Dear Pomona... We'll be back in NovemberMonday, February 18, 2013

I'm starting this blog in the Sky Club at SLC, waiting for my connection to head home to good old GEG, which is the Spokane airport code only because the airport was originally named Geiger Field (I'm full of this useless information.) I'll get it started here, and then try to finish on the next flight before I have to turn everything off when we descend. As you know, all electronic devices must be powered off and stowed at this time, while seat backs and tray tables must be in their original upright and locked positions.

Pomona is over. I took the time to chat with a number of the fine people who work there, whether they scan tickets and hard cards at the gate, open and close doors to get from the staging lanes to the tower, or supervise those staging lanes to keep fans from accidentally getting into secure areas that can be dangerous. We get to go there because we sign our lives away every year to get these hard cards. As I left on Sunday, late in the afternoon, I made sure to say goodbye to my temporary friends and told them I'd see them all in November. Things will be much different then, as championships are decided.

As for my brief editorial today, it concerns that last sentence. Before the Countdown, we'd see championships decided at a variety of races late in the season, sometimes well before we ever got to Pomona. Now, recent history tells us you can ramp up your excitement level and get ready for some incredible drama when we reconvene at Auto Club Raceway to conclude the season. Championships are almost always totally up for grabs and very often are decided very late in the day, if not in the final round. Hey, it wouldn't be any fun to crown the New York Yankees (or anyone else) World Champions on September 13th, just because they had more wins than any other team could possibly accumulate. Playoff sports are incredible. Just ask any NHL player who has ever hoisted Lord Stanley's Cup.

Okay, back to the Winternationals... Krista Wilkerson and I were talking about the weather on Sunday, and although I'm sure any meteorologist worth his 25-percent accuracy rate would dispute this, it seems like Pomona kind of sets the table for the rest of the year. Get lousy weather in Pomona, and you're apt to see the weather patterns follow you like that for much of the season. This time, if our theory holds true, we're going to have an amazing season. Four (count 'em, four) days of incredible, sublime, perfect weather. Blue skies, great temperatures, rarely more than a light breeze, and sheer perfection. Whoever was in charge of the weather for this one, I give them an A+, two thumbs up, and a gold star. Bravo!

I got in on Wednesday, and checked at the front desk inside the Holiday Inn - Ontario to see if any boxes were waiting for me, thinking I might have one or two. Instead, I had three. One from Vicci, with all of our uniform shirts tucked neatly within, one from Mac Tools with some new sheets of decals for me, and finally a long rectangular box from Ford (more accurately, from Lesley Nadeau who represents them at their agency) and within that box was a supply of Ford Racing Winner's Circle hats, ready for us when we get there this year. We will use them, I'm sure of that.

On Thursday, it was out to the track for the first day of school. That first day is all about racing, but it's also about seeing a lot of people for the first time since last November, and many handshakes, hugs, and conversations are shared. I got all the new shirts out of the Vicci box and hung them up in the closet for the guys, while I also finished up the newly painted body with its last few decals, including the Mello Yello decal on the wing that makes it "legal" along with the Traxxas Shootout, Mandalay Bay, and a few others I didn't have in Vegas. By 2:30, when it was time to make our first qualifying pass, the body was ready.

After that qualifying pass, which magically and surprisingly landed us 9th after one session, I spent a most uncomfortable and grimy hour cleaning massive quantities of 70 wt. synthetic racing oil off the underside of our gorgeous Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang. We had a little gasket problem on the run, and when the gasket opened it created a shower of oil that spread from the underside of the nose right back to the fire wall.

I grabbed a black t-shirt I didn't mind ruining, an older hat that would later be trashed, kicked the rolling stool under the body, picked up a stack of terry towels, a ton of paper towels, and three cans of Brake Clean and got to work. In retrospect, it was so thickly attached to the underside of the hood I really should've taken a tray and a squeegee and just scraped the first layer off. What a dirty job it was, and by the time I got done the contortions hadn't done my neck or knees any favors, but I was the one person really available to do it so there was no hesitation. For the record, we kept it clean for the rest of the weekend.

On Friday, our friends from T-Shirts Unlimited came down to hand-deliver our new pit t-shirts and sweatshirts, so I met them at the hotel around 8:30, transferred the goods to my car, and headed back out to the track. It was another great day, but we smoked the tires at the hit to end up 11th going into Saturday. Hmmm... The guys were working hard, and they seem to be coming together as a team more and more, but there's no getting around the fact that real racing is a baptism of fire. You can't practice it, you just have to experience it. With time, they'll be as fast and as good as anybody, and with our veteran guys showing leadership they'll be consistent and detailed.

On Saturday, we got it right. Two laps and two good results. Our 4.099 in Q3 took about 1.5 tons of pressure off, so we just followed that up with a 4.095 on the final pass, and both runs were clean and safe, right down the middle. You wouldn't think 4-thousandths of a second would do much for your placement, but it actually moved us up from 9th to 8th, and although that meant we still had to race Matt Hagan, it meant we did so with lane choice. It also pretty much made it certain that we'd be the final pair with, therefore, the shortest amount of turn-around time for the winner to get ready for the next round. But hey, starting the season with a top-half qualifying effort was a good thing, and I was proud of Tim and the whole gang. Great work, fellas.

Then came Sunday. We had to wait until 9:30 to start the car, thanks to noise restrictions at the track (which are totally understandable if you consider we make a very effective alarm clock for people sleeping in for miles around) and soon enough it was time to head up there for driver introductions.

Most notable, it was the first time we've done that without Bob Frey in a very long time (ever?) but Alan Reinhart stepped right in and was a great host. We all got to mill around backstage, to catch up on things, and before you knew it they were firing the first pair. If you saw Top Fuel on ESPN2, you know it was one of the most amazing rounds in recent history, with pair after pair streaking down the track side-by-side, while many of the races were won by inches. The track was great, the air was good, and it was on. And then the Funny Cars, for whatever reason, showed it could also be a challenge. Tire smoke, wild sashays. and crazy races were the norm, while we got to watch it all happen thanks to our final pairing placement in the lanes.

We fired it up, Tim did the burnout, and it was a feeling of "Here we go, let's get this season started" for all of us. Tim and Matt prestaged. Then they both rolled in to light the bottom halves of the blue bulbs. Then... Time stood still. 1.33 seconds isn't that long of a time, unless you're waiting for the amber bulbs to flash, and at about 1.32 seconds Timmy's foot couldn't wait anymore. He hit the throttle a fraction early and his brain knew it before his foot did, so without even having time to process it mentally that brain lifted then immediately hit the pedal again. It was a red light start with a double-step, and our weekend was over.

Okay, time to get to my gate. I'll finish this on the plane and hopefully I'll even be able to send it in from there.

Back in a few... To facilitate our boarding process, please stow your bags and step out of the aisle as quickly as possible, to let those behind you pass by and get to their seats...


Welcome back! Or maybe you should welcome me back. Either way, we're cruising the north-northwest having left the gate in SLC an entire 12 minutes early. On board with us, the Washington State University Cougar baseball team. With their matching Nike track suits, bags, and shoes, they travel in ways we did not as Southern Illinois University- Edwardsville Cougars. For one thing, we never flew. Even on our road trips to Florida and the Carolinas, we were on a bus. Much fun...

Okay, back to Pomona musings...

We were all disappointed after losing in round one, but no one was more upset than Tim. As I wrote on Facebook, you can watch NHRA Drag Racing for years and never see Tim Wilkerson do that. He was beating himself up a little, up in the lounge, although there was no drama or any of that (there never is) but within a few minutes the whole thing turned around to realizing how lucky we'd been, instead of the alternative. Once the guys started servicing the motor, they discovered the main bearings were blackened, and that's an indication of major motor problems that often end very badly.

Basically, if Tim would not have red-lit, and if he would've legged it down there in an effort to win, we might've been picking up a bunch of very small bits of the motor, if not the body. Bearings that look like that, after only having run about 100 feet, are telling you that a complete detonation was not far off.

So how about that for a strange and bizarre end to our first race? Pretty crazy, if you ask me...

A few odd Pomona ramblings, and then I'll fire this off.

I had room service every night, and it was really good. Cobb Salad (no bleu cheese, please) two nights, a California Club Sandwich (add avocado) one night, and Buffalo chicken strips with ranch the other nights. And, because I'm old, I was in bed by 9:00 every evening. Got lots of great sleep, despite the early wake-ups each day.

As we were heading into ONT on the flight down, I checked my email and saw my update from Hertz, which told me what kind of car they had waiting for me (a Chrysler 300) and what spot it was in. Then I got another one, and it was an update to tell me they had changed my car to a brand-spanking new crossover SUV. Well then... Okay. It had 8 miles on it, and was a pretty sweet ride, but the best part of it was the Bose stereo. Wow... I tuned in my favorite Sirius XM channel and as the first song ended the DJ came on and clapped a couple of times, because it was his currently favorite song. I'm telling you, when he clapped my heart stopped for a second and chills ran through every nerve in my body, because it absolutely sounded like someone was in the back seat clapping. The adrenalin rush took a full minute to subside.

At the track, we had a nice end spot in the pro pits, right by the tunnel that leads under the main grandstand, so after a lap it was easy to walk up the return road about 50 yards and turn left. Very nice!

All through the weekend, I saw so many nice blog readers, who took the time to wave or shake my hand. The best part of this epic marathon of blog writing has been all of you. So many sincerely nice and appreciative people, and I'm always a little stunned but honored when I meet you.

Our Super Wilk Warrior friends, Jim and Nancy Butler, were there for the weekend and they once again included their Saturday tradition in Pomona. Instead of coming into the track, they join a few other people just outside, on the sidewalk across Fairplex Drive, and "follow" the racing by hearing the cars fly down the track and then looking up to see the big screen. What a cool tradition, by two kooky (I mean that in the best possible way) people.

On Sunday, Grant Delgatty came by to say hi. Who is he? Well, back in the middle CSK years Grant was one of the chief designers for Vans Shoes, and we got introduced to each other by a mutual colleague. While the powers that be at Vans saw the company as only serving the skateboard and BMX worlds, Grant knew the drag racing crowd was a good target too, and he convinced his boss to let him outfit us in tons of Vans gear. We all had shoes, shirts, and hats for a couple of years there, until Vans changed hands and Grant left the company. As I told him on Sunday, for all he did for us during those years, I'll always have tickets for him when he wants to come to the races.

The oddest part about the Winternationals is the "time compression" aspect of it. On the first day, it's clearly the first day of the season (first day of school) and a lot of what goes on in the pit area or Media Center is connected to that, as we all say hello and catch up. By Sunday, it might as well be June. It's as if we put months of racing behind us in a matter of four days. Very strange, but it never fails to be like that...

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Reader Nathan Wise sent me this. GREAT SHOT!
Weird thing about how different I am in a hotel room versus being at home. At home, it's normal for me to decompress at the end of the day with a few hours of random TV. In a hotel room, I almost never turn it on...

Why is that? First of all, I'm not a real watcher of network series, so I typically watch TV at home by surfing around channels like ESPN, MLB, NHL, HGTV, and other channels where "real stuff" is going on. I can watch sports, or watch shows like "Storage Wars" or "Restaurant Impossible" or "Chopped" for a couple of hours every night before going to bed, but hotel rooms often don't have those channels.

The other reason is more based on insomnia. I have the insomnia gene, and I've known it since childhood when my sister Mary would immediately fall asleep and my spinning brain would keep me up for hours. It got really bad when I was in my 30s, and I finally saw a doctor who gave me all sorts of tips and techniques to manage it, and one of those tips was to never have a TV in my bedroom. Barbara and I have never had a TV in our room, because the bedroom is for sleeping, not watching television. For anyone who has ever suffered from insomnia, the key is to establish a routine that leads up to going to sleep. If I turn the TV on in my hotel room, I'm apt to stay up for hours watching it. Not good...

I did tune into the ESPN2 coverage of eliminations when I got back to the hotel, though, and thought it was great. I traded Facebook posts and emails with Dave Rieff, just to tell him how fantastic he did, and it was fun to get his gracious reply. Rieffer and Mike Dunn are a terrific announcing duo, and with Gary Gerould, John Kernan, and Jamie Howe as reporters, I think we have the best TV crew ever.

Okay, we're coming up into southeastern Washington, so it's time to wrap this up.

Tomorrow, a preview feature story to write, dry cleaning to get done, and another acupuncture appointment. On Thursday, back through SLC to get from GEG to PHX. By Friday, we'll be smelling the nitro again but this time we'll be in Chandler, Arizona...

Back soon. Thanks again, everyone, for all of your great support.

Wilber, out!