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Off the chartsWednesday, August 26, 2015

By the end of the day, Sunday, in Brainerd it was almost comical. Run after run, record after record, speed after more speed, and the consensus by those of us who witnessed it first-hand was something along the lines of "Are we really seeing this?" In a year that's been off the charts, Brainerd set a whole new standard, and I'm still not sure I truly understand or even comprehend what I saw.

Thanks to the brilliant work of Elon Werner, who "geeks out" on stuff like this and then shares it with the rest of us in the team PR world, I'll give you some numbers and you can let them sink in.

In 2011, we all recall that Matt Hagan was the man who broke the barrier, by running 3.995 at the fall Charlotte race. It was the only three that season.

In 2012 there were four runs in the threes.

In 2013 there were 10 three-second runs total, in the Funny Car class. .

In 2014 there were 19 three-second runs.

So far (with seven races left!) in 2015 there are have been 74 three-second runs.

In Brainerd alone, there were 24 three-second runs, topped off by Hagan's 3.879 to give him a bookend to being the first in the 3.9s, way back when in 2011.

Collectively, we've truly never seen anything like this.

We thought Topeka was crazy. We thought Chicago was nuts. Frankly we've been saying "This is crazy" at just about every race since Topeka, but cumulatively this is just totally off the charts.

I got a number of emails from folks asking everything from "How is this possible?" to "Are some of those guys cheating?" and my responses were something along the lines of "It must be possible, because we're seeing it. And no, I honestly do not believe anyone is cheating, nor do I think there's really any way to cheat yourself to these performances. Plus, we're seeing these runs from just about all the full-time touring teams. We all see all the data, all the incrementals, and we stand there and watch the runs with our own eyes, as well. These crew chiefs are smart, and they'd spot anything questionable in an instant."

You can address the landslide of threes in Brainerd by simply saying "It was a perfect storm of conditions" on a track that is pretty darned good when it cools off. The thing about Brainerd is that the lanes are so equal, the threes can come in bigger bunches when it's cool, because they can come in both lanes just as easily.

This weekend, it was basically perfect. And the Safety Safari have been doing a masterful job of giving us incredible traction and track conditions all year. In Brainerd, it all added up to a three-fest, and I don't see anything but the weather getting in the way of a lot more.

There's also some history to landmarks like this. It takes a long time for these guys to inch up on a new record, pushing the envelope in a lot of different ways to find the edge and pick up a thousandth of a second, here and there, along the way. By the time Matt ran his 3.99 in Charlotte back in 2011 there was a ton of data to back up how they got there. Even with each smoke-the-tires failure, you learn.

So, once it's done there's all that information to work with, and these tuners start to figure out where they're leaving any little bit of e.t. on the table. They continue to learn, they continue to tweak, and in effect they all become a lot smarter because of all the data and the new combinations they're adding to their strategy and committing to memory. Talk about learning on the job!

So here we are. Wilk ran "okay" in qualifying but we went into the race in the No. 10 spot because the car dropped a cylinder on all three qualifying runs. We qualified with a 4.018 on a run that was on seven for almost the entire lap. Mind boggling. And Tim said "If we can figure out how to get this thing to run on eight the whole way, we'll be right there in the middle of all this, running with anyone out here."

In round one, after a lengthy rain delay on Sunday, it ran on all eight. and Wilk's personal best of 3.971 (from his first-ever three, back at Topeka) stood absolutely no chance. This time, it ran 3.927.

So Wilk went his whole career aiming at landmarks like this, and he was the 13th driver to finally dip into the threes when he did it at Heartland Park. He'd run three more since then but that first one held as his career best until Sunday at Brainerd. And then that new career best lasted about two hours.  In round two, the LRS car ran 3.921 at a huge 328.70 mph. Incredible.

We were human (rather than flawless) in the semifinal against eventual race winner Robert Hight, "only" putting a 4.005 on the board when it, again, dropped a cylinder. Crazy.

That semifinal finish, however, provided a big boost to our Countdown prospects. Courtney Force, Alexis DeJoria, and Cruz Pedregon all surprisingly went out in the first round, so we picked up two rounds on each of them. Only Robert gained on us.

Courtney remains in 11th place, so the one number we focus on in terms of clinching our spot is her point total. Right now we are 159 points ahead of her with only Indy left to go. Again, because Indy is going to be 30 points per round instead of 20, we have not mathematically clinched, but basically Courtney is going to have to run the table in just about every possible way at Indy to overtake us, and we'd have to probably cooperate by not qualifying. On top of that, of the trio made up of Alexis, Robert, and Cruz, all three of those drivers would have to get around us too. We don't have anything in our hands yet, but I'd greatly prefer to be in our position than in any of the others. It's going to be a very interesting Indy, that's for sure.

And speaking of Indy, the fan vote for the final Top Fuel and Funny Car slots in the Traxxas Nitro Shootout is underway. Yes, I'm the happiest guy in the world to not have to mount another campaign for that. And, it's easier to vote this year, because the ballot is at NHRA.com instead of Facebook. Just go here:

http://www.nhra.com/FanHub/

Vote!

Other Brainerd ramblings…

It was such a unique event for me. I did the PR from Woodbury on Friday and Saturday, which allowed me to multitask doing a bunch of other stuff while I followed along with Alan Reinhart on the Audiocast. I was also watching the radar and could see the big line of storms approaching Brainerd from the west on Saturday, and that line finally washed out Q4.

I needed to get to St. Cloud that night, so I watched and tried to time it so that I wouldn't have to drive through the worst of the storm on my way there. As I backed my rental car out onto the street, the bright red line was right over St. Cloud and moving to the east/northeast. I was hoping it would track north enough to miss my drive altogether, but it didn't.

My rental car was a midsize but it was a very lightweight midsize car. Add to that the fact most major highways in Minnesota are grooved to help with driving in snow, and top it off with very strong gusty winds along the way, and it was a "two hands on the wheel, at 10:00 and 2:00" deal the whole way. That little car was darting all over the place, and I wouldn't have wanted to be a big-rig driver that night either. Those guys were battling the elements the whole way.

I got to St. Cloud around 9:00, relaxed for a bit and then hit the sack. Up at 6:30 and driving to Brainerd in mist and drizzle by 7:30. It rained the whole way, until I got to the track.

It held off right up until the end of driver introductions, and when it did start to come down I went to the Media Center (atop the left-side grandstand) rather than our pit. For one thing, we had an old-school single pit area and it was crowded, and for another I could at least be productive on social media with my laptop, in the Media Center. Plus, I was surrounded by all my PR colleagues and they are as solid a family as any you could have. Also funny.

As a group, we watched it drizzle, mist, and rain for about three hours, and we escaped the boredom as best we could.

When it stopped, the rain drops ceased to fall from the sky but the three-second runs started falling like maple leaves on a windy fall day. (Oooh, that was some descriptive writin' right there, baby. I'm a trained professional!)

Hey, before I write one more word…  A huge Thank You and major kudos to everyone at Brainerd International Raceway and the Brainerd Lakes region. The track staff and an enormous army of volunteers did an amazing (stunning) job of fixing and repairing everything that was damaged or destroyed just five weeks ago. Still lots of broken trees and other evidence, but in most ways you couldn't tell anything had happened.

The roof on the Media Center had been mostly blown off, and the whole place was trashed, so we got almost an entirely new room out of their hard work and ceaseless dedication. Way to go Brainerd!

I left right before the final round, which was threatened not by rain but by darkness (no lights at BIR). They got it in, and I got back to Woodbury around 8:45. Event complete.

I had originally booked an 11:30 a.m. flight on Monday, but as the weekend progressed that seemed less and less desirable. My "Behind The Ropes" column, for National Dragster, was due on Monday and I thought it would be better if I switched to the night flight and got the column written during the day. I gave up my seat in First Class to change the flight, and instead went out on the 9:30 p.m. flight. I was in this new "middle" class on that flight, and it worked out okay. On certain aircraft (this was a 757) they've configured the seats to create a new couple of rows that have better chairs, free drinks, and more legroom. I got one of those, and honestly had more legroom than on my last flight on an A320 in the front cabin. Plus, no one sat in the middle seat, so the other Diamond Elite guy in my row and I were happy about that.

Changing that flight led to another surprising and unexpected pleasure (and I'm really glad I got my column written and submitted as my first priority in the morning so I could take advantage of it.) Had I stayed on the morning flight, I would've left MSP about two hours before Barbara landed there, to make her connection to Chicago. With me still being in town, and with her discovering that she had nearly a four-hour layover at MSP, she called me when she landed and I jumped in the car to drive over there and pick her up. Cool!

I needed a couple of things at the Apple Store, so we drove across the freeway to Mall of America and hung out there for 90 minutes. I got what I needed, we spent some time in the new Hard Rock Cafe (needless to say, an amazing collection of Prince stage costumes!), then we stared up at the red seat for a sec before I took her back to the airport. Yes, that's the red seat that marks the approximate location of the landing spot for the longest home run Harmon Killebrew ever hit at old Metropolitan Stadium, which is exactly where Mall of America sits now.

Back when Harmon hit it, they painted the seat where it landed bright red, so any fan could walk into the park and marvel at the distance covered by that wallop. Hence the red seat inside the theme park at MOA. For years it just hung there anonymously, as if you needed to be "in the know" to catch the reference. This time, I was pleased to see a new banner hanging next to it. If you're ever there, it's on the wall just above the log-flume ride. And if you then turn around and walk diagonally across the theme park, about 500 feet, you'll find a bronze home-plate on the floor. That one is exactly where home was in the ballpark. If you didn't know that, now you know…

After I dropped Barb off I went back to Woodbury to finish packing and then I headed right back to the airport a good three hours before my flight, because I had dinner plans…

I've written about Ike's at MSP before, but it once again did not disappoint (and no, they have no idea I write this blog and I didn't tell them, I just enjoyed a meal and paid the bill.) Granted, being the best steakhouse at any airport in America is not exactly a high bar to clear, but Ike's is really fantastic. I had the Filet Mignon with asparagus and Bernaise sauce. Basically, that's a Filet Oscar-style, without the crab meat. Superb!

The three-hour night flight crawled along about as slowly as I expected, and it still does frustrate me that I can never sleep on a plane when doing so would really be advantageous. I only fall asleep when it doesn't matter. So, I just surfed the web and answered emails on my iPad for the duration, listening the the new Breaking Benjamin album on my headphones, along with lots of other music. You can cover a lot of musical ground in three hours. Everything from Evans Blue, to Evanescence, to Nothing More, with some Chevelle and Tool thrown in. Yeah, I'm 59 years old but I think you're as young as the music you listen to, and there's lots of new rock out there that I really admire and enjoy. Also a lot of vocal-chord-shredding guttural screaming, which I can't stand, but there's plenty of good new stuff out there, with some real depth and talent. I love it when I hear little bits of unexpected extra technicality in a song, because that shows the band really cares about the craft, slipping in something new or different that doesn't "need" to be there but makes the song better by its very presence. That's the music nerd in me...

We finally landed around 11:30 (to make the flight even later, it was 30-minutes late coming into MSP) and by the time I drove through a very quiet Spokane and walked into the house from the garage, it was well after midnight. Liberty Lake was effectively asleep. I didn't see another car on the road in our little town here, and not one business open.

The boyz were sleeping right on the bed when I got home, which always cracks me up. They actually "go to bed" at night, even if we're not there. I was still pretty wired from the long day and the long flight, and despite the fact my body still felt like  it was on Central Time, it took me two hours to wind down. When I went to bed at 2:00 a.m. Pacific, it felt like 4:00 in the morning to me. Boy was that a short night. I couldn't help waking up at 6:30…  All caught up now, though.


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This was what we had to stare at, for three hours on Sunday morning. And it was cold, too!
 
And for your Washington wildfire report, I'll let you know that they're all still burning. All the firefighters, volunteers, National Guard troops, and tanker planes don't stand a chance unless we finally get some rain out here. Maybe this weekend…

It's so bad the AQI (Air Quality Index) has been off the charts as well, like it is today. The Washington State Cougars football team is trying to decide what to do with their home opener against Portland State on September 5th. An AQI over 100 is considered dangerous and unhealthy for anyone who suffers from asthma or has any sort of lung issues whatsoever. Right now the AQI is hovering near 150. And yes, it's hard to breathe out there. If it's still up this high on September 5th, they're not going to play in Pullman. They don't know where they'll play, but you can't put on a football game in air like this.

Here's hoping for some rain.

And here's hoping all of you have a great rest of the week and a spectacular weekend. Can you believe it's about to be September? Wow.

Indy's next week. Strap in and hold on…

Wilber, out!

10 Years After…Tuesday, August 18, 2015

I was flipping channels on the big screen last night, and when I got to the Palladia network they were showing the movie "Woodstock" which (you're not going to believe this) is a documentary about some random rock concert in a field out in upstate New York. I think the star of the show was some dairy farmer named Max Yasgur. And, instead of opening the festivities (which appear to have stretched over multiple days in widely varying weather conditions) the Star Spangled Banner actually was played as the show ended, by some groovy cat name Jimi Hendrix.

In all seriousness, I've probably watched "Woodstock" two dozen times, because it's clearly the most epic gathering of rock fans ever, the most epic gathering of rock groups ever, and the craziest gathering of humanity in my lifetime, all taking place on Max Yasgur's farm near Bethel, N.Y.  One of the groups in the show was a band fronted by Alvin Lee, and the name of that band was 10 Years After. I actually owned one album by that outfit, but the song that prompted me to buy said album (a hit single entitled "I'd Love To Change The World") was recorded two years after Woodstock, so it's not in the movie (or on the Woodstock triple-album, which I also owned). Instead, from 10 Years After we get what is one of my least favorite songs from the entire concert, called "I'm Going Home" and it consists mostly of Alvin Lee making funny faces while he plays the guitar and sings the line "Going home. See my baby" over and over for about six hours. Or at least it seems that way. Some songs you  just don't get, and that's one of those for me. I'm not saying it's a bad song, I'm just saying I don't get it. I still don't get it. Great movie, though.

And all that is just a roundabout way of getting to this moment. Guess what? We missed a very big anniversary a week ago Sunday. I knew I had started this blog back in 2005, and had a memory that it was just before Brainerd, and I was correct. Except Brainerd, that year, was August 11-14. My first-ever blog, which was nothing more than an introduction for me, since I was a guy basically no one had ever heard of, was short and sweet and it was put out there to the world on August 9, 2005. I'm sure it was met with many quizzical looks and a lot of "Who cares?" responses.

But, here we are 10 years later (or 10 Years After - "Going home. See my baby…"). To be precise, here we are 10 years and nine days later. And they said it would never last.

Everyone was pretty fired up about these blog things back then, and a lot of my teammates on the old CSK crew thought they'd jump right in and contribute on a monthly basis, but like most things that don't come naturally that turned out to require more effort than overworked crew guys felt like putting in, so it didn't take long for me to be here all by myself. By early 2006, it was pretty obvious I'd have to do all the writing or this wasn't going to last very long. How much writing? At the time I was cranking these out three or four times a week and as far as I knew, this thing might just last an entire year. When we started, it was supposed to go for an entire month. A year seemed completely impossible. I wasn't sure I could do it for a month.

To this point I've written somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,100 installments. With each one being in the range of about 2,500 words (that's a conservative estimate) it's pretty much guaranteed that I've now written something like 2.75 million words here. A better guess would be well over 3 million. Heck, it could be closer to 4 million. I'm not going to count them all, I know that.

And, as you read this you know you're not the only one doing so, right? I mean, after all, I regularly write about a large number of crazy characters I've met because of this blog, so there are certainly multiple others who are reading this. Well, tracking that stuff varies over time and by methodology, but it's safe to say (I think) that on a regular basis there are close to 10,000 of you spread around the globe. We're tight-knit little group.

The most important thing about this blog and the last 10 years ("Going home. See my baby…") has been the experience for me. I started out almost convinced that this would fail horribly, but I dove in anyway. The challenge was to write the sort of stories that at least seemed interesting enough to keep people coming back, whether it was racing-related or not. We've been on cruises together, you watched Pond Cam for the first six or so years, you knew Shasta before he died and Boofus and Buster after that, and we've had a riot doing it all. I've stretched out my writing muscles to find a way to continually get on here and use that "stream of consciousness" technique that often starts with me having no idea what I'm going to write about, but then I watch my fingers clack on the keyboard for an hour and I get to read what I just wrote. It's a weird thing.

And how long will this crazy thing continue? I've had no idea from the start, so I don't see any reason to have an idea about that now. I think it will last as long as it can.

August 9, 2005 was a long time ago. A decade (see, I avoided the 10 Years After reference there). Just a few days after I wrote that first introductory blog, we raced in Brainerd. For the record, my team at the time went 1-for-2 in the first round, with Del Worsham taking out some guy named Tim Wilkerson despite the fact both guys had reaction times that could calculated with a calendar, while Phil Burkart (driving the blue CSK car after he spent the night at our Woodbury house before the race) lost to the eventual race winner. That would be a guy we all miss, to this day. Eric Medlen.

Other winners that weekend were Doug Kalitta in Top Fuel, Kurt Johnson in Pro Stock, GT Tonglet in Pro Stock Motorcycle, Steve Torrence (yep) in Top Alcohol Dragster, Bob Newberry in Top Alcohol Funny Car, and Bo Butner (yep) in Comp.

And that week, when these blogs began, I was joined by fellow bloggers David Grubnic, Doug Herbert, Karen Stoffer, Hillary Will, and Tommy Johnson Jr.

So now it's Brainerd week again. 10 Years After. "Going home. See my baby…"  Thank  you, Alvin Lee. And thank you to the descendants of the late Max Yasgur, without whom Woodstock couldn't have happened.  But mostly, like 99.9 percent mostly, I just have this to say:

Thank you for your loyalty and your amazing support.

It's been a wonderful trip. There have been ups and downs, wins and losses, thrills and spills, and too many tall tales to recollect, but it's all been an honor and a privilege to provide.

It's been an experience of a lifetime for me, and it's added so many good friends and familiar faces to my world that my time at each race track is now utterly different than it was before I started this.

It's been slightly more than half of my entire 19-year PR career, with the Worshams and the Wilkersons. That can't be possible.

The best part of it has been all of you. The kindness, the support, the friendships, and the shout-outs at the race tracks ("Hey Wilber!") are priceless. What a ride. And it continues…

Let's go to Brainerd again, just like it's 2005!

"The New York State Thruway is closed, man!" - Arlo Guthrie

Wilber, out!

The Great Pacific NorthwestTuesday, August 11, 2015
The headline today is both a description and a name. This part of the country is known, collectively, as the Great Northwest or the Great Pacific Northwest, and many people think that's a truly accurate description, myself included. It's a pretty great part of the country. As a subset of the Great Northwest, the Spokane area calls itself the Great Inland Northwest, since we're all the way across the state from the Pacific, but I think to someone in Florida, Texas, or New York it probably is included in the overall term, which generally means Washington and Oregon.

Okay, with the geographic story out of the way, it's time to describe my last week, which started right about this time one week ago, on last Tuesday, when I drove down to Portland. Of course, you would know that if you read my last blog installment, but it seemed appropriate to once again set the stage. On Wednesday, I was up early, packed up, checked out, and on my way to the Western Star truck assembly plant, and I arrived at our rendezvous point at the McDonald's on Swan Island right on time. Amazingly I got there just a minute after Jason Curry from Curry's Transportation pulled in, and also just behind the Western Star rep who had just  arrived. I did beat someone there, since I got there about one minute before that big gorgeous Team Wilkerson transporter turned the corner as well.

You've probably seen the Curry's Transportation logo on our race car (rear quarter panels). Jason and his wife Hope own the company, based in Muscatine, Iowa, and they've become a valued partner in our racing organization. As a Western Star dealer, they made it happen for us to take delivery of our new Western Star truck this summer. We often call sponsors "valued partners" and Jason and Hope are the perfect example of that. Great people, too.

We headed over to the plant, and it took a while to get us checked in through the security gate and parked in front of the building, but it all went well and we were all truly excited to be there. Western Star had thought this through, and set up a company cookout lunch for all the employees on the day we were scheduled to be there, so they parked our rig out front and we set up the race car right where all of them would come out of the door to get their lunch. Before that, though, it was time to tour the plant.

We got our yellow vests and our safety glasses, as well as ear pieces so we could hear our guide explain things via radio (too noisy in there to have to shout all time), and then we put some stylish yellow plastic caps on the toes of our shoes. When our guide said "If you want to wear these clackers, we can get off the tour trail and go anywhere we want in there. Do you want to wear them?"  As you can probably imagine, there was an instantaneous and unanimous positive reply to that comment.

I've toured other plants and businesses before, including automobile assembly plants, breweries, and wineries and they've almost universally been pre-planned and carefully choreographed deals that stuck to a safe route where we could only observe the work being done from a safe distance. This deal was going to be very different, and it was one of the cooler things I've done.

Our guide John took us in and our first impression was a little bit of awe, looking at the size of the place and all the work going on. We traced the assembly process from the bare chassis to the finished product. We saw the paint booth in action, saw the motors get installed on the chassis, watched as the cabs were mated to the trucks, saw interior assembly of the day cabs and sleepers, and saw finished trucks roll off the line.

I'm not what you'd call "a truck guy" and I really never knew if there was much of a difference between any of the brands, but it didn't take long for even a PR guy like me to realize just how different these Western Star trucks are. The level of craftsmanship, the attention to detail, the ability to totally customize each truck in just about every way ("Do you want two horns or four horns on the roof?") and the commitment to making the best trucks in the world, even if the assembly process takes longer, is far more labor-intensive, and costs more, was beyond impressive. And if you're thinking "Well that sounds like Western Star trucks are the Mercedes-Benz of the trucking industry, Bob" you'd be absolutely right. Western Star is a division of Daimler, the company that also owns and builds Mercedes automobiles.

There really wasn't anywhere we couldn't go, and one of our biggest concerns was staying out of the way as the units were inching along the assembly line, but the workers were very gracious and treated us with great acceptance. We also had our heads on swivels to make sure nothing was going to roll over us, into us, or on top of us!

When the tour was sadly over, we made our way back outside just as the lunch cookout was about to start, and that's when the interaction really kicked up a notch. The workforce grabbed their hot dogs and drinks, and after they ate they descended on the race car to have a closer look and get Tim's autograph. Easily one of the best displays I've ever been a part of, and as soon as it was time for all of them to get back to work we loaded the car back into the transporter to head about a mile away, where Stage 2 of our day was another display at the Daimler Trucks corporate headquarters.

Daimler is building a new headquarters right next door, but the current one is still a spacious and modern place. They blocked off the right lane of the road out front, for our rig, and then we rolled the Funny Car up onto the plaza right in front of the building, which houses not only the executive team but also a large contingent of engineers who design these fantastic trucks.

So try to picture this… A Funny Car rolls up right below all of the front windows in a building full of automotive engineers. What happens next? Well, it looked like a fire drill. The doors opened and too many people to count came pouring out to see what we'd put in front of their office building. Now at almost any other display, especially if it's just for the general public at a retail store, the people who come to look at the car tend to be a little shy (maybe intimidated, even) and a bit standoffish, because they don't want to get too close to something like this. You generally have to say "Come closer, and get a better look at this thing…" to even get them to peek under the body. Truck engineers are not the general public.

These men and women poured out of the doors and never hesitated to crawl right up under the body, to point at different parts of the car and marvel at all of it. I have never been a part of a more enjoyable display. I think the reason for that is because these men and women asked really intelligent questions about every function on the race car. They make huge and powerful trucks, but the concept of 10,000 horsepower and 0-to-300 mph in less than four seconds made their eyes wide and, typically, made them laugh in amazement.

It was a fantastic day, and we even let it run a little long because the Daimler people kept asking questions we enjoyed answering. Tim even made sure a couple of them got to sit in the car, including the President of the company. Awesome day, awesome display.

Most of our team had actually taken the support rig straight up to Seattle from Sonoma, to get our Hospitality Center set up, so it was just Nitro Nick and Joe Serena with the rig, Tim and Krista in their rental car, me in my new car, and Jason and Hope in their rental car. We got loaded up, and the Wilkersons and the crew guys hit the road for the race track. Jason and Hope had more Great Northwest touring to do, and I was headed for the coast.

It was a fun ride over to Seaside, and I got there late in the afternoon at the RiverTide Suites hotel. As the name would imply, there's a river running right in front of the place (the ocean beach is a couple of blocks to the west) and I saw firsthand why the hotel has that name. The ocean tide backs up into the channel and the river can either be right up on its banks, like it was when I looked out my window, or it can be almost empty, like it was when I checked again in the morning. Fascinating. Also, the hotel was a really nice place and Seaside is a great little town. I'd recommend it to anyone.

The next morning, it was my time to tour the coast, heading up US 101. The only problem with driving on 101 by yourself is that you have to be so focused on the actual driving part of the deal and that makes it a little hard to soak it all in. When the choice is keeping the car in its lane or driving off a cliff, the option is pretty clear-cut. But, I did love the drive, especially the really winding and curvy parts, and then I came to Astoria, where the Columbia River empties in to the Pacific Ocean.

Big tanker ships have to get through there, but 101 has to get over the river too, so they built a truly massive bridge to make that happen. There's not a lot of flat land between the steep hills and the water, so to actually get up onto the bridge you have to drive up a circular ramp, like you might see in a parking garage except roughly 10 times bigger. Then, it's up and over the bridge, with one lane in each direction. I'd like to tell you how fantastic the view was from up there, but I have to admit I was pretty focused on just going straight. Big bridge. Very big. And very high.

(10 minutes later…) I'm back. Yesterday, I didn't have the energy or the interest to do much more than write a column for National Dragster, compile all my receipts from the trip and enter the amounts on my "Travel Expenses" spreadsheet, and answer a bunch of emails. Today I'm doing laundry. I dropped off all my dry cleaning before I started this, and had four loads of clothes to put in the washer. The last load of colors just got done and I needed to do the folding before it got out of hand. The whites are in the dryer now. I'm sure this is all really pertinent and entertaining stuff I'm writing, right? Laundry time!

The difference between flying out on a standard four-day racing trip and being on the road for a week, doing a lot more other than just flying and working at the race, can be measured in laundry. I took a lot of extra stuff (no need to worry about checking bags!) and although I didn't wear all of it, I consider it all "dirty by association" because the clean stuff and the worn stuff all shared the suitcase on the way back. It's almost done…

Back to the trip. So after I didn't die driving across the mammoth bridge at Astoria, my GPS did an odd thing. My eyeballs saw the signs for 101, and I followed the signs. According to my GPS, though, I had wandered off the road and was driving around on a peninsula with no pavement whatsoever. Just as I was about to sort that out (or possibly backtrack) I saw another sign for 101, so I just kept going. After 30 minutes, another road merged with 101 and I think possibly that other road was a short-cut of some kind, that my GPS liked. But why it thought I was driving through the forests is still a question that remains unanswered.

My next destination was Aberdeen and Grays Harbor, to find that old ballpark I told you about in the last installment. Well before the days of everyone having GPS, back in the dark ages when you had to carry maps or an atlas, I had an absolutely uncanny ability to arrive in any town (when I was a baseball scout for the Blue Jays) and simply find the ballpark without any effort. I'd almost always just drive right to it, despite the fact I'd never been there before or hadn't been there in years. It's still an ability I have, apparently. I drove straight to Olympic Stadium. It's still there. I also recognized the motel we stayed in, when we came there to play the Mets in 1979. That's how my brain works. I remember all of this stuff from so long ago, but can't remember any of my passwords.

Also, smartphones have made us all lose the ability to know anyone's actual phone number, because we just tap on their names or faces on our phones. When I was five years old, our phone number at home was 966-3237. Right now, I have no idea what Barb's work number is, and it usually takes me a while to get her cell number right. I don't know anyone else's number in my phone. I need to remember Barb's because it's the number tied to a lot of our "frequent purchaser" accounts at various retail stores, but I still have to think about it to get it right, and it often takes two tries. But, I digress.

Olympic Stadium is, indeed, still standing and still in use. The baseball field is tucked over in one corner (I could see the mound from where I parked out beyond left field) and there are football goal posts where they play that sport too, with the end zones being in the right field corner and out in center field. The place is not huge in the sense of having hundreds of rows of seats or multiple decks, but it's enormous in terms of its footprint. As they did when I played there, they have to put up a temporary fence from the right-center gap to the left field foul line, or a home run to left would have to travel about 600 feet. Crazy place.

And did I ever tell you the story about one of our pitchers being thrown out of the game at Grays Harbor? It was, of course, drizzling and we were all pretty miserable. On top of that, we felt like the home-plate umpire was missing calls terribly, and over the course of one inning he just seemed to get worse and worse. Being in foul moods to begin with, we first began chirping at him about his strike zone, but as it got worse so did our shouted complaints. Finally, he'd had enough and he whipped off his mask and headed straight for our dugout. Looking at us sitting on the bench, he pointed at one guy and said "You're okay" and then went down the line for four or five other guys saying "You're okay, and you're okay, and you're okay, but YOU are OUTTA HERE!" and he threw out Keith Call, one of our starting pitchers. Keith never spoke all summer, and he surely didn't yell anything at the umpire, so that only made us more indignant and we all started yelling back "You idiot, he didn't say a thing" or lines of that sort. Then, our manager Rich Morales yelled at us all to shut up. When we did, and the umpire went back to the plate, and Keith went to sit in the bus, Rich taught us a lesson about something we had missed. He said, "Don't you realize what he just did? He knew Keith pitched last night. He threw out a player we didn't need. You guys are the idiots." I guess we were. Still felt bad for Keith, though.

Okay, after that diversion it was time to finally head up to Seattle, and I got to the hotel right around rush hour. I know this, because after a full day of leisurely driving through incredible scenery, the last 50 miles of this trip, basically from Olympia to the hotel in Auburn, were awful. There were times the traffic stopped for minutes on end, especially in Tacoma. That was not a fun way to finish a great day. What was great, though, was my view out of my hotel window. Yes, I-5 was down below, but I had an unobstructed view of Mt. Rainier. Awesomeness.

With it being a big weekend for Rottler, our great partners who make the best engine building machines in the world, we knew it was going to be a busy weekend but they had assigned a couple of really great people to this adventure, and between the Rottler staff and our staff, I think we pulled off a huge and popular event. Basically, they loved it. We had a very big crowd on Saturday, and it was a ton of fun to have them all there. A giant shout-out to Anthony, Ed, and Melissa. You guys were fantastic, and thanks for taking care of everything on your end so that we could focus on entertaining your staff and your customers. I love it when teamwork comes together!

We "Rottler-ized" our hospitality area pretty well, too. When this new set-up was made, Tim had the foresight to order one privacy panel (the smaller waist-high "fence" that goes around the base of the area) with a Rottler logo on it, and another with a Summit logo, because we knew we'd be hosting hospitality for both great companies this year (Summit Racing Equipment hosted guests at Norwalk). It all looked great for Rottler, and they were all-smiles.

It helped that we ran great all weekend, running better every run from Q1 through the first round on Sunday. I'm not sure I remember another race where we ran right in the thick of things in every session and improved on every run on top of that. And we ran our best lap of the weekend in round one (4.010). Unfortunately, against my buddy Del Worsham, in the second round, we put a hole out at the hit of throttle and he whacked us.

In terms of a second-round finish, though, it couldn't have gone much better. We beat Cruz Pedregon in round one, and he's the driver right ahead of us in points. We left Seattle only two points behind him (he's in seventh, we're in eighth). Behind us, Robert Hight was a round ahead of Alexis DeJoria, who came into Seattle in 10th. She raced Courtney Force, who came into Seattle right behind her in 11th. Alexis beat Courtney, and Robert lost to Chad Head. When Alexis lost in round two, she moved into a tie with Robert and we kept the same gap on her. We picked up a round on both Robert and Courtney, and we're now 124 points ahead of Courtney. That would basically be seven rounds, and you might say "But Bob, that's seven rounds and there are only eight rounds left. You're a lock!" but if you said that you'd be forgetting that this year they made Indy more "interesting" (also read that as "stressful") by making it "points and a half" for each round. It'll be 30 points a round in Indy, instead of the 20 per round everywhere else. That's a throwback to the old days when the points for "The Big Go" were (I think) double what they were at other races. So, there's still a lot to be settled, but we're running well and I'd sure rather be in our position that in some of the others…

In terms of friendly faces in Seattle, I really have to say that it's become my single biggest race in terms of not only seeing blog readers who have become real friends, but also meeting longtime readers who I had never met before. This time I think I shook hands and chatted with at least 12 people who have been reading this since Day 1, and I'd never met any of them before. I also had a number of people say hello, who live either right here in Liberty Lake or near here in the greater Spokane area. Crazy.

The longtime group was out in full force. We had Crazy Jane and her hubby Chris, Tom From West Linn (TomFWL) and his son Doug, Scott The Pilot (STP - and we even went out for pizza together Friday night), Kim The Lawyer and his son Andrew, Terry the Poster Man, Tristan my longtime buddy from back in the CSK days, Rush fan Wayne, and Ryan from Walla Walla, among many others. I'm sure I'm leaving someone off this list, so I'm sorry about that but you all know I appreciate the support and, in many cases, great friendships.


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Touring the Western Star assembly plant, with our yellow "clackers" on our shoes
 
And now we're closing in on an important date in blog history. The Brainerd race is next week, and that marks a big anniversary for this behemoth. 10 YEARS! That's impossible to believe, and I can't even fathom how many millions of words I've written over this decade of Blogmania.

It's been a pleasure. It's been an honor. And it's been a real privilege to do this. And the biggest thanks go to my esteemed editor and mentor, Phil Burgess. It was Phil who heard me loud and clear back in August of 2005, when I said "I can't really do this ghost-writing it for Del, because I'm in Minnesota and he's in So Cal, and he won't have any desire to write it and have me edit it. So what do we do?" His idea was to see if a guy nobody ever heard of could write about stuff most people didn't care about, and still keep them entertained. And I was supposed to do it for a whole MONTH! I figured that was impossible, but I'd give it a shot.

My wife Barbara thought I was nuts and destined to both fail (because why would anyone want to read about my life?) and on top of that I'd probably be publicly humiliated. Well, okay, that second part is fairly routine for me, but I don't think I failed. It's been riot to do this, and we still have more of this interaction to come. Thanks, to all of you, for hanging in there this long. I'm still stunned, on a weekly basis, how many of you are out there.

Finally, on a lighter note, Barbara and I have officially taken the step to go from "Class A - Crazy Cat People" to "Elite Platinum-Level Certifiably Insane Crazy Cat People" with the delivery of our new deluxe "Cat Stroller." I got the idea from Tina Hartman, Richard's wife, who brought their dog to the races in a purpose-built pet stroller, and Boofus and Buster absolutely love this thing. They jump right in and the mesh top snaps down over them, and it allows them to see in all directions.

Last night, when it was dusk and the final golfers had left the green, I loaded them up and we took a long stroll on the cart path. They just sit in there and stare at everything. Pretty much sublime, for them. So, we're guilty-as-charged, but they really are our kids… And yes, they're pretty spoiled, if by "pretty" you mean completely and utterly.

Hey, we get a weekend off now but Brainerd beckons. See you next week. Has it really been 10 years? Wow...

Wilber, out!
Hello, Portland!Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Hi there, and welcome to the Holiday Inn by the Portland airport. No, I did not fly here from Spokane but it seemed like a good location for everything that has to happen tomorrow, so here I am. And they upgraded me to a two-room suite with a view of Mount Hood and approaching airplanes! And not just a typical suite like at an Embassy Suites, either. This used to be two full-sized adjoining rooms but they turned one side of it into a full living room with a wet bar. I now feel obligated to go back and forth to "get my money's worth" out of this.

And also, in the interest of factual reporting, despite the fact the date at the top of this blog installment says it's Wednesday the 5th of August, I'm writing this on Tuesday evening. I have to be at Western Star Trucks at 7:15 in the a.m., so I figured I better get this written. It won't be a lengthy installment, because it's now 7:45 and everything I've eaten today consists of one bowl of Cheerios and two granola bars, purchased at a gas station right before I crossed over into Oregon.

The drive down from Liberty Lake was almost six hours, and the first 90 minutes of it was pretty boring, but then you cross the river into Oregon and the hardest part is to keep your eyes on the road because the scenery is stunning. I-84 basically just hugs the southern shore of the Columbia River all the way from where you join it south of the Tri-Cities (that would be Pasco, Kennewick, and Richland) until you arrive in Portland. The word scenic doesn't do it justice.

Sadly, a trip like this brings the realization that the entire western United States seems to be on fire right now, and we've had a couple of awful days in Liberty Lake where it was not just hard to breathe, it was hard to even do anything outside. I went to the grocery store yesterday and any car that has automatic headlights had them on, mine included. It's eerie when the sky is a dirty shade of gray and the sun is just a dim red orb you can stare at. Very eerie, and very unhealthy.

We were getting "fresh smoke" from a fire just to the northwest of downtown Spokane, but then the wind shifted and the fire fighters got a handle on that one. In its place, came tons of smoke from northern California and Oregon. This is pretty horrible.

As I was cruising westward on I-84 today, pointed toward Portland, I had blue sky above me and could see blue sky on the horizon, but in-between there was a towering mass of brown and gray smoke. It turned out the wildfire was just on the northern shore of the Columbia River, and by complete coincidence it was located directly across the river from a "Scenic Vista" pull-off. It was crowded, with lots of people stopping to look, so I had to join the masses as well. Photos below.

It had already burned hundreds of acres and it featured multiple hot-spots that were churning through the bone-dry grasslands as if they were soaked in gasoline. I didn't see anyone fighting it until further down the road where it was coming close to some homes. I guess they just let the grass go and concentrate on the buildings and people. Scary stuff.

I'll sleep fast tonight, because tomorrow morning the guys in the transporter will meet up with me and one of the people from Western Star Trucks at 7:15, and we'll do so in the parking lot of a McDonald's not far from their plant and headquarters. They'll escort us over there and get the big rig parked, before we head inside for a tour of their assembly plant. Photos are must, as long as they let me take them. After the tour, Tim and Krista should arrive in time for our display and autograph session at the corporate headquarters. I hope they do, because nobody much wants autographs from the rest of us. We need to be out of there not long after 12 noon, so that the guys can head on up the road (that road being I-5) to Seattle and the track.

I'll head westward to the coast, and spend a night looking at the waves and the Oregon beaches, then on Thursday I'm going to follow US 101 all the way up to Aberdeen, then turn right to pick up I-5 to the track. Aberdeen is on Gray's Harbor, and the last time I was there was 1979 as a member of the Medford A's in the Northwest League. We played the Gray's Harbor Mets for four days and I remember two things: It never stopped raining, and we never played in front of more than 150 people at the strangest ballpark I'd ever played in. Photos will be taken. And for the record, I felt truly sorry for the Mets players who had to play there. At least Medford was a fine place to spend half of our time that summer and we packed our ballpark every night.

Speaking of the Medford A's and (earlier) of the highway along the Columbia River, the last time I made that drive was also 1979, after we had just played four games against the Walla Walla Padres and were headed back to Medford for a home-stand. We got out of Walla Walla close to midnight after the final game, and somewhere around 3:00 a.m. our ancient, decrepit, ridiculous, awful, "How is this thing allowed on the road?" bus broke down again. It did that regularly.

We weren't on the interstate, so we must've already made the turn onto US 97 to cut off the upper lefthand corner of Oregon and head down through Bend and back to Medford. It was a moonless night and as dark as it could be, and while some of the guys were able to just sleep through it, many of us were up and walking around outside, on the side of an empty two-lane road in the middle of absolutely nowhere. At some point near dawn, a vehicle came by and stopped, and our skipper (Rich Morales) talked to them and arranged to have them stop at a phone in the next town (it was THAT long ago) to find us a replacement bus. It turned out to be an elementary-level school bus. Made for really little kids.

At the time, I was not at my healthiest. I was finally recovering from getting hit in the face with an errantly thrown Louisville Slugger, which granted me the right to get about 50 stitches just below my right eye, while it also broke both of my front teeth basically in half, and it loosened just about every tooth in my mouth. For three weeks I couldn't chew anything, so I subsisted on soup, scrambled eggs, milk shakes, and Taco Bell burritos, which I open and eat with the classic Taco Bell spoon/fork utensil, praying the plastic "spork" wouldn't touch any teeth.

By the Walla Walla series I was able to gently chew, so I was gaining back some strength, but on the last night of the trip I got drilled in the left elbow by a 90 mph fastball. I wasn't about to come out of the game, so I trotted to first and my trainer did what all trainers did back then. He sprayed it with ethyl chloride to freeze the elbow and numb the pain. Very high-tech sports medicine back in '79. 

The school bus didn't have a lot of range, so we had to stop in Bend at a McDonald's for gas and lunch. I think I've told this story here before, but a lot of you might not have heard it so let's do it again. We got exactly $8.00 per day in meal money for road trips, and you got it all in an envelope on the first day, so you had to spend accordingly (remember, no ATMs back then). I was out of money. And I was hungry. And my teeth still hurt horribly while my elbow swelled and throbbed. And we were on a school bus. This, in a nutshell, is the glamour of the low minor leagues.

I just stood in the back as my teammates ordered, and finally the woman at the counter said "What would you like?" and all I could say was "I'm sorry, I'm out of meal money" but her reply was "That's okay. What would you like?"

That Quarter Pounder and chocolate shake tasted better than any other I've ever had. I can only imagine how horrible I looked to warrant a free meal at McDonald's…


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Gorgeous drive across Oregon on I-84, alongside the Columbia
 
Should you be so inclined, you can read about that entire summer in the Northwest League here, at my "Bob On Baseball" blog:  http://www.perfectgamefound.org/a-lifetime-of-memories-from-a-summer-in-the-northwest-league/

So now I have to wrap this up, get something to eat (I won't need to look pathetic to get my meal tonight) and then sleep fast for the day at Western Star tomorrow. We're thrilled to get to know the fine folks at Western Star, who custom-built our new tractor that pulls the LRS transporter trailer, and we did so through a valued sponsor, partner, and friend, Jason Curry, who owns Curry's Transportation out of Muscatine, Iowa. Jason has been helping us a lot, and supporting us in every way he can, including this introduction to the Western Star staff and our chance to meet them all and see the plant. We're looking forward to it!

I'll keep snapping pics throughout this big weekend, and we should have plenty of great material for a new blog after I get back from Seattle next week. Rottler Manufacturing will once again be doing hospitality with us, and we'll have the special-edition Rottler body on the car throughout the Seattle race. Remember, it's black with a big ROTTLER down the side, so don't be confused when you see that car and hear Wilk's name.

Let's go win us a race in the woods, at Pacific Raceways!

Wilber, out!
 

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