From Toe-Town to E-TownWednesday, May 28, 2014

Just a quick one today, because it's a very short week and I need to get everything in order to make the transition from Topeka to Englishtown. And what a transition that is… From Kansas to New Jersey. It's a bit jarring, to say the least, and we're not even talking about things like jug-handle turns or what exit you need to take to get where you're going off the New Jersey Turnpike.

When thinking of this Toe-Town to E-Town transition, it's natural to think of things like traffic, diners, and accents, but it struck me today (when I was flipping through photos) that the biggest transition is really all about the two race tracks…

Heartland Park Topeka is sprawling. Old Bridge Township Raceway Park is compact. HPT is out in the open fields south of a small city. Raceway Park is crammed into a small footprint in a residential neighborhood south of the most iconic and congested city in America. The grandstands at HPT are far apart and separated, while the old historic stands at Raceway Park are as old-school as you can get. It's night and day, really… And then there is the difference between a Kansas "hello" and a Jersey "What? You lookin' at me?" but you knew that.

I love both places, really, but for such different reasons. Both can be "difficult" in some ways, but a joy in others. Heartland Park is so spread out, because of the road course running through it, that time and space appear to be warped. Our pit area was right at the finish line, but to get to the starting line you needed a vehicle or sturdy shoes, because it's about a mile to walk it.

Even with the golf cart, Topeka is the only track on the tour where the tow vehicle and race car can get back to the pit before Krista and I can on the cart. First we had to walk back under the tower and around the bend to the staging lanes just to get to the golf cart, then we swam upstream against the flow of other race cars to get back out of the staging lanes, around another bend, across the road course, through a gate, and back into the enormous pit area, at which point we still had to putt-putt in the cart until we got to our pit. After each run, just as we were pulling up to the Team Wilk set-up, the tow vehicle was pulling the car in at the same time. At any other track, including Englishtown this weekend, we'll get back to the pit and have anywhere from two to five minutes of calm before the race car comes back and the cacophony of engine service fills the air.

Englishtown is bold and brash and every bit of New Jersey, where life in general seems like it's all a bit caffeinated, if you know what I mean. The audience at Raceway Park is made up of absolutely huge fans, and they really know their racing. They cheer robustly and crowd around the pit for every warm up. And then there's that fabulous deal on Sunday morning when every nitro car in the pits warms up at the exact same time, due to the noise curfew. That, right there, is worth the price of admission. The yellow haze is epic!

We seem to float around the Englishtown area to a different hotel each year, although I'm not sure why, and this season we're back up at East Brunswick, north of the track and right at the exit from the turnpike. The last time we stayed at this place it hosted a massive high school prom in the banquet room, much to our surprise. Dozens of charter buses were in line to drop off the kids in their formal attire, and just wading through that group in the lobby was a bit like being on one of those New Jersey reality shows. I'm pretty sure I saw Snooki (just kidding).

Anyway, back to Topeka. We qualified well, we beat a Pedregon in round one, but then we lost to a Pedregon in round two. The headline on my post-event report was "Wilk Bats .500 Against Pedregons". It's good to win round one, that's for sure, and we've done that at five of the eight races so far, but we all want to win more rounds than just that one and every person on the team is focused on doing that. Winning four this weekend would be just what we all need.

It rained in Topeka, but never hard, and this year we felt fortunate to not hear any weather sirens and not have to seek shelter from rotating masses of clouds that conjure images of Dorothy and Toto. Just a little drizzle, and none of us melted.

Daniel Wilkerson was there, along with his lovely wife Brianna, and it was great to see both of them. We had a good sized crowd of LRS guests on Saturday, so Brianna came along to pinch-hit and help us with the hospitality and she did great.

On Sunday, after we were eliminated, we got to work tearing down the pit and hospitality center, and it was the first day this year when it was summer-like and really pretty hot. I know I worked up a soaking sweat, but I'll take that over freezing cold or driving rain any day, and it felt good to be hot for the first time in 2014. Then, Nick Casertano needed a ride to the Kansas City airport so just as the final round was about to happen we got in my rental car and made the hour-long drive over there. Nicky kept an eye on the NHRA app on his phone and we were both happy to learn that Courtney Force had won the race, marking the 100th win for female professional in NHRA history.

Speaking of that, I was in the Media Center on Saturday night when Courtney and her sister Brittany both qualified number one, and when the two of them were joined by their dad in front of the media, well… Pretty much vintage Force hilarity and also pretty hard for Brittany to get a word in edgewise.

Back to Sunday after the race… Nicky had a night flight back to Newark, but my flight was Monday morning, so I checked in at the Hilton. When I got there, I saw chartered buses all over the parking lot, and you can imagine my joy when I discovered that those buses had all been used to transport about 100 youth baseball players (who all looked to be about 12 years old) for some big tournament. Like 12-year old boys, they were all on their best behavior, very quiet, very respectful, and absolutely none of them crowded 16-at-a-time into the elevators and hijacked them all to the top floors, not letting them back to the lobby. That sentence right there is what we call "sarcasm". 

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Dan Wilkerson, in the house!
The hallways were quickly turned into party central, but finally around midnight a few adults put an end to the shenanigans. Hey, I was that age once and I can recall having no concept of adult people trying to sleep behind every door on the floor. The elevator thing wasn't that funny, though…

So now I'm finishing up this blog, and wondering if it is even in the slightest bit entertaining (I'm feeling rushed today). I'm thinking it's not, but I promise to make it up to you all with the next one, which will surely win a Pulitzer. And don't call me Shirley.

Time to finish up my pre-race work, think about getting packed, and also remembering that on Monday instead of coming back here I'll be meeting Barbara down in Norfolk so that we can join some of her extended family at their vacation home on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It's an amazingly wonderful place, but now I have to figure out how to pack for a race and for a quick three-day vacation at the same time. Maybe I'll just wear shorts and flip-flops to the race track. I said "maybe".

The beach is incredible, and there are lots of fun things to do, plus I'm really looking forward to seeing all of the extended Doyle clan. We'll have fun, that's for sure!

Next stop New Jersey. What? You lookin' at me?

Wilber, out!