Looking for a howling good time in VegasTuesday, October 28, 2014

Point A: I can't believe it will be Halloween in three days.  Point B: I can't believe we're already at the second Las Vegas race and only Pomona follows it.  Point C: I like making points.

But seriously, I'll be heading south to Vegas on Thursday, and then it will be a whirlwind and a blur of activity until I come back up here to Spokane on Monday. Tim and Krista fly into McCarran around the same time I land from Salt Lake, somewhere in the 3:30 range, and then we independently need to hope for on-time arrivals, quick exits from the airport, easy pick-up of rental cars, and traffic cooperation (good luck with that!) in order to get up to Fremont Street for the huge Fan Fest. They want the drivers there by 5:00 but the really important part of it is the autograph session that runs from 5:30 to 6:30. Fingers crossed we can all get there by then. You wouldn't think it would be that hard, but we're talking about Las Vegas here…

If you've never been to the Fremont Street NHRA Fan Fest, and you're going to be in Vegas this weekend, you really need to get there to experience it. All other Fan Fests on the planet bow down to its enormity and organization. In other words, be there.

Since we haven't raced in three years (actually it's three weeks, but it seems like eons) I don't have much in the way of any new racing photos, so instead I went back through the files and picked out a few of my favorite Las Vegas shots, just to get us all in the mood.  Also a pair of "before and after" shots of the landscape work that is completely changing the view from my office window here in Liberty Lake. Basically, as you'll see, it's finally creating a view for me.

This house was built around 2009 I believe, and when it was landscaped I think the original owners figured the more plants they could string together the better, and back then I'm sure it looked like there was plenty of room for growth. The problem now, in 2014, is that the Burning Bush plants are out of control, the Day Lillies are gigantic, and what was surely a cute little Japanese Maple in front, surrounded by two Rhododendron plants and another Maple, now completely blocks my view. If I open my shutters all I can see is plants. It's like being stuck inside a plant fortress. It's a veritable wall of flora!

Barbara and I took a look at everything about a week ago, then we brought in an arborist expert, and now the plan is coming together. These guys are good, trimming and pruning everything by hand. No power tools at work here!  Plus, I bet our AC unit will appreciate not having one of those Burning Bush monstrosities basically engulfing it. When these guys are done, I bet the house is going to look like it went from having wild long hair to a buzz cut.

Things to look forward to, in Vegas:

We're staying at The Cannery again, which I like. Some of the huge Las Vegas resorts down on The Strip are amazing, but been there and done that for many years. The best part of staying at The Cannery is leaving the track and being in your room in about 15 minutes.

There's also an In-N-Out right next to the hotel. Thank you.

Our buddy Gerald Meux will be there for all three days, and when Gerald is in the house we eat very well. Gerald and his wife Kari lived in Vegas for a while, but he was promoted and relocated to Southern California recently. He hasn't been to a race all year, so he's making the trip over to Vegas to see us. Unfortunately, Kari has to work so we won't get to see her, but maybe they can make it out to Pomona in a couple of weeks.

My good friend Buck Hujabre will be bringing the whole clan out to the track on Friday, and then he's going to try to make it back out on Sunday. It will be outstanding to see little Gibson and Hudson (who are growing faster than this Japanese Maple tree) and it's always a sincere treat to see the lovely Mary. It'll be okay to see Buck, too, I guess. Ha!

I had originally planned to not fly home until late on Monday night, because Mary surprised Buck a while ago with a great gift, and I wanted to see it. He's enrolled in the Doug Foley's Drag Racing Experience, and was schedule to make some laps down the track at The Strip on Monday. At the last minute, though, it turned out that so many Pro teams are testing on Monday, they had to push the Foley school back to Tuesday. No big deal for Buck, but unfortunate timing for me…  So now I'm leaving at noon on Monday. And, instead of making the ubiquitous connection in Salt Lake, I have a creative itinerary that has me flying from Vegas to Seattle, then a quick jump over to GEG from there. Never done that before…

This weekend, the racing competition should be pretty incredible and the drama associated with whittling down the contenders for the various Pro championships ought to be pretty compelling. Add in the crew chief changes over at John Force Racing, and John's history of rising up and being at his best when he's challenged, and this should all add up to fun. What would make it even more fun would be for a certain team sponsored by an I.T. Solutions company based in Springfield, Illinois, to make some noise and win some more rounds. And if we have to knock off Force to do that, well so be it.

We still have a real chance to keep moving up in the standings, and the way we see it is that our challenge is to have the lowest possible number on the car next year. If the season was over now, we'd have a 9 on the LRS Mustang. With two races left, if we really got hot and if we got some help by having some other teams go out early, we could turn that 9 into an 8 or even a 7. If we don't get hot, we would likely end up with a 9 or a 10. If there's one detail I've learned over the last 18 years, it's that it's really hard to move up in the standings if you don't win some rounds. Funny how that works.

Speaking of John Force and JFR, their world-famous PR guy, Elon Werner (whom you learned all about in the previous blog) will be accompanied by his wife Jenn this weekend, and the way we connect those dots is to mention that Jenn is going to see the Saturday late matinee of "Jersey Boys" featuring the aforementioned Mr. Hujabre. Buck is going to meet up with her after the show and introduce her to some of the other cast members. Should be fun!

Other ramblings...

Barb and I have been in the process of making vacation plans for December, and it's all coming together. Let's just say my sister Mary and her husband Lonnie live on Kauai, and we'll be seeing them for a few days. Can't wait! 

I was just looking in our "Boofus and Buster" file, and saw their veterinarian records which indicate they were born in 2007. How in the world can these guys be seven years old? Didn't they just adopt us as their humans yesterday?

Barb and I have been dialed into "Dancing With the Stars" again this year. I'd like to say it's a miracle that Michael Waltrip is still on the show, but some of that has to do with him totally buying in, and a lot of it has to do with race fans voting like crazy. He's such a good guy, and he's trying really hard, but… He's not going to win the Mirror Ball trophy. We're pulling for Alfonso Ribeiro, I think.

When we were watching last night, I was telling Barb about the NHRA vs NASCAR softball game we did, and how it was neat to be in the clubhouse with both teams, but when Michael and Darrel Waltrip walked in the room, it was like racing royalty had showed up. And Michael really is a hoot.

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It's going to be great to have our buddy Gerald in the house!
Well, I guess that's about all I have for today.

I did get to the organic market down in Spokane yesterday, to stock up on all our favorite ingredients for the juicer, and in a minute here I'm going to be operating that bad boy. Barb's at work, but I'm going to drive up the road to Itron and personally deliver a masterpiece made up of kale, spinach, carrots, cucumber, pears, apples, strawberries, blueberries, grapefruit, and lemons.

Last night, Chef Bob (or Chef Robert' with a French accent) whipped up some blackened pork chops and steamed carrots, with some green beans as well. It all hit the mark and I was a star for the night. Barbara asked if I could make the blackening spices from memory and I said "No way. Too many different ingredients and too many different teaspoons or tablespoons of each. This is why I'm a short-order cook, not a Chef. I need the instructions…"

So have a great weekend, everyone. Let's go win some rounds, and maybe some slots.

Wilber, out!

Questions, questions, questions…Wednesday, October 22, 2014

You may find this difficult to believe, but it is indeed a fact. A few months back, I was looking ahead at the incredible grind the summer schedule was going to present to us, and then I noticed the odd three-week gap between Reading and Las Vegas. And I had a thought… I wondered “How am I going to come up with anything other than a bunch of BS (Baloney Stuff) during those three weeks?” I mean, I can spin stories out of thin air pretty well, but I’ve been writing this blog for nine years now and a lot of the stories have been told. I saw a quandary in my future.

So, I started jotting down notes every weekend, keeping tabs on when someone at the race track would ask me a question, and I compiled an informal list of the most pertinent, the most interesting, and the most often asked. With all of those as the foundation for this mid-October “When are we ever going to race again?” blog installment, I shall proceed. And I won’t even make the connection to that great Moody Blues song “Question” from the also-great album “A Question of Balance”. I promise I won’t. See...

These are in no particular order, and most are generalizations of various questions I hear almost every weekend… And yes, I know, that some of you long-timers here have heard many (if not all) of these before, but our readership is a fluid thing with new people finding the blog all the time, so I hope it’s worth doing. And if you are relatively new here, where have you been? I’ve been writing this thing for nine long years!

Let us begin.

“You guys must get used to these fumes, right?”

Well, actually, no. I guess, to a certain degree, the nitro fumes don’t bite us quite as hard as they might a young child or a newbie at his or her first race, but the fact is they still sting. Depending upon wind speed, wind direction, and humidity, the fumes are generally worse for the folks at the ropes than they are for us. We have a number of fans blowing in that direction, plus the headers point the fumes up and behind us, but there are plenty of days when we’re bucking the wind and our awning acts like a giant fume collector.

For me, personally, I can usually get away if I’m over by the car and it’s just too stout. For the guys, they need to stay at their posts and handle the warm-up correctly. Travis is smart enough to wear a mask, because he has to have constant visual contact with Tim while he’s in the cockpit.

But generally, the answer is no. You never really get used to it.

“How do you stand the noise?”

That’s a tough question, and as I get older I pay more attention to it. If I was really smart, I’d wear ear plugs all day. It’s easy to remember to put on ear muffs or pop some plugs in when the car is running, but too often you get caught in the pits without either, just as someone fires up. Fingers make good ear plugs too, so I always have those handy.

At the starting line, I double up. I put ear plugs in, and then put my ear muffs on over them. I stand closest to the car, shooting our video, and it’s incredibly and enormously loud. Like really loud. I don’t have any way of describing how loud it actually is. It’s also cool.

A tip about ear plugs: If you’re using the soft foam ones that are either attached to a string or have no string at all, roll them between your first finger and thumb for a few seconds to make them skinnier. Then reach over your head with your other hand and pull on the top of your ear, to make the ear canal slightly bigger. Push the skinny plug in and let go. It will grow back to its original size and fill the ear canal much better. You’re welcome.

And speaking of being at the starting line...

“What’s it like to stand right behind the car when it launches?”

For 18 years I’ve been trying to find a way to accurately describe it, but I’ve never felt like I succeeded in doing that. Put it this way, I’ve been shooting starting-line video for so long I’m surprised video existed when I started, and yet I never get used to it. Let me emphasize that. I absolutely NEVER get used to it nor am I totally prepared for it. Never.

You quickly learn that you can keep both eyes open for most of the staging process and your brain is fully capable of only processing the vision in the eye you want to use, which is kind of weird but really cool. It’s hard to see the staging bulbs through the camera, and if it’s a shock to the system when you know the cars are about to launch, it’s a complete debacle if you’re caught by surprise, so I keep my “other eye” on the staging bulbs until both cars are fully staged, then I close it and concentrate on the image in the viewfinder with my right eye.

At that precise moment, when we’re all waiting for the flash of amber, I’m as tense as I ever am, and often the muscles in the back of my neck start to almost vibrate. If the fumes are particularly bad up there (and they almost never are) you add in the fact you can’t really see and can’t breathe, and it’s all fun and games then.

We control the noise pretty well with our hearing protection, but the concussion is what gets you. It pounds you in the chest, it rattles your feet, and it literally comes close to knocking you over. It’s amazing.

The other odd thing is that I’m the closest person to the car and yet in most ways I have the worst view. All I see is the tiny little one-inch image in the viewfinder. I don’t see the other car at all until about half-track, and if the race is close by any stretch of the term (and by that I mean if both cars are actually still running the whole way) I have absolutely no idea who is leading. The camera is also pretty lousy at picking up the win lights after I shift it over to record the e.t. and speed, so my first indication of whether or not we won a round is generally from the new sound that’s coming from behind me. If I hear the guys yell, I figure we won. It’s a bit of a game of catch-up for me at a moment like that. I do my job recording the lap, I hear the guys cheer, I get a shot of the scoreboard, and I turn around to see my teammates. By then, most of them are already running for the tow vehicle. Krista Wilkerson and I generally celebrate alone, but that’s okay. She’s my best buddy.

“Did you always want to be in racing?”

I think most of you know the short answer, which is no. I wanted to be a baseball player, plain and simple. I didn’t see my first drag race until I was the General Manager at Heartland Park, back in 1991.

That’s not to say that I never paid attention, however. I built Revell models all the time when I was a kid, and it was those models that taught me what things like manifolds, superchargers, and cylinder heads were. When I began working with my first Funny Car team (Chuck Etchells and his Nobody Beats the Wiz car) a year later, I marveled at the fact that a total newbie like me could actually recognize a lot of parts on the car. They were just far bigger versions of the ones that got stuck to my fingers at the dining-room table.

I also watched NHRA Drag Racing whenever it was on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, and when we see that old footage now it’s very nostalgic for me. I knew who Big Daddy, Shirley, The Snake, and The Mongoose were, and I saw “Heart Like A Wheel” right after it came out, but I never planned on a career in this sport. Life is funny that way.

“How’d you get into this?”

I get that one a LOT, and if I tell the whole story here we’d run out of blog. Here’s the short version: After my baseball career was over, I went into sports marketing, first with Converse Shoes and then with my oldest brother’s agency in Washington, D.C., the appropriately named DelWilber + Associates (which we all shortened to DW Plus A). I had a lot of cool assignments there, including managing IBM’s sponsorship of Major League Baseball, Chrysler’s sponsorship of USA Baseball and their sponsorship of the Big East basketball conference, and a lot of others, but the key project I worked on in terms of where I’d eventually end up was our representation of the Major Indoor Soccer League.

At DW+A we worked with the MISL to find new sponsors and come up with new promotions, and because of that I got to know the Commissioner of the league, Bill Kentling. I then went on to become Vice President - Marketing for the St. Louis Storm franchise in the league and enjoyed the heck out of that for a year. Not too long after that, Bill Kentling called me and said “Son, I’ve got good news and bad news for ya.” He said “The good news is, we’re going racing together.” I said “Bill, I really don’t know anything about racing” but he cut me off saying “I don’t want a race fan, son, I want a marketing guy. We’ll both learn about racing together.” Then he said what he thought I’d consider to be the bad news when he added “And we’re going to be doing it in Topeka, Kansas.” That was actually okay by me. I’m a Midwestern guy at heart. So that’s how I got into the sport, working for a track.

A year later I got introduced to Bill Griffith, who represented Chuck Etchells and Mike Dunn, and that’s how I got into PR and working with teams. I went broke a few times, failed a bunch, and wondered if I was even the slightest bit sane many times, and I even went back into indoor soccer for a couple of years, with the Kansas City Attack, in the mid 90s (I liked that sport a lot, and I needed the money!) but I kept my eye on the NHRA. And then Whit Bazemore called, and you’ve all been stuck with me ever since. I spent part of one season with Whit before I went to work for Del and Chuck Worsham, and the rest is some sort of history. Here I am.

“What’s your favorite part of your job?”

That’s easy. My favorite part of doing this is all the people. I love being a part of a team. I really need that, and it’s the old baseball player in me that craves winning or losing as a team. All I ever wanted to be was a baseball player, and yet here I am closing in on 20 consecutive seasons doing PR for NHRA teams. But… I’m still on a team, and I still wear a uniform and a ball cap to work. Funny how that turned out.

I also love all of my colleagues on the PR and management side. The people I now get to work alongside at the race track are the most professional, the most dedicated, and the most entertaining colleagues I’ve ever had the honor to know. When I first started doing this, I avoided the Media Center at the various tracks, because there really wasn’t much to do there. Back then, we were lucky to even have laptops, but things like the internet and email were not at all mainstream yet, so the Media Center was often just a place where a bunch of PR people went to socialize.

Now, each Media Center is a beehive of hard work, but this group of pros is also a very tightly-knit gang, and I really love the interaction and the creativity that goes on there. We’re now all “connected” to our fans and the media all the time, and because of that today’s Media Centers are really productive places. On top of that, it’s just a real motivator to be surrounded by so much PR and communications talent. This is easily the best group of PR people the NHRA has ever had.

“What’s your least favorite part of your job?”

Getting to work. I very much enjoy the office work between races, because most of it is related to communications and writing, including this blog. And, I love being with my team and colleagues at the track. But, after nearly two decades of this, I’m no longer a huge fan of the actual travel. I don’t know why, because it’s not like it’s particularly “hard” or difficult to get on airplanes and hop in rental cars, but I think it’s just the ever-present stress involved. Will the plane be on time? Will I make my connection? Will I sit next to a smelly guy? Will my bag come down the chute at the other end? Will my rental car be there? Will my rental car run? Will my rental car stink? Will the hotel desk have my reservation? Will my room be ready? Will Frankenstein be walking around all night in the room above me? Will my room stink? You see, there are all sorts of things on a travel day that involve bad smells.

Until I’m checked into my room (and it doesn’t stink) I’m always on edge a little. And then I have three great days with my team and colleagues and I do it all again, in reverse. Truth is, Delta and Hertz treat me very well, but no one is perfect and things do happen.

Basically, I’m counting on Sir Richard Branson to finally offer me a supersonic sub-orbital plane so that no track is more than 20-minutes away. Either that or a Star Trek transporter. That would be cool.

I think I’m just getting old enough that I don’t enjoy stressful things I can’t control, and travel is mostly full of things we can’t control. But I deal with it because the job itself is just too good and too rewarding.

“It must be cool to see so many parts of the country and go to all the tracks, right?”

Right. No seriously, it really is. We cover nearly the entire country now, and it is fun to see so many various landscapes and hear so many different accents. Each track and each town have their own personalities, made up of good points and bad points, and what’s crazy is that we go a full year between visits to most of our tracks, and yet the day you arrive it feels like you were just there. When I check out of a hotel on Sunday morning, I usually say “See you next year!” to the desk clerk, and that seems like it should feel like eons (or at least a year) but it never does. When I walked into Maple Grove a couple of Fridays ago, it seemed like I just left.

“So you guys must party a lot, right?”

Wrong. We party almost not at all. First of all, this LRS team is a group of highly motivated and very focused individuals. When we arrive in a race town, we’re there to race. Secondly, at least from my perspective, I’ve been there and done that enough. When each day is over, I crave a good meal, a clean bed, and sleep. I never seem to get enough of that last part. I don’t even like eating out anymore, so if we’re staying at a place with room service, I’m right in my own boring sweet spot. Take a shower, order a Caesar Salad, eat, go to bed. It’s a real jet-setter lifestyle, I know…

“Is so-and-so a real jerk?”

I cast no aspersions on anyone. Everyone is different, and in this sport we have such a diverse group of people you’re absolutely going to have all kinds of personalities, but the way I see it is that we’re all a big family. You might have one brother who you don’t particularly like all that much, but you’re family. Plus, someone is probably asking the question “Is Bob Wilber a big jerk?” right now, and karma is one tough opponent, so I’ll defer and just say “No” to the jerk question. And that really is the answer. We’re a family.

“Who’s the funniest person you work with?”

The aforementioned family has a tree that contains many hilarious apples. Fast Jack really is funny. Steve Johnson really is funny. John Force really is funny (in his own 16x John Force way). Wilk is funny. Ron Capps is funny. ESPN producer Dave Dobson and his sidekick Matt Ilas (videographer) are a total tag team of hilarity. My ESPN camera buddies, who I don’t get to see nearly enough now that they’re not on the starting line, Nelson Jones and Dana Sherman, are both funny, and funnier still when they’re together. Mike Dunn and Dave Rieff are funny. There are a lot of funny people in this sport, but the funniest is Elon Werner. Of course, being John Force’s PR rep, he’s got a lot of material to work with, but nobody can go on a totally hilarious off-the-cuff riff like Elon. He can have a stand-up career if he ever wants one.

“It must be cool to meet so many interesting people”

I can’t overhype this answer enough. One of the absolute coolest things about being in this sport is the wide variety of really neat people we get to meet. Whether they happen to be professional athletes from other sports (I’ve hosted MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL stars in our pit), or actors (hello Buck Hujabre and Nathan Scherich), or just really cool fans I get to know, it’s fabulous to be in a profession where you can have these interactions with so many interesting people.

The winning moment, though, came about because Jeff Arend plays golf with Alan Johnson, who knows former big league pitcher Bryn Smith, who is friends with Geddy Lee. Getting to meet Geddy backstage in Dallas is a night I will never forget, and the hair on my arms is standing up just writing about it now.

“You must have been a great baseball player, huh?”

Well… That’s totally a matter of perspective. If you look at it from the top down, I wasn’t that good because I never made it to the top. Once you get to pro ball, the competition level is so incredibly enormous it’s very hard to succeed, and I clearly wasn’t quite the caliber of athlete many of my teammates were (I played with or against a LOT of guys who played in the show). I was a late bloomer actually, and I didn’t actually become a really good player until after my minor league career was over and I was playing semi-pro ball. Bad timing on my part, but coming out of college I was just too skinny and not strong enough. And I obviously was never suspected of using steroids.

On the other hand, if I want to make myself feel better about it, I can just change the perspective and look at it from the bottom up, starting with Little League when I was six. In that view, I guess I was pretty good, or at least okay. I played varsity ball in high school, got a full college scholarship (and my degree) out of the deal, and played a little bit of minor league pro ball in three different leagues and for two different organizations, where I had some fun highlights and did some neat things, so I guess I’m in the top percentile of all the little boys who ever put on a glove or swung a bat as a kid. But, when all you want to be is a big leaguer, it’s a disappointment not to make it that far.

And, with the World Series going on now I was watching the game from Kansas City last night, and one of the highlights of my entire so-called career was right there on the TV screen in front of me, even though it happened 35 years ago. It was the memorable (that’s an understatement) day, right there at that same stadium, when I wore an Oakland A’s uniform for one afternoon and pitched in the bullpen. I won’t recount it all here, other than to say it was one of the coolest days ever. If you didn’t know that, and want to hear all the tiny details, you can read about it at my other blog, Bob On Baseball.


And the last question…

“Where do you see the sport going?”

I’m a sports marketer and a PR guy by trade, and I’m an optimist. We always have challenges in front of us, but the indoor soccer guy in me is a crowd watcher and I like what I’ve been watching. Not every track is packed to the gills, but for some reason people don’t scream “What a huge crowd we had in Reading!” like they do when they want to say “Oh my gosh, the place was empty!” People like to complain, I guess. I like to look forward and see what we are doing right. We’ve had a few races this year where the grandstands are a bit overbuilt (huge) and the crowd didn’t fill them, but we’ve had more where I stand at the starting line and marvel at how many people are there. Our last race, in Reading, was pretty epic in that regard. So was St. Louis, and Indy, and Sonoma, and Phoenix, and Epping, and Atlanta, and Houston, and Gainesville, and on, and on, and on...

I see the sport as being enormously resilient, and it adapts to challenges and changes. It always has, and it always will. We’re not going anywhere but up. There are some things we do better than any other form motorsports (and almost all other sports) and that centers around our hands-on access between the fans and the stars. We have a very talented group of PR and marketing people in place, both at NHRA and at the team level, and we’re all committed to capitalizing on every aspect of today’s social-media world, to continue to widen our audience and spread the word. “Committed” is really the operative word there. I’ve never, in my entire career, been surrounded by so many totally committed people who are also so talented. With this group, and with other new young talent coming in every year, I don’t see our sport being anything less than very successful.

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No, you never really get used to the fumes. But aren't they cool!!!
So, even though I’ve addressed a lot of these questions over the years, I hope today’s blog installment was worthy of your time.

The few take-aways are these: The fumes are stout, ear protection is important, you never get used to the launch of the car when you’re watching from 10 feet away through a viewfinder, even a kid who wanted to play baseball can end up in NHRA Drag Racing, indoor soccer was the connection that brought me here, I love the people I work with, I don’t so much love the stress of travel, hotel rooms and rental cars can both be smelly, it’s neat to see all the different parts of the country, no we don’t party at the races, nobody is a true jerk and we’re all family, and there are lots of funny people in this sport but Elon Werner takes the crown. Oddly and coincidentally, he just called me a minute ago and I told him I had just written that. He agreed that he has lots of great material, saying “I’m just the guy delivering the lines given to me by Jimmy Kimmel’s entire writing staff,” but he’s being too modest. And finally, just because baseball is in my genes doesn’t mean I was good enough to make it to the top, but I did get to pitch in the bullpen at Royals Stadium one day. Finally, I see a great future for our sport, because we have great people working to make that happen.

So there you have it… Can we please have another race now?

Wilber, out!

Go west, young man…Tuesday, October 14, 2014

This blog installment is going to be all about racing, and fast cars, and amazing performance. That is, this blog will be all about those things if by racing, fast cars, and amazing performance you mean a two-day trip from Woodbury, Minn. to Liberty Lake, Wash., shared with a wonderful and patient spouse and two very good boyz of the feline variety.

With our NHRA schedule being a little off-kilter this year, we just finished a four-in-a-row series of races and now we have three weekends off. So I guess there actually is a little racing to write about, because people ask me about the schedule all the time, and negative comments often seem to be a part of those conversations. What I tell them is what I've learned spending an entire lifetime in sports.

Of all the difficult things that have to happen in team sports, scheduling is one of the toughest. Whether it's 162 Major League Baseball games, 82 National Hockey League games, or 24 NHRA Mello Yello races, fitting it all together while taking into account all the variables and the necessities, is akin to solving one of the toughest jigsaw puzzles you've ever attempted, where some of the pieces simply refuse to fit.

In the NHRA, we start with some givens. Every season is going to start and end in Pomona. Indy will always be on Labor Day. We can't race where there's snow on the ground. Okay, so you start there. You also don't want to race in two markets that are very close together in a short time span, if you can help it. And, you need to be aware of other major events, whether they be racing or not, that might be coming to race markets. In addition, you try to keep the route of travel for the teams in some sort of fluid system, so that you're not going back and forth across the entire continent continuously. Our races cover the United States, so there is always going to be a lot of long-haul travel, but there are ways to keep us in segments of the continent rather than have us going back and forth.

And then there's the weather. There is not a single race on the schedule where three days of perfect weather can be guaranteed. It's as simple as that. But, you try to steer clear of the obvious problem areas. We used to race in St. Louis at the end of June. I have no idea why, and as a native St. Louisan I would've been happy to speak up had I been invited to the meeting where that date was selected. We were racing in an oven. We tried racing the entire event at night, we tried flooding the overheated track with fire hoses, and we tried not to collapse. We now run in St. Louis in September.

There's one other automatic factor that dictates the schedule. It's called Labor Day. Since Indy always runs on Labor Day, and that date can fluctuate by a week, that creates a ripple effect before and after Indy. For example, this year Indy was raced as early as possible, on September 1, and next year it will be as late as it can possibly be, on September 7. That has an effect on the Western Swing, because you want to keep the same spacing of running those three races in a row before a week off, then Brainerd, then another week off before Indy. This year, the Western Swing ran from July 18 to August 3. Next year it will be July 24 to August 9.

So, as you can see it's not that easy. And every year ends up being a little different. Add in the input of the track owners and promoters, who might lobby to try a different race slot or a different time of year, and it's a real challenge.

And I didn't think I had any racing stuff to write about. Sometimes I surprise myself.

Okay, back to the topic at hand. I got home from Reading late on Monday afternoon, last week. We knew we were leaving Woodbury to head west on Thursday, and we were going to make the whole trip in two long days. In addition to getting our stuff ready, and getting the car ready, we also got Boofus and Buster ready, by putting their carriers in the living room three days ahead of the trip. They are very intelligent little guys, who can sense a shift in activity and immediately know that "something's up" in ways only smart animals can perceive. They also seem to have very long memories. This time, there was no stress and no pushback. They simply got ready just like we did.

On Thursday morning, none of us were too thrilled with the 5:00 alarm, especially the boyz, but I had everything ready to go. I had the car all prepared and backed into the garage. Inside was a suitcase, a new hammock perch for the boyz, a box of food for us, a small cooler full of water and tea, and a basket full of food for the cats. Also their two favorite blankets, food and water dishes, and a litter box way in the back.

Off we went. It was still dark when we pulled out of Woodbury, but we did manage to have to slog our way through some very early rush-hour traffic on I-694 going around the north side of the Twin Cities. Once we were out the other side, the only hard part was the rising sun in my rearview. I was happy to denote the 100-mile mark when the trip odometer cleared that first hurdle, marking roughly 1/14th of the trip as complete.

Traversing Minnesota isn't all that thrilling, but it's a regular laugh-riot compared to North Dakota. I've been across the width of Nebraska and Kansas, and North Dakota gives them a run for their boredom dollars. Still, I consider myself a safe and very focused driver, always keeping an eye on the other idiots and making sure I'm not sticking my nose into any potential trouble. That helps keep the boredom away, because I drive the whole way as if that particular mile is the only one that counts.

Fargo, Bismarck, and finally the Montana border, at around 3:00 pm with 600 or so miles in the bank. And we still had 258 more to go.

I had a copilot nearly the entire trip, and it was usually Boofus (although they did trade back and forth). That's kind of odd, because Boof is a momma's boy and he usually clings to Barb, but for some reason my lap has been his preferred location on the last two long trips. They'd often just get back in their carriers, as well, and Buster loved the new hammock perch. The only real calamity we suffered happened when Boofie was inside his carrier and Buster decided to sleep on the top of said carrier. That all went swimmingly until it collapsed. What a riot that was…

Montana is a state that is so big it starts out like the Midwest and ends up with spectacular mountains and some very technical driving on winding mountain roads with 75 mph speed limits. Unfortunately almost all of that fun is reserved for the second day, after we spent the night in Billings. I had hoped to get to the Residence Inn before dark but it just didn't happen and the last 45 minutes or so were spent on full deer alert. All across North Dakota and Montana, the carnage along the interstate is so continuous it's kind of scary, especially after dark, so I went into my "Super Alert Mode" despite the fact I'd just driven for 12 hours straight, and we made it in unscathed.

The boyz never made a peep as we carried them in and they, I swear, seemed to be right at home as if they remembered the room. We stayed at the same hotel, in an identical room, 13 months ago. We all relaxed, Barb whipped up some pasta for us in the full kitchen (another reason to stay at the Residence Inn) and before long it was impossible to stay awake.

With only about eight or nine hours to go on Friday, we didn't feel the need to beat the sunrise and we definitely needed the rest, so I think we were rolling at 10:00 or thereabouts. Off we went, still heading west toward some of the most enjoyable driving you can do. I love the focus it takes to smooth out the tight curves enough so that Barb doesn't even know we're turning while she's working on her laptop. And I get mad at myself when I miss an entry or an apex and have to yank on the wheel a little.

By the way, here's another example of how times have changed: Not only did Barb stay connected to the internet the whole way, using her air card, she also had a great phone signal the entire trip. That's fairly amazing, considering the vast amounts of nothingness we passed through, followed by huge mountains.

From Billings, we traversed the state through Bozeman, Butte, and Missoula, enjoying the scenery. Barb was often online researching mountains as we passed them, or other points of interest, and that ability makes the trip a lot more fun. See a strange mountain, Google it!

By the time we hit the Idaho border it was getting late in the afternoon and I was really road-weary, but I'm also smart enough to know that you can't lose your focus until you pull into the driveway. Once Coeur d'Alene came into view, we were almost there and counting the miles. On to Post Falls, and right to the Washington state line, where we could exit one ramp before the official Liberty Lake exit, in order to cut the corner off and get home a full minute earlier.

I'd say both boyz started to get the sense we were home again as we came down Molter Road. When we turned left at the golf course, Buster's ears were up and he was standing on my lap with his front paws on the top of the driver's side door. When we pulled into the neighborhood, and saw our house straight ahead, they were both getting talkative and anxious. I pulled in the garage and put the door down behind me, and then Barb and I each grabbed a boy and took them in. They knew exactly where they were, and you could almost see how happy they were to be back.

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Co-pilot Boofus, helping me all the way...

The next day, both Boofus and Buster slept at least 12 hours straight. It had been a great trip, but for Barb the fun was only beginning. She needed to turn right around the next morning and fly right back to MSP. She's been teaching at St. Mary's University for a couple of months (in what was supposed to be her "spare time" but ended up being a ton of work) and her last class was last night, so she needed to get back and get prepared. Oh the life we lead…

After Barb headed for GEG to catch her flight, I went to the grocery store to stock up on provisions. We'd cleaned out most of everything when we left back in May, so $160 later I had pretty effectively restocked the pantry and the fridge. 

And yes, the woman who checked me out said "It seems like I haven't seen you in a while. Have you been gone?"  That's one of the benefits of living in a small town. People actually notice when you're gone. And when I took our clothes to the local dry cleaner, Pat smiled and said "Hello Mr. Wilber! Long time no see."  I smiled.

That was all just a couple of days ago, but now I feel like I've been back here forever. Barb flies back in tonight, so she's still got a lot of transition to wrap her head around, I'm sure. Can't imagine how weird it must have been for her to get here on Friday night and fly right back to the Twin Cities on Saturday.

In short order, we'll be all settled and looking forward to fall and winter. It sounds like Barb's sister Kitty is planning on coming all the way up here again from Orlando, for Thanksgiving, and you know how much I look forward to that. Nothing like having family, great company, and a fabulous chef in the house for the holiday.

And we still have two weekends off before Las Vegas. On the second of the two, I'm actually flying back to MSP to take care of a few last details there. Then, just two more races and our 2014 season will be over. Didn't we just start?

Wilber, out!

Time to do some reading about ReadingWednesday, October 08, 2014

Ah yes, fun with words. A homograph is a word that is spelled the same as another word, but has a different pronunciation and meaning. When you're holding a book in your hands, you're reading it. When you're reading that book at Maple Grove, you're reading in Reading. I'll ask you to excuse me, but that's no excuse. Now I'm going to wind this rubber band so that the propeller will create wind, and I'm going to lead this group by making everyone get the lead out. You're welcome.

What about Reading? People. Friday was as good as any Friday this year (and probably longer) in terms of attendance, and it only got better from there. Truly, Reading was packed (and yes, you're reading that right). The most impressive thing was the fact the pitside grandstand, which isn't necessarily big in terms of number of rows but it's very long, was filled for much of all three days, and that doesn't even count the fans who were 10-15 deep at the fence from end to end. Very impressive.

The weather. Going into the race, we were all simultaneously keeping an eye on the forecasts while we also discounted them, because it's so hard to predict the weather in that part of the country (as we all know from experience). Even midweek, right before the race, it looked like "sunny and warm" on Friday, rain all day on Saturday, and sunny but cool on Sunday. Instead, the rain for Saturday politely came in a little early and we had overnight showers after racing was done on Friday. The rain was gone by mid-morning on Saturday and it never came back.

It did leave behind a green track, so that had to be addressed on Saturday before we could run, but the Safety Safari is the best in the world and by Q4 we were flying. Sunday was chilly, but the fans came back in massive numbers and the racing was great. All in all, Maple Grove gets an A+ grade for a fabulous weekend.

The racing. Fast. We did a good job getting down the track well in Q1, but then stumbled in the other three sessions. That set us up against Robert Hight in round one, and we got the win when Wilk managed to get the LRS car well down track before the tires began to spin, while Robert had traction issues right away. We raced Jeff Arend in round two, and at first we all just thought our car was slow (while Jeff made a GREAT run in the other lane) but once we got back to the pit we saw where we'd had a spark plug break on us, and with the plug missing that leaves a hole in the valve cover. Out of that hole comes fire. Tim said there was quite a bit of it in the cockpit, and the loss of that plug explains why we slowed down so much at the top end.

The points. We're still in ninth, and still aiming to move up some more at the last two races.

The travel. Smooth. Harrisburg is such a great little airport to use, and it's even closer to Reading than Philly, so I'm all about Harrisburg. Leah Hook and I met at Detroit, making our connections, so she once again rode with me and we, once again, had to hustle to get her back to the airport on Sunday, after we were done racing. The traffic at Maple Grove can often be described by the word "gridlock" when everyone is trying to leave at once, so we made sure to get out of there during the semifinals and I dropped her at the curb right at 4:00. Bam!

I stayed at a hotel near the airport (rhymes with Shmeraton) and boy that was an adventure. The desk staff was really great, and very friendly, and when they sent me on my way up to the seventh floor (corner room) I was looking forward to relaxing for the rest of the evening, but then I turned the corner in the hallway and thought "Hmmmm. I wonder why those big fans are blowing on the carpet down by that last room on the left?" Yup. That would've been my corner room. The carpets were soaked.

I spun around and dragged my stuff back down to the lobby, and the desk people apologized profusely before giving me the key to another room. On the floor right below the first one. I guess I was too tired to even connect those dots and question the selection, but as soon as I got in there, I heard the drips…

You got it, water flows downhill and in this case the soaked carpets from the room above were now dripping through the ceiling in the room below. After another call to the friendly folks at the desk, two hotel employees immediately came up to the room so that I wouldn't have to lug my stuff back down, and they gave me some new keys, for a room on the top floor. They also helped me take all of my stuff up there, and as I approached the room I did sorta wonder why there was a plaque on the wall next to the door. It said "Susquehanna Suite".

It was huge. It also included a living room, a bedroom, two baths, and a full formal dining table with seating for eight. I was seven friends short of being able to fill it, but it sure was a hoot to spend the night there.

One other cool part of the weekend was our hospitality on Saturday. I've been trying to come up with various ways to make the afternoon more memorable for our LRS guests, and twice this year I've taken winner's jackets with me to give away. In Reading, I decided to give away a jacket AND a Wally!

The only concerns when doing that are that the jacket won't fit or the Wally will be won by a six-year-old who immediately throws it on the ground. Fortunately, I've been lucky enough to draw numbers out of the hat for people who were basically over the moon to have won those things. And I'm over the moon when I see those faces absolutely light up. I've also cut the clutter at home, but I think most of the rest of my stuff from race wins will stay with me. At least for 2014, because we're done doing hospitality for this season. Felt good to give that stuff away and send them off to good homes.

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Absolutely packed. Maple Grove was rocking...
And now…. Let's go to back to Liberty Lake!

We're about ready to go, but I still have to get all my racing apparel back from the cleaners today before I can pack. Boofus and Buster's carriers have been on the living room floor for a few days, and I can tell they both know something is up. They're very perceptive when it comes to things being "different" at home, even in just the energy level or how we're going about things. Hopefully, they'll settle right in like they have on the other cross-country treks and we'll have an uneventful drive.

Tomorrow, we'll try to be rolling by 6:00 a.m. and we won't stop until we get to Billings, Montana. That should take about 13 hours, and a lot of it is pretty boring, but it will only leave us about 8 hours of driving on Friday, to make it back to our lovely little home on the golf course. I'm sure the boyz will be excited to be back there, and one thing Barbara and I will enjoy is having two TVs again! I'm sure most of you who are married can relate to that. We're very fortunate to enjoy a lot of the same programs on TV, but "a lot" isn't quite the same as "all" so it's a good option to have a second TV available.

What's a bit crazy is that we'll be back home out there on Friday evening. What do you think Barb will be doing on Saturday afternoon? Yep, flying right back here. She's wrapping up her first semester of teaching at St. Mary's University in Minneapolis, and since her class is on Monday nights she'll be back here a couple of more times. I'm already scheduled to come back here for a couple of days on the weekend before Vegas, so it doesn't really yet feel like we're truly going back full-time, but in effect we are.

Sorry for this being so short, but it seems like a million things are swirling around us right now, and Barb is buried with work and on conference calls all day. That would explain why Boofie is under the bed…

Next time I'm on here, I'll be back in my comfortable office in Liberty Lake. Looking forward to it!

Wilber, out!

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