Another year in the books….Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The end of a racing season is one of the strangest, and sometimes most surreal, transitions you can go through, especially if your neck of the racing woods happens to be NHRA Drag Racing. Quite literally, you are standing there in the midst of the mayhem, mere feet away from a 10,000-hp Funny Car, excited and pumped to hopefully win a round and have a big day, and then in a single blink your day is over, your weekend is over, and your season is over. It's jarring, to say the least.

The sport, as a whole, is that way and I had a great time telling stories about that part of this gig on Saturday, when we hosted a fantastic group of people from Capella Technologies, in our pitside hospitality center. Capella was recently acquired by LRS, and since they are based in Anaheim, the LRS folks in Springfield thought it would be a neat deal for us to host them at the Auto Club Finals, as a way to welcome them all to the Levi, Ray & Shoup family, as well as the Team Wilkerson family. Not a single one of them had ever been to a race before, and I'm not sure I've ever had as much fun being the "host" and emcee in our pit area. I always do a bit of a "stand up" routine as part of my hosting duties, and it doesn't take long to get a sense as to whether you've got a "good crowd" or a "not so good crowd" on your hands, in terms of how engaged and attentive the people are and how much they're "into it" and want to be entertained.

You hear stand-up comedians talk about "good crowds" all the time, and I always thought that was just their way of deflecting the blame if they simply had a bad show and weren't funny one night. "Hey, I was hilarious but it was a bad crowd." Well, considering I'm uproariously hilarious in a knee-buckling, howling, fall-on-the-floor-laughing way each and every time I host guests in our pit (I am, right?) I can attest to the fact that each group is really slightly different and those differences change the dynamic of what I say and how I say it (not to mention the sheer amount of laughter I can create). Within seconds, after I pick up the microphone and say "Good afternoon, everybody" I can generally get a sense for how it's going to go.

To sum it up, the people from Capella were simply a great crowd. They were thrilled to be there, sorta stunned to be so close to the action, a little overwhelmed by everything going on around them, and practically giddy to see their logo on our quarter-panel. We had a GREAT time together, and I made a point of circulating afterward to talk to as many folks as I could, telling them how much we appreciated them being there and welcoming them to the family.

Anyway, the point of that was the part about how I was talking on the mic and I told them how drag racing is so starkly and radically different than other sports, in terms of how it goes and how abrupt it all is. I've won baseball championships and gotten to do the whole celebration in the middle of the infield after the final out, and that's unquestionably a very cool thing. However, it doesn't come close to what it feels like to win a Wally. In drag racing, you're never going to have a 10-run lead in the 9th, or two touchdown lead with 10 seconds to play. You don't have 150 more laps to make up for the mistake you just made. You can't just dial up your defense and clamp down on the other team. Instead, if you're good enough to win three rounds you go to the final and you have this thought… I have it every time. The car begins to stage and I think "Well, in about four seconds we're either going to be going nuts or we're going to be very disappointed. I wonder how this is going to turn out…" Four seconds later you know, and if it's the better option the release of emotion and excitement is at an absolute maximum. It's a thrill unlike any I've ever experienced in other sports.

The flip side, especially in the first round, is just as stark. There I was, standing behind the car with a huge (HUGE) Pomona crowd watching us, not knowing if we were going to sprint back to the pit to get ready for another round or if it would be over. When we smoked the tires, everything was over. The day was over, the race was over, and the season was over. It will give you whiplash…

I was on a very strange sleep cycle all weekend, falling asleep as early as 9:00 each night and waking up around 5:00, and I guess it was just because I've been "off my feet" and recovering for a while and I was really tired at the end of each day. Sunday night was similar, but there was a real empty feeling that came along with it. I was in my room, trying to wind down and relax, and it seemed like the clock was in slow motion. All I really wanted to do was go to bed and then wake up to discover it was Monday, but it took forever for 9:00 to get there.

When it did, I slept fitfully after four straight nights of sleeping like a brick. I woke up too early again, this time on the first day of the off-season, and was again faced with the similar challenge of just making the time go by so I could get on my 12:30 flight and head home. At that point, you just want to snap your fingers to make that happen, but travel isn't that easy. It was a long day before I walked in from the garage to find two fuzzy boyz waiting for me, at around 6:45 on Monday night. Thankfully, I was on the same ONT to SLC flight with Rich and Annette, so we could entertain ourselves in the gate area while we waited for that first leg (once we got to Salt Lake they went on to MSP to get home to Minnesota, while I got on the GEG flight to come back here to Spokane) and I had time in Salt Lake to have a pretty wonderful Cobb salad at one of the restaurants there, but it was still a long day of doing nothing. Sometimes, those are the worst kind of long days (see "rainy days" at the race track for a prime example of the agony induced by doing nothing for hours on end…)

And now it's officially the off-season. Tim and Krista went to the banquet last night, so they were still officially "on the clock" until that was over, but for me the 2013 season officially moved into the history books when I got home and unpacked last night. And I already have a ton of things to get right after this week, in terms of marketing and PR, so there's no rest for the weary, but there's also no race next weekend, or the weekend after that. There's no race until February.

Of course, because I don't get to travel enough I'm getting right back on a plane this Friday, to head back to Woodbury for the weekend. Barb was in New York the last two days, and is on her way to Toronto right now (and yes, she did text me "Shouldn't they be playing a Rush song on the plane, when we're headed for YYZ?") so we'll meet up in Woodbury at the end of the week for a massive dose of Minnesota pro sports. We're taking our friends Mary Beth and Joe to the Timberwolves game, against the Celtics, on Saturday night and then Neighbor Dave and Neighbor Nichol are joining us for the Minnesota Wild hockey game, against the Winnipeg Jets, on Sunday night. When I fly home Monday, I hope to have two wins under my belt, but neither one will be easy. Aw heck, it will be fun to be at the games with our best friends no matter what the final scores are, but winning is always a little better.

I guess I should shift into "rambling" mode here, for the final time this year. Right? Right!

Pomona ramblings…

The qualifying format in Pomona is unique, with the 1-1-2 set up on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and frankly I don't know any racer who likes that "one lap per day" deal for the first two days. Long days, without enough continuity or payback. So, we're all happy to see that Pomona will shift to a standard 2-2 format starting next year.

On Thursday night, Tim and I attended the Summit Racing Equipment ET Bracket Finals dinner at the NHRA Museum, and that event never fails to be a great time. The bracket racers who earn their way to Pomona, from all over the country, have overcome enormous odds and huge competition to do so, and it's really cool to let them have the spotlight for the night while the pro racers applaud them for the effort. There are also a lot of laughs, and some good food, so it's always a memorable affair.

Friday night was our annual dinner for our motley crew of team and sponsor PR reps, at Buca di Beppo not too far from the track. Anthony Vestal and the talented folks in the NHRA Media Relations Department host us for a big old hoedown of an Italian dinner (calories too enormous to track) and then they finish it off with giant platters of chocolate cake. For the record, my esteemed Ford PR colleague Lachelle Seymour (who has zero percent body fat) is a bit of a huge cake fan. Like, all throughout our wonderful dinner she just kept saying "Do I have to mention, again, that there's cake? Where's the cake?" When it arrived, we presented her with something close to 20 thick slices of decadent chocolate cake. Because there was cake. Cake. Did I mention there was cake?

We had our great friends Gerald Meux and his newly minted fiancé (no more calling her his "girlfriend") Kari Kieger with us, which means we ate very well all weekend. Those two are really fantastic, and they are a lot of fun to have with us. Kari is very big into shooting video with a couple of GoPro cameras, and she brought along the standard suction cup and extension pole accessories, to shoot various GoPro shots in different ways. On Sunday, Gerald and I kind of lost track of her when we went up for driver introductions, and I never did see Kari in the crowd gathered around the stage, but then Tim came through the sliding doors and I began to click off photos of him as he waved to the crowd. At that exact second, a GoPro camera on an extension pole rose up out of the crowd like a submarine periscope, right in my line of sight toward Tim. Found her! LOL. That was actually pretty funny. We looked all around for her and never saw Kari or her pink headphones, but then Tim came out on stage and the GoPro rose up out of the masses right in front of me. What are the odds?

Jim and Nancy Butler were there, as they were at so many races this year. We got to know Jim and Nancy a few years back when we simply noticed them being outside the ropes at more than a few races, and they sure seemed like friendly Illinois folks. They are friendly, and they are from Illinois, so over time we got to know them and now they're just about part of the family. You won't meet two nicer people…

My longtime blog reader turned longtime buddy, Scott Burris was there. That would be Scott The Pilot for those of you keeping score, also known as STP for short. He's back to flying the friendly skies for a commercial carrier (you can figure that one out) and is currently based out of LAX, so he came out for the day on Sunday and after our early exit we had lots of time to chat and catch up on everything. Considering STP has flown all the big jets, all around the world, he's always the target for a million questions when other people find out what he does, and his answers from "inside the cockpit" are always fascinating. Did you know that he used to fly Casey Powell's private jet, back when Casey's daughter drove in Top Fuel and Funny Car? That would be my dear friend Cristen Powell, one of the nicest people I know. STP also flew the big Kalitta Air 747s for a couple of years, circling the globe flying freight around for Connie…

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The final warm-up of 2013. Harrumph...
All in all, it was a great weekend. Except for the part about smoking the tires in round one. And we'd had such a good and consistent qualifying effort, too… Hey, if it was easy everybody would be tuning a Funny Car.

My biggest thrill of the weekend? It was huge. On Sunday evening, as the race was winding down and we were all just standing around socializing, I was talking to Tim out by the ropes when I saw Roland Leong come over to say hi to my driver. They shook hands, and I had the quick thought "Should I stick my hand out and introduce myself? Maybe that would be silly. Why would Roland Leong care who I am?" At that point, Roland extended his hand toward me and said "Bob, I've never had the pleasure to meet you, but I want you to know I love your blog and read every one." A chill, almost a shiver, ran right through me. I was stunned. And, for a split second, I was almost at a loss for words (but I got over it and thanked him profusely for saying that.) Wow. Seriously, that was pretty amazingly cool.

Now, I've got to get cracking on putting together my "Year In Review" binder for Dick Levi and Shannon Heisler, at LRS. The goal every year, of course, is to have so many clippings contained in the binder that it makes a significant THUD when it lands on the desk at LRS headquarters in Springfield. We're coordinating that trip now, and since I'm not sure when we'll be having our annual meeting I need to get to work on this. Looks like I have enough material to make a pretty good sound when it hits the conference room table…

Oh… Almost forgot the biggest news! Under the heading of "Better Late Than Never" our beautiful 2013 die-cast cars are finally in, and yes YOU can buy one if you'd be so inclined. Just to go here: http://www.timwilkerson.com and click on the photo. You know you want one...

That's it for now. In case you hadn't noticed, the 2013 Mello Yello season is over. Hard to believe, isn't it?

Wilber, out!