You may find this difficult to believe, but it is indeed a fact. A few months back, I was looking ahead at the incredible grind the summer schedule was going to present to us, and then I noticed the odd three-week gap between Reading and Las Vegas. And I had a thought… I wondered “How am I going to come up with anything other than a bunch of BS (Baloney Stuff) during those three weeks?” I mean, I can spin stories out of thin air pretty well, but I’ve been writing this blog for nine years now and a lot of the stories have been told. I saw a quandary in my future.
So, I started jotting down notes every weekend, keeping tabs on when someone at the race track would ask me a question, and I compiled an informal list of the most pertinent, the most interesting, and the most often asked. With all of those as the foundation for this mid-October “When are we ever going to race again?” blog installment, I shall proceed. And I won’t even make the connection to that great Moody Blues song “Question” from the also-great album “A Question of Balance”. I promise I won’t. See...
These are in no particular order, and most are generalizations of various questions I hear almost every weekend… And yes, I know, that some of you long-timers here have heard many (if not all) of these before, but our readership is a fluid thing with new people finding the blog all the time, so I hope it’s worth doing. And if you are relatively new here, where have you been? I’ve been writing this thing for nine long years!
Let us begin.
“You guys must get used to these fumes, right?”
Well, actually, no. I guess, to a certain degree, the nitro fumes don’t bite us quite as hard as they might a young child or a newbie at his or her first race, but the fact is they still sting. Depending upon wind speed, wind direction, and humidity, the fumes are generally worse for the folks at the ropes than they are for us. We have a number of fans blowing in that direction, plus the headers point the fumes up and behind us, but there are plenty of days when we’re bucking the wind and our awning acts like a giant fume collector.
For me, personally, I can usually get away if I’m over by the car and it’s just too stout. For the guys, they need to stay at their posts and handle the warm-up correctly. Travis is smart enough to wear a mask, because he has to have constant visual contact with Tim while he’s in the cockpit.
But generally, the answer is no. You never really get used to it.
“How do you stand the noise?”
That’s a tough question, and as I get older I pay more attention to it. If I was really smart, I’d wear ear plugs all day. It’s easy to remember to put on ear muffs or pop some plugs in when the car is running, but too often you get caught in the pits without either, just as someone fires up. Fingers make good ear plugs too, so I always have those handy.
At the starting line, I double up. I put ear plugs in, and then put my ear muffs on over them. I stand closest to the car, shooting our video, and it’s incredibly and enormously loud. Like really loud. I don’t have any way of describing how loud it actually is. It’s also cool.
A tip about ear plugs: If you’re using the soft foam ones that are either attached to a string or have no string at all, roll them between your first finger and thumb for a few seconds to make them skinnier. Then reach over your head with your other hand and pull on the top of your ear, to make the ear canal slightly bigger. Push the skinny plug in and let go. It will grow back to its original size and fill the ear canal much better. You’re welcome.
And speaking of being at the starting line...
“What’s it like to stand right behind the car when it launches?”
For 18 years I’ve been trying to find a way to accurately describe it, but I’ve never felt like I succeeded in doing that. Put it this way, I’ve been shooting starting-line video for so long I’m surprised video existed when I started, and yet I never get used to it. Let me emphasize that. I absolutely NEVER get used to it nor am I totally prepared for it. Never.
You quickly learn that you can keep both eyes open for most of the staging process and your brain is fully capable of only processing the vision in the eye you want to use, which is kind of weird but really cool. It’s hard to see the staging bulbs through the camera, and if it’s a shock to the system when you know the cars are about to launch, it’s a complete debacle if you’re caught by surprise, so I keep my “other eye” on the staging bulbs until both cars are fully staged, then I close it and concentrate on the image in the viewfinder with my right eye.
At that precise moment, when we’re all waiting for the flash of amber, I’m as tense as I ever am, and often the muscles in the back of my neck start to almost vibrate. If the fumes are particularly bad up there (and they almost never are) you add in the fact you can’t really see and can’t breathe, and it’s all fun and games then.
We control the noise pretty well with our hearing protection, but the concussion is what gets you. It pounds you in the chest, it rattles your feet, and it literally comes close to knocking you over. It’s amazing.
The other odd thing is that I’m the closest person to the car and yet in most ways I have the worst view. All I see is the tiny little one-inch image in the viewfinder. I don’t see the other car at all until about half-track, and if the race is close by any stretch of the term (and by that I mean if both cars are actually still running the whole way) I have absolutely no idea who is leading. The camera is also pretty lousy at picking up the win lights after I shift it over to record the e.t. and speed, so my first indication of whether or not we won a round is generally from the new sound that’s coming from behind me. If I hear the guys yell, I figure we won. It’s a bit of a game of catch-up for me at a moment like that. I do my job recording the lap, I hear the guys cheer, I get a shot of the scoreboard, and I turn around to see my teammates. By then, most of them are already running for the tow vehicle. Krista Wilkerson and I generally celebrate alone, but that’s okay. She’s my best buddy.
“Did you always want to be in racing?”
I think most of you know the short answer, which is no. I wanted to be a baseball player, plain and simple. I didn’t see my first drag race until I was the General Manager at Heartland Park, back in 1991.
That’s not to say that I never paid attention, however. I built Revell models all the time when I was a kid, and it was those models that taught me what things like manifolds, superchargers, and cylinder heads were. When I began working with my first Funny Car team (Chuck Etchells and his Nobody Beats the Wiz car) a year later, I marveled at the fact that a total newbie like me could actually recognize a lot of parts on the car. They were just far bigger versions of the ones that got stuck to my fingers at the dining-room table.
I also watched NHRA Drag Racing whenever it was on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, and when we see that old footage now it’s very nostalgic for me. I knew who Big Daddy, Shirley, The Snake, and The Mongoose were, and I saw “Heart Like A Wheel” right after it came out, but I never planned on a career in this sport. Life is funny that way.
“How’d you get into this?”
I get that one a LOT, and if I tell the whole story here we’d run out of blog. Here’s the short version: After my baseball career was over, I went into sports marketing, first with Converse Shoes and then with my oldest brother’s agency in Washington, D.C., the appropriately named DelWilber + Associates (which we all shortened to DW Plus A). I had a lot of cool assignments there, including managing IBM’s sponsorship of Major League Baseball, Chrysler’s sponsorship of USA Baseball and their sponsorship of the Big East basketball conference, and a lot of others, but the key project I worked on in terms of where I’d eventually end up was our representation of the Major Indoor Soccer League.
At DW+A we worked with the MISL to find new sponsors and come up with new promotions, and because of that I got to know the Commissioner of the league, Bill Kentling. I then went on to become Vice President - Marketing for the St. Louis Storm franchise in the league and enjoyed the heck out of that for a year. Not too long after that, Bill Kentling called me and said “Son, I’ve got good news and bad news for ya.” He said “The good news is, we’re going racing together.” I said “Bill, I really don’t know anything about racing” but he cut me off saying “I don’t want a race fan, son, I want a marketing guy. We’ll both learn about racing together.” Then he said what he thought I’d consider to be the bad news when he added “And we’re going to be doing it in Topeka, Kansas.” That was actually okay by me. I’m a Midwestern guy at heart. So that’s how I got into the sport, working for a track.
A year later I got introduced to Bill Griffith, who represented Chuck Etchells and Mike Dunn, and that’s how I got into PR and working with teams. I went broke a few times, failed a bunch, and wondered if I was even the slightest bit sane many times, and I even went back into indoor soccer for a couple of years, with the Kansas City Attack, in the mid 90s (I liked that sport a lot, and I needed the money!) but I kept my eye on the NHRA. And then Whit Bazemore called, and you’ve all been stuck with me ever since. I spent part of one season with Whit before I went to work for Del and Chuck Worsham, and the rest is some sort of history. Here I am.
“What’s your favorite part of your job?”
That’s easy. My favorite part of doing this is all the people. I love being a part of a team. I really need that, and it’s the old baseball player in me that craves winning or losing as a team. All I ever wanted to be was a baseball player, and yet here I am closing in on 20 consecutive seasons doing PR for NHRA teams. But… I’m still on a team, and I still wear a uniform and a ball cap to work. Funny how that turned out.
I also love all of my colleagues on the PR and management side. The people I now get to work alongside at the race track are the most professional, the most dedicated, and the most entertaining colleagues I’ve ever had the honor to know. When I first started doing this, I avoided the Media Center at the various tracks, because there really wasn’t much to do there. Back then, we were lucky to even have laptops, but things like the internet and email were not at all mainstream yet, so the Media Center was often just a place where a bunch of PR people went to socialize.
Now, each Media Center is a beehive of hard work, but this group of pros is also a very tightly-knit gang, and I really love the interaction and the creativity that goes on there. We’re now all “connected” to our fans and the media all the time, and because of that today’s Media Centers are really productive places. On top of that, it’s just a real motivator to be surrounded by so much PR and communications talent. This is easily the best group of PR people the NHRA has ever had.
“What’s your least favorite part of your job?”
Getting to work. I very much enjoy the office work between races, because most of it is related to communications and writing, including this blog. And, I love being with my team and colleagues at the track. But, after nearly two decades of this, I’m no longer a huge fan of the actual travel. I don’t know why, because it’s not like it’s particularly “hard” or difficult to get on airplanes and hop in rental cars, but I think it’s just the ever-present stress involved. Will the plane be on time? Will I make my connection? Will I sit next to a smelly guy? Will my bag come down the chute at the other end? Will my rental car be there? Will my rental car run? Will my rental car stink? Will the hotel desk have my reservation? Will my room be ready? Will Frankenstein be walking around all night in the room above me? Will my room stink? You see, there are all sorts of things on a travel day that involve bad smells.
Until I’m checked into my room (and it doesn’t stink) I’m always on edge a little. And then I have three great days with my team and colleagues and I do it all again, in reverse. Truth is, Delta and Hertz treat me very well, but no one is perfect and things do happen.
Basically, I’m counting on Sir Richard Branson to finally offer me a supersonic sub-orbital plane so that no track is more than 20-minutes away. Either that or a Star Trek transporter. That would be cool.
I think I’m just getting old enough that I don’t enjoy stressful things I can’t control, and travel is mostly full of things we can’t control. But I deal with it because the job itself is just too good and too rewarding.
“It must be cool to see so many parts of the country and go to all the tracks, right?”
Right. No seriously, it really is. We cover nearly the entire country now, and it is fun to see so many various landscapes and hear so many different accents. Each track and each town have their own personalities, made up of good points and bad points, and what’s crazy is that we go a full year between visits to most of our tracks, and yet the day you arrive it feels like you were just there. When I check out of a hotel on Sunday morning, I usually say “See you next year!” to the desk clerk, and that seems like it should feel like eons (or at least a year) but it never does. When I walked into Maple Grove a couple of Fridays ago, it seemed like I just left.
“So you guys must party a lot, right?”
Wrong. We party almost not at all. First of all, this LRS team is a group of highly motivated and very focused individuals. When we arrive in a race town, we’re there to race. Secondly, at least from my perspective, I’ve been there and done that enough. When each day is over, I crave a good meal, a clean bed, and sleep. I never seem to get enough of that last part. I don’t even like eating out anymore, so if we’re staying at a place with room service, I’m right in my own boring sweet spot. Take a shower, order a Caesar Salad, eat, go to bed. It’s a real jet-setter lifestyle, I know…
“Is so-and-so a real jerk?”
I cast no aspersions on anyone. Everyone is different, and in this sport we have such a diverse group of people you’re absolutely going to have all kinds of personalities, but the way I see it is that we’re all a big family. You might have one brother who you don’t particularly like all that much, but you’re family. Plus, someone is probably asking the question “Is Bob Wilber a big jerk?” right now, and karma is one tough opponent, so I’ll defer and just say “No” to the jerk question. And that really is the answer. We’re a family.
“Who’s the funniest person you work with?”
The aforementioned family has a tree that contains many hilarious apples. Fast Jack really is funny. Steve Johnson really is funny. John Force really is funny (in his own 16x John Force way). Wilk is funny. Ron Capps is funny. ESPN producer Dave Dobson and his sidekick Matt Ilas (videographer) are a total tag team of hilarity. My ESPN camera buddies, who I don’t get to see nearly enough now that they’re not on the starting line, Nelson Jones and Dana Sherman, are both funny, and funnier still when they’re together. Mike Dunn and Dave Rieff are funny. There are a lot of funny people in this sport, but the funniest is Elon Werner. Of course, being John Force’s PR rep, he’s got a lot of material to work with, but nobody can go on a totally hilarious off-the-cuff riff like Elon. He can have a stand-up career if he ever wants one.
“It must be cool to meet so many interesting people”
I can’t overhype this answer enough. One of the absolute coolest things about being in this sport is the wide variety of really neat people we get to meet. Whether they happen to be professional athletes from other sports (I’ve hosted MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL stars in our pit), or actors (hello Buck Hujabre and Nathan Scherich), or just really cool fans I get to know, it’s fabulous to be in a profession where you can have these interactions with so many interesting people.
The winning moment, though, came about because Jeff Arend plays golf with Alan Johnson, who knows former big league pitcher Bryn Smith, who is friends with Geddy Lee. Getting to meet Geddy backstage in Dallas is a night I will never forget, and the hair on my arms is standing up just writing about it now.
“You must have been a great baseball player, huh?”
Well… That’s totally a matter of perspective. If you look at it from the top down, I wasn’t that good because I never made it to the top. Once you get to pro ball, the competition level is so incredibly enormous it’s very hard to succeed, and I clearly wasn’t quite the caliber of athlete many of my teammates were (I played with or against a LOT of guys who played in the show). I was a late bloomer actually, and I didn’t actually become a really good player until after my minor league career was over and I was playing semi-pro ball. Bad timing on my part, but coming out of college I was just too skinny and not strong enough. And I obviously was never suspected of using steroids.
On the other hand, if I want to make myself feel better about it, I can just change the perspective and look at it from the bottom up, starting with Little League when I was six. In that view, I guess I was pretty good, or at least okay. I played varsity ball in high school, got a full college scholarship (and my degree) out of the deal, and played a little bit of minor league pro ball in three different leagues and for two different organizations, where I had some fun highlights and did some neat things, so I guess I’m in the top percentile of all the little boys who ever put on a glove or swung a bat as a kid. But, when all you want to be is a big leaguer, it’s a disappointment not to make it that far.
And, with the World Series going on now I was watching the game from Kansas City last night, and one of the highlights of my entire so-called career was right there on the TV screen in front of me, even though it happened 35 years ago. It was the memorable (that’s an understatement) day, right there at that same stadium, when I wore an Oakland A’s uniform for one afternoon and pitched in the bullpen. I won’t recount it all here, other than to say it was one of the coolest days ever. If you didn’t know that, and want to hear all the tiny details, you can read about it at my other blog, Bob On Baseball.
And the last question…
“Where do you see the sport going?”
I’m a sports marketer and a PR guy by trade, and I’m an optimist. We always have challenges in front of us, but the indoor soccer guy in me is a crowd watcher and I like what I’ve been watching. Not every track is packed to the gills, but for some reason people don’t scream “What a huge crowd we had in Reading!” like they do when they want to say “Oh my gosh, the place was empty!” People like to complain, I guess. I like to look forward and see what we are doing right. We’ve had a few races this year where the grandstands are a bit overbuilt (huge) and the crowd didn’t fill them, but we’ve had more where I stand at the starting line and marvel at how many people are there. Our last race, in Reading, was pretty epic in that regard. So was St. Louis, and Indy, and Sonoma, and Phoenix, and Epping, and Atlanta, and Houston, and Gainesville, and on, and on, and on...
I see the sport as being enormously resilient, and it adapts to challenges and changes. It always has, and it always will. We’re not going anywhere but up. There are some things we do better than any other form motorsports (and almost all other sports) and that centers around our hands-on access between the fans and the stars. We have a very talented group of PR and marketing people in place, both at NHRA and at the team level, and we’re all committed to capitalizing on every aspect of today’s social-media world, to continue to widen our audience and spread the word. “Committed” is really the operative word there. I’ve never, in my entire career, been surrounded by so many totally committed people who are also so talented. With this group, and with other new young talent coming in every year, I don’t see our sport being anything less than very successful.
No, you never really get used to the fumes. But aren't they cool!!!
So, even though I’ve addressed a lot of these questions over the years, I hope today’s blog installment was worthy of your time.
The few take-aways are these: The fumes are stout, ear protection is important, you never get used to the launch of the car when you’re watching from 10 feet away through a viewfinder, even a kid who wanted to play baseball can end up in NHRA Drag Racing, indoor soccer was the connection that brought me here, I love the people I work with, I don’t so much love the stress of travel, hotel rooms and rental cars can both be smelly, it’s neat to see all the different parts of the country, no we don’t party at the races, nobody is a true jerk and we’re all family, and there are lots of funny people in this sport but Elon Werner takes the crown. Oddly and coincidentally, he just called me a minute ago and I told him I had just written that. He agreed that he has lots of great material, saying “I’m just the guy delivering the lines given to me by Jimmy Kimmel’s entire writing staff,” but he’s being too modest. And finally, just because baseball is in my genes doesn’t mean I was good enough to make it to the top, but I did get to pitch in the bullpen at Royals Stadium one day. Finally, I see a great future for our sport, because we have great people working to make that happen.
So there you have it… Can we please have another race now?
This blog installment is going to be all about racing, and fast cars, and amazing performance. That is, this blog will be all about those things if by racing, fast cars, and amazing performance you mean a two-day trip from Woodbury, Minn. to Liberty Lake, Wash., shared with a wonderful and patient spouse and two very good boyz of the feline variety.
With our NHRA schedule being a little off-kilter this year, we just finished a four-in-a-row series of races and now we have three weekends off. So I guess there actually is a little racing to write about, because people ask me about the schedule all the time, and negative comments often seem to be a part of those conversations. What I tell them is what I've learned spending an entire lifetime in sports.
Of all the difficult things that have to happen in team sports, scheduling is one of the toughest. Whether it's 162 Major League Baseball games, 82 National Hockey League games, or 24 NHRA Mello Yello races, fitting it all together while taking into account all the variables and the necessities, is akin to solving one of the toughest jigsaw puzzles you've ever attempted, where some of the pieces simply refuse to fit.
In the NHRA, we start with some givens. Every season is going to start and end in Pomona. Indy will always be on Labor Day. We can't race where there's snow on the ground. Okay, so you start there. You also don't want to race in two markets that are very close together in a short time span, if you can help it. And, you need to be aware of other major events, whether they be racing or not, that might be coming to race markets. In addition, you try to keep the route of travel for the teams in some sort of fluid system, so that you're not going back and forth across the entire continent continuously. Our races cover the United States, so there is always going to be a lot of long-haul travel, but there are ways to keep us in segments of the continent rather than have us going back and forth.
And then there's the weather. There is not a single race on the schedule where three days of perfect weather can be guaranteed. It's as simple as that. But, you try to steer clear of the obvious problem areas. We used to race in St. Louis at the end of June. I have no idea why, and as a native St. Louisan I would've been happy to speak up had I been invited to the meeting where that date was selected. We were racing in an oven. We tried racing the entire event at night, we tried flooding the overheated track with fire hoses, and we tried not to collapse. We now run in St. Louis in September.
There's one other automatic factor that dictates the schedule. It's called Labor Day. Since Indy always runs on Labor Day, and that date can fluctuate by a week, that creates a ripple effect before and after Indy. For example, this year Indy was raced as early as possible, on September 1, and next year it will be as late as it can possibly be, on September 7. That has an effect on the Western Swing, because you want to keep the same spacing of running those three races in a row before a week off, then Brainerd, then another week off before Indy. This year, the Western Swing ran from July 18 to August 3. Next year it will be July 24 to August 9.
So, as you can see it's not that easy. And every year ends up being a little different. Add in the input of the track owners and promoters, who might lobby to try a different race slot or a different time of year, and it's a real challenge.
And I didn't think I had any racing stuff to write about. Sometimes I surprise myself.
Okay, back to the topic at hand. I got home from Reading late on Monday afternoon, last week. We knew we were leaving Woodbury to head west on Thursday, and we were going to make the whole trip in two long days. In addition to getting our stuff ready, and getting the car ready, we also got Boofus and Buster ready, by putting their carriers in the living room three days ahead of the trip. They are very intelligent little guys, who can sense a shift in activity and immediately know that "something's up" in ways only smart animals can perceive. They also seem to have very long memories. This time, there was no stress and no pushback. They simply got ready just like we did.
On Thursday morning, none of us were too thrilled with the 5:00 alarm, especially the boyz, but I had everything ready to go. I had the car all prepared and backed into the garage. Inside was a suitcase, a new hammock perch for the boyz, a box of food for us, a small cooler full of water and tea, and a basket full of food for the cats. Also their two favorite blankets, food and water dishes, and a litter box way in the back.
Off we went. It was still dark when we pulled out of Woodbury, but we did manage to have to slog our way through some very early rush-hour traffic on I-694 going around the north side of the Twin Cities. Once we were out the other side, the only hard part was the rising sun in my rearview. I was happy to denote the 100-mile mark when the trip odometer cleared that first hurdle, marking roughly 1/14th of the trip as complete.
Traversing Minnesota isn't all that thrilling, but it's a regular laugh-riot compared to North Dakota. I've been across the width of Nebraska and Kansas, and North Dakota gives them a run for their boredom dollars. Still, I consider myself a safe and very focused driver, always keeping an eye on the other idiots and making sure I'm not sticking my nose into any potential trouble. That helps keep the boredom away, because I drive the whole way as if that particular mile is the only one that counts.
Fargo, Bismarck, and finally the Montana border, at around 3:00 pm with 600 or so miles in the bank. And we still had 258 more to go.
I had a copilot nearly the entire trip, and it was usually Boofus (although they did trade back and forth). That's kind of odd, because Boof is a momma's boy and he usually clings to Barb, but for some reason my lap has been his preferred location on the last two long trips. They'd often just get back in their carriers, as well, and Buster loved the new hammock perch. The only real calamity we suffered happened when Boofie was inside his carrier and Buster decided to sleep on the top of said carrier. That all went swimmingly until it collapsed. What a riot that was…
Montana is a state that is so big it starts out like the Midwest and ends up with spectacular mountains and some very technical driving on winding mountain roads with 75 mph speed limits. Unfortunately almost all of that fun is reserved for the second day, after we spent the night in Billings. I had hoped to get to the Residence Inn before dark but it just didn't happen and the last 45 minutes or so were spent on full deer alert. All across North Dakota and Montana, the carnage along the interstate is so continuous it's kind of scary, especially after dark, so I went into my "Super Alert Mode" despite the fact I'd just driven for 12 hours straight, and we made it in unscathed.
The boyz never made a peep as we carried them in and they, I swear, seemed to be right at home as if they remembered the room. We stayed at the same hotel, in an identical room, 13 months ago. We all relaxed, Barb whipped up some pasta for us in the full kitchen (another reason to stay at the Residence Inn) and before long it was impossible to stay awake.
With only about eight or nine hours to go on Friday, we didn't feel the need to beat the sunrise and we definitely needed the rest, so I think we were rolling at 10:00 or thereabouts. Off we went, still heading west toward some of the most enjoyable driving you can do. I love the focus it takes to smooth out the tight curves enough so that Barb doesn't even know we're turning while she's working on her laptop. And I get mad at myself when I miss an entry or an apex and have to yank on the wheel a little.
By the way, here's another example of how times have changed: Not only did Barb stay connected to the internet the whole way, using her air card, she also had a great phone signal the entire trip. That's fairly amazing, considering the vast amounts of nothingness we passed through, followed by huge mountains.
From Billings, we traversed the state through Bozeman, Butte, and Missoula, enjoying the scenery. Barb was often online researching mountains as we passed them, or other points of interest, and that ability makes the trip a lot more fun. See a strange mountain, Google it!
By the time we hit the Idaho border it was getting late in the afternoon and I was really road-weary, but I'm also smart enough to know that you can't lose your focus until you pull into the driveway. Once Coeur d'Alene came into view, we were almost there and counting the miles. On to Post Falls, and right to the Washington state line, where we could exit one ramp before the official Liberty Lake exit, in order to cut the corner off and get home a full minute earlier.
I'd say both boyz started to get the sense we were home again as we came down Molter Road. When we turned left at the golf course, Buster's ears were up and he was standing on my lap with his front paws on the top of the driver's side door. When we pulled into the neighborhood, and saw our house straight ahead, they were both getting talkative and anxious. I pulled in the garage and put the door down behind me, and then Barb and I each grabbed a boy and took them in. They knew exactly where they were, and you could almost see how happy they were to be back.
Co-pilot Boofus, helping me all the way...
The next day, both Boofus and Buster slept at least 12 hours straight. It had been a great trip, but for Barb the fun was only beginning. She needed to turn right around the next morning and fly right back to MSP. She's been teaching at St. Mary's University for a couple of months (in what was supposed to be her "spare time" but ended up being a ton of work) and her last class was last night, so she needed to get back and get prepared. Oh the life we lead…
After Barb headed for GEG to catch her flight, I went to the grocery store to stock up on provisions. We'd cleaned out most of everything when we left back in May, so $160 later I had pretty effectively restocked the pantry and the fridge.
And yes, the woman who checked me out said "It seems like I haven't seen you in a while. Have you been gone?" That's one of the benefits of living in a small town. People actually notice when you're gone. And when I took our clothes to the local dry cleaner, Pat smiled and said "Hello Mr. Wilber! Long time no see." I smiled.
That was all just a couple of days ago, but now I feel like I've been back here forever. Barb flies back in tonight, so she's still got a lot of transition to wrap her head around, I'm sure. Can't imagine how weird it must have been for her to get here on Friday night and fly right back to the Twin Cities on Saturday.
In short order, we'll be all settled and looking forward to fall and winter. It sounds like Barb's sister Kitty is planning on coming all the way up here again from Orlando, for Thanksgiving, and you know how much I look forward to that. Nothing like having family, great company, and a fabulous chef in the house for the holiday.
And we still have two weekends off before Las Vegas. On the second of the two, I'm actually flying back to MSP to take care of a few last details there. Then, just two more races and our 2014 season will be over. Didn't we just start?
Ah yes, fun with words. A homograph is a word that is spelled the same as another word, but has a different pronunciation and meaning. When you're holding a book in your hands, you're reading it. When you're reading that book at Maple Grove, you're reading in Reading. I'll ask you to excuse me, but that's no excuse. Now I'm going to wind this rubber band so that the propeller will create wind, and I'm going to lead this group by making everyone get the lead out. You're welcome.
What about Reading? People. Friday was as good as any Friday this year (and probably longer) in terms of attendance, and it only got better from there. Truly, Reading was packed (and yes, you're reading that right). The most impressive thing was the fact the pitside grandstand, which isn't necessarily big in terms of number of rows but it's very long, was filled for much of all three days, and that doesn't even count the fans who were 10-15 deep at the fence from end to end. Very impressive.
The weather. Going into the race, we were all simultaneously keeping an eye on the forecasts while we also discounted them, because it's so hard to predict the weather in that part of the country (as we all know from experience). Even midweek, right before the race, it looked like "sunny and warm" on Friday, rain all day on Saturday, and sunny but cool on Sunday. Instead, the rain for Saturday politely came in a little early and we had overnight showers after racing was done on Friday. The rain was gone by mid-morning on Saturday and it never came back.
It did leave behind a green track, so that had to be addressed on Saturday before we could run, but the Safety Safari is the best in the world and by Q4 we were flying. Sunday was chilly, but the fans came back in massive numbers and the racing was great. All in all, Maple Grove gets an A+ grade for a fabulous weekend.
The racing. Fast. We did a good job getting down the track well in Q1, but then stumbled in the other three sessions. That set us up against Robert Hight in round one, and we got the win when Wilk managed to get the LRS car well down track before the tires began to spin, while Robert had traction issues right away. We raced Jeff Arend in round two, and at first we all just thought our car was slow (while Jeff made a GREAT run in the other lane) but once we got back to the pit we saw where we'd had a spark plug break on us, and with the plug missing that leaves a hole in the valve cover. Out of that hole comes fire. Tim said there was quite a bit of it in the cockpit, and the loss of that plug explains why we slowed down so much at the top end.
The points. We're still in ninth, and still aiming to move up some more at the last two races.
The travel. Smooth. Harrisburg is such a great little airport to use, and it's even closer to Reading than Philly, so I'm all about Harrisburg. Leah Hook and I met at Detroit, making our connections, so she once again rode with me and we, once again, had to hustle to get her back to the airport on Sunday, after we were done racing. The traffic at Maple Grove can often be described by the word "gridlock" when everyone is trying to leave at once, so we made sure to get out of there during the semifinals and I dropped her at the curb right at 4:00. Bam!
I stayed at a hotel near the airport (rhymes with Shmeraton) and boy that was an adventure. The desk staff was really great, and very friendly, and when they sent me on my way up to the seventh floor (corner room) I was looking forward to relaxing for the rest of the evening, but then I turned the corner in the hallway and thought "Hmmmm. I wonder why those big fans are blowing on the carpet down by that last room on the left?" Yup. That would've been my corner room. The carpets were soaked.
I spun around and dragged my stuff back down to the lobby, and the desk people apologized profusely before giving me the key to another room. On the floor right below the first one. I guess I was too tired to even connect those dots and question the selection, but as soon as I got in there, I heard the drips…
You got it, water flows downhill and in this case the soaked carpets from the room above were now dripping through the ceiling in the room below. After another call to the friendly folks at the desk, two hotel employees immediately came up to the room so that I wouldn't have to lug my stuff back down, and they gave me some new keys, for a room on the top floor. They also helped me take all of my stuff up there, and as I approached the room I did sorta wonder why there was a plaque on the wall next to the door. It said "Susquehanna Suite".
It was huge. It also included a living room, a bedroom, two baths, and a full formal dining table with seating for eight. I was seven friends short of being able to fill it, but it sure was a hoot to spend the night there.
One other cool part of the weekend was our hospitality on Saturday. I've been trying to come up with various ways to make the afternoon more memorable for our LRS guests, and twice this year I've taken winner's jackets with me to give away. In Reading, I decided to give away a jacket AND a Wally!
The only concerns when doing that are that the jacket won't fit or the Wally will be won by a six-year-old who immediately throws it on the ground. Fortunately, I've been lucky enough to draw numbers out of the hat for people who were basically over the moon to have won those things. And I'm over the moon when I see those faces absolutely light up. I've also cut the clutter at home, but I think most of the rest of my stuff from race wins will stay with me. At least for 2014, because we're done doing hospitality for this season. Felt good to give that stuff away and send them off to good homes.
Absolutely packed. Maple Grove was rocking...
And now…. Let's go to back to Liberty Lake!
We're about ready to go, but I still have to get all my racing apparel back from the cleaners today before I can pack. Boofus and Buster's carriers have been on the living room floor for a few days, and I can tell they both know something is up. They're very perceptive when it comes to things being "different" at home, even in just the energy level or how we're going about things. Hopefully, they'll settle right in like they have on the other cross-country treks and we'll have an uneventful drive.
Tomorrow, we'll try to be rolling by 6:00 a.m. and we won't stop until we get to Billings, Montana. That should take about 13 hours, and a lot of it is pretty boring, but it will only leave us about 8 hours of driving on Friday, to make it back to our lovely little home on the golf course. I'm sure the boyz will be excited to be back there, and one thing Barbara and I will enjoy is having two TVs again! I'm sure most of you who are married can relate to that. We're very fortunate to enjoy a lot of the same programs on TV, but "a lot" isn't quite the same as "all" so it's a good option to have a second TV available.
What's a bit crazy is that we'll be back home out there on Friday evening. What do you think Barb will be doing on Saturday afternoon? Yep, flying right back here. She's wrapping up her first semester of teaching at St. Mary's University in Minneapolis, and since her class is on Monday nights she'll be back here a couple of more times. I'm already scheduled to come back here for a couple of days on the weekend before Vegas, so it doesn't really yet feel like we're truly going back full-time, but in effect we are.
Sorry for this being so short, but it seems like a million things are swirling around us right now, and Barb is buried with work and on conference calls all day. That would explain why Boofie is under the bed…
Next time I'm on here, I'll be back in my comfortable office in Liberty Lake. Looking forward to it!
Wow. The fact this playoff crunch starts with a four-in-a-row makes it a bit crazy for racers and PR people, as we scramble around the country to get to races, get the work done, and move right on to the next one. I apologize for being AWOL, but the last couple of weeks have been a blur.
Dallas in a nutshell: Very few crickets, a semifinal finish, a hot track, a good-running race car, and a move up one notch in the points. And the only reason we didn't run in the final round was the fact my buddy Del and his DHL guys made the absolute run of the weekend in the semifinal. We ran great, he ran off-the-charts fantastic.
Our new girl Leah was with us in Dallas, and she got help in the hospitality area from a local young man by the name of Kevin, who we hired for the day on Saturday. Leah had a somewhat implausible departure time for her flight home, at something like 5:45 on Sunday, and even on Sunday morning before we warmed the car up we were discussing the possibilities there. With the Texas Motorplex being so far from DFW, it's about an hour even with no traffic and despite race day being Sunday you should never assume you'll run into no traffic in a town like Dallas, we were doing the math backward from when we felt she needed to be at her terminal. Our first thought was "If we make it to the semifinal you'll have to change your flight" but after we won in the second round I told her "Just hold on. If we win and go to the final, change your flight. But, if we don't win and we can still get out of here by 3:30, we'll give it a shot."
We didn't win (see the aforementioned reference to Del's fantastic lap) and it was 3:25 when we got back to the pit. Nick had a flight home to New Jersey at a more reasonable hour, and I was spending the night at the DFW Hyatt so I could catch my flight in the morning, but I was the taxi driver for both of them so what resulted was basically a fire drill. Within mere minutes we were in my rental car and headed north. I don't recall what time we dropped Leah at the curb, but she took off running and this weekend recounted how it all went well until she was stuck in the TSA line behind a guy who apparently had every banned item in his carry-on, and they were being taken out and looked at one at a time. Finally, even the TSA agents lost all patience with the guy and they let her swoop around him. She made her flight, Nick made his, and I got a good night's sleep before making mine.
Speaking of good nights' sleep, I failed to stay awake past 9:00 on all three nights at the Dallas race. It was hot, humid, and the racing days were lengthy, so each night I'd head back to our hotel in Waxahachie and struggle to keep my eyes open at all.
There's a more direct connection between the Dallas and St. Louis races other than simply the fact they are back-to-back on the schedule. As it turned out, we broke a key clutch component in the semifinal, but didn't discover that until the guys put the motor together for Q1 in St. Louis, on Friday. We put a brand new piece on, and as clutch parts so often do it acted a little different than the old familiar piece. It took Tim three runs just to figure out what it wanted in order to get the car down the track. For Sunday, he had another older piece brought down from the shop in Springfield, just to minimize the chance we'd smoke the tires at the hit or something goofy like that.
Clutch parts (other than the discs and floaters themselves) are truly rare beasts in a Funny Car. They can not only last for years, they can last for many years. They're sort of the big loping elephants in this circus, and they're very durable. Because of that, they tend to take on a personality and the tuners can adapt the rest of the set-up to how they know the clutch will work. When a critical piece breaks, it throws everything for a loop. We're all good now, though. Smart guy at the controls.
The brief time between the STL and DFW was filled with column writing, press releases, and coordination of our big surprise for Dick Levi at Gateway Motorsports Park. Then, in the blink of an eye, I was on my way to MSP to fly down to Lambert Airport in my old home town. First thing on the agenda was to meet my niece Kim and her boyfriend Chris at Farotto's for, as Kimbo put it, "A Farotto's marathon festival of pizza and toasted ravioli." We did just that, and I had enough of my large deluxe pizza left to take half of it back to the hotel in Clayton. Successful outing on all counts, I'd say.
Plus, the fun news was that as Chris and Kim got up to leave he said "We need to get home, because we're leaving early in the morning and she doesn't know where we're going." Kim rolled her eyes, as if she figured it was something corny, but the text photo I got two days later explained it better. He flew her to Sarasota and proposed on the beach! So he's not Kim's boyfriend anymore. He's her fiancé. Congrats to both of them, and it was all made even better by the chance to get together at Farotto's.
Once the racing started on Friday, there was little else we could do other than man all battle stations and keep going. At "normal" races with LRS, we have a big crowd of guests on Saturday and very few on Friday or Sunday, but with LRS being located just an hour and a half north in Springfield, we were at capacity for all three days at Gateway and that didn't even factor in the auxiliary tent they rented trackside, where a few hundred more folks were having fun.
On Friday evening, I did something I've never done before and likely will never do again, but I had the blessing of the boss so it was all approved. I left not long after Q1 and headed back to my hotel in Clayton, over on the Missouri side of the river. There, I got cleaned up, put on fresh clothes, and listened to the audio-cast until Wilk made his run on Friday night, under the lights. Still dealing with the clutch issues, we smoked the tires, but after I fired off a tweet or two I went back to my car and drove east just a couple of miles, to St. Louis University High, for my 40th class reunion.
So much has changed, grown, and improved at SLUH over the years, and I've only been available to attend two other reunions with the last one being 20 years ago, so I actually had to email the reunion administrator to find out where we were supposed to park, because our old parking lot has long since been replaced by new facilities as the school has bought up the entire neighborhood that used to surround it, in order to expand and improve. It was a marvel to walk in through an entire sports complex that didn't exist the last time I was there, and they had all the lights on so we could see the football, baseball, soccer, and track venues. Amazing. There's a new gym as well, and our old gym has been coverted to meeting space, but the core classroom building isn't much different than it was when the class of '74 graduated. It's a little old and historic, if by that you mean it was built in 1924.
I was thrilled to see everyone, and recognized a bunch of guys on sight, but even more thrilled to see that Bob Mitchell, Marc Hollabaugh, and Bill Signaigo were there. The four of us were a tight bunch in our SLUH days and I've only seen Mitch and Marc a couple of times over the last four decades. I hadn't seen Sig since graduation.
Mitch and I were partners in crime the summer after our graduation, when we took off in my Volkswagen Beetle, with it stuffed to the roof with everything we could cram inside. We drove out west to meet up with my dad's Spokane Indians team in Sacramento, then went to Honolulu with the club on a road trip, before coming back and driving up to Tacoma, then over to Spokane. It was the summer of Expo '74, so we timed it just right. You can read about that entire adventure (and much more) here:
A lot of the guys I went to school with (and I only went to school with guys, since it's an all-boys school) were from The Hill in South St. Louis, and you therefore might understand why the names Michael Castellano, Ricky Randazzo, Derio Gambaro, and Johnny Iovaldi were relevant. Lots of Italian history on The Hill, and lots of Italian food as well. It was also great to see Bob Macauley, the son of "Easy Ed" Macauley a former NBA great and longtime friend of the Wilber family. Bob was actually the first face I saw when I walked in the room and he came right over to shake my hand.
I was back in my hotel room by about 9:30 but I was quite a bit wound up from the experience so it was closer to 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. when I finally fell asleep. Up at 6:30 and out the door for the single biggest day of racing we get to experience all year.
Our pitside hospitality was jammed to the rafters with special guests and just as I was wondering what time the LRS jet might land at nearby Parks Airport, I called Dick Levi's number and he answered saying "Hi Bob. We just landed. I guess we'll be there in about 20 minutes."
My job, then, was to head out to the main entrance on Route 203 and inform the guards that my sponsor was on his way in a big black limo and that I'd escort them in. When limos are involved, even State Troopers understand the importance, and everyone was great. They even stopped traffic to let Dick and his entourage into the facility.
Once everyone was on the golf cart with me, I simply told Dick "Hey look, we have a big surprise for you today so just tell me you'll go along with it and not ask questions. I also need you to come to the starting line with us for the first run today." Dick is always in "have fun mode" when he's at the races, so he just laughed and said "okay" but the bottom line was he had no idea at all what we had planned for him.
If you saw the race coverage on ESPN you know what we did. 2014 is the 35th anniversary year since the founding of LRS, by Dick Levi, Roger Ray, and Bob Shoup. Dick took over sole ownership of the company after a few years and he is still the owner and President, but LRS now has more than 600 employees and they do business around the world. They are true industry leaders in many facets of today's modern Information Technology arena. It's quite a success story, and we're a big part of their marketing efforts, so that makes us all proud.
It's also the 15th anniversary for the LRS sponsorship of Team Wilkerson, so those two things combined gave Tim the idea to have Greg Ozubko design a special commemorative paint scheme, and we managed to get that done, get the car painted, have some vinyl and decals added, and kept it a total secret. When Dick arrived in the pit, the body was on the stand but with a cover over it. He never even blinked.
We took four of his guests up to the Sponsor Viewing area at the front base of the tower, so that gave me the excuse to make sure I had Dick in view at all times so that he couldn't wander off and get away from me. Then, as our car came out from under the tower I grabbed him and said "Let's go to the line with the team" and that's the first time he had a bit of a quizzical look. "You mean go up to the line?" he said, as he looked at the car being pushed up with the cover still on it. "Something funny is going on here" he said, and I just replied "You're going to love this."
Tom Compton, Graham Light, and track owner Curtis Francois then appeared, and they all shook Dick's hand and thanked him for everything he's done for us and the sport, then Alan Reinhart announced that something special was about to happen and he sent it down to Nathan Hirsche who had a microphone pointed at me with a camera man next to him. I gave a quick little speech about LRS and the amazing I.T. work they do and how much they do for us and what valued partners they are, and then I said "So Dick, we've got a little surprise for you. Go ahead guys" and the boys pulled the cover off. Dick had a priceless look on his face, and he muttered "Oh my goodness, this is fantastic" as he stared wide-eyed at the incredible paint job and fantastic design. It was all pretty priceless, really.
We ended up having to make a good lap in Q4 just to get in, but we did that and we felt pretty good about how things were going. We felt even better when Matt Ilas brought his ESPN camera to our pit so that Tim could surprise Dick a second time, telling him that this body wasn't a one-race body, it was a one-day body and now it belonged to Dick, to add to his collection of classic cars. I think this one was, indeed, fairly classic.
Making all things LRS proud for St. Louis
Sunday was another huge day, and I thought we had a decent chance of taking out Tommy Johnson in round one, but just like the semifinal in Dallas we ran great but Tommy ran even better. His 4.12 beat our 4.14 and our day was over.
I flew home last night, after trying to get on an earlier flight via standby but failing, and to get to the airport I crossed over the gorgeous new Mississippi River bridge, just north of downtown and the Arch, and it truly is a marvelous piece of engineering. What's better is that it's called the Stan Musial Memorial Bridge. A legend already, Stan now lives on once again "connecting St. Louisans" like he always did. And yes, locasl are already calling it "the Stan Span".
So now it's Monday and this blog was the first thing on my list, just because I've been so remiss in my duties as of late.
Next on the list is to finalize all my stats and print all of my clippings from the St. Louis race, then write my Reading preview story and format all my pages for that event. I head out on Thursday and Leah will meet me at the Detroit airport, where we'll both be connecting for our flight to Harrisburg. From there, it's a quick one-hour hop over to Reading.
Once I get back from that race, on Monday (fingers crossed, with a nod to decades of dealing with the weather at Maple Grove) I'll be home on Monday night and we'll be loading up the boyz in my car early on Thursday morning, to make the long trip back to Liberty Lake for the winter. I'm going bold this time, and not just chopping a few hours off the front end with a short day followed by two long ones. Instead, it will be two very long days, as we'll leave before dawn to make the trip all the way from Woodbury to Billings, Montana. On Friday we'll just about match that distance, going from Billings to Liberty Lake. Let the adventure begin again!
First things first, though. Next stop Maple Grove!