BizarrityWednesday, May 21, 2014

The word I used in the headline today is totally made up, but it was the first thing that popped into my head when I sat down to write this so I'm claiming it as my own. I'd copyright it if I could, but I don't think you're allowed to copyright made-up stuff. Something about "frivolous copyrighting statutes" or the like…

Anyway, we're all on a very short break between Atlanta and Topeka and this past weekend was just bizarre, surreal, exhilarating, and confounding. Also expensive.

The good news first…

Friday was a really good day at the track, with some very nice laps made by a few of the teams.  It was a late schedule to begin with, but we were all out there bright and early anyway and that just made it an even longer deal than it was officially supposed to be. I think on Friday we were at the track for about 14 hours. What happily surprised me was the number of people who ventured out to rural Commerce for Friday qualifying, and once again the negative naysayers were confronted by those pesky facts and didn't have a leg to stand on when crying that the world is coming to an end and drag racing is washed up and kaput. Friday was really pretty strong for any track in any market.

Saturday was amazing. At our last race, in Houston, they finally had to declare it "SOLD OUT" on Saturday, and although I don't know if they did that at Atlanta Dragway, they certainly had to be very close. It was packed, wall to wall and end to end, on both sides of the track, and one of our corporate hospitality guests called an LRS staffer around midday to say that he had arrived a little late and the state troopers out in front of the facility had told him they wouldn't let him in because there was no more room.

As I traversed the pits each day, I also noticed another pleasant bit of demographic goodness. It's been said a lot lately that our crowd is getting older and "the kids" aren't interested in drag racing anymore. Well, I need to start looking around more at other tracks, because the crowd at Atlanta Dragway was many things (including huge) but one thing it wasn't was old. There were a lot of families there, but more importantly there were a lot of teens and 20-somethings in the mix, and that bodes well for all of us. And Bob Bode was there, so that bodes well for Bodes.

The Friday evening session got pushed back about two hours, due to various delays and a little surprise weather, and that's when the bizarre stuff started, led off by Antron's mishap that started with a motor that was "all blowed up" and ended with a scary looking crash that he walked away from with no ill effects.

On Saturday, during Q3, Wilk was in the right lane and Jack Beckman was in the left, and as I stood there behind the car holding the video camera to my eye, I watched as our LRS Mustang took off and ran right down the middle for what was sure to be a fine run. Then all I saw was fire and much of the body disintegrating.

For the record, I will admit to having video-taped a goodly number of runs that have ended with explosions or crashes, going all the way back to the early CSK days with the Worshams. I do not believe, thinking back, that I was ever able to keep my thumb away from the on/off button for any one of them. I don't know why, but it's just impossible. Your brain sees the explosion and your thumb turns the camera off before you can even process the thoughts.

What's weird is that I've also shot a number of final round winners where the car in the other lane either red lights or smokes the tires early, and I can hear all of my teammates cheering and celebrating behind me, but I still stand there and dutifully do my job, holding the camera steady until the car crosses the finish line, and holding my celebration in because I'm taping the whole run. So, my brain thinks quickly enough to overcome that temptation but it doesn't have the available neurons to keep shooting when the car blows up. This time, it was a little different but not in any kind of better way. I saw the car blow up and instead of just turning it off I subconsciously lowered the camera so that I could look with my own two eyes, instead of through the tiny viewfinder. Then my brain announced "Hey, the camera is still running dummy but you have it pointed at the ground" so I lifted it back up again and pointed it down track, as if that was going to make up for it. It's just really weird, and I've never been able to overcome it.

Del had quite a few calamities over the year, tossing a number of bodies into the air (we all remember the Mountain Dew car, the Max Life car, and the all red car we called "Big Red") but I never managed to get more than a tenth of a second of any of those explosions on tape. See bad thing - Turn camera off.  I hope there are no other times in my career where I even have a chance to make good on my pledge to keep the camera running, but we'll see…

Anyway, we did that in Q3 with Fast Jack in the other lane, and as it turned out we were paired up again in Q4, with Jack now over in the right. And that's when his motor exploded and his carbon-fiber body shredded into a bazillion pieces. That's a real number. It comes right before a gajillion on the periodic scale. Tim had smoked the tires at the hit so he was way behind, but one little piece of Jack's car hit our LRS body (our back-up, since we trashed the new one in Q3) right in the nose. It put a nice dent in our car, but we kept it like that as a point of pride and toughness.

And let me say a word about our guys. After Q3, they didn't just have to replace the body, they had to strip the chassis down quite a ways to find everything that was destroyed and either fix or replace all that stuff. And it was a lot of stuff, let me tell you. We had broken parts spread all over the pit, including the blower and intake manifold, with said manifold still being slightly attached to the blower but about 99 percent separated and grotesquely destroyed. It looked like something you'd see in the Zapruder film.  So, bottom line is our guys rallied and got the work done, and we were actually ready to run and waiting to go in the lanes when Q4 came around. Well played, boys!

We'd been watching the weather all weekend, and the Sunday forecast just kept getting worse and worse. Still, it is Georgia in the springtime and things change fast, including weather arriving when it's not expecting and expected weather not arriving at all. All we could do was hit the sack on Saturday night, after another enormously long day at the track, and hope for the best.

Our hope didn't help. I got up at 6:30 and looked out my window to see the gloom and the rain. And it rained all day…

There are long days at the track, and both Friday and Saturday were prime examples of real marathons, but there's nothing quite like a complete wash-out. It's pretty tough on everyone, really.

As you all know, they did all they could to get a round or two in, late on Sunday, but the reality of it was that it just couldn't be done. It was cold, wet, and pretty horrible and after a few pairs of Top Fuel it had to be called off.  The Safety Safari gave it everything they had, but it just wasn't possible

My flight home was Monday morning, out of GSP, and I had planned on driving up there on Sunday night to stay right by the airport. I took one quick look at a few websites and the numbers associated with changing my travel plans were not pretty. Between changing the Delta ticket and extending my rental car another day, plus the fact the race wasn't officially called until well after when I could cancel my hotel room, it was going to cost close to $400 to make the changes, so Tim told me to hit the road and go home.

I drove up to GSP in the dark of a rainy night, and when I approached Greenville I realized I only had a general idea where the Holiday Inn Express was, and I wasn't really sure how to get there. Two exits from the airport I saw a Holiday Inn Express sign and my brain thought "Geez, there can't be two Holiday Inn Express hotels here by the airport, so this has to be it". This is the same brain that can't find a way to keep the camera running when things explode.

I had a memory of looking at the hotel map on their website, and did recall it being on the right side of the road and down around a curve somewhere. This Holiday Inn Express was on the left right by the road. Hmmm…  And it was about 10:30 after three really long days and a 90-mile drive, and all I wanted in the whole wide world was to get to my room. I was pretty sure I was at the wrong place, so I left all my stuff in the car. Sure enough, it was not the right place and my hotel was one exit further on the interstate.

It was still hard to find and on my first try I found nothing, so I pulled over and called the hotel from a parking lot. The very nice young lady gave me directions in the way only a southerner can. She said (and use your best Georgia accent here) "Okay then, you're gonna wanna go left at the Bi-Lo, then go up two lights and you're gonna see a Walgreens on the left. So you're gonna wanna turn left at the Walgreens and you'll come to a stop sign. Just go straight on through there, though, until you come to another stop sign, and you're gonna wanna turn left there and follow that road until the picket fence ends. When the picket fence ends, you're gonna wanna turn right and we're just up ahead around the corner."

When I got there, I entered the lobby and found a welcoming sign by the front desk. You'll see it in the photo gallery. For one night, I was a big celebrity!

The race on Monday was supposed to start at 10:00, and that worried me because my flight was at 9:45 and the little regional jet I'd flown down there on, out of Detroit, did not have WiFi.  Fortunately, after I ate breakfast and got to the gate, I saw that the start had been pushed back some more, and it was going to be a little after 11:15 when they'd run. My flight arrived in Detroit around 11:20, so I had hope.  I figured that with three more pairs of Top Fuel and with Tim and some guy named Force being the third pair of Funny Cars, I might just make it to the Sky Club in time to be a PR guy.

As soon as we landed I turned on my phone and saw that the timing was perfect. I got off the plane, headed down the concourse and through the LSD-like "tunnel of light" at DTW (I'm speculating, since I've never taken LSD, but I saw all those 60s movies so it seems pretty accurate) and into the Sky Club that sits on the second level of DTW right across from the cool fountain that shoots ribbons of water back and forth, mesmerizing little kids but also attracting a constant flow of adults who find it equally as fascinating.

Once I sat down and set everything up, I was right on time and I followed Alan Reinhart's audio-cast from there. I couldn't gain access to ESPN3 from the club, but Alan gave me all the info I needed so with that and the "Live Timing" app it was just like being there, except without the nitro fumes.  And I could hear one car smoke the tires and then the other smoke the tires, and I knew we had ourselves a pedalfest…  When Alan informed me that Wilk had won, I was on Twitter and Facebook within seconds, spreading the word.  Sweet!

Then, with my layover being about 2 hours and 30 minutes, I was able to stay right there and report on the second round, which of course we lost. One up and one down, but we took out the 16-time champ in the first one so that's a good thing (for us).

After that, I got on the flight to MSP and was happy to see an all new interior on the 757-300 we were on, including entertainment units, a USB port, and an electrical outlet right there at my seat!  That was a good thing, because my iPad was about done and it needed juice. I'm so dependent upon that thing now, when I fly, I think I might spontaneously combust it I didn't have it on…

Barb picked me up at the airport, we went back to Woodbury, and I got right to work, putting together my post-event report and holding off the sheer exhausted tiredness I was feeling. When I sent that out, I congratulated myself for handling the PR as if I was there, even though I was not only doing it remote control but also while traveling home. I got lucky, in other words.

After I finished my work, we went out to eat at Lakes Grill (I had the walleye) and then back home to watch a little TV and try to make it to a respectable bedtime. It was actually all I could do to make it to 10:00…  And I slept about 12 hours that night.

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Packed, all the way to the end of the grandstands, on Saturday
So now we ramp it all back up and head to Topeka, which of course means we head to Kansas City and drive to Topeka, and the next week we'll head to Newark and drive to Englishtown. This apparently happens a lot.

There are some destinations on our tour that I don't look forward to getting to. I'm happy at all the race tracks, but it's the "getting there" part of it that can be unpleasant and stressful, especially if overcrowded busy airports with notoriously bad TSA lines are involved, or if there's really bad traffic and long drives to be made, which is specifically why I fly into GSP instead of Atlanta's airport, so that I don't have to deal with the first 45 miles just getting through the Atlanta madness.

And even though it's a pretty decent hike from KC to Topeka, I still enjoy that drive and I always very much look forward to getting to T-Town.  It's where I started in this sport, and I have a lot of great memories of not only Heartland Park, but the people and the town as well.  And I usually make a slight detour on the way to the track one day, just to drive by the house I used to live in there. And I enjoy Kansas City too, considering I lived there for two very enjoyable years when I was the GM of the Kansas City Attack indoor soccer team. It's a great town with great people and I look back on those days and that job very fondly.

It's all good. And here's hoping for good weather, on-schedule runs, a great crowd, and a win. A win would be great!

Wilber, out!


More than just a triple-header…Monday, May 12, 2014

The NHRA "Western Swing" is the stuff of legend. It must be, because it actually has a name and everyone who is a fan of the sport is aware not only of that name, but also of the races which make up the designated three-race trifecta. The odd thing is, it's not only not the sole three-race swing we do, it's not even tied for first place in terms of how many consecutive race weekends are on the schedule. Did that make any sense? My allergies are in full swing and my head currently resembles a cinder block, at least from the inside, so I'm not sure I'm typing in real sentences…

Anyway, this week marks the beginning of the single most insane part of the schedule. We start with a triple-header, going to Atlanta this weekend, then on to Topeka, and then we finish that up with our annual trip to Englishtown ("You lookin' at me?"). This trio of races is just as daunting as the Western Swing, when it comes to distance and disparity of locations, but it sadly has no name.

After Englishtown, we have a weekend off. Then we set the gold standard by going for four in a row, also hitting some very disparate locations by visiting Bristol, Epping, Joliet, and Norwalk back-to-back-to-back-to-back, or something like that. This quartet also has no name. Then, we get all lazy and have another weekend off before we hit the trio that does indeed have a name, with Denver, Sonoma, and Seattle.

That would be 10 races in 12 weekends. Top that!

But, first things first. Last year, we all traveled down to the lovely little burgh of Commerce, sitting out there on the interstate about halfway between Atlanta and Greenville, just a bit north of Athens (which gave us REM and the Georgia Bulldogs), and right next to a significant landmark, if by "landmark" you mean "outlet mall", and all we did was get wet and cold. It was not a fun weekend, and it finally ended mercifully with a postponement. It's a good thing last year's schedule had a pause between Atlanta Dragway and Heartland Park, or that postponement might have been indefinite. Here's hoping for good weather this weekend!

I also recall vividly the fact that we were all going to Georgia in mid-May, which generally means we were all planning on being hot and sweaty, so most of us didn't bring anything approaching jackets or sweatshirts in our suitcases. Instead, it was basically miserable. I would've liked to have controlled the concessions for hoodies that weekend… I also recall vividly the fact that I flew in and out of Greenville-Spartanburg, but our hotel was in Braselton, about 25 miles the other direction on the Atlanta side of Commerce, so when the plug was officially pulled we were all in scramble mode to get out of our hotel rooms, onto different flights, and also get everything rebooked for the next weekend. I somehow managed to get back to the hotel and get packed before turning around and driving right back past the track to get to GSP and catch a flight that night. To add to the utter hilarity of it all, I had booked an itinerary last year that had me connecting in Atlanta in both directions, so I could look out the window and see the track as I flew over it. If I only had a parachute…

This year, I'll be getting on a Thursday flight out of MSP with Rich Schendel, and we'll connect in Detroit to fly down to GSP, before we get in my rental car and make the 90-mile drive. Yes, it seems odd to go to the Atlanta race and never actually go to Atlanta, but GSP is such an easy and painless airport, which is a good thing, and as an added bonus it's also not on the southwestern side of a huge city like Atlanta, with all its built-in traffic problems. So, if the drive is going to be a lengthy one, it just seems better to use the simpler airport with less traffic.

And, looking ahead at this 10-race marathon, it's also a bit startling to realize that when this deal is over the summer will be coming to a close, the Countdown will be looming, and we'll all be three months older. So there.

On a personal front, I'm sitting in Woodbury, Minnesota as I type this. That's because this past weekend was "the big trip" for our little family, made up of me, a certain wife of mine, and two fuzzy boyz. Just like last year, we're utilizing the Twin Cities as our summer base of operations, and to do that we once again made the drive over the course of three days. Had I been doing it solo, without said bride and felines, I'd have done it in two 13-hour days with one stop somewhere around Billings, but with us traveling as a group it's just easier to knock four hours off on the first day, spending the night in Missoula, and then making the long trek to Bismarck on Day 2. The final day is still a solid seven hours, and once you arrive you certainly feel it. I slept 11 hours on Saturday night, after we got here.

The drive can be gorgeous, especially the part from Spokane to Bismarck, but we got ripped off this time with lousy rainy weather and low clouds. If you're going to drive through scenery that looks pretty much like a spectacular national park, you ought to be able to actually see it, but mostly I could just see my windshield wipers going back-and-forth in front of my eyes. Finally, as we approached downtown Minneapolis on Saturday evening, a royal blue sky emerged from the overcast, as if to welcome us back to the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Ta Da!

The boyz were amazing. Last year, it was pretty traumatic for the first few hours on the initial day, and they were very unexcited about getting in their carriers to go in and out of the hotel rooms, but they clearly remember it now and were almost perfect. They'd even get right in their carriers without any trouble at all, without much squawking in any way, and they seemed pretty much "at home" in the two hotel rooms. In the car, they mostly just slept and Boofus spent most of the trip on my lap. Good boyz.

So that's how we spent the second of these two off weekends. The first one started with Barb's birthday present, which was the overnight stay we enjoyed at the Coeur d'Alene Resort, topped off by our dinner at Beverly's. It was all we had hoped for and more. The lake is spectacular in every respect, and I'd reserved a suite near the top of the hotel with wall-to-wall lake views and a balcony overlooking the marina. The incomprehensible part of the deal is that it's about a 15-minute drive from our house in Liberty Lake, but it feels like another world. A very luxurious and well-appointed other world. A 5-star other world. With champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries. Oh yeah.

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Not a bad view! Coeur d'Alene Resort, as seen from our room.
So, the Coeur d'Alene weekend is behind us, and the 1,400-mile drive to Minnesota is behind us, and now Atlanta, Topeka, Englishtown, Bristol, Epping, Joliet, Norwalk, Denver, Sonoma, and Seattle are staring us in the face.

And with our new partnership with Rottler, who will have a special wrap on our car at the Seattle race, as well as hospitality there, I'll be going to the great state of Washington for that event but it will be "just another race" in the old sense, because I'll just fly from MSP to Sea-Tac without stopping in Liberty Lake. It will be pretty cool if we fly over Spokane, though… I'll be looking.

Last night at dinner, Barbara and I were talking about how much we're going to miss Hay J's and Palenque, our two favorite Liberty Lake restaurants, this summer. Right now, Woodbury is in a bit of a flux in terms of upper-end dining experiences after one steakhouse closed and another fine establishment went into full-on renovations and a name change, and I'm not even sure when it's going to reopen. Last night, we headed up to Lakes Grill (another favored spot) for a fine Walleye dinner, but they were slammed with a late Mother's Day crowd and we couldn't get a table. We almost made a smart decision to head over to Acapulco, a good Mexican place, but instead we were lazy and went to another little Mexican joint that was much closer, and basically it was underwhelming, if by that you mean terrible. Ugh… Lesson learned.

And now that we're here, Barb has to head out tonight for the week. And she'll be back in Liberty Lake pretty consistently all summer long, when she's not traveling to other far-flung places. I'll be going to most of the races, but skipping a few as is now the norm when we don't do hospitality. Such is the life we lead… One of these years we'll try to find a way to settle down and be a bit more normal, if that's possible for two people like us. I'm not sure we'll ever be normal in any sense but hey, you gotta have goals!

See you in Commerce!

Wilber, out!

Houston hoedownWednesday, April 30, 2014

What a weekend of contrasts that was! The whole Houston experience is kind of surreal and blended into a mishmash of things in my brain, probably not aided by the fact it was our first true weekend of actual hot and humid weather, but we ran great on all four qualifying runs before we then we messed up and the car didn't cooperate in round one. Add in the fact we had a major engine catastrophe on Saturday but it had nothing to do with the car, and I made three (count 'em, three) trips to Houston's Hobby Airport even though I flew in and out of Intercontinental, and it was all just weird. But there were plenty of good things to report.

Let's start with the crowd. It has become sort of the Negative Nelly "complaint du jour" for some people to scream about the sky currently being in a "falling" position on a regular basis, mostly stating opinions about the state of the sport and fan interest. Keep in mind that most of these people on internet soap boxes are not even at the races. Generally speaking, being a guy who is at most of the races with first-hand knowledge of how the events happen and how many people are there to see them, I can assure you that the complaints are typically overblown and not credible, and the overly optimistic statements are typically overstated. The truth falls somewhere in between, and it varies up and down depending on the day and the track.

There is, however, absolutely no escaping or avoiding the truth regarding the Houston race. Friday, for a Friday, was good. Saturday was incredible and off the charts. It's hard to argue with the words "Sold Out" or "Standing Room Only". Royal Purple Raceway was truly at capacity, and the fans had a heck of a fun day. Sunday was pretty much a replay of Saturday, so I'm going out on a shaky limb here to state that this year's running of the O'Reilly Auto Parts Spring Nationals was a success. Well done, Houston staff and NHRA! And there we no signs of the sky falling anywhere near Baytown.

As for Team Wilk, we made four of the most consistent and beautiful qualifying runs you can make. We were never in the top three during any session, so we didn't earn any qualifying bonus points, but we were right there (just out of the points) each time. It's more typical for just about every team to have a qualifying effort that includes a whiff or two, a single or a double, and a home run. For us, Houston was like four straight run-scoring doubles into the gap, all hit hard and right on the nose.

And then on Sunday, for the first time all weekend, the car actually didn't do what Tim and the guys asked it to do. It rattled a little leaving the line, and when it did that it moved over about a tire width or two, and when it got out of shape and out of sync like that it just kind of plowed into tire spin. Round over. Day over. Race over. It's a crazy sport, isn't it? You know, in basketball if you swish a three-pointer, you get three points. If you clank it off the rim like a brick, you get no points. Drag racing takes all of those black-and-white "win or lose" concepts and sometimes turns them on their collective heads. I can't count how many times we've run so well in round one but still come up short, usually losing to the only other car in the entire round that outruns us. It's like you swish a bucket from outside the arc but the ref says "Sorry, didn't like your form. No basket."

And everyone has had those laps where we absolutely blow it, smoking the tires, blowing up, looking terrible, but the other guy red lights. Hello round one in Vegas (you're welcome Ron Capps) and hello round one for John Force in Houston (you're welcome Cruz Pedregon). You hoist up a bomb from way downtown and it literally hits the top of the backboard before bouncing into the seats, but the ref says "Hold on. We didn't like the way the other guys were playing defense. Three points!" Crazy…

Houston ramblings…

On Friday, between the two qualifying sessions, everything was going along smoothly when, with no advance warning, "all hell broke loose" in terms of the noise coming from the generator box on the front of the transporter. If you want to hear carnage personified, it sounded that bad. The guys all raced to the generator box and turned it off, but the patient was already deceased.

We ran an emergency power line over to Bob Tasca's rig, and that at least allowed us to turn a few lights on, but we were truly stuck in the dark ages. No real machinery, very few power tools, no air compressor, and NO COMPUTER in the lounge. For the first time in a couple of decades, a Funny Car crew chief did the tuning with a pencil and paper, and his brain. We had no data whatsoever. So how'd that work out? We ran another great lap right down Broadway.

The generator, however, was a total mess. I hustled to the track office to inquire about finding a portable generator, but we needed a big boy, not a little Honda machine that could run a stereo at your campsite. We're talking 35 kw minimum. Those aren't hard to find at equipment rental places, especially in an area like Baytown where so much heavy machinery is constantly at work, but guess what… It was 5:15 on Friday afternoon when this happened, and all the local rental shops closed at 5:00, and they were not going to be open over the weekend.

The staff at the track mobilized for us, though (Thanks Royal Purple Raceway!) and it turned out that they had a company on call for any similar emergencies they might have. They put a call in to their guy, who called me right back, and he had a 36 kw unit ready for us if we needed it. I'm sure it would've cost "something" but we never got that far.

What we did was change over from a small standard power cord between our rig and Tasca's, moving up to a heavy-duty line that could bring us all the power we needed without draining any from them. Big (HUGE) thanks to the Tasca bunch, who have stepped in to help us on many occasions. We ran off their power for the rest of the weekend.

A few minutes ago, I received some photos from Travis Wirth, showing the inside of the generator's motor. We broke a piston and mangled some valves, and it pretty much looked like a small version of a Funny Car motor after a big boomer. I'm confident our guys have the technology and talent to put it back together.

Travis also sent along some pics of our newest Rottler machine, as well as the big Rottler unit we got last year, just so you can see how impressive these things are. Photographic proof in the gallery.

Our hotel was in La Porte, which is pretty much due south of Baytown, across the huge bridge that spans the shipping channel. It's about a 20-minute ride from the track, and usually the traffic is going the other way, so it's really pretty convenient and it's a really nice place. Candlewood Suites hotels are terrific, and we love staying there.

Hobby Airport is about 30 to 45 minutes west of La Porte, on the south side of Houston proper, but to get there you're really at the mercy of Houston traffic, which can be legendary. On Friday night, Shelley Williams from LRS was due to land there at about 9:45, and we had a 7:00 p.m. qualifying session, so as soon as we were done and I shot off a few bits of PR work, I got in my rental and headed to Hobby, and to do that I frankly had little choice but to head back toward La Porte as if I was going to the hotel, and then turn right on a major parkway to make the drive over to the airport.

I got there about one minute before Shelley landed, and only had to make one lap around the airport before she was waiting at the curb. Perfect timing. To be a nice guy, I had even already checked her into her room so I could just hand her the key and she didn't have to mess with the front desk.

Her flight back to Illinois was at around 9:00 or 10:00 a.m. on Sunday, but obviously none of us were going to be available to drive her over there on race day, so we arranged for Shelley to have a hotel room on Saturday night right by the airport, and after we were done with our hospitality and qualifying, I drove her over to Hobby again.

On Sunday, Nick Casertano, along with Tim and Krista, were all flying out of Hobby on Sunday night, while I was flying out of Intercontinental on Monday morning. So, we all got in my rental right as the final round was about to go off, and I dropped them all at the curb right around 4:30, then I turned north and drove all the way up to Intercontinental on the far north side of Houston, where I dropped my rental car of and took the shuttle back to the terminal. There's a Marriott right in the airport but it's not part of any of the terminals, so I just got off at Terminal B, and then went down into the lowest level where a Disney-like tram runs back and forth, and it has a stop at the Marriott. Singing "It's a small world, after all…" was optional, but now I know I've planted that evil ditty into your heads, so there is that…

It all went smoothly, I had a nice dinner, a good night's sleep, and then had the ability to leave my room at 9:45 a.m. for my 11:00 flight and still have a few minutes to kill at the gate. Smooth as silk.

So, that's how you make three trips to Hobby Airport even though you flew into and out of Intercontinental.

I know you all are familiar with Dana Sherman, one of the top-notch camera operators on the ESPN2 telecasts. Back in the "good old days" Dana and Nelson Jones were always with us at the starting line, and fist bumps on camera were pretty standard, but now Nelly usually operates from the top of the tower or on a riser behind the line, and Dana works in the truck running a robotic camera. We all miss the interaction.

The key thing in Houston, though, was that I finally got to meet Dana's family, and let's face it: That's the most important thing. What a great looking group they are. Photographic proof in the gallery.

My trip home went like this… Leave hot and muggy Houston and fly three hours to Minneapolis, where the weather was officially listed as "awful" considering it was 36 degrees and raining, with some nice "breezy" wind added in.

When I woke up on Tuesday morning, it was 33 degrees and snowing. Perfect! Fortunately, by the time I got to MSP around 9:45 a.m., it had warmed up all the way to 36 and it was just raining. Two and a half hours later I disembarked in Spokane and it was 70 and sunny, with no humidity at all.

Today, I'd call this idyllic. Spokane does have some incredible summer weather…

Last night, Barb and I had dinner with another couple up at our local amazing bistro, Hay J's. Here's how this worked. Barb is on the Board of Directors for the United Way of Spokane. Also on the board is Carla Altepeter, who is the CEO of the largest credit union here. They are very similar people, and hit it off immediately.

They were going through a "getting to know you" conversation recently, and Carla told Barb that her husband Tom was from St. Louis, so of course Barb told her that I was from there also and one of them instantly asked the question about where we went to high school. It's a rule for every native St. Louisan to ask "Where'd you go to school?" as soon as they meet another resident or native of the Gateway City. It's a way of immediately finding out how many degrees of separation you have, and usually it can be just one or two.

Carla said "Tom went to St. Louis U. High" and Barb shot back, "So did Bob! I wonder if they knew each other?" Tom and I were both in the class of 1974. How small a world is it when Barb can meet a woman originally from Los Angeles, who then moved to Oshkosh, Wisconsin and who now lives in Spokane, and her husband and I went to high school together? Crazy!

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Two words: SOLD OUT!
It was fantastic to see Tom and meet Carla last night, and before we sat down someone asked "When was the last time you guys saw each other?" and we both replied in unison, "Graduation!"  40 years ago. Amazing. And now we owe them dinner, and will be happy to do just that.

What made it even crazier was that we have a favored waiter at Hay J's, named Christian. He's a great guy and a fantastic server, and it's always great to have a regular favorite local restaurant with the same person taking care of you. Oddly, last night we didn't have one of Christian's tables, but we saw him and he came over for hugs and handshakes. Turns out, Tom and Carla go to Hay J's often and Christian is "their guy" too! Max crazy. Planet Earth = Miniature.

And… Tom and Carla are playing golf on Saturday, and will be playing the course where we live. Barbara and I haven't played in a couple of years and we want to hit the range a time or two before we play an actual round, but we know when Tom and Carla's tee time is and we're going to wait at the second green (right outside our backdoor) for them to play our hole. We'll be the gallery. Photos will be taken…

So, that's about it. Tomorrow afternoon Barb and I will head over to Coeur d'Alene to have a sumptuous dinner at Beverly's and a fabulous overnight stay at the Coeur d'Alene resort, to celebrate her birthday. Can't wait.

Boofus and Buster say hello, too.

Wilber, out!

A few days in the life…Friday, April 25, 2014

It's actually Tuesday as I'm typing this, but it's Friday to you. Did I find a rip in the time/space continuum?  Am I part of an alien time-travel plot?  Am I just confused?  Answers are No, No, and Probably.  Actually, it just struck me that I haven't done a "travelogue" style blog in a long time. Eons, really. Approximately 1, 846 years!  See, time travel is real…

Anyway, it's a damp and gloomy Tuesday afternoon in Liberty Lake, Washington and I've got all my PR work done for the race. Considering the weather, I guess I'm not going to "go outside and play" so I made the executive decision to start this blog and then I'll update on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Tomorrow, which will be Wednesday to me but still Friday to you (unless you read this on Saturday, or the middle of next week) I'll be getting on airplane No. 1 for the week, flying from GEG to MSP in order to get halfway to Houston and also spend the night in Woodbury. The next day (Thursday to me) I'll fly from MSP down to IAH, then make the circuitous drive around the outside of Houston (or the direct drive through the center of Houston, I'll decide later) in order to get down to our hotel in La Porte. On Friday (maybe we're both on the same day by now) I'll head out to the track in the morning, armed with the knowledge that we don't make qualifying passes until 4:00 and 7:00. Sometime in the middle of the morning someone in the pit area will say "We better hurry up, we only have five more hours until we run." That someone will likely be me.

The PR work this week was actually multifaceted. I did my normal pre-race preview feature story, which of course dealt heavily with our runner-up finish in Houston last year, and those unforgettable television images of our crew and Cruz Pedregon's crew working feverishly to make the tight turn-around deadline on "live" TV, capped off by Travis Wirth's close-up, which won "Best Performance By An Exhausted Clutch Specialist In A Dramatic Role" at the Drag Racing Oscars. Very memorable performance.

There was also a full preview feature story about us put out by the NHRA Media Relations Dept., and I was involved with that in a collaborative way. Media folks know that when they need input or quotes, they always go to the PR rep first. Every team has a different policy, because some drivers are busier than others, and in many of those cases it's imperative to go to the PR person first, so that an interview can be scheduled or even "squeezed in" as the situation may dictate. In my case, I have no problem with any media people seeking out Tim directly if I'm not available, or if it's a deadline emergency, but 99 percent of the reporters and media reps I work with still follow the professional protocol and that always makes the process work more smoothly.  And hey, it was a really nice story, too!

Finally, we're also in the process of getting the word out about a new marketing and technology partnership we've developed, with a company named Rottler. They're industry leaders in the manufacturing of heavy-duty machines that are involved in engine building and other machine shop work. It's a creative partnership, and we're honored to have their support while we try to reciprocate by helping them build their customer base in the drag racing world. We have two of their machines already with a third one on the way, and it's phenomenal stuff.  I think we're in the rotation to have a spot on the front page here at NHRA.com next week, complete with a rendering of the special-edition body we're going to run in Seattle this summer. Keep an eye out for that!

Meanwhile, watch us on TV this weekend and see how many Rottler decals you can spot on our Levi, Ray & Shoup Funny Car.  (Hint: There are more than four but less than six).

Looks like the sun is trying to pop through the gloom, which would be nice. With my work done, it's probably time to run some errands and start the process of packing for my trip.  Next stop, Minnesota.


Wednesday 4/23 

Interesting notes from Wednesday…

Mike Dunn's "Power Rankings" came out today on NHRA.com, and even though he has scaled the rankings back to just three driver's in each pro class, a certain Tim Wilkerson got a mention despite not being in the top three, due to our recent performance and our history in Houston. Mike Dunn is a fine man.

We're picking up a lot of other media "hits" these days, too. More pickups of the story the NHRA Media Relations Dept. put out as well as some additional postings from my preview story. PR is a wonderful thing.

And then it was time to travel. Just regular travel today, not time travel. It was "time to travel" not time to time-travel.

During all those years when we lived in Minnesota, MSP was my "home airport" on a weekly basis, and I probably posted photos of just about every aspect of what really is a fine hub airport, right here on this blog. Now, after two years of flying out of GEG in Spokane, the stark difference between the two airports has sort of blurred in my mind. They're still starkly different, as diametrically opposed as you might imagine when considering the size differential, as well as the fact MSP is a major hub for Delta while GEG is simply a small regional airport with a handful of gates.

This morning I finished up some work and got packed (while Boofus and Buster weren't looking) and at 11:45 I headed for the airport. I made the 25-minute drive, through Spokane Valley and then downtown Spokane, before arriving at what was originally called Geiger Field (hence the odd GEG designation), parking my car, checking my bag, and sailing through TSA without ever slowing down. Delta has exactly two gates, both on Concourse B, and if you're going to Minneapolis you're at B-8. If you're going to Salt Lake City, you're at B-6. Not a lot of mystery involved.

About 2.5 hours later we descended into the Twin Cities and pulled up to F-14 at this sprawling international airport. MSP was its normal huge crazy beehive of traveling activity, with passengers everywhere, walking, jogging, running, or riding in golf carts to any of the gates scattered on six massive concourses. Apples, meet oranges.

But, after all this time it's finally not a jarring thing. GEG is what it is, and when flying out of there it's a pleasure to only have to deal with a handful of people. Heck, I know the counter and gate people now, by name. But MSP still feels like home, and I miss being spoiled by the fact I made about 75 percent of my flights as non-stops from the middle of the country. Now I have to connect at MSP or SLC for just about everything, and I'm leaving from way up there in the upper lefthand corner of the map. But, both places have their good points and bad and I can appreciate all of it.  It's just always an interesting day to split my time between Home A and Home B.

Barbara has been coping with her quarterly craziness when Itron announces their earnings to their shareholders (she's the quarterback in charge of putting all of that together) so her hours have been typically insane.  All this week, she's gotten home well after I've gone to bed (I don't even ask her what time she got home because she usually doesn't even know) and then she's up at 7:00 a.m. and right back at it the next morning. I frankly don't know how she does it, and she's been doing it for years.  This morning, at 11:00, she walked in from the garage to surprise me, and we had 45 minutes to spend together and use the juicer. For the record, it was red kale, spinach, cucumber, carrots, apples, grapefruit, lime, strawberries, blueberries, and pears. Very much yum…  And very much wonderful to spend some time together when one or both of us weren't asleep.

Monday is Barb's birthday, and after 16 years of marriage she's finally coming around to understanding the way birthdays were always celebrated in the Wilber family. With my dad's crazy baseball life, and my mom's busy career in radio and PR, birthdays had to be portable holidays and we, as Wilber kids, quickly came to understand that the particular day was just a suggestion. If Dad was going to be home five days later, your birthday was moved to that day. It worked.  Barb's home life as a kid was much more normal and standard, so she had a hard time understanding my willingness to be flexible, as I've had to be with my birthday many times.  I've had my birthday at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park more than I have had it at home, so you can understand.

I'm traveling on Monday next week, and won't get home to Liberty Lake until Tuesday, but I'm pleased that my wonderful wife is now willing to consider the whole week her "birth-week" and not dwell on the 28th. We'll have a wonderful dinner on the 29th, and then on Thursday we'll head over to the Coeur d'Alene Resort for a quick luxurious overnight getaway, including dinner at Beverly's (one of the finest restaurants I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing). All of that beats not being able to have a birthday celebration on the right day!

Okay, time for a good night's sleep, and then down to Houston tomorrow….


Thursday 4/24

Now, to write about Thursday. Not much happened.  I got up, and it was 41degrees and raining sideways, heavily. At least it wasn't snow.

I hadn't really unpacked so all I had to do was put a few things in my bag and head for the airport, to make my way to Houston where the weather would hopefully be better. A quick stop to top off the tank in the rental car, a 25-minute drive to MSP to drop off my Hertzmobile at the Return Center, a ride on the MSP underground tram to get to the underground ticketing area, a quick show of the boarding pass and ID and my bag was tagged and off it went on the conveyor belt to places most of us have never seen and likely can't imagine (although I do believe gnomes or trolls are involved). Then, up the escalator to the main terminal, through TSA Pre-Check in a breeze, and then to the Sky Club because everything had gone so smoothly I now had 30 minutes to kill.

Then to my gate, and onto my CRJ-900 in the front cabin. It was still raining sideways and I suspect it was still about 41 degrees.

Three hours later we skidded to a halt at the gate at IAH, and I stepped off the plane to 80 degrees and about 80% humidity. Hello Houston!

It was also 4:45, so rush hour in Houston was about to be in full swing and I had to get from the north side of this massive sprawling metropolitan area to the southeast side. There are loops around Houston, multiple versions actually, but I've found that your odds of having a slightly less painful experience are incrementally (maybe) better if you simply attack things head on. So, the decision was made and I headed straight south to downtown, right by Minute Maid stadium, then caught I-45 south to 610, where I went east just a mile or two on 610 to catch the parkway that runs straight east to La Porte.  It wasn't awful, but it wasn't easy either. I get spoiled in Liberty Lake, where four cars at a stoplight constitutes a massive traffic jam.

I got to the hotel around 6:30, got checked in, and unpacked. Early in the unpacking process I had that familiar nagging feeling that I'd forgotten something, although I also reminded myself that I've been packing and unpacking for races for 18 years and 99 percent of the time I'm afraid of having forgotten something it magically appears in my bag anyway. That's the value of having routines. Even if you think you forgot something, your routine means you usually didn't. This time I did. I forgot to pack any socks!  Yippee!

So, off I go to Super Target in Pasadena, about 15 minutes away. In the door, find a pack of black socks, head to checkout, pick up some almonds as an impulse buy, back out to the generic white rental car, and back to the hotel. I got there around 8:00 p.m., just in time to follow the Wild vs. Avalanche hockey game online (no CNBC on the hotel TV). Wild win, 2-1, and the series is tied at two games apiece.

I toasted this accomplishment with a swig of bottled water and a handful of almonds, and off to bed I went, at roughly 11:40.  At 7:00 a.m., I arose to more warm temps and high humidity and left for the track at 9:00 after making the rounds of a dozen newspaper and sports websites on my laptop.

There you have it. 24 hours just getting to Houston, getting to the hotel, getting socks, and rooting for my favorite hockey team. And sleeping.

And now I'm here…


Friday 4/25

See, I promised this would first appear on Friday. Our first session is at 4:00ish, and I told Krista Wilkerson on the phone last night that I had "all day to get all this writing done, so I'll just do it all in the pit."  Little did I know that I had a major piece of work to do…

I strolled leisurely into the pit area around 9:45, and lo and behold what did I see but a new Levi, Ray & Shoup  Shelby Mustang body.  We're talking brand-spanking-new. Which means the major decals and logos were on it, but all of the little ones were still in need of installation and application. So much for killing time doing nothing more taxing that writing.

I dug through our decal files, and got most everything I needed. I had to head over to the Goodyear trailer, the Simpson trailer, and even the NHRA Tech trailer to get the last few I had run out of, and the best part was that I had smartly taken iPhone pics of all the contingency and associate stickers on the last car, because Tim and the guys created a new "cleaner" look for the body. With the iPhone epics, I had a road map for making sure everything went where it's supposed to go. Except for the fact that this is a new body, and somehow they never seem to be exactly the same when it comes to wing struts and wing wires, so I had to juggle a few things.

At around 2:00, I was done.  Hooray for me!

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The B Concourse at GEG, with both of Delta's two gates.
And now, as I type, we're warming up the car for Q1. Hooray for fumes!

And did I mention it's hot?  And humid?  Well, hot and humid both start with "H" and this is Houston, so I should not be surprised.  Plus, frankly we were just getting into the 50s out in Liberty Lake and Minnesota is still dealing with a lot of weather I mentioned above, so I'm not exactly in "game shape" when it comes to this kind of weather.

Dennis Peek, my good buddy from the blog who is a killer rock star in these parts, playing for various bands and musical projects when he's not a all-star lighting technician for everything from big rock concerts to NBA Playoffs, is here today, and it's always great to have Dennis in the house. Right as the guys began to warm the car up, we took a selfie on my iPhone because, well you know the rule. Pics or it didn't happen.

Not too long ago, Dennis and his regular group of bandmates were actually the opening act for Gin Blossoms at a concert in his home town. How cool is that!

So now I'm wrestling with the thought of whether to send this in now or wait until after we make a run, but I think I'll send it in. After all, when I wrote of time travel at the start of this extravaganza, I said it was Friday. And now it's Friday. If I don't send this in, the Saturday me might change some of things the Friday me was supposed to do, and that would be bad.

I'll try some more time travel on the back end of this race, so that I can get back here during my trip back home to the upper lefthand corner of the USA, and we'll let you know how the race went. You'll certainly know the results, so I'll add the color. If anyone can travel back to Friday from Monday, please do that and let me know how we did. I'll keep it a secret.

Wilber, out!


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