Chef Mavro, which is an apt title since it is owned and operated by a world-class chef who goes by that name. The place is so top-shelf, they even have a member of the staff waiting outside the door for you to arrive (it's reservations only) and he greets you by name. The dinner was a fixed menu with wine pairings, and it was six courses. It took roughly four hours to complete, but each dish was off-the charts incredible, and some of the items were things I'd never before eaten, including the rare black truffles that were shaved onto our food. Yes, I felt like I was living in someone else's life, so somewhere on the planet a millionaire guy who normally eats like this must have looked around and wondered why he was at Outback or Olive Garden. Balance in the universe, right?

We even got to meet Chef Mavro after dinner, and he was really fun and gracious. Truly an evening where we took fine dining to a new level, but like I said, my Amex card needs a rest now.

After our Honolulu stay, we flew over to the Kea Lani Resort on Maui, where we spent two days on the beach, in the pool, at the water slide, and all around Wailea. We even went on a 6-mile walk on the beach just to find the exact spot where we got married 17 years ago. I can't believe our initials drawn inside the heart (under the saying "Just Maui'd) on the beach are no longer visible. Really? You'd think that would've been protected as some sort of monument, but I guess not.

The highlight of the Maui stay, though, was an impulse decision to go whale watching, which we'd never done before. While we were in Honolulu, we were looking ahead and wondering what we'd do one day at the Kea Lani, and I came up with the idea of getting on a whale-watching boat. As it turned out, December 21 was the official Opening Day of the whale watching season, as the migration down from Alaska begins, and it only took a minute to reserve spots online. The crew on the big catamaran wasn't sure how many we'd see, but with the phenomenal binoculars provided by the Kea Lani, Barbara and I had already spotted a few well out to sea toward Molokini, so the crew was fairly optimistic we'd at least be able to find one or two. We saw at least a dozen!

It was the first day of the migration season, and we were on the latter of two trips the boat made that day, so when the crew got excited about seeing as many humpback whales as we were spotting, they just extended the trip until we saw them all. By law, you can't get any closer than 100 yards, but sometimes the whales themselves will swim over closer. We even saw a mother with what had to be a newborn calf. On board the boat was the head of the Hawaii Wildlife Foundation, and she was just thrilled by that. Truly a bucket-list trip, and one of the neatest things we've ever done.

After that, we jetted over to Kauai to end our trip with another totally special and unique experience. Kauai is the oldest Hawaiian island, and is known as the Garden Isle, because it's known for its jungles, canyons, and waterfalls. It's also really low-key, and the pace is completely different than Oahu or Maui. Plus, Honolulu is (of course) the tourist mecca of the islands, and people of all nationalities come from around the world to enjoy the tropical fun. Most of the foreigners, however, never get past Oahu and Waikiki. Kauai is like visiting your favorite little town, but you're surrounded by soaring mountains, grand expanses of canyons, and incredible vistas. Wherever you look, there are charming restaurants and shops, and amazingly friendly people, too.

But, the key thing for us was the fact my sister Mary and her husband Lonnie now live there. We got a room at a Marriott Courtyard that was walking distance to their condo, and we spent three wonderful days with them. Mary and I are only 11 months apart in age, so we basically grew up as de-facto twins. We were playmates as kids, and best friends all the way through school. We're still best friends.

Lonnie is one of the coolest guys I've ever met, and we all get along so well it's just one of those family deals where you never even have to think about what you're going to do or what the next topic will be. As Barb said "You and Mary finish each other sentences like you're actually real twins…" True that.

We traveled all around the island, we saw things I never imagined, we ate well, we laughed constantly, and I can say I almost certainly have never had three days of such pure fun. And I can't thank Mary and Lon enough for taking so much time to show us around, introduce us to all of their new friends, and share the Aloha Spirit of Kauai with us. Love you Sis!!!


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Welcome to Waikiki. Not a bad view!
 
So now we're back, and tomorrow we get on another airplane. It's all worth it though, because family and friends are the most important thing in life. We just shared Thanksgiving with Barb's sister Kitty, her son Todd, and his new wife Angie, and then we spent three days with my "twin" sister on Kauai. We might actually be 11 months apart, but who's counting at this age?

You know, my mom and dad did a really fine job of spacing out their first four kids, all about three years apart. I'm sure my mother was thrilled to discover she was going to have a fifth child, only two months after giving birth to Mary. I spent much of my life trying to make that up to her…

Now, we head back to Woodbury to share an evening with some of the best friends and neighbors you could ever have. My gosh our lives are charmed… Wow. It is not lost on me how fortunate I am, and the foundation of all of that is the good fortune to be married to Barbara Doyle.

We'll get back to racing in just a few days, gang. Lots to talk about and it even sounds like we're going to do a few days of preseason testing, so I'll fill you in on all that's new, all that's different, and all of our plans for 2015 once we get into January. There's a lot of really good stuff on the horizon, and I'll tease you a little by telling you that I'm really excited about the upcoming season. We're a win just looking for a place to happen.

Thanks for bearing with me while I took this chance to re-experience the Best. Vacation. Ever. It was unforgettable.

Wilber, out!
 

Happy Holidays to all!Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Just a really quick little bit of a blog today, to wish everyone here the very best holiday season. With Barbara and I heading off to Hawaii for a few days, Boofus and Buster are all set to spend the time with their friend Nancy, who will be inhabiting our home and "cat sitting" while we're gone. They miss us when we're away, but they love Nancy and when she does yoga in the living room with them (she's a yoga instructor) I'm told they find that fascinating. I can only imagine.

We're so fortunate to have met Nancy when we moved here, because she is really one of a very short list of people who ever walked into the house and had both boyz come right up to her. They're totally relaxed around her, and it gives us great piece of mind to know she'll be here at our house, with our "kids" while we're away. Plus, she brings the mail in for us each day. So there's that. And just to make it better for her, we left her a very nice bottle of wine on the kitchen island. So there's that, too.

Anyway, I'm breaking the connection for a week or so, by not even taking my laptop with me. I'll have my iPad, but I can't imagine writing something like this on that device, so I'll be back after Christmas. Maybe I should've seen if Nancy could also sit here at my desk and write one of these for you… Oh well.

In the meantime, I wish you all the best.

May Santa bring you everything you want, and may you feel the warmth of satisfaction when a gift you've selected brightens someone's eyes.

Should Santa bring you a lump of coal, may it be high-grade coal and may the transgressions which earned you that lump have been well worth it.

As we head toward a new year and a new racing season, may your elapsed times be low and your mph be high.

If you are a racer, be safe but be fast. Be really fast, if you can.

If you are a fan, have fun, make friends, and get a good dose of Nitro just as soon as possible. That last part is really important. You don't want to be in NDF (Nitro Deficit Condition).

May your home be festive and full of family, good cheer, and happiness.

Be good to everyone, hold doors, tip well, smile a lot, and if you can help out one person who doesn't have it so well, do it immediately. The joy of giving is vastly better than the joy of receiving.

One of my favorite bumper stickers is the one that says "Less Barking. More Wagging." That's perfectly well put.

Above all, enjoy the spirit of the season. The spirit of the holiday is way better than the vibe at the shopping mall.

Also, eat well. You've earned it.

Happy Holidays, everyone! See you back here after Christmas. Aloha!

Wilber, out!
 

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