The trek continues...Wednesday, September 26, 2012

And this is where we look back a little, to wrap up Dallas, and look forward, to our return trip to St. Louis and the newly reopened (and renamed) Gateway Motorsports Park.

First, Dallas. It was a trip complete with another great qualifying run, another round win, two more spots gained in the points standings, and crickets. Lots of crickets. Like millions of crickets. Like maybe even bazillions of crickets. I'm still seeing crickets in my dreams.

Dallas has always featured a lot of crickets, by Jiminy (get it?) For some reason, this year the little rascals were out in greater numbers than I can ever remember, but since it's really hot there and they don't like the heat, they congregate wherever they can find shade, so they're not that evident to the typical fan walking around the pit area or the midway. Oh, but come inside any team's pit area and you'll have the unmitigated joy of cricket mania!

Liking that cooling shade, they gather under transporters, tables, tents, tires, toolboxes, tow vehicles, even the flooring in our hospitality area. Since the plastic flooring has little nubs on the bottom of each piece, to give them some give for cushion and to give us a better chance of not standing in water when it rains, the little insects could run around under there like it was their own personal playground, except for that whole pesky part wherein they discovered that the floor did actually have a little give to it, and if any of us should unwittingly step right on the piece they were hiding under, well... That was not good for the crickets. And it wasn't good for us when we had to tear down the pit area, pull supplies out from under the transporter, and roll up the flooring. Yuck. I'm sure we took more than a few crickets with us when we left Dallas...

I posted a photo of one small gathering of a few hundred crickets hiding under the forward part of the race rig, on my Facebook page, but I think I'll spare you the gross-out factor here, and just let your imaginations run cricket wild. You can thank me later.

What I will post in the gallery today is the masterful PhotoShop work done Brad Littlefield, which he posted on his Facebook page. You'll see. And you'll laugh.

On the track, our "go for it" mentality worked out just fine again, during qualifying. It was really quite warmish (scorching hot) in Dallas, so Q2 (which really wasn't a night session, but was at least slightly cooler) was the time you had to do your damage, and we knocked one out of the park again. It held as low e.t. right up until Courtney Force ran as part of the last pair, and she nipped us, but we were happy with the No. 2 spot.

When we started looking at the qualifying sheet after the run, one scenario was really obvious to see. We knew it was going to be even hotter on Saturday, and both runs would be in the middle of the afternoon. We also saw that Robert Hight had struggled to get down the track on Friday. You could see where this was going...

On Saturday's first run, Robert again didn't make a clean lap, and at that point we were lined up with No. 15 qualifier Todd Simpson. There were no chickens being counted before they hatched, though, because there was still one session to go and, of course, you knew Jimmy Prock would get Robert down the track, even if he had to slow that Auto Club Ford down "all the way" just to "slide it down through there" (that's race car driver lingo). That's exactly what he did, and sure enough Robert made the show... In the 15th spot. Thanks for qualifying No. 2 Mr. Wilkerson! We present you with your first-round match-up... Robert Hight.

Well, Sunday was probably the scorchiest of the scorching days, and you knew it was going to be a battle of wits as much as anything. I stood behind the car to shoot the video, about as nervous as I've been all year because you also had to think that Prock & Company had it figured out now and Robert would probably tear down there for low of the round, but then I saw Robert's car go up in tire smoke early, and I had just enough time to think "We got this" and feel a little wave of excitement, until I saw the flames. Big billowing flames. Lotsa flames. They went out quickly and we saw Wilk jump out and raise the body as fast as he could, so it wasn't a total meltdown, and it didn't actually damage the body at all, but it still took the edge off the win. We also figured we might lose some points, so the win wasn't going to be as rewarding, but we quickly heard the report "No oil" so we weren't penalized.

Turned out we just pushed out a head gasket, and when that happens all the flames from the combustion chamber have a much easier path to the outside world.

It was going to be a major thrash between rounds, though, because we not only had to swap motors we also had to run a bunch of new lines and hoses, who had felt too much of the heat. We probably ended up with about 75 minutes, in total, and we needed every bit of that. We had some extra help in Dallas, from some trustworthy part-timers, and that assistance came in very handy. Our friends Jody and Sara Gunter were there, and while Jody pitched in with oil pans and parts, Sara got to work cleaning the body, both outside and underneath. Photographic proof of her effort is in the gallery today.

We warmed up just as the first two Top Fuel cars were running, and Charlie from NHRA Pit Control was basically parked in front of our pit on his scooter, keeping tabs on whether or not we'd be able to make the call. Had we not been fourth pair in the second round, it would've been very tight, but we made it. And then we smoked the tires. So much work...

On the day, though, the little team that got into the playoffs in the final hours of the final day, found itself not 10th, not 9th, not 8th... We were 7th, and that's the position from which we'll enter the St. Louis race this weekend. We shall attempt to continue our positive trajectory at Gateway.

And speaking of Gateway... It's going to be great to get back to my hometown after not racing there last year. Our team is staying east of the track, in Collinsville, Ill., but I booked my room in Clayton, Mo., on the west side of downtown St. Louis. It's still only about a 15-minute drive from there, and I get to pass a ton of landmarks that make me smile. There's Forest Park, the St. Louis Zoo, my high school (St. Louis University High), on the way from Clayton to downtown, and then the Arch comes into perfect focus as you pass the Scottrade Center where the Blues play (or maybe not, this year) and Union Station is also on the left, then you zoom within yards of the new Busch Stadium before passing the Arch and crossing the Mississippi.

Another key reason for staying out in Clayton is that it puts me just one Hwy 40 exit away from McKnight Road, and if one gets off Hwy 40 at McKnight and goes south for a couple of miles, one will come to Manchester Road. And if one were to turn right on Manchester the first thing one would see, on the right, would be Farotto's Pizza. So therein lies the real reason for staying in Clayton.

Another big thing that will be happening in St. Louis is the fact that I will have a college intern with me. Colin Doyle is his name, and he is a Sports Management major at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. He also happens to be the son of Barb's younger brother, Tim, so he's my nephew.

Colin is one of the brightest and most dedicated kids I've ever met, with a head so firmly planted on his shoulders he's not just wise beyond his years, he's massively too mature for a college kid. I'll have the benefit of having him with me in St. Louis and at Reading, as he shadows me throughout the day and helps out any way he can. Gonna be fun, and very helpful, to have Colin with me. And one Pittsburgh boy is going to be introduced to St. Louis-style pizza!

This "practicum" (that's what they call it) is a big part of Colin's course work at Slippery Rock, so we're taking it very seriously and we have to make sure he gets a real dose of what it's like to do this in the real world, as opposed to simply reading about it learning about in the class room. He'll get a chance to experience the fun part, as well as the rest of it.

Shifting gears now, the next big subject in today's blog installment has to do with sponsorship. Which sponsorship, you ask? No, not our LRS program, but the Traxxas program that supports both Courtney Force and NHRA. In Dallas, I stopped long enough to take a close look and I've decided it might just be the model sponsorship in all of racing. It's brilliant!

First of all, if all you do is put your name on the side of a race car, you're definitely not getting the maximin return on investment (ROI) out of your deal. Whatever money you spend on the sponsorship deal needs to be complimented by another large pile of money, to actually activate the program, and that's where NHRA has other forms of sports covered, beaten, and dominated. With our open pit area, we can get our hands on our fans.

If you've been to a race this year, you've probably seen the Traxxas display, and it's pure genius. Let me try to lay this out as simply as I can..

If all they did was sponsor Courtney, you'd hardly be motivated to spend good money on one of their remote control cars.

If all they did was set up a booth to sell them, you'd probably just suffer sticker shock and walk away. They're a bit pricey, because they're very well made.

If all they did was let you mess around with the cars for a little bit, you'd most likely get frustrated quickly, because it takes quite a bit of practice to successfully run one of those little hot rods and have fun with it.

If that's all they did...

But, they also make sure they have expert "pro" RC drivers there, putting on a show and letting you see just how much fun can be had with these things. That allows you to imagine what you can do, if you practice, and it erases that fear that these things are too hard to run.

They have shows going all the time, and they have interactive tracks for little kids and big kids. Then they have their big trailer, where they sell the cars.

We had very good crowds on Saturday and Sunday in Dallas, and each time I walked by the Traxxas display it was packed. On Saturday afternoon, fans were lined up 8 to 10 deep at the sales trailer, buying the cars. It looked like an Apple store on the day the new iPhone is released. Seriously, people were literally stacked up, trying to buy these cars as fast as they could, and I saw numerous grown men walking away not with one box, not two, but as many as FOUR Traxxas cars at once, and this went on for hours. Now keep in mind, these cars are not cheap. Each one of those guys with four boxes could easily have dropped $1,200 to $1,500 to buy them.

That, ladies and gentleman, is a perfectly integrated and activated sponsorship, and the ROI it generates is as obvious as the nose on your face.

Plus, in Courtney Force they have a brilliant spokesperson, who loves what she does and does it well.

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The offending head gasket from Sunday's fire in Dallas
As part of his practicum this weekend, Colin is going to get to see a great example of a perfectly executed sponsor program.

So now, it's time to focus on STL and get ready to leave tomorrow. It's another long trip for me, because I'm not coming all the way back to Spokane on Monday just to turn around and fly across the country to Reading (Harrisburg) a few days later. Instead, I'm flying up to Minneapolis on Sunday night and I'll establish a beach head in Woodbury for the week, taking care of some stuff there, seeing friends, and enjoying Minnesota. Then, it's an easy hop over to Harrisburg on Thursday and I'll be in Reading that night.

My trip home on the Monday after Reading is a bit convoluted, so hopefully that goes well. I fly from Harrisburg to Cincinnati to Minneapolis to Spokane. Yay! Fun!! Oh well, by then this six-week extravaganza, this massive marathon of NHRA-palooza, will be over and we get two weeks off. That seems unthinkable right about now, but like the world's biggest enticement it beckons.

Two weeks to go, and then two weeks off. I won't even mention the fact that Reading is the final stop on this expedition and Maple Grove has a history of some frustrating meteorological stuff. No, we won't go there. Everything is going to be fine. Two weeks off... And this weekend St. Louis!  Farotto's here we come...

Wilber, out!