You just get into a groove, and…Wednesday, February 26, 2014

As I wrote before Pomona, right up until you get to the track for the "first day of school" the whole season seems far off and enormously long. Every year, no matter how long I've been doing this, it feels the same and it's almost daunting to look at the schedule and think of all the distant travel, cramped seats, bad food, loud hotel rooms, and stinky rental cars are going to be involved in the whole thing.

And then you get to Auto Club Raceway and say hi to the first familiar face and it's total immersion. It's crazy how that works.

In the past, we've had Pomona and Phoenix back-to-back a few times (I couldn't tell you when, I just remember it happening at least once) but it feels a lot better to have them separated by one open weekend. I mean, jumping into the season is a lot like jumping into the deep end of the pool, but there's no need for it to be totally freezing cold. Just jumping in is hard enough. One weekend off seems to be just right, and once you're in Phoenix and immersed into that deep end, the season feels totally "up and running" and off on its way.

And then you get two weekends off before Gainesville. It's like you've just caught up to the fastball and are starting to hit line drives, and then they throw you a change-up.  It seems to have always been this way, and for good reason, so at least we are accustomed to it. To get the full season in by early November, we have to start in early February. The Gatornationals are typically right around St. Patrick's Day, for both historical and meteorological reasons (it can still be chilly in north Florida until the middle of March) and that leaves six weekends in which to run the first three races, so there has to be an extra open-weekend in there somewhere and it typically comes between Phoenix and Gainesville.

So, you deal with it. Personally, I'm leaving the snow of Spokane to fly back to the massive snow and subzero deepfreeze of Minnesota, and I'm departing tomorrow for a fun long weekend with some dear friends. Barb is on a business trip to Kansas City and Chicago, so we'll meet in Woodbury tomorrow evening. Then, on Friday we'll join our friends Joe and Mary Beth Gillis and head up into the truly frozen tundra of the north shore of Lake Superior, up above and east of Duluth. They have a  condo there and frankly there's no reason not to enjoy it in the middle of the winter as well as during the deliciously wonderful summer months, so off we go!

Looking back at Phoenix, I can say with no doubt that a lot of good things happened, and I mean that in a variety of ways. Let's start off with the track itself, Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park.

We'd heard of the new management changes, and we'd gotten word from a few people who had checked the place out, so the new surface, the new scoreboards, the new sound system, and the new lights were all something we were expecting to see but all exceeded our best hopes. There's a lot still to be done at the track, but the new management people know this fully well and they attacked some of the most pressing issues first (issues that weren't cheap, by any means). After seeing what's been done, and hearing what the Gila River Indian Community representatives had to say, I can assert that I've never been more optimistic about a track or a market in which we race.

They also did a great job publicizing all of the good things that are going on, and will continue to happen, and the fan base in Arizona resoundingly voiced their approval.  Saturday was one of the most impressive days I've seen in a long time, in terms of attendance, excitement, and vibe. The place was packed, and the fans were still arriving in a steady stream of cars, parking in the distance and then being transported to the gate in Disney-style trams. The pits were wall-to-wall, and even though that can be a real hassle for the teams, the fans were alert and we were able to get in and out with few problems despite the sea of humanity. The future is clearly bright for Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, and we all owe the Gila River Indian Community a huge round of applause for their commitment to this facility. The GRIC board was introduced during pre-race ceremonies, and they not only got that round of applause from the fans and racers, it was clear just how heartfelt and sincere the clapping was. Great stuff.

On the track, the team that fumbled and stumbled in Pomona had a major turn-around in Phoenix. With that "testing" race behind us, Team Wilk came out firing and we were hitting the targets.  During our first three runs, we ran 4.143, 4.066, and 4.151 and after all three of those runs we were in the No. 5 spot on the ladder. Wilk, like more than a few crew chiefs, took a shot at a home run in Q4 and we overshot the mark a little, smoking the tires. Still, we went into the race in the No. 7 spot, which is a far cry better than the 15th position we slid into at Pomona.

On Sunday, we lined up as the seventh pair and faced Chad Head, who has a really good hot rod these days. A lot of nitro teams were having trouble keeping traction between the 60 and 330-foot timers, but Wilk's LRS Ford got right through there and looked to be on a very nice full pull. Suddenly, and surprisingly, tire smoke appeared after half-track, but Wilk managed to get it to the other end with a 4.263 and we had officially removed the "Winless" tag from our description.  As a bunch of us said "You can't win the second round, you can't win the race, and you absolutely can't win a championship until you win that first round."  It was very nice to get that done.

It as also nice, and a bit stressful, to get back into the between-rounds thrash, and ours was a short one. Having qualified near the middle of the pack we were saddled with being the seventh pair in round one, and shortly after getting back to the pit and getting started on the service we learned that Tommy Johnson's team had selected first pair for round two, meaning our guys had very close to the minimum amount of time to turn the car around. It was tight, and NHRA Pit Control was hovering outside our pit to keep on eye on our progress, but we got up there in time to take a deep breath and get focused before we ran.  We lost, although we did make a decent full pass, and in the end I can say that everyone wanted more, but we got that first one out of the way and that was important.

As a former baseball player, I can tell you that every season began with an undue amount of stress regarding just one simple thing: Getting that first hit. I didn't care if it was a broken-bat bloop or a checked-swing roller, if I got that first hit out of the way in the first game, everything would get going from there. It's the same way in this gig. You have to get the first one out of the way.

A bunch of us were on Sunday night flights, so we all pitched in to tear everything down, and just as the final round was going off I was pulling out of the parking area headed for Sky Harbor Airport. When I left, I was hoping for some significant history to be made, and it almost came to fruition. With both Alexis DeJoria and Brittany Force in their respective final rounds, we had a chance for two females to be on the Mello Yello pro podium together, and that would've been incredible. The first thing I did once I got the rental car returned, got through security, and had a seat at the gate was turn on my computer to see how it ended. Antron had something to say about the Top Fuel result, but Alexis did her part by picking up her first pro win. You go girl!  And Brittany will get hers soon. Wouldn't surprise me in the least to see her win Gainesville.

Other Phoenix rambles…

Our friend Bill Spresser hosted us again at his hotel in Tempe, which is now a Red Lion. Another great stay with great people, and another phenomenal fruit basket waiting for me in my room. Thanks Bill, you're the best!

The fruit basket represented the healthiest part of my weekend cuisine, and I pretty much ate everything there, but of course there needs to be balance in the universe (right?) and there is an In-N-Out just down the road, so…  I made a trip there on Thursday night. Hey, you only have so many chances when you don't live in the land of In-N-Out, so you have to take your shots when they come to you. And I'm good about putting a lid on my calorie intake by only partaking once per weekend, no matter how strong the gravitational pull is.

In that regard, I impressed even myself when I returned to the In-N-Out drive-thru on Saturday night, but only because Shelley Williams had never eaten there and I was her driver. She let me have a few of her fries (ordered "well done" upon my recommendation) but I only ordered a burger for her.  In-N-Out now has another Illinois-based devotee.

We had a great group of LRS guests with us on Saturday, and that all went wonderfully. They were a good crowd, and it's always fun to do my standup bit when I have a good audience. Every now and then I throw a few more sarcastic or off-the-wall lines at 'em, just to see who's listening and who gets it, and this was a great group. Remember to tip your waitresses and bartenders folks. I'll be here all week.

I got home at midnight on Sunday night, after flying up to Salt Lake and spending my layover in the Sky Club with David Grubnic. We enjoyed a glass of wine and had a fine time talking about all things drag racing, and it was a fun conversation. Clearly the two of us ought to be the ones in charge, because in one hour we discussed all the great ideas in the history of the world. Every one of them.  We're pretty spectacular, if you ask us.

It took me a while to wind down after I drove home to Liberty Lake on some seriously icy roads. White-knuckle driving at its best, but the best thing to do on roads like that is to have the lightest possible grip on the wheel and the softest touch on the pedals. Grip too hard or stomp on a pedal too hard, and you're the next guy in the ditch. I had a few dicey moments, but I got my car back into our garage with no mishaps.

Barb then had to get up at 6:00 on Monday morning, to fly out to KC, so I got up early and scraped the inch of blowing snow we had off the driveway. After she left, we had a little more snow if by "a little more" you really mean a blizzard. It snowed all day, and the winds picked up to the point where the howling sounds coming through the front door scared the cats. Buster and Boofus do not like sounds such as that, and off they went to points unknown until late in the evening.

I stayed in for the night, being healthy as possible by using our juicer (kale, cucumbers, carrots, apples, blueberries, pears, and strawberries make a delectable concoction) and then a Caesar Salad with chicken I blackened myself. Just call me Chef Robert.

Tuesday morning, though, it was clear that the drifts were not something I could just ignore and plow through, so out came the snowblower and an hour later I had our drive, most of the cul de sac, and a path to the mailbox cleared. At its deepest, my little entry-level snowblower was taking on drifts up to two-feet deep. It was an inch-by-inch proposition to get it all done, and despite the fact it was 25 degrees out there I came back into the house soaked in sweat, but done it is. It's a good thing I don't have to clear the front yard, because we have some drifts that are easily three-feet deep on the grass. And in the back yard? An inch in spots and clear grass in many others. It's all just about how the wind blows between the houses, and out front we got the brunt of it.

Yesterday afternoon, I had a follow-up doctor's appointment with the specialist I see for all my ankle and knee problems, and I scored straight A's and got a gold star. He called me, and I quote, a "rock star" for the healthy eating, better exercise, and my commitment to make things better. As he said "I see patients all day long, and they know what they need to do and promise to do it. You've actually done it, and that's spectacular.  Keep it up. You make me look good."  I told him "You're the man" and he hilariously grabbed his phone and said "If I call my wife, will you repeat that?"  He's a good man.

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Packed. Wall-to-Wall. What a great turnout!
In today's photo gallery, I include a bunch of backstage shots during the pre-race stuff, figuring those kinds of "behind the scenes" stuff should be interesting.

On a completely different note, speaking of a completely different sport to which I am attached, I am making some changes to the big frame that holds my father's old Minnesota Twins jersey, hanging on the wall right behind my desk. In the past couple of weeks I've found on eBay a cool headshot of Big Del Wilber, wearing a very similar jersey but not the exact one I have framed (the shot and the jersey are a couple of years apart, but visually they look identical) and when I got back from Phoenix I had another eBay purchase waiting for me.

I told Barbara that I wanted to put the 8x10 photo inside the frame too, to sort of bring the jersey to life, but she made a really good point about needing the frame to be visually balanced, so I needed a like-sized "something" in the other lower corner. I was stumped, but decided to just look for a 1968 Twins Yearbook online, and I quickly bought one. I liked the cover, and thought it would look great as the counterbalance to the black & white photo. I was thrilled to seeing it waiting for me when I got home, and started flipping through the pages just to see who I might remember or still know, when I got a great surprise.

They had devoted an entire page to the 1967 Florida Instructional League team, which my dad managed. There was a team photo there, and in it you can see Dad and a bevy of young rookie players, a large number of which made it all the way from this lowest rung up to the major leagues. One of those players left quite a legacy. Yep, in the photo is a very young Rod Carew, sitting there like all the other young players. The Hall of Fame awaited him. Cool stuff, and now I'm thinking that the page with the team photo is actually the one I should display in the frame, instead of the cover.  Can't wait to get this done…

So I'm off to the frozen north shore of Superior tomorrow. I'll check back in with photos and stories when I return next week.  Two weekends off now, so we have to adjust to that. Once we get to Gainesville, it's going to go a bit nuts. If my elementary-school math is correct, it will be 11 races in the next 19 weeks once we get to the Gatornationals. Strap in!

Wilber, out!