Two down, 22 to go...Tuesday, February 26, 2013

What a whirlwind way to start the season! I was really tired by the time I got home on Monday night after the Phoenix race, and as I pondered all the possible reasons for my noteworthy amount of lethargy, including all-time favorites like old age and dilapidation, it hit me that with the pre-Pomona test session in Vegas we had successfully started the season out with a 3-in-a-row swing of the Southwest, hereafter unofficially referred to as the Southwestern Early-Season Swing. Doesn't have quite the same ring to it as the Western Swing, does it?

As you surely know (and don't call me Shirley) we had a pretty good weekend in the desert. Just like Pomona, it took us a while to figure out the whole qualifying concept, needing to actually get to Saturday before we ran well, but when we figured it out we did so in quality fashion, and for the second time in two races we ended up in the No. 8 spot. When you look at all the extremely high-quality cars and teams in the class, just being in the top half is an accomplishment.

Our new guys have really been going through their baptism, even to the point of yanking the heads off the car and then bolting them back on about 25 times on Thursday, just for practice. Their ability to get us turned around and back out there for Q4, when we stepped up to the 8th spot, was a positive sign, and although we were all still a bit concerned about how it was going to go if we started winning rounds on Sunday, at least some of our trepidation was alleviated (big words that mean we were a little less worried).

As you also surely know (Shirley) the weather was a big topic in Phoenix, but at least nothing wet was involved. Friday and Saturday were just about perfect, and the sublime weather on the second of those two days must have given a bunch of fence-sitters the push they needed to head out to Firebird for qualifying, because the walk-up was big and the crowd was impressive. I had really only being paying attention to the little icon of the sun on the weather forecasts, to make sure we weren't supposed to get wet while we were there (or snowed on, like it did earlier in the week!), and I hadn't really noticed the call for cooler conditions on Sunday. Silly me.

As soon as I walked out of my hotel room, at the wonderful Hampton Inn & Suites in Tempe, where they take incredible care of us and once again had the "Welcome Team Wilkerson" banner up over the lobby doors, I felt the snap of the cool air and the brunt of what was a steady wind. I turned around and went back in for my jacket.

Yes, we all know what really cold weather is like (I lived in Minnesota for 11 years, after all) and no it wasn't 5-below with a blizzard bearing down upon us, but when it's 53 and the wind is blowing 25 mph you better be dressed for it. Unlike snowmobilers and ice fishermen, we are not typically dressed for that, and we were all cold. Like really cold. And wind blasted, too.

So, you see, Firebird Raceway is in the desert, right? (Answer: Right). The desert is made up of cacti, sand, dirt, and a lot of dust. Run a 25-30 mph wind over that topography and a lot of that stuff (okay, not the cacti) are going to be included in every breath you take, not to mention the fact all that particulate matter is going to get blown on the race track as well. Let's just say it was a challenging day, weather wise, on Sunday.

I left the hotel at about 7:20, after retrieving my jacket, and arrived at the track about 20 minutes later. Interestingly, the parking situation for those of us with "hard card" parking credentials, was a bit "fluid" during the three days. We enter through Gate 2, which is right behind the tower, and there's a huge reserved lot just to the left after you pull in. For the last, oh, 12 years or more, our Media parking passes got all of us PR flacks into that lot, where the Gold Key and Red Key passes also earned admission, and since you can walk right into the facility from the lot, it's very convenient to the pits. This year, when I got there on Friday the guy at the gate was absolutely unwavering in his demand that my Media pass only allowed me to turn right, go around the suite tower, behind the grandstands on the right side of the track, and then hopefully I could find a spot over there on the opposite side of the facility from the pits. Outstanding!

On Saturday, it was the same guy but his attitude had softened. He still wanted me to go around to that far more inconvenient lot, but at least he wasn't being such a... Ummm. Such a... Such a strict enforcer of the rules he'd either been given or had made up. Then, on Sunday, I pulled up to the gate and he said "You can go either way. It's up to you." Really? Well, do I even have to say that I turned left and parked in the Gold Key lot? No, I do not. And yes, I did.

As the morning progressed, we stayed bundled up and those of us who do not work on the race car were quickly able to discern that one particular spot in the hospitality area, right next to the table Annette is usually behind as she checks our guests in, was the one warm spot in the place. Bob Tasca's transporter effectively blocked the wind, the sun was on us, and it felt almost comfortable. Any time I'd venture over into the actual pit area, where our guys were as bundled up as they could be, it was at least 25 degrees colder and the wind was whipping, making the awning snap in the ceaseless breeze. I tried to find as many reasons to help out Annette as I could.

Finally, we got the race underway and we had to face off against my buddy Del Worsham. That's weird enough, but before that could happen I was backstage at driver introductions, chatting with Jeff Arend and Phil Burkart as Johnny Gray stood nearby, and we all realized we had 75 percent of the CSK blue team drivers in one place. We were only missing Frankie Pedregon, who I have not seen in a few years. So I work for Wilk, and we were facing Del, while Jeff, Phil, and Johnny all made the show. Add in the fact I saw a number of ex-CSK employees throughout the weekend, and it was almost like old times.

As all of you Shirleys must know, we got by Del, and then we got by Robert Hight with our best run of the weekend, before our day ended in the semifinals against Ron Capps, who would go on to run the table with a very consistent and very fast race car. So now we're 2-2 on the season and we're tied with John Force for 7th place in the standings. And just think, only 16 more races left in the regular season!

Our guys got better every round, and we even swapped motors before the semis and had it fired in 44 minutes, so that's all positive stuff. Frankly, it was just really good to get that first round win out of the way, and then pick up another one while we were at it. Every baseball season of my life I started with zero hits, and the sooner you could get the first one the easier the rest seemed to come. Go 0-for-4 for a couple of games in a row, and you start to press...

Phoenix ramblings...

Speaking of baseball, there was plenty of cross-pollination of sports going on. Randy Johnson, the Big Unit himself, was there all weekend in a photographer's vest, shooting pics trackside. He's become an avid photographer, and he's basically impossible to miss out there, at about 6'10". Marc Gewertz, who shoots for the National Dragster, is probably about 5'8" and when he and Randy would shoot next to each other it was quite a sight.

On Sunday, Rick Quezada from NHRA pointed out a group of guys near the starting line, and one of them was former MLB pitcher Andy Ashby. Andy and I met at a race track about 10 years ago, and we've taken the time to chat a little every time he comes out. This time, he brought along former reliever Tim Worrell who pitched for a bunch of teams in his major league career (Padres, Indians, Tigers, A's, Orioles, Cubs, Giants, Phillies, Diamondbacks) and former 3rd baseman Dean Palmer (Tigers, Royals, Rangers). They were all having a big time at the drags, and it was great to catch up with Andy and meet the other guys.

In our pit, we had our buddy Gerald Meux with us, along with his girlfriend Kari, his mom Nadine, and his dad Gerald Sr., who owns a restaurant in Phoenix. When Gerald is in the house, we eat like royalty. Many thanks to a great guy, his awesome girlfriend (a Minnesota girl who had her Minnesota Wild sweatshirt on when it was chilly) and his very special parents.

I had my FitBit (Dingbat) device on my belt the whole weekend, and despite the fact we had our golf cart there I chose to walk to and from the staring line every time, while also mixing in three or four trips up to the tower per day, as well. The dingbat sets a target for you, of 10,000 steps per day, and the only way I can hit that target or even come close, here at home, is to go for a long walk in the evening. Long walks, it turns out, are not necessary on race weekends.

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The boys stop in the Arizona countryside before arriving. If you can find Kevin Wilkerson, you have good eyes. He's there!
I creamed 10,000 steps each day, and on both Saturday and Sunday I cleared 15,000. With that in mind, I accepted a cart ride out to my car when our day was done on Sunday and I needed to get Nick Casertano to the Phoenix airport in a jiffy. And then I rewarded myself with a Double-Double from the In-N-Out that's right by the hotel on Scottsdale Road. And I still burned a ton more calories than I consumed.

On Sunday, at the aforementioned driver introductions, Tom Compton himself stated clearly that NHRA has a very good relationship with the Gila River Community, and the plan is to be racing at Firebird again next year. We knew Charlie Allen was unable to renew his lease with the tribe, and rumors about the track's closing and demolition were running rampant via all the internet jockeys who know a guy who is friends with a guy who delivers the mail to an insider who said for sure that the track was going to be leveled. Alan Reinhart closed out the pre-race ceremony by allowing Mr. Compton to make the statement for the record, and then Alan said "So if you have sources who are telling you anything different, well I just gave you the ultimate source."

My Monday was one of those days that vaporizes 1/365th of your year without much trouble. I left the hotel at 9:20 to make sure I could deal with the rental car return and the TSA lines at Sky Harbor, and when I walked onto the bus at the rental car return and they smashed us in there like sardines (sardines with jackets and bags stacked on top of them) I knew I had been prudent to leave a bit early. The lines at the Delta counter wound through the maze like the line at Space Mountain, but I was able to swoop most of it in the Sky Priority lane. Then, up the escalator to the TSA checkpoint, and that line was at least three times longer than the one downstairs at Delta. I was about to position myself at the end of it, because I wasn't sure if there was a First Class line or not and I didn't want to have eight more people get in line while I went to look for the shortcut and it wasn't there, but then I spotted the sign and, once again, traded in my frequent travel for a chance to skip to almost the front. There are dividends to racking up 130,000 air miles a year.

Two flights and a Salt Lake layover later, and I was on the ground at GEG, where they make the long travel day just a little bit better by making sure your luggage pops out in, oh, say 45 minutes! The guy standing next to me said "Good old GEG. I'm pretty sure the Delta baggage crew consists of two 90-year old guys who need to take a break every five minutes..." It's possible.

So, my whole Monday just kind of went Pffffft and was gone. Now it's Tuesday, and I'm finishing this up after having another acupuncture appointment. It was needlemania... It was needleicious... There were many needles.

We have two weekends off now, before Gainesville, so I'll try to round up as many inane and mundane (not to mention insane) tidbits of useless information over the course of the next 14 days or so, before we head to Florida. Plus, cats! Back soon!

Wilber, out!