Former Funny Car racer Russell Long with orphans in Haiti
"240 Gordie" Bonin and others tipped me off to a great story about former nitro Funny Car racer Russell Long, driver of, among other fine machines, the Chi-Town Hustler and several cars owned by "Jungle Jim" Liberman, who returned home to Southern California last night from Haiti, where he and nine fellow missionaries from Mission Viejo Christian Church had been helping children at an orphanage when last week's monster 7.0 earthquake struck the impoverished country.
"240" shot me Long's phone number, and earlier today I reached a happy-to-be-home Long.
"We arrived on Friday, the 8th, in Port-au-Prince and met the kids and worked with them for a few days, and the earthquake hit on Tuesday. It was late in the afternoon, and it seemed like the world was coming to an end. It shook forever. The house right next to the orphanage went right to the ground. Thank God the kids all made it out OK. I got my knee beat up a little bit and hurt one finger, but otherwise OK.
"We got them onto a soccer field, where we slept for three nights. There was a constant flow of people showing up badly injured, missing arms and legs … it was more than you could imagine. Some doctors finally arrived, and we helped as best we could to set up a makeshift hospital. It was complete and utter chaos. On Wednesday, some people were trying to incite a riot, and there were even rumors of a tsunami coming. By the end of that night, we were pretty worn out and out of food and water."
Long was interviewed by the Los Angeles CBS news crew.
Their friends were happy to have them home!
What was worse, the group had no way to tell their loved ones back home that they were OK until Thursday, when one was able to reach out through Facebook to spread the good news.
"By Friday, our church had hired a group called SOS International to evacuate us. Friday night, we went from the orphanage over to a safe house by the airport. At 5 in the morning, they snuck us to the airport, and up walks Geraldo Rivera to interview me!"
The group's anxiety continued as, two minutes before its twin-engine Beechcraft rescue plane was to arrive, the airport was shut down to accommodate the arrival of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The group finally was able to board its plane and was flown to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. After a quick meal and some medical care, the group was hustled onto a flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico. On Sunday, they flew first class on American Airlines nonstop from San Juan to Los Angeles, where they were greeted by news crews. You can see footage here.
The congregation met them at the church, where more news stations awaited, and a huge welcome-home party ensued.
Among those welcoming Long home was his former car owner, Don Schumacher. Long drove one of Shoe's Wonder Wagon Barracudas in 1973.
"The day before we left, I had called him to ask if it was OK to give his phone number to the church so that if we got into any trouble while we were down there he could send his jet to get us. He said he would, and he later told me that they had been looking into flying down there when we got hauled out. I told him later that while we were running that makeshift hospital, it was worse than running Indy every day for a month."
Long's racing career was short – just six years – but filled with highlights. When he earned his license in 1972 in the ex-Tom McEwen Arkansas Razorback Duster of Pat Brinegar, he was the youngest licensed nitro pilot at age 19. (Billy Meyer later licensed at age 17.)
"When that deal went away, I was out on the road with Leroy Goldstein, at the Holiday Inn in Racine [Wis.] because we were running at Union Grove [Great Lakes Dragaway], and Charlie Proite and his driver, Gary Bailey, got into a fight, and I asked if I could drive his car," said Long, now 57. "He said I could, even though I only had made five license runs, and I was able to borrow an old truck from Schumacher, and boom-boom-boom, I was a Funny Car racer. He got a sponsorship from Pabst Blue Ribbon and got rid of the 392 and put an elephant  in it."
After spitting the crank out of the Pabst car and crashing it, Long drove one of Schumacher's two Wonder Wagon 'Cudas, replacing Bobby Rowe, who had a falling-out. (A pre-Blue Max Raymond Beadle drove the other.) Long also drove McEwen's second English Leather Navy Duster, a couple of Liberman's Vegas, the Chi-Town Hustler, and Dennis Fowler's pretty Sundance. He also made odd laps every now and then in Top Fuelers, including the Frito Bandito of the late Pancho Rendon and the Pegasus.
Long had plans for a jet-car future with an ex-Tommy Ivo jet and even was in consideration for a sponsorship from Skoal that ended up going to Don Prudhomme. He retired from racing and ran his backhoe business.
"My career only lasted about an hour and a half, but it was a good one," he said.
The continuation of my diary from the Lucas Oil Geoff Bodine Bobsled Challenge presented by Whelen Engineering in chilly Lake Placid, N.Y.
Now in its fifth year, the event helps raise funds to build quality bobsleds for the U.S. Olympic team, which until the early 2000s was racing in cast-off sleds from European teams. According to literature at the event, NASCAR legend Bodine joined forces with auto racing designer Bob Cuneo of Chassis Dynamics in Oxford, Conn., to create made-in-America bobsleds for the United States men's and women's national teams. Since 2002, the Bo-Dyn effort has produced one Olympic gold medal, two silver medals, and a bronze. Additionally, U.S. team member Steve Holcomb ended a 50-year world-championship drought when he drove his four-man Bo-Dyn sled to the world title in Lake Placid last February. The men's and women's squads have claimed numerous World Cup medals this season -- five gold medals among them -- in the run-up to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. To learn more, go here.
OK, now where was I? Oh yes, after fun-filled days of travel Thursday and Friday, some practice for the drivers Friday and a bobsled ride for me, we head into Saturday and qualifying for Sunday's big show.
Compare this with yesterday's shot. What a change in the weather.
8 a.m.: The alarm clock goes off, but damned if I can talk my freezing, jet-lagged butt out of bed. Sledding practice is supposed to start at 9 a.m., and it's clear I'm not going to make that, but I need to be there by noon (seems manageable, no?) to get my second bobsled ride. Hey, I'm all about the team. It's a glorious sunny day – Friday's clouded-over skies and snow are gone, replaced by a crystal-clear, sunny sky -- but somehow it's colder than Friday. The thermometer built into the mirror of the rental reads 0 degrees. That's Fahrenheit, folks.
11 a.m.: In motor racing, drivers try to "keep the shiny side up" – that being the paint and the chrome -- but in sledding, keeping it upright is referred, somewhat paradoxically to us, as "keeping the shiny side down," referring to the polished bottoms of the sled's runners. Weird. Apparently, though, there's some confusion here as four drivers get their sleds upside down on the course in practice, including three of the four drag racers.
Assessing the damage to Morgan Lucas' sled. Note the paint damage on top of the cowl from his long, upside-down slide.
Morgan Lucas does it twice, on his first and third of four passes, and Top Fuel teammate Shawn Langdon and Melanie Troxel also go on their heads. What's especially painful about flipping over is that it usually occurs as the result of trying to exit Shady 2 (turn 6 of 15 on their shortened course), so you slide down the rest of the hill trying to tuck yourself into the sled (easier for the driver than the brakeperson). But that's just the half of it. The sleds usually don't slide all the way to the finish line because the last two turns (18 and 19, the exit to The Heart) and the run to the finish line are uphill, so the hapless drivers end up sliding back down the course several hundred feet before the sled grinds to a halt. Philip Morris also gets on his head, meaning that six of the 10 drivers in competition have flipped so far. They won’t be the last. Their sleds and helmet tops bear evidence of the long slide.
Despite their flips, the drag racers seem unfazed. They acknowledge to me that nothing they've ever done prepared them for this and that it's as challenging, if not more so, than their usual rides and feels just about as fast despite them reaching speeds of "just" 60 mph.
Noon: Practice is over, and everyone gets a sheet with all of the split times (50 meters, exit of Turn 4, exit of Turn 9, exit of Turn 12, exit of Turn 14, and finish) so they can see where they need to improve. Some drivers are fast and clean up top, and others, like Langdon and Troxel, are better in the bottom part of the course.
The Lucas family, trying to stay warm in the Start 3 warming hut.
Noon means lunchtime and a large line for rides. This time we'll be riding the four-person sled, a virtual bus compared to the two-person sled I rode Friday, but the extra weight – two passengers and a driver and brakeperson, the latter Lake Placid regulars who give tourist rides -- should mean faster speeds. I spent the night memorizing the course so that I could relate it better for my column next week in National DRAGSTER, tracing in my mind the exit from Shady 2, the run through the three quick turns of the Labyrinth and on to Benham's Bend, a nearly 90-degree right. From there, you hope to slice a straight line through the chicane to have speed for the nearly 180-degree left-turn Turn 17 (marked by the huge JEGS logo) that marks the entrance to The Heart. From there, it's a quick right through 18 (the middle of The Heart), then another sweeping left-hander to exit The Heart and on to the finish line.
1:30 p.m.: I told you it was a long line, but finally we are, as the familiar voice of course announcer Kim Luther calls out (as she does on each run) "Sled in the track," the bodsledding equivalent of "And they're off." By Benham's Bend, we have enough speed to be up on the bank, and our driver threads the chicane beautifully and puts us high onto Turn 17, the G forces sucking me down into the sled. The chill wind is again lacing through the pores on my face, but the ride is amazing and all too soon over.
2:30 p.m.: One-shot qualifying commences, and the straight-liners hold their own. Lucas Oil off-road racer Carl Renezeder, who is part of Team NHRA, is the surprise leader at 50.66, with NASCAR rookie of the year Joey Logano not far behind at 50.79. Jeg is third with a 51.03 and Morgan fourth at 51.13. Langdon is sixth (51.22) and Troxel eighth (51.48). The warming hut at the top of Start 3 provides an excellent place to watch the races as there's a TV monitor inside (plus hot chocolate!), and they pipe in Luther's turn-by-turn commentary, singing out praises of a turn well carved or noting a bad blunder.
Sure is pretty up here ...
By the end of the day, you can tell that the racers are sore from their efforts. The sleds chatter on the ice, rattling the flanks against shoulders, and the G forces are strong, and the muscles that are used to tug on the control ropes that turn the runners are different ones than they’re used to exercising. Troxel has an impressive softball-sized bruise on her right bicep and various other aches and scrapes, but she's clearly one of the most info-hungry drivers, consulting regularly with Team USA bobsled (USA 6) driver Ethan Albrecht-Carrie, who has been brought in to help tutor the drivers. Troxel may be among the greenest of the bunch, but she has clearly caught on.
7 p.m.: The day ends after the qualifying pass, and everyone retires to their hotels and cabins to prepare for that night's benefit auction at the Crowne Plaza. Me, I do a little souvenir hunting and pick up a cool 1980 Olympic hockey team T-shirt and some T-shirts for my grandson. Later at the auction, Jeg walks away with a cool 1/8th-scale nitro-fueled RC truck at night's end. I bet he puts it to good use.
Watching the evening weather forecast and checking weather.com, they're predicting a low of minus 17 early Sunday morning, with a "warm up" to minus 8 by race time. I can hardly wait.
9:45 a.m.: Somehow, I make it out of bed this morning, and we're assembled back atop the hill for opening ceremonies. It's cold, cold, cold, at or about that minus-8 number according to the ol' rearview-mirror thermometer. There's a bit of extra drama brewing for us as the renta-Jeep throws me a Check Gauges warning on the dashboard just as I reach the top of the hill ,and the oil-pressure is down on the peg. Ruh-roh, Scooby. I park it and give "Woody" the bad news.
10:30 a.m.: We're running a bit behind schedule because of TV and because we've had yet another flip. This time, it was my Friday chauffeur Burkart, who was giving Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon a ride from the top of the hill for the TV show and flipped it. I haven't seen the footage, but apparently Wheldon wasn't going to ride the sinking ship to the bottom and jettisoned himself from the sled partway down. He barely made it off the course before the sled and Burkart took him down on its backslide "up" the course.
Opening ceremonies. God bless America, indeed.
Finally, we're ready to go. The great Kate Smith, who is buried in St. Agnes Cemetery in Lake Placid, belts out her trademark "God Bless America" (via tape recording, of course), and we're ready for the first of two competitions, an Olympics-style head-to-head competition among all drivers, with the winner being the one with the lowest combined two-run time. Melanie apparently is a good student, and a consistent one. She puts together back-to-back runs of 49.67 and 49.66 for an overall time of 1:39.33, which is just a few ticks better than Jeg's 1:39.40. Jeg was quicker on run one with a 49.31 but not as consistent on run two, and it cost him. Seven-hundredths is a lifetime in drag racing, but in bobsledding, it's just a brush or two of the wall, and there's no Christmas Tree here for Jeg to make up that lost time with as he does on the quarter-mile. Melanie takes the gold, Jeg the silver, and perennial Bodine medalist Boris Said of Team NASCAR the bronze with a 1:39.69.
Melanie Troxel and brakeperson Matthew Powers didn't leave much on the table.
1:30 p.m.: After lunch and an autograph session (with the drivers, not me), it's on to the NHRA vs. NASCAR competition. The format is confusing to everyone, but eventually we figure it out. The five drivers on each team get one run. The quickest three qualify, and the slowest two are done. The quickest driver gets a bye, No. 2 races No. 3, and the winner of that races No. 1. This happens on both sides of the ladder until just one remains from each side. Geoff Bodine and Charlotte Lucas preside over the coin toss, which NHRA wins, meaning our drivers get to go first (supposedly an advantage).
That whole shooting match boils down to Melanie and Logano. Melanie qualified No. 1, Morgan No. 2, and Renezeder No. 3 on the NHRA side. My host, Jeg, is fourth, just a hundredth behind Renezeder and is disappointingly done for the weekend; Langdon also DNQs. Renezeder against Morgan is wacky as both crash and neither gets a turn (Morgan's third flip, for anyone keeping score), but Morgan advances to the final against Troxel based on his higher seed, and she ekes past him, 50.12 to 50.14.
4 p.m.: We're all cheering for Melanie to be queen of the hill again, but her 50.07 in the final falls just shy of Logano's stout 49.81, but we're all super-thrilled for her anyway. The rookie done good.
We all pile into the rental cars – oil pressure on the Jeep is shaky, down in the single digits at idle but OK at speed – and beat it to the airport, trying to warm our frozen feet and hands.
Home, James ...
5:15 p.m.: The rent-a-Jeep goes the distance – barely – and we jump out of the quickly cooling night into the jet, and we're off. By 7 p.m., we're back in Columbus and a half-hour later chowing down pizza at Tommy's, another Jeg favorite: Pepperoni pizza with the pep really crisp, garlic bread, crinkle-cut fries, and some tasty suds finish off a great evening.
10 p.m.: No one feels much like doing anything other than hitting the hay, so it's off to bed. There's a 7 a.m. wake-up (again) for the first leg of the flight home and a lot of great memories to fall asleep to.
It truly was one of those great weekends, and I was thrilled to take part in it, thanks to Jeg and "Woody." Although intense in competition, it was great to be around our racers in a little more relaxed arena, and the time spent with Jeg, Samantha, "Woody," and Reinhart was true quality time. Lots of laughs, good food, and camaraderie.
I was super-impressed with how our drivers – especially sledding rookies Melanie and Shawn – comported themselves and drove their freezing butts off. They were great ambassadors, as were the Lucases, who clearly enjoy their support of this fine endeavor as much as anything they do. A big tip of the hat to them as well.
If they'll have me, I'll be back next year. It was that much fun.
You asked for it, so here it is. My trip last weekend to the Bodine Bobsled Challenge was one of those dream getaways we all fantasize about having but never get. It was filled with excitement and challenge and put me in a new environment with lots to learn and lots to explore.
Like most of you, I've casually watched bobsled competition over the years on the Olympics, and though it certainly looked fun, I had no idea how technical it could be. After all, any of us who have ever ridden a toboggan or sled down a snowy hill knows that gravity does most of the work, but what I learned and absorbed during a chilly weekend in Lake Placid , N.Y., will stay with me for a long time, as will the memories of a great time.
Here's how it went down.
Yeah, sure is cold and snowy out there.
3:50 p.m.: After an early flight from Ontario, our flight out of Dallas is delayed an hour and a half. It's a constant series of text messages to Scott "Woody" Woodruff, JEGS marketing manager, who's going to be waiting at Port Columbus airport, to keep him apprised of the new arrival time. It's thanks to "Woody" and his boss, Jeg Coughlin, that I'm even doing this, as they took care of all my expenses for the trip to the event, of which they are a major backer and, obviously, a competitor in.
7:15 p.m.: When we land, it's in a light snowfall. The pilot does a great job setting 'er down with just a little wiggle -- they must have had a guy installing the tire chains in the cargo hold, I reckon -- and in no time, we're into the warm terminal.
7:30 p.m.: "Woody" picks me up and safely navigates us down the snowy highways and byways in Jeg's Escalade pickup to Chile Verde, Jeg's favorite Mexican restaurant, where he, fiancée Samantha Kenny, and NHRA announcer Alan Reinhart are just finishing off a bowl of queso and chips awaiting our arrival.
9:30 p.m.: After a thoroughly stuffing (and, surprisingly for Ohio, spicy) dinner, some great company -- Jeg can be very funny, and when he and "Woody," childhood chums, get to telling old tales, it's good listening -- and with half of the BCS championship game in the books, we head back to the parking lot, where a moderate blizzard appears to be under way. Well, to this California kid, it looks like one. Actually, it's snowing pretty good.
10 p.m.: We make the 20-minute trek to Jeg's house, named River Ridge Farms, where we'll be spending the night. Turning into the long snowbank-lined driveway, there's an American flag and a Canadian flag, the latter posted by Jeg in honor of Samantha. Like everything the JEGS operation does, the place is first class all the way and designed by Jeg. It's probably the nicest house I've ever been in on beautiful grounds that are blanketed in picture-postcard snow. Kinda makes me want to open my own mail-order company.
10:15 p.m.: Samantha breaks out a a bag of Fudgee-O cookies, one of their guilty pleasures, steathily imported from Canada. "We'll start our diets Monday," she pledges for what she estimates might be the 50th time in the last year.
After watching the Crimson Tide sew up the national title against the Colt McCoy-less Longhorns, I get a tour of Jeg's "trophy room," a hallway-long collection of trophies, National DRAGSTER covers and championship profiles, photos, helmets, diecasts, and more. Dotted throughout the house, placed nicely but not boastfully, are other Wallys, including his 2008 championship Wally. After that, it's off to bed for an all-too-short night.
7 a.m.: We're up, and everyone is milling around, consuming their morning beverages – which for Reinhart, "Woody," and me is Diet Coke – and wolfing down a few more Fudgee-Os. We grab a few breakfast bars out of a bowl, and, right on target, we head out the door, suitcases in tow, at 7:45. Jeg, Samantha, and Reinhart hop into his Audi while we follow in the Escalade.
Jim Head's pretty cool headquarters
8:30 a.m.: After a quick drive-by of the sleek building that houses Jim Head's engineering company, we pull into the airfield on a corner of Port Columbus and start loading our bags into the Lear 45 that JEGS time-shares with other companies. It's snowing again, but within a few minutes, we're packed and ready to go and take our seats. Man, this beats the heck out of commercial travel!
It's cold outside, in the teens, so we taxi forward to have our wings deiced, a two-step process that first coats the wings with orange and then green liquid -- antifreeeze of some sort, I assume -- dispensed from a fire hose from a guy aboard a moving boom. That complete, we're ready to hit the friendly skies.
9 a.m.: We're wheels up and en route! There are beverages and pastries to be consumed, joking and laughing to be done (plus snacks under the seats). We marvel at the onboard monitors that not only show current position on a map but also readouts of speed, altitude, outside temperature, and time until arrival. At the height of it all, I caught a quick glimpse of a screen that showed up at 41,000 feet, cruising at 585 mph, with an outside air temperature of minus 56 degrees. After logging hundreds of thousands of commercial miles and battling crowds and security lines and oversized seatmates with pointy elbows, man, a fella could get used to this.
Those NASCAR slowpokes ...
10:20 a.m.: As we near our destination at Adirondack Regional Airport, outside of Saranac Lake, N.Y., one of the pilots turns around to inform us that we're going to have to slow down because of air traffic ahead of us that's going much slower. We're amused to discover that it's the NASCAR contingent's plane, Rick Hendrick Racing's 40-passenger Saab turboprop. We urge the pilots to pull a NASCAR-style slingshot on them to get us in first, but he either doesn't hear or chooses to ignore us. Dang.
10:25 a.m.: We're on the ground and sizing up the entourage departing the Hendrick plane; seeing enough luggage to equip a small army, we hatch a plan to grab our luggage and book it to our waiting rental cars with hopes of beating them to the host hotel, the Crowne Royal in Lake Placid. Unfortunately, the NASCAR gang is adept at stop-and-go's, and they've arranged for a truck to haul their luggage en masse, and they're out the gate before we are.
The first thing I notice is that it is freaking cold here. My face stings even though it's only lightly snowing. There's a mildly brisk breeze, but whereas in Columbus I had worn just a fleece hoodie and not felt cold at all, here, despite a ski jacket and longjohns, I can clearly feel the cold. I pull my ski cap down over my ears and gut it out to the renta-a-ride.
The view from my hotel balcony. That's Mirror Lake in the distance.
11:15 a.m.: It's just a 12-mile trip from the airfield to Lake Placid, a charming little town on the shores of Mirror Lake (Lake Placid is smaller and not far away, but the town is built around Mirror Lake) with a quaint two-lane road between restaurants and shops selling all manner of Olympic souvenirs. I'll be back to shop later for sure. After all, it's an Olympic year! We check into the hotel and line up to sign waivers and collect our cold-weather gear. It's here that I meet Samantha's parents, Al and Carol. Al, of course, is an alcohol racer from way back and now the father of two NHRA national event winners, Samantha and her brother Jason.
There's a general sense of chaos as there aren’t enough jackets and pants to go around, at least not in all the right sizes. Nerves and stress are at fever pitch, not only among the poor ladies doing the distribution but those uneager to face the chilly temps without full gear.
1 p.m.: After unpacking, I return to the lobby to meet up with "Woody," only to find that he has left to shuttle Jeg to the bobsled run for publicity photos, so I enjoy a nice buffet-style lunch with the Kenny family while we await a new shipment of coats and pants that never arrive. Fortunately, I've packed enough snow gear of my own to get me by. Finally, we load up into the Kenny family truck and make the 6-mile ride to the bobsled course. Right next to our hotel is a place very dear to my heart, the Olympic hockey stadium that was the site of 1980's Miracle on Ice. This is the 30-anniversary of the great moment in American sports, and, like the stores, I promise I'll be back to visit later.
1:30 p.m.: We pull into the Olympic Sports Complex and are afforded official-vehicle status, meaning we can traverse the road between the bottom of the hill and the several stops along the way at our convenience rather than waiting on a shuttle. We gather and watch the photo shoot for the Challenge and then head to the top of the hill for a driver meeting and to walk of the course.
(Above) Walking the course and trying to catch up; this is between turns 5 and 6. (Below) Alan Reinhart, leading the way. The shades keep the snow and sun off the ice.
Ha! Jacket open wide, one glove off; how cold do I look? I ain't no SoCal softy!
2:20 p.m.: We strap spike-studded sandal-like devices to the bottoms of our boots for the course walk down the 20-turn run. As you can imagine, the course is nothing but a long, slippery ice tube. By the time I defer shoe-wear choice to all of the drivers, pickings are pretty slim, but I finally scrounge a pair of large-size spiky sandals, strap them on, and head out to the start gate. Unfortunately, my delay in finding footwear has me well behind the last group to depart. Reinhart is with me, and we're advisied to slide down the course on our rears until we catch the group, which is already two turns ahead of us.
After double-checking that we weren't being pranked, Reinhart slides a few feet down the tube but gives up and stands. My former NHRA.com cohort, Rob Geiger, suddenly wants to go, too, but he doesn't have the studded soles. I agree to help him along down the course, and we saddle up, me in front and him behind, bobsledders without a bobsled, for a fast ride down the course on our butts.
Now, on the surface, this is a really swell idea and a great way to catch up to the group, except that I, of course, am not wearing snow pants yet. When we finally grind to a halt, my jeans are fairly soaked. I won't do that again.
We hobble along after the others with Geiger holding my shoulders and foot-sliding behind me. We eventually catch up to Jeg and Samantha, and she kindly offers Rob one of her two "sandals." It's a Keystone Kops-worthy scene as he tries to strap one on while maintaining a precarious balance. No sooner is he safely into the device than a friendly photographer standing along the course offers his pair to them, giving everyone equal footing.
We negotiate the course, listening to the advice being doled out to the drivers: where to be on the course at this point, how high to be on this turn, what to aim for in the turn ahead, etc. The sheer wall face of the legendary Shady 2 corner towers 15 feet above us, though we have to duck to exit the corner, where the ceiling height is just about 4 feet. In a sled, it's like threading a needle, except at speed on ice. We learn later just how tricky this is. We shuffle our way down the course, taking photos and mugging for the TV cameras documenting the walk.
3:30 p.m.: It's time to begin sledding. The drivers will all get their first runs beginning at one of the lower start houses -- Start 4, which begins at Turn 9 -- so that they can get a slower-speed feel for the turns ahead, which make up the most technical parts of the course. All of the drivers take off – with just a small push; no running starts like you see on TV -- accompanied by a brakeperson, who is selected randomly from among those eager to ride, which includes friends and a dozen or so National Guardsmen. Funny Car racer Phil Burkart Jr., who made the three-hour drive from Utica, N.Y., to again help run the event, asks me if I want to take a ride. I grab a helmet and surge to the front of the line and jump into the backseat of the Home Depot sled of NASCAR rookie of the year Joey Logano, but my broad shoulders won’t fit below the top rail, and my double-layer jacket isn’t helping. I'm bummed and climb out.
4 p.m.: Burkart decides to take a drive himself and asks if I want another crack at it. He doesn't have to ask twice. I dump the inner layer of my jacket and squeeze in, and it’s a great fit, though far from comfortable. As brakeperson, you slide in behind the driver and thread your feet between the driver's shoulders and the outside of the sled. You then have to bend over at the waist for aerodynamic reasons and to be able to grasp the brake handle, which is inconveniently on the floor of the sled, between your thighs. There are two other handles, easier to grab, to hold on to during the ride. Until the finish, the brakeperson's job is supposed to be to stay low, look at the floor, and wait for the driver to call for brakes at the end of the run. It's not a glorious position.
They didn't have to ask me twice if I wanted a ride
Burkart has made about 20 laps down the course throughout the years, so I feel pretty safe, and, heck, he does a pretty decent job of negotiating the course, but it seems like it's over before it starts, just a blur of white walls and banks and jolts. It feels faster than it really is, and it's almost too much to observe, and I was only riding. I can’t imagine how the rookie sledders do this. (Yeah, for the record, I didn't keep my head down; I wanted to see this deal.) There's another round of rides Saturday, and I vow to be ready.
4:15 p.m.: The drivers are taken up to Start 3, which will add five new turns and a lot more speed to their runs. From this point on, due to insurance regs I guess, the National Guardsmen only will serve as brakepersons. I would have loved to have taken a shot from the top. Everyone does pretty well, and only George Brunnhoelzl, the 2009 NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified champ, flips it and rides out the rest of his run on his lid. No harm, no foul, and the day is over. Well, the sledding part that is.
7:30 p.m.: There's a gala reception at the famous Olympic hockey rink where the 1980 U.S. team pulled off the Miracle on Ice. Being the hockey nut, I didn’t want to miss it, and, as advertised by those who have been there before me, the place seems absolutely tiny. It looks way bigger on TV.
The fabled 1980 Olympic hockey rink. I wonder if the ghost of Herb Brooks enjoyed the show. You can't really see it in this pic, but the overhead scoreboard was set up to read USA 4, URS 3, in tribute to Team USA's victory over the Russians. Nice touch!
The bobsled drivers are introduced on the ice, and, in a neat ceremony, USA hockey jerseys, bearing the drivers' names, are lowered from the ceiling and donned. Much photo-opping later, we're treated to the official unveiling of the paint scheme for the Team USA sleds that will compete in the upcoming Vancouver Olympic Games. More photo-opping follows, and the crowd is allowed onto the ice for photos, too. It's a mob scene.
9 p.m.: It's off to a group dinner at the Boat House, right on Mirror Lake. It's a fun and raucous affair, with lots of good-natured ribbing and great food.
10:30 p.m.: At the end of a long day, it's time to hit the hay and get ready for another early start, with another practice session from the top of the hill slated for 9 a.m.
Next: Days 2 and 3
Wow, sorry about the long pause in posting anything here. As you know, I spent the weekend in Lake Placid, N.Y., at the annual Lucas Oil Geoff Bodine Bobsled Challenge and traveled back yesterday. I've been paying for taking three days out of the office ever since; you know how that goes.
Still, I wouldn’t trade all the extra work I'm thrashing to do for this past weekend. I was going to write a long and detailed report about it here, but after getting halfway through it, I wondered if anyone would really care (if I get enough votes for it, I'll finish it, so let me hear from you). Some of the photos are pretty cool (so to speak), so I might throw a few of those at you later this week. In a nutshell, it was an amazing weekend, despite – or maybe because of -- temperatures that dipped into the negative digits. The sledding competition was first-rate and the event a real hoot. Thanks to the generosity of Jeg Coughlin and his PR ringleader Scott "Woody" Woodruff, I flew with them from Columbus, Ohio, to Lake Placid in their time-share Lear 45 jet after spending the night at Jeg's amazing house.
Sledding rookie Melanie Troxel, the first woman in the competition, showed the boys the fast way home almost all weekend and, like almost all of the drivers, got the fun experience of tipping 'er over once on the tricky course. Morgan Lucas flipped three (!) times and Shawn Langdon once, and at least four other drivers also went on their heads. I walked the fabled course and took two rides, the first as brakeman in a two-person sled for Funny Car racer Phil Burkart Jr., who drove over from Utica to help with the event, and the second in one of the four-person sleds. I'll be sharing the story of that in next week's National DRAGSTER.
What I really want to talk about today is the announcement that hit me like a ton of bricks when I stopped to check my e-mail in the Dallas airport Thursday on the way out, and that, of course, is Don Prudhomme's retirement announcement.
I guess it didn't really take me by surprise; after all, in this economy, trying to put together a major sponsorship in just the three months since he learned in Indy that U.S. Smokeless would not be back is a daunting challenge for anyone, even "the Snake."
Still, it kind of struck me at the moment that "the Snake" is probably the last of the iconic household drag racing names to hang 'em up, in the footprints of Don Garlits, Shirley Muldowney, Tom McEwen, and Bill Jenkins. OK, I know that legends like Connie Kalitta and Jim Dunn are still racing and racing well, and no offense surely to them, nor to even Bob Glidden or Joe Amato or anyone else, but "the Snake" and "Big Daddy" and "Cha-Cha" and "the Mongoose" and "Grumpy" will always be on an iconic plateau just a bit above everyone else, at least in my mind.
Shortly after the announcement, I got a message from Skip Allum, Prudhomme's longtime team manager, that "the Snake" wanted to chat, which dovetailed nicely into the plan I already had hatched in my mind for a send-off in National DRAGSTER next week.
I spent an amazing hour on the phone with "the Snake" this afternoon as he explained the reasons behind his tough decision, and I don't think I've ever heard him so relaxed. I'm sure that the toll of months of hard work trying to land a deal was considerable, but, well, because he was in such a good mood, I figured it was a good time to get his thoughts about great moments in his career. As we wound up the "news" part of the interview, I was hastily scribbling notes to myself -- "Greer-Black-Prudhomme, Roland/Hawaiian, Indy wins, 1975-78, the Monza, first 5, first 250, return to Top Fuel, McEwen, Dixon/Capps/Massey" – to make sure I covered as many highlights as I could quickly remember, and I'm sure I forgot a few, but he was amazingly candid and told me some things I had never heard. It's priceless stuff. The plan is to run this in-depth interview next week in National DRAGSTER, along with a photo-filled career retrospective. This week, we're running this awesome Leslie Lovett photo in our Hot Shots slot.
Although his phone continues to buzz and, I guess, there exists the minuscule chance that some multibillionaire could ring him in the next day and all of this will become a bad nightmare, it looks as if "the Snake" is really hanging 'em up. I asked him about hanging in there for just the historic Winternationals, and he was adamant that he's not going to do some one-, three-, five, or 10-race deal just to do it. Like always, he wants to win and, in his own famous words, "rip their throats out."
He also didn't totally rule out a return to the sport well down the line if the current climate changes. I guess the most comforting thing he said to me was this: "The door's closed, but the doorbell still works."
OK, back to work. Issue 1 of 2010 ships tomorrow, and we can’t be late out of the gate to start our season.