Wednesday, July 25, 2012
by Brad Littlefield, National DRAGSTER Associate Editor
|National DRAGSTER Associate Editor Brad Littlefield is traveling the Western Swing, hitching a ride with Robert Hight’s Auto Club Funny Car team to provide NHRA.com readers with an inside look at what goes on during the grueling three-race, three-week marathon.
In addition to the nuts-and-bolts look at life on the road, he will share adventures from their journeys while they accrue more than 2,000 miles going from Denver to Sonoma to Seattle, a total the team will more than double with the trips to and from John Force Racing headquarters in Brownsburg, Ind. Littlefield will join Auto Club team leader Ryan Heileson, David “Shafty” Karcanes, Chris Adams, Justin Covarrubias, Tim Dillon, Sam Fabiano, Alex Liggett, and Scott Hunter as they embark in the less-than-glamorous task of transporting their mobile race shops from track to track in their attempt for glory on the dragstrip.
Last update: Aug. 2
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Monday in the Mountains (Day 1, July 23)
Robert Hight first pitched me the idea of joining the Auto Club Ford Mustang team on the road during the Western Swing a few years ago, and I was finally able to take the plunge this season while covering all three races for National DRAGSTER. While Hight, crew chief Jimmy Prock, and assistant crew chief Eric Lane get to each race by air, I’ll be on the road with their crew.
So here I am, typing on a bouncing laptop from the passenger seat of a Peterbilt hauler on a Tuesday afternoon somewhere in Wyoming on Interstate 80.
The Auto Club Funny Car team stayed in Denver yesterday. They got the car ready to go for Sonoma the day they lost an achingly close second-round battle to teammate Courtney Force, and they still had to service parts that they had used throughout the weekend, such as cylinder heads, blowers, racks of rods and pistons, and clutch parts. They arrived at Bandimere Speedway in their Ford Explorers at 9 a.m. and headed back to the hotel at 4 p.m.
I spent much of Monday morning finishing coverage of the race for National DRAGSTER, so I showed up to the track at the exact time when crewmembers least want to see an able-bodied person arrive to join them: the moment they are finished tearing down the awning. I was greeted with politely forced smiles that seemed to say, “We’ll let it slide, but I hope you realize the first round is on you.”
Whether loading their mobile workshops or doing between-rounds maintenance, the crew works together fluidly. Keeping the same team together year after year for 23 races per season will do that. I covered how long they and one of the Al-Anabi dragster teams had been together in a Monday Morning Crew Chief column found at www.nhra.com/blog/crewchief/2011/4/8/hight,-dixon-benefit-from-low-crew-turnover/.
Other than the entry-level tire/body position, the core of the group has worked together since 2006 with most members starting between 2004 and 2006. Regarding how tight-knit they are, Hight has joked, “If I ever got a call that one of them was in jail, I’d have to bring enough money to bail out the whole team.”
Speaking of the tire/body position, the latest addition to the group is Scott Hunter. For his first couple of races, the crew gave him the nickname “Scotty Doesn’t Know,” a reference to a song of the same name from the movie EuroTrip. The junior member of the team has on-the-road duties, like shopping and taking the laundry and dry cleaning after the race. He wasn’t a happy camper when he pulled the Explorer in front of the hotel late yesterday afternoon with the news that the cleaners had made a mistake by putting the entire crew’s garments into what was essentially one big pile.
They opened the side and back doors to the Explorer and started hanging up shirts and pants. It looked like a flea market stand by the time the whole crew was there claiming their clothes. There were some comments floating around like “Is that your black Hanes sock or mine?” and “Hmm, I’m pretty sure I wore more than one pair of boxers this weekend.”
Shortly before that, we were huddled in the lobby trying to sort out who I was rooming with or if another room was needed. The exceptionally friendly front-desk employee overheard our conversation and made a suggestion. The hotel had no vacancies except for a room with no bed that I could stay in with a rollaway for no charge, which I was more than OK with. Or, as he put it, “There’s no bed in the room right now because yadda, yadda, yadda.” We made some guesses as to what details the Seinfeldian “yadda, yadda, yadda” omitted, and I’m still not sure if I want to know. So long as I didn’t have to duck under police tape to get into the room and the housekeeping service did their jobs to make whatever happened not seem apparent, ignorance was bliss.
I grabbed my Simpson travel bag, which I had to discretely lift at the John Wayne Airport ticketing counter to make it clock in under the 50-pound limit last Thursday, and loaded it into one of the Explorers at noon to head to the track today. “Shafty” and Alex hopped in the support trailer, and I hopped in the hauler that tows the race car with Zak Seedroff, a utility crewperson who has been filling in for Austin Lambright on the Traxxas team and is filling a truck-driving void on the Auto Club team.
I had the option of riding in one of the trucks with Alex, “Shafty,” Zak, or Chris; riding in the Explorer with Sam, Justin, and Tim; or riding with Ryan and other JFR crewmembers in the bus driven by team chef Jonny Roscher. The bus would’ve been most conducive to typing this here blog, but I figured riding in the 18-wheeler for this leg of the journey would make for a better story. And that’s kind of the point, right?
That leads us to this stage in our journey. This team was one of the last major fuel teams to pull out of Bandimere Speedway at 1 o’clock to make the 1,258-mile journey into the heart of Wine Country. Check back soon, and I will update you on the trip.
Lessons from the road (Day 2, July 24)
I thought I’d share an excerpt from a list I scribbled on a notepad that I couldn’t see in a dark, bouncing cab somewhere in Utah:
Things to remember if I make this trip in the future:
1. There are a fair amount of tall, standing poles in Wyoming. They are called windmills, which provide power to the community, different than the towers that provide bars of signal strength in phones or 4G devices.
2. Computer batteries don’t last forever, dummy. You may want to conserve them if your effectiveness is limited due to item no. 1.
3. If the snack bags and soda bottles you throw away at the truck stop aren’t completely empty, someone was probably going to finish that. [Ed. Note: Sorry, Zak.]
4. The U.S. isn’t going to run out of land anytime soon.
5. Laying on the horn while driving through tunnels in a big truck hasn’t lost its thrill.
I rode with Zak for the first leg of the trip. After he made sure logbooks were in order (pictured), we left Bandimere Speedway on Tuesday afternoon and hit the road. We made our way northbound on Interstate 25 to Cheyenne, Wyo., before cutting across to head west on Interstate 80, which we would get well-acquainted with for about 430 miles.
I was a bit overeager about taking pictures on the initial journey. I backed off when Zak joked that I was making him nervous. There were no nerves on my end. Zak was steady and competent in the truck, and not a gear was ground.
Zak had plugged in his XM satellite radio adapter before the trip. Our soundtrack was the Jason Ellis Show on Faction and the subsequent cackles from within the truck. We trailed the parts trailer driven by “Shafty” the whole time Zak was driving, and the Explorer filled with the rest of the team followed us. Zak and “Shafty” would communicate on their CB radios here and there to warn each other about objects on the road, plan fuel stops, and occasionally single out and make fun of those who stood out the most among their fellow motorists.
“Is that going to work, writing stories with the computer bouncing around like that on your lap?” Zak asked while we were still in Colorado.
“If I start to taste Del Taco a second time, I’ll look at the horizon for a while,” I reasoned.
The trip went by without incident for the most part. The only time we pulled over to the side of the road unscheduled was when another truck going the opposite direction on a two-way road in a construction zone knocked a plastic barrel used as a barrier under the truck. Zak quickly got it unwedged from the undercarriage, and we were on our way.
The scenery was hilly and desolate for most of the way until we got into Utah, at which point we were greeted with plant life and streams. Without exaggeration, my little 4G Hotspot device began showing life for the first time in hours at the same moment that the Welcome to Utah sign came into view, at which point I began frantically firing off emails to the NHRA office to send in work before my battery life waned away to nothing. The mental sound of a ticking clock made me feel like a less-interesting Jack Bauer. Once the computer finally went kaput, separation anxiety from the technical world set in harder than I imagined it would, but I eventually became more able to fully immerse myself in the experience.
A new rule for this year requires that commercial drivers have to take a mandatory 30-minute break before having driven for eight hours, and a standing rule allots drivers a maximum 11-hour daily driving limit. We took our half-hour break a little before 9 o’clock that night at the Loves Travel Stop in Salt Lake City (pictured above). We were treated to a free fireworks display due to Pioneer Day festivities throughout Utah. Zak fueled up, cleaned windows, and checked things out around the rig. After a day on the road, it felt as though we ate like kings at the truck stop Arby’s.
Zak drove until 11 o’clock, at which point the trucks and the Explorer pulled over at Exit 73, and Zak and “Shafty” were done for the day. Chris took over the race car hauler with me remaining in the passenger seat, and “Shafty” and Alex rotated between the driver’s seat and the sleeper. The two would be able to drive straight through with one half-hour break before we got to the racetrack in Sonoma.
I reached into the depth of my sleeping prowess to fit in some intermittent rest while Chris did his thing on the interstate.
The mothership has arrived (Day 3, July 25)
I don’t feel as though I got any sleep last night, though Justin Covarrubias was happy to show me evidence that I was indeed in a head-cocked, mouth-open, deep slumber at one point via a picture message that Chris Adams had sent him (I’ll spare you the actual image). Thanks for the clarification, bud.
My clearest memories of having actually slept were of being surprisingly woken by bumps in the road. Chris, who is originally from Memphis, Tenn., was playing country music most of the night on a station called The Highway, and I can almost swear that “Dirt Road Anthem” by Jason Aldean [Ed. Note: I had to look that up] was playing during three of the five times I can recall being frighteningly woken.
Memories of the road signs provided further proof that I had snoozed. I remember reading “Reno, 500 miles,” “Reno, 423 miles,” and “Reno, 354 miles” and thinking that we were making good time with the miles being shaved down rapidly. Such is the way it seems when your mind is on autopilot.
I had never been through Nevada on Interstate 80 at night. Though tired and half-dazed during most of my conscious moments, I liked seeing the bright lights of the casinos glowing in cities I hadn’t previously heard of in the middle of the night. Then again, it probably doesn’t take anything very shiny to make my attention wander, particularly in my weary state.
Chrississippi was smooth behind the wheel, and he would sometimes shake his head and point out the maneuvers by some of the less-qualified truckers that shared the road. I was later told by a crewmember of another team that he considered Zak and Chris to be among the higher rung of truck drivers at JFR.
It was funny to hear the contrast in Chris and Alex’s communication over the CB radio. Chris would attempt to initiate discussions about certain travel logistics, and Alex would usually respond with one-word answers, like “yeah” and “OK.”
“Al and his many words,” Chris thought aloud.
When we got through Reno, we entered what was easily the most scenic part of the journey. We drove through Tahoe National Forest early in the morning with the sun shining and fog rolling through the streams. The view of the gorgeous concentration of tall trees and mountains had to be slightly less fun for the people who were actually grabbing gears because they had to be constantly mindful of the speeds and the brakes on the 40,000-pound haulers on the seemingly endless trail of inclines and declines, but it sure beats driving on hundreds of flat miles of nothing.
Chris prefers driving at night to driving during the day, but I could sense the surge of adrenaline when we were on the homestretch. It got progressively more familiar when we drove through Sacramento, Calif., and later got to the hills and vineyards of Wine Country. The 1,133-mile excursion on Interstate 80 came to an end when we hopped on California State Route 37 to go northbound for 14 miles to the track.
I have probably been to Sonoma more times than any other dragstrip except Pomona, and it was interesting to see it from a different perspective. Nestled in the grassy hills, it looked positively heavenly when he drove by. We entered around the back from Gate 7 and climbed the hill toward the shutdown area of the track.
“This is the biggest grade of the whole trip,” said Chris.
The truck’s airbrake went pssssssh as it seemed to tell us, “We’re here.” We were stopped in the staging lanes with the other rigs for roughly a half-hour before they parked us, so we stood around outside and socialized until we got the call. Justin greeted me by showing me the picture mentioned at the top of the column.
The truck I rode in was the last to get parked in the JFR compound. Chris didn’t flinch at having to make a right turn around the parts trailer at a corner without much room to the left in order to put the truck in its final resting position that is parallel to and the width of a wide stance away from the parts trailer.
Chris was barely off by a margin of maybe a foot in the rear of the trailer when he first pulled in, which seemed to surprise him. He swore, and I thought, “That was pretty damn good, actually.” These guys hold themselves to a high standard. He backed it up a bit and pulled right where he needed to be with Alex guiding him in view from the right-side mirror.
Stacked up and waiting for four JFR Funny Car teams was racing oil (24 plastic containers per team) and boxes upon boxes of hero cards. Making several trips from the stacks to the parts trailer, where they were stored, made me appreciate the fan appeal of the sport in a different way.
The team decided to set up the pit area the following day. The guys unhooked the tractors, and we piled our bags into the back of the Explorers to head to the hotel in Petaluma, Calif. Sam Fabiano is often called upon when it seems like there is too much luggage to fit. I suppose he can add “bag storage specialist” to his résumé.
Everyone on the crew checked into the hotel and got situated while Scotty Hunter took an Explorer to go shop for supplies and drop them off from the track. I’m typing from a table near the hotel pool within shouting distance of the crew, most of who are in the water blowing off steam after a long trip. Tomorrow, I'll help the team set up the pit area before the driver and crew chiefs arrive and recap the experience.
Setting Up Shop (Day 4, July 26)
Thursday was spent transforming the pit from trailers and asphalt into the large configurations that we see while they’re racing.
With my lack of desire to blog about being a lazy sack of you-know-what while the team was setting up the pit firmly in mind, I did what I could to assist the guys after we left for the track at 9 o’clock in the morning. I grew up in a family that raced a Top Alcohol Funny Car without major sponsorship, but I knew this wouldn’t be a matter of simply rolling out the carpet, setting out a few tables, hoisting a 10-by-20 awning, and calling it a day. (It should be noted that I’m egregiously oversimplifying the process and understating the workload in this comparison.)
With no rental cars arriving to be part of the fleet of people-movers until later that day, they crammed into the Explorer with my addition and headed out there. “Shafty” drove, showed their pile of hard-card credentials to the front-gate worker, and it was time to go to work.
The crew lowered the back door and brought out the rolled-up flooring and the rack that holds the tables and the poles for the awnings. Besides the awning that covers the pit near their trailer, they set up a smaller awning on the right side of D team’s parts trailer.
[Quick tangent: Among the organization, the four cars are referred to as the A, B, C, and D teams, dating back to when a second car, or “B team,” was first introduced in 1996. The Auto Club team is and has always been the C team. The Castrol GTX Ford Mustang driven by Mike Neff is the A team, the Traxxas Ford Mustang driven by Courtney Force is the B team, and the Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang driven by John Force is the D team. The boss was on the A team until Neff began driving again last season and inherited that crew, and Force went to the D team that was originally created for daughter Ashley Force Hood. Interestingly, the Top Fuel dragster that Brittany Force is testing is the G team because the two A/Fuel Dragsters that she and Courtney drove received E- and F-team designations.]
The awning frame consists of seven poles — most of them having lines to the main air compressor running through them and outlets for lights that hang overhead — that attach to the top of the trailer, seven vertical supports that attach with pins to both the side of the trailer and the top poles, and five poles that slide through the end of the top poles and are connected together with pins to support the frame horizontally. With enough ladders and enough people, it goes together quicker than you’d think.
I was shaking a bit when I was standing on the second-from-the-top step of a ladder and stretching out to attach one of the lights, leading Chris to question my comfort level with heights and Sam to observe, “He looks like a baby giraffe.”
Sam, Alex, and Tim (pictured left to right) suited up in safety harnesses and were elevated by the trailer door to the roof to lay the canopy out over the frame. Everyone was on ladders to guide it as it was sliding down, and they secured it to the frame with material that snaps together with plastic buckles.
The smaller awning began to go up while tables were being laid out. Afterward, the guys started setting up 10-by-10 canopies that are situated near the front of the trailer, where Sam normally works on short blocks near the truck and parts are cleaned at the other end. Scott and a member of the neighboring team started setting up the area between the front of the bus and the front of the D team’s rig, where Jonny Roscher cooks and feeds the team. Ryan, the team leader, had little trouble keeping everyone on task because of the process being routine and the group being motivated.
Ryan handed me a spray bottle of cleaning product and a towel, and we started cleaning the trailer cabinets form front to back while the trailer stereo blared some Led Zeppelin. Justin went up in the lounge area to do the same, and Ryan began mopping the trailer floor when we were done. I grabbed some paper towels and got to work on toolboxes and table surfaces outside. It’s amazing how much yellow from nitromethane appears on the paper towels in addition to the dirt and grease.
An air fitting attached to an airline that’s plumbed through the awning frame came apart when Sam plugged it in, and fixing it became Tim’s project. I helped Alex, Chris, Sam, and Scott set up the privacy barriers at the front of the trailer, which Scott drilled into the asphalt after completion.
It felt a lot like propping up the tent for the traveling circus that you know isn’t staying in town long. Every one of these teams does this setup and teardown at a minimum of 23 events per year.
After everything was set up, the crew started working on projects to stay ahead before the start of the weekend. Justin (pictured) had eight cylinder heads to work on and cc at his station. Chris had racks of rods and pistons to assemble. Meanwhile, the crew chiefs and assistant crew chiefs — Jimmy Prock and Eric “Hopsing” Lane in the case of the Auto Club team — had flown in and began arriving at the track. They got set up, looked at their computers, and consulted with track specialist Lanny Miglizzi, who already had detailed notes about the racing surface.
Most of the crew chiefs and assistant crew chiefs have extended roles in the management of their teams and within the organization, so it was common to see them meeting together and calling meetings among particular groups of crewmembers from the road to discuss team or organizational business.
The team was ready to race, and I transitioned from covering them to covering the event. I will rejoin them on Monday morning on the road to Seattle. Stay tuned.
Due North (Day 8, July 30)
I’ll be heading north with the team shortly this morning. I’m riding with Sam, Ryan, and Tim in the Explorer to start the day.
I went over to the Auto Club trailer yesterday, the floor of which doubles as a mess hall when the crew sits in a staggered order to grub down Jonny Roscher’s cooking (pictured with entire crew except Chris). The car had been serviced after their second-round loss to Cruz Pedregon, and they planned to tear down the pit area that night and head to Seattle in the morning.
The crew was far from jumping up and down about their weekend, but it certainly had some silver linings. It started on a frustrating note when their car broke a lifter on the first pass, and they had to change a motor. A miscommunication on the clutch setup hindered the car on the top end during a potentially strong Friday night run that was still good at 4.09 seconds. They broke traction on both runs on Saturday but were well into the field.
Despite not having lane choice while there was a perception of the left lane being unfavorable, Jimmy Prock turned the right knobs and sent Hight down the track to a 4.09 to defeat Bob Tasca III, who broke an input shaft. The win was in the final pair of the first round, and it prevented JFR from suffering first-round losses across the board. More importantly for the team, they were able to extend their points lead over Ron Capps, who was upset by Gary Densham in the first round.
After driving up to Seattle today, the team will have a day off on Tuesday and set up on Wednesday. I’ll give an update of the trip tonight. Until then, safe travels.
First fuel stop enjoyed responsibly
My chariot waited for me this morning in the form of a Ford Explorer in front of the hotel driven by Ryan with Tim riding shotgun and Sam joining me in the back. We gassed up, got a quick breakfast at the Jack in the Box within a neighboring fuel station (“Better top off before we go,” Ryan deadpanned as we pulled into the parking lot), and we’re on our way.
It was refreshing to see that, in the age of smartphone technology, Sam opted to read up on the Olympics and world affairs the old-fashioned way (pictured).
Ryan flipped back and forth between a few rock stations while Tim and Sam brought up funny and interesting pictures, videos, and comments from the website The Chive. I tried, failingly, not to annoy the whole car by snapping an excessive amount of photos while driving through Lake Shasta. “I took a lot of photos, too, my first year on the road,” said Tim.
Driving through the Lake Shasta area has always been my favorite part of the trip since the first time my parents dragged me along in 1992. The only problem: It looks like too much damn fun to just drive through. It didn’t help that it was 90 degrees outside, and the lake was abundant with houseboats and wakeboard boats.
Ryan topped off the Explorer at the Pilot Travel Center off of Exit 745 (South Weed Boulevard) on Interstate 5, where some of the JFR trucks were congregating. “Shafty,” Zak, and Matt Madden, who works on John Force’s car and shares driving duties in the Castrol Technology Center (CTC) hauler with Eric Frampton, were in line getting Subway when we walked in. In the spirit of eating fresh, we loaded up on Slim Jims and soda.
Being a mature group of people who are mostly in the 28-30 age range, the jokes and puns focused around the city of Weed, Calif., were relegated to the mere hundreds. I gathered five of the drivers who have CDLs together for a picture in the parking lot with Mount Shasta in the backdrop (from left, Chris, Zak, “Shafty,” Alex, and Matt).
After a brief discussion consisting mostly of a few “don’t cares” and “whatevers,” Ryan continued behind the wheel. We’re following the three aforementioned trailers with Ryan focused ahead, Tim looking closely at his smartphone, and Sam trying to ignore my typing for long enough to catch a nap. Aerosmith’s “Chip Away at the Stone” is playing on the Ozzy’s Boneyard XM radio station, and the title/chorus sums up what we’re doing with the miles to Seattle.
I’ll provide an update on the trip later on.
Highway to Smell
Let’s be honest with ourselves. We knew this post was coming.
The great state of Oregon is one of two states where motorists are legally prohibited from pumping their own gas (New Jersey is the other). The drivers of these rigs wish the same thing applied to their septic tanks.
While the trucks were going over some fairly steep grades, we jumped past them in the Explorer and got the call to scout out the Sanitary Dump Station at mile marker 119 to see if it was a viable option for the race car hauler. In other words, we were the [septic tank] scouter. The station they normally use in California shortly after leaving the Sonoma event was closed when they drove by it this morning.
We got there well before the trucks and ate at the Arby’s in the Loves Travel Stop. My mom, who has been following this blog, gave me grief earlier about all the junk food mentioned, so I decided to have a salad. Or at the very least, I wrote that I had a salad. We’re on a highway to health.
I took the photos in this post when Matt Madden was pumping the septic tank in the CTC, where all of the crew chiefs gather when it’s parked in the pits. Notice the selection of footwear on this courageous man.
No person could have possibly been closer to the JFR brain trust at this particular moment than Matt. Attempting to capture the lower image without triggering my gag reflex in the better light that, as it just so happens, was downwind, I was a closer second than I would have preferred to be.
Zak pulled past the dump before attempting to back the Auto Club Funny Car hauler into the right spot, but a horse trailer had pulled straight into the spot before he had the chance to put it in reverse. In multiple respects, he felt that the maneuver pulled by the other driver was horse, um, manure.
Alex, who does the clutch during the events, was fueling up the truck that hauls the parts trailer, the cargo of which is composed of parts for both the C and D teams, during this ordeal. I hopped from the Explorer to the parts hauler, where I'll likely remain until we get to the hotel in Auburn, Wash., sometime tonight.
We’re almost 200 miles into Oregon as I type this in broad daylight at 7 p.m., and our next scheduled stop is at a truck wash in Portland, Ore., at mile marker 307. My next update will probably be posted in the morning. In the immortal words of Simpsons character Nelson Muntz, smell ya later.
Washing 20 Tons Before Washington (Day 9, July 31)
I’m filing this under Day 9 on a technicality because the Auto Club Funny Car hauler arrived at Pacific Raceways 10 minutes after midnight.
I rode with Alex from Roseburg, Ore., for roughly seven hours until we pulled into the racetrack. The truck Alex drives is newer than the one that tows the race car, and it’s quieter inside and rides a bit smoother. The only gripe about that truck is the imperfections of a neat, modern device that detects the speeds and distances between the truck and the vehicle in front of it, along with the truck’s position in the lane, and sends an alert when it's too close. It lets off a beep-beep (pause) beep-beep (pause) beep-beep until the problem is corrected. The issue is that the settings seem to be ideal for the open highway, and it goes off constantly in city traffic. Every time I hear beep-beep anyway, my arm instinctively swats to find a snooze button.
Alex listened to the Raw Dog comedy channel on XM radio the whole time I rode with him, so we cracked up to clips of Dave Attell and Greg Giraldo doing standup. Originally from Kansas, Alex lived in Ohio when he worked for Dean Skuza and is now in Indiana, like the rest of the crew working for JFR. If I knew nothing about him except his voice and demeanor, I would swear he’s a California native, though.
In a post last week, I wrote about Chris giving Alex a hard time for not being communicative over the CB radio. In Alex’s defense, the sound on the radio in his truck comes through like one of the more scrambled drive-though windows you’ve ever been through in your life.
Oregon is a beautiful drive all the way through, and I really enjoyed going through Portland just as the sun was going down. Though each image would require a good deal of Photoshop to eliminate the evidence of dead bugs smeared across the windshield, I took a bunch of pictures while we were going over the bridge with views of the water, bridges, and buildings. I remember driving through there at night when I was 8 years old and marveling at all the lights and buildings (this was before I’d ever seen Las Vegas, mind you).
Going through Portland marked an exciting part of the journey that I had never considered. “Shafty” had given us all a heads-up about a Blue Beacon truck wash at the Jubitz Travel Center off of Exit 307 on the north side of Portland. Finding a truck wash prior to arrival in general is the difference between the guys having a worry-free Tuesday and setting up right away on Wednesday or having to find a place or wash it themselves on Tuesday or Wednesday before they get started. Additionally, the order in which they go through the truck wash is the biggest factor in determining how soon you get to the racetrack from that point on.
Keeping in mind that the drivers of these haulers think sensibly and put safety and legality firmly ahead of all else, nobody in the caravan of 18-wheelers wanted to be the last to get through the truck wash and be standing around, bored, for the most time while making no progress toward the destination. They would never do anything to influence the outcome of the sequence of trucks that make it to the truck wash. That being said, they have a vested interest in the order that is dictated by the circumstances of the road. (Have I stated that carefully enough? OK, let’s move on.)
We were being followed by the John Force Road Show truck driven by Brad Robinson, and he planned to follow us in since he hadn’t been there before. The Auto Club race car and CTC haulers were specks in our rearview since we were able to leave the last stop significantly before them. Ahead of us on Interstate 5 were Mark Wolfe’s red Pro Stock rig and “Warrior,” right-side engine assembly and ignition specialist Chris Kullberg, driving the Traxxas Funny Car truck and trailer.
As we were miles away, I could see Alex creep up on his seat a bit when Wolfe’s and “Warrior’s” trucks got in the second lane and encountered slower traffic than we had in the first lane. He had been resigned to being behind them, and he started seeing the possibility open up to being the first to the truck wash. I could sense the implications enough at this point that I started getting excited, too. The excitement was short-lived when they were both able to merge into our lane in front of us. We approached the exit sign at mile marker 307 and were thrilled to see that Wolfe’s driver didn’t have the same idea as us and remained on the interstate. One down.
There was one final obstacle. The exit split two ways. I don’t remember what the signs said, but “Warrior” split to the road on the left, and Alex thought and looked around for a second. He quickly yelled, “Jubitz!” and split to the right. Circumventing the parked trucks at the abundantly busy stop to get to the truck wash with only two nonracing trailers in line ahead of us, the cab erupted. I told Alex, “We just won the race, set low e.t., and got the Full Throttle Hard Working Crew Award!”
We drove the clean, mean parts trailer through Washington without incident. Our near-700-mile tenure on Interstate 5 came to a glorious end when we exited eastbound onto Washington State Route 18 and got to the track nine miles later. We were sent the opposite way down the return road to bring the truck to a rest in the staging lanes. Pssssssh.
While we waited to be picked up by Tim in the Explorer, which had dropped off the other passengers at the hotel, “Shafty” made the comment that there are usually more people at the track already at this point. I had heard of a lot of teams coming in later, though. In fact, while I started writing this on late Tuesday morning, my phone beeped because Matt Bynum from the DHL Funny Car taunted me with pictures of their team having fun on boats they rented at Lake Redding in California with food and supplies sponsored by Rick Fischer. Thanks, Matt.
Even though we were exhausted by the time we got to the hotel lobby, everyone assembled out front for a few minutes rather than rush to the rooms. As tired as everyone was, we looked bright-eyed and bushy-tailed compared to the people in black, denim, and occasionally leather who paraded through the lobby after 1 a.m. It was finally deduced that there had been an Iron Maiden concert at the nearby White River Amphitheatre that night. Rock on.
I won’t be updating throughout the day, but I’ll recap what the team did on their day off before we head to the racetrack to set up tomorrow. Thanks for reading.
My day started four hours after the previous one ended when my deep-sleeping hotel mate’s yet-to-be-reprogrammed cellphone alarm buzzed for 10, 15, 20 minutes before I decided to take matters into my own hands. I began to carefully grab Zak’s phone that was lying beside his head so as not to wake him up until I realized what brought me into this situation in the first place and snagged it. Good morning, Seattle.
National DRAGSTER issues are sent to the printer on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, so my morning was spent completing Pro coverage from the Sonoma event and sending it via email to the copy editors at good ol’ 2035 Financial Way. Scott took the team’s dirty clothes to get laundered, and everyone else had the chance to sleep in a bit before they started the day.
I went downstairs when I was done working in the midafternoon to see if anyone was hanging around. Those who acted upon more grandiose plans for the day, such as “Shafty,” who went to Mount Rainier, had taken off by the time I was down there. I saw Ryan, who had been in discussions with some of the crew guys about things like going to a Mariners game that night, but each idea slipped past like it was coated in Teflon. I grabbed a bite to eat, got caught up on other work, and took a brief afternoon nap.
I headed downstairs again where I saw Tim, who I briefly joined for happy hour at the hotel. Tim does the bottom end on the Auto Club Funny Car. He was a senior at University of Northern Ohio who was interested in Pro Stock cars when he got his first chance to work on Jim Head’s Top Fueler. He worked for Head and Hartman Motorsports during his first year before a long stint on the FRAM-sponsored Carrier Boyz Racing dragster driven by Cory McClenathan that preceded Cory Mac’s move to DSR and Tim’s move to this team. Before he began working on cars for a living, Tim drove a ’67 Camaro in Super Stock. His dad, Steve, won the 1980 Gatornationals in Modified.
He is the only member on the team besides “Shafty” who travels on the road and faces the additional challenge of raising children. Tim has two kids with another on the way. This job is tough for people with families and for those bearing the responsibilities at home, though the advent of modern technology provides some ease. I understand why Tim is prone to typing back and forth with the home base on his phone while he rides in the Explorer and why Ryan makes it a priority to carve out time during the evening to make video calls on FaceTime with Danielle, his wife of just over a year.
Ryan came downstairs, and the three of us walked to dinner at the Longhorn Steakhouse that shares a parking lot with our hotel. A few other teams ate at the mostly quiet restaurant — another topic of conversation due to the past stories derived from the place when it was bustling in the late hours with dueling pianos and the whole bit in years past. Ryan half-remorsefully talked about not utilizing the day off and mentioned Seafair, the annual summer festival that begins tomorrow. With “Panama” by Van Halen playing a little too loudly in the background, I told him not to worry because we were participating in C-team Fair.
Gary Densham stopped by the table for a visit. He mentioned that he saw Funny Car newcomer Josh Crawford’s rig curiously traveling south on Monday. I wanted to get the story. I called Tommy Faust, Crawford’s crew chief with whom I share the hobby of off-roading in the sand dunes of Glamis, Calif., and he said he spent yesterday thinking they wouldn’t be racing due to various issues on the initial journey, but Crawford was gung ho about running and sent his truck northbound once more.
We got back to the hotel, and Zak, Alex, Sam, and Matt arrived shortly thereafter. They went to Longhorn (minus Matt), and I joined them because I didn’t have much else going on. Sam had dropped Zak, Alex, and Matt off at the movie theater earlier so they could see Ted before Sam golfed nine holes with Jonny Roscher (and won) at Washington National Golf Club, the home course of the University of Washington’s golf teams. Sam returned to rejoin Zak and Alex for a second feature, The Dark Knight Rises, the spoilers of which they tried to refrain from and apologized for when they couldn’t. The two things I took back from that conversation were that Matt spilled a giant soda over all of their feet during the movie, and the only Batman movie Zak had ever seen was the one with Val Kilmer. When it comes to quotes from Step Brothers or Dumb & Dumber, however, he’s your guy.
There’s a game room at the hotel where Sam and Alex played against each other on a Ms. Pac Man arcade game. Zak and I wandered to the pool area, where some guys from the A team were hanging out. It was funny to listen to Zak and Tom Cunningham talk back and forth.
“[Name redacted] has had a permit for a while. Why isn’t he on the road yet?” Tom asked.
“He’s not ready for the big steel, bub,” Zak replied.
Most of their one-liners ended with “bub,” a theme during this trip that originated from A team clutch assistant Jason Dorsett. Jason was working during the Norwalk event when a fan pointed to a sleeve from the block and asked what it was. After telling him it’s a sleeve and the fan following up by asking what it was for, Jason responded with an incredulous, “It’s for the motor, bub!” It's exponentially more entertaining if you imagine it being said like a southern Kermit the Frog.
We went to bed with plans to head to the track at 10 a.m. tomorrow morning to set up the pit. I’ll give an update at the end of the day.
Constructing a Pit in Less Than Four Hours (Day 10, Aug. 1)
The Auto Club team set up shop today at Pacific Raceways. I kept an eye on the time as each task was being completed and made a timeline of the events below.
10: We hopped in the Explorer and left the hotel.
10:10: We stopped for ice shortly before getting to the track.
10:30: Chris drives the race car hauler into position. “Shafty” follows suit by making a wide swing with the parts trailer to get it into place.
10:40: The tractors are unhooked for the trailers.
10:47: Everyone puts on gloves and unloads the oil, gas, and solvents from the tractor’s glove box. I helped move jugs of oil from inside the trailer to underneath the tongue.
10:55: The floor mats have been put out, the protective siding has been attached to the trailer, and the backdoor is coming down.
11: We begin setting up tables and constructing the frame of the awning. Metallica, AC/DC, and Judas Priest are playing from the speakers, and the pace of the work reflects that.
11:18: The trailer awning, canopy, and lights are up completely. I was pretty impressed by this. With enough people, ladders, and motivation, this task can go by rather quickly.
“It’s not a race to put the awning up, but there’s a source of pride when ours is up and we take a look at the other teams and see that they’re not even close,” said “Shafty.”
“We used to see how fast we could do it every weekend, but we kind of got away from that,” said Ryan. “We still do it pretty quick, though.”
Racers are always racing.
They would have been the first of the four teams to get the awning up with or without me, but I like to think I helped shave a tick off of low e.t. this time. The gratuitous picture of myself to the right was posted to prove that I actually got my hands dirty today.
11:20: Assistant crew chief Eric Lane, who is referred to by all as “Hopsing,” arrives at the track. He usually flies in on Thursdays but rode the bus with Jonny Roscher due to the logistics of flying back and forth to Indy and to be present at the Eric Medlen park dedication on Monday. Around this time, track specialist Lanny Miglizzi goes to check out the racing surface, but he is deterred due to the Frank Hawley Drag Racing School licensing students.
11:24: The smaller awning that connects to the D team’s trailer is also up, and the head repair station is out of the trailer.
11:40: I finished helping Ryan and Chris clean the cabinets inside the trailer. Meanwhile, the pop-ups have been popped up, plastic mat is laid out outside, the table surfaces are clean, and Justin has the lounge ready for Mr. Hight.
11:50: Ryan reapplies a damaged rubber flap on the back door, and Tim repairs an aluminum piece on the same door. Chris begins cleaning the outside of the trailer, which didn’t make it to the truck wash like the parts trailer did.
11:52: Scotty has Jonny’s grill and surrounding area set up with help from Chris Wiggington from the B team. Sam has secured the pop-up canopies with a nail gun.
12:05: Scotty and “Wiggy” continue arranging the front area. Ryan and Justin are cleaning the protective siding on the trailer. Tim has blown the rolls of carpet clean with an air hose and placed them in the trailer. Chris, “Shafty,” and Alex are cleaning the back doors of the trailer.
12:15: Somebody remembers that there are 10 bags of ice melting in the back of the Explorer. Whoops.
I ask Scotty about the laundry while I help him with the ice and drinks. He wanted me to commend Laundry Depot in Kent, Wash., for their great service at a price of one dollar per pound for 133 pounds of clothes. He wanted to emphasize how much better they were than Speedy Cleaners in Littleton, Colo., who were the culprits in my first blog post. He said other things about the latter establishment, but I’ll just leave it at that.
12:18: The guys are hand washing the trailer while Sam cleans the Explorer.
12:30: Chris begins building racks of rods and pistons for the weekend (pictured).
12:35: I take a peak next door. D team is still a few plastic buckles away from completing the awning setup.
12:45: The trailer wash is complete. At Ryan’s command, we start unloading the race car to clean it and change the rear end.
12:50: The car is out, and the body is off.
12:50 and 15 seconds: The car is in the air. God, I love ProJacks.
12:51: I help Justin take off and clean the tin while Ryan takes the wheels off. They had made lift bars that connect to two wheel studs on each side. Once Ryan and Tim have everything unbolted and hooked, the whole rear-end assembly comes out pretty easily.
1:10: Most of the team is involved in cleaning the car. The car is solvent sprayed from front to back, blow-dried with an air hose, sprayed with WD40, and wiped clean. Afterward, the replacement rear end goes in the car (the one that came out will be serviced tomorrow), and the tin goes back on.
1:58: The car is back on the ground. The Auto Club Mustang is clean and ready to rock.
2: The car has been rolled into the trailer, and the door is up. In the words of Carl Spackler, “It’s in the hole!”
2:05: Chris has gone as far as he’s going to go with the racks, and hands are being washed. It’s quittin’ time.
After we were done, “Hopsing,” Ryan, and “Shafty” discussed plans for the afternoon while crewmembers from teams threw a football around in the middle of the row. We loaded up in the cars to head back to the hotel, where we split into groups varying on our plans.
We had talked about going bridge-jumping in the water but ultimately decided on doing that tomorrow. Zak, Sam, and a few others went to the movies to see The Watch. In the case of me and eight members from across the A, B, and C teams, we had a fun and interesting afternoon at Walt Austin’s shop in Tacoma, Wash., that I will blog about soon.
Wednesday with Walt
“Shafty” had suggested that we visit Walt Austin’s shop today, so nine of us headed to Tacoma, Wash., for an experience I knew would be interesting but didn’t realize how much so. I joined C-teamers “Hopsing,” “Shafty,” and Ryan; A-teamer Jason Dorsett; and B-teamers “Warrior,” Kyle Darr, Chris Wiggington, and Anthony Lum.
As we were driving up, “Shafty” pointed out Brad Hadman’s former shop, a dinky building on the property next door. We all had the same reaction. “All those cars he built used to come out of that?!”
Walt is retired but hasn’t appeared to slow down at all. In 1994, he sold his business, Walt’s Radiator, which had 35 locations and six warehouses, and kept a lot of the property. He last raced in 2002 and has since spent his time building and restoring an impressive collection of race and muscle cars and taking on an array of projects with his dyno and flow bench.
His sons have stayed busy, too. Pat has 75 national event wins — 70 in Top Alcohol Funny Car and five in Top Fuel — and his brother, Mike, has a pair in Top Alcohol Dragster. Today, Pat owns three radiator, muffler, and brake service centers called Pro Max and has plans to open a fourth, and Mike works with Walt.
The first thing I noticed while walking into Walt’s shop were the shelves upon shelves of well-organized parts from different eras with an emphasis on 392 Chrysler engines. There were rows of blowers and camshafts for any occasion. He had a couple of restored front-engine dragsters in the room with others in the works.
Walt greeted us and showed us around, taking us through the dyno room, where he had a blown motor ready to fire for a customer’s boat. He brought us into a room with his collection of cars, and our collective jaws hit the floor. About every revered era of Chrysler, Ford, and Chevy muscle car engines was accounted for, and I would notice other rarities, like an Offenhauser when I got to looking around. I fell in love with his blown ’55 Chevy and forgot about it almost as quickly when he showed us his all-aluminum ’41 Willys coupe.
Walt’s Jim Hume-fabricated Willys is unpainted and immaculate. It has a supercharged motor that makes approximately 700 horsepower when you turn the key but could reach 1,000 with a change of blower pulleys. He drove it to Auto Club Famoso Raceway in Bakersfield last year.
The best part of the day was when Walt got into storytelling mode. It was pretty amazing to hear a guy who is well into his 70s sharply rattling off elapsed times from the 1960s. He stood by one of his AA/Gas dragsters and talked about taking it to Indy in 1967 and outperforming the opposition until his driver “fell asleep,” and they were eliminated on an 8.02 to 7.93 holeshot in the second round.
“That one still bugs me,” Walt said with a laugh.
The most impressive thing about his showroom floor is that the engines on display can actually run when you plug a battery in. Included in the collection was a General Motors Mark II Mystery Motor, one of eight that exist in the country. “Hopsing,” who is easily the most outgoing and animated person in our group, would find all sorts of buried treasures in the collection of parts and get Walt to share the stories behind them.
Five o’clock approached rather quickly while being immersed in racing history. I want to thank Walt for taking the time to show us around, and I hope to pay another visit next time I’m in the area.
Realizing that none of us had eaten all day while we were out having fun, we stopped at an owl-themed establishment that serves chicken wings for a quick bite. “Hopsing,” who rode in the bus with Jonny Roscher between Sonoma and Seattle but flies everywhere else, asked me about the trip and mentioned that he misses the road. That led him to reeling off some funny stories about disastrous trips that he was a part of in days gone by.
“I don’t think you miss the road, Hop,” said “Warrior.” “You just miss the stories.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” “Hopsing” concurred.
My next entry will be my last as my time with the team comes to an end.
The Last Exit (Day 11, Aug. 2)
After nearly two weeks on the road with the Auto Club Funny Car team, my time with the C team is coming to an end. I’ll be covering the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Northwest Nationals presented by Super Start Batteries for National DRAGSTER (subscribe here: store.nhra.com/shop-by-department/membership/) beginning on Friday and cozying up in a big, metal bird that will fly me back to the land of fruits and nuts on Monday.
Some of the guys were razzing me about missing what they failed to convince me was the best leg of the trip, the 2,250-mile, two-day journey back to John Force Racing Inc. in Brownsburg, Ind. This is the longest drive they make all season, about 200 miles further than the trips to and from Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. It’s particularly dreadful for the members of the B and D teams, which will spend approximately a day at the shop before turning their rigs around to go to Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park in Norwalk for that Saturday’s annual Night of Fire event.
While I’m not about to light a candle and listen to the Boyz II Men version of “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” with a single tear rolling down my cheek, I’ll miss my time with the team. It’s far from an easy life for these guys who deal with unglamorous tasks, time away from home, and the monotony of the road in between the hard work and quick services at the racetrack. On the flip side, the strength of their camaraderie makes the experience enjoyable. I would also imagine that the moments when they get to see the win light appear on the scoreboard and get their photos taken with the Wally are further enhanced by being armed with the knowledge of the day-to-day work they put in. There are times when it really sets in that what they do is a job, though the thrill of competition makes it unlike any regular job.
On the last day, the crew made final preparations to the race car for the weekend. Chris built more racks of rods and pistons; “Shafty” restripped superchargers; Justin had two sets of cylinder heads to rebuild; Ryan serviced the rear end that came out yesterday, along with other various tasks; Tim worked on the body and made repairs to its tree; Alex changed the facings on the clutch hat and got his area organized; Scott mounted tires; and Sam built a new short block. Sam tries to have eight short blocks ready for every race. After breaking a lifter on the first qualifying run in Sonoma, he put another motor together to have an eighth for this event.
I didn’t assist the team at all today, partly because I would probably get in the way with them doing their more-specialized tasks and mostly because I had other matters to tend to with the Glendora mothership that I worked on from the pre-bustling media center. “Hopsing” had dropped me off to get my rental car before I headed to the track, and I took a break during the day to pick up my colleague for this event, John Jodauga, from the airport. After I dropped off my cohort in coverage at the Holiday Inn, I took nearly two weeks of laundry to the fine business mentioned in yesterday’s blog and headed back to the track.
One thing that members of all teams deal with is having plans that are always subject to change, and that holds especially true for plans that have nothing to do with racing. Through text messages with Justin, I thought I had it timed right to where I would get to the track when they were done working, after which we were set to go jump off a particular bridge into some kind of body of water that had become somewhat of a tradition for a couple of teams. Well, they were sitting around, but they weren’t free to leave due to team meetings that needed to take place led by those in management positions. By the time those were completed, plans to go to the bridge were scrapped from the schedule.
I understood this part of racing, but you wouldn’t have known it if you had seen how I was dressed. I came back to the track wearing swim trunks and a white Mr. Horsepower T-shirt. Being at the track longer than I anticipated caused me to have to explain to several people that plans to jump in the water and the fact that I had 23 pounds of clothes being washed with few clean items remaining were the reasons why I looked like I was attending my first drag race.
I’d like to make a few acknowledgements:
I want to give a big thanks to Ryan Heileson, David “Shafty” Karcanes, Chris Adams, Justin Covarrubias, Tim Dillon, Sam Fabiano, Alex Liggett, and Scott Hunter from the Auto Club team, along with Zak Seedroff and the other crewmembers who stay on the road for JFR. These guys work like a well-oiled machine. They like to give each other a hard time, but they have thick skins and hold an underlying respect for one another. Each and every one of them was accepting of a reporter tagging along on their trip, snapping pictures, and asking dumb questions. They went out of their way to make things easy for me and make me feel welcome. After first springing the plan upon them, I only heard “don’t print that” a couple of times, most of which were during such clear occasions that they were obviously intended as jokes.
Thanks to John Force, Robert Hight, and everyone at JFR who helped make this happen.
Thanks to Ron Capps for still speaking to me after learning that I’d be on the road with his opposition.
Thanks to Phil Burgess and everyone at National DRAGSTER and NHRA for making this happen on their end. Special thanks to Teresa Long, Jerry Foss, and Marc Gewertz in the photo department, Juan Torres and the copy-editing staff, and Jeff Mellem in production for making things easier for me while I was working from the road.
Finally, I appreciate all of the readership and the feedback that I’ve gotten from doing this blog. Partaking in this experiment in addition to covering the events was more than my normal workload, but you’ve made it worthwhile. It was neat to interact with people associated with the crew or otherwise interested in the stories through social media (cough, follow @LittleBradfield on Twitter, cough) and email while it was happening. I hope I was able to provide some insight into what these teams go through between battles.
Over and out, bub.