This blog installment has potential. There's lots to cover on the track, off the track, in the pits, and on the road, but I'm terribly pressed for time today and tomorrow morning I leave for our "guys trip" to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, followed by a side-trip down through New York City and on further to Washington D.C., where we will take in the Dodgers vs. Nationals game on Saturday. It's going to be a whirlwind trip, covering a lot of ground, and I know I won't be blogging again until I return from it, so I'll see how much I can get written here before I run out of time.
This blog is a look back at one of the memorable Chicago races ever, and one specific day that was so memorable I can't really think of another one that is at the same level of "epic". Plus, as a total bonus, there were no tornadoes or massive thunderstorms at the track, unlike many other previous years. We had some rain, and actually lost Q4 because of persistent drizzle, but no swirling masses of green clouds threatening us. That's a good thing.
I'll dispense with too much detail about qualifying, because you probably already know how that went. I did find it interesting, from a "numbers" perspective, that on Friday a .10 and an .11 would get you a 12. That's because in our two qualifying runs we ran 4.10 and 4.11 and that left us 12th on the sheet. On Saturday, it turned out, a 3 would get you a 2, because on our one run that we made we posted the only three-second run of the day, a 3.982, and that put us in the No. 2 spot going into race day.
The 3.98 was huge, not only because it was the only sub-four on the day, but it was low of the session and worth three bonus points. And it showed that we're fully able to run up front and dominate, even in those stout conditions where we used to be "good" but not "great". That run was nothing short of great.
Sunday then threw everyone a big nasty curveball, because after two days of overcast and cool conditions, running both Friday and Saturday in the evening, we raced at 11:00 and the sun came out, the humidity shot up, and the conditions were totally different. To make life even more entertaining, the sun and humidity didn't really become a factor until we were in the lanes. Once the clouds broke up, you could feel the temp rising by the minute. Tim was sitting in the front passenger seat of the tow vehicle and I walked by and said "Hey man, it's getting hotter by the minute out here…" and he said "I know. We're trying to figure that out right now."
We were first pair, but we still smoked the tires with a car they couldn't calm down enough for the rapidly changing conditions. Luckily, we smoked the tires around half-track and Bob Bode, whom we were racing, had far more serious traction problems and he had them far earlier in the run. It wasn't pretty, but it was a win and those rounds right now are like precious gems. These days, we basically have a good idea of where we stand in the points before and after every round, and that's both in terms of who we're trying to catch and who we're trying to leave behind. The win over Bode was big, because all three drivers right behind us in the standings lost in that first round. That would be Robert Hight, Alexis DeJoria, and Courtney Force. Include Wilk with that threesome and you've got four very talented teams basically fighting for the three spots in the Countdown. I'm not a big math guy, but I know that four won't fit into three. Ever.
We then faced my buddy Del Worsham in round two and basically stunned everyone. It was hot and humid and the conditions were a major challenge, but Wilk ran 4.032 at over 315 mph, and that was impressive. Seriously impressive. No one else was really even close to that.
The win over Del set up a semifinal against Matt Hagan, and we ran great again, running low e.t. of the round for the second consecutive match-up. Our 4.098 was huge, and Matt's 4.127 was really good, but he got the win by about one inch. After two solid and very typical lights by Wilk, he just plain missed on the tree in the semis, and Matt had a huge advantage off the line. Wilk outran him, and Matt was having issues at the top end, so the LRS car was ripping and catching up fast, but by a matter of inches we came up short.
As Alan Reinhart said on the P.A. "If this track had been six inches longer, Tim Wilkerson would've won that round. But it isn't, and he didn't."
Some people watching on "live" TV thought it looked like we won, but we didn't. The camera angle can be a little tricky down there, but the thing most people don't realize is that there's a big wide yellow stripe at the finish line and the actual timer is at the front edge of that stripe. We probably were ahead by the time both cars got to the back edge of the stripe, but he nipped us by about an inch where the actual timing beam is located. Tough one to lose, but another good weekend during what is now "crunch time" for real. For reference, here's the current top 14 in the Funny Car class:
1) Matt Hagan 1,024
2) Ron Capps 846
3) Jack Beckman 835
3) Del Worsham 835
5) John Force 801
6) Tommy Johnson 798
7) Cruz Pedregon 728
8) Tim Wilkerson 722
9) Robert Hight 667
10) Alexis DeJoria 658
11) Courtney Force 648
12) John Hale 503
13) Chad Head 491
14) Tony Pedregon 478
It's going to be nail-biting time right through Indy, I'm sure. Lots of very good cars fighting for far fewer playoff spots than the number of teams contending.
So now, let's move on to the fun we had in the pit area on Saturday. With Route 66 being not too far up I-55 from Springfield, it's one of our biggest hospitality events on the year, and this year we had a great group with us. Shelley Williams, from LRS, came up to help us in the hospitality center for the day, and as she was checking in guests she looked up and saw what she thought was a very familiar face. Each guest has to write his or her name on the card they turn in to gain admittance, and sure enough it was exactly who she thought it was. The name on the card was Christopher Knight, but you all know him as Peter Brady, from "The Brady Bunch" television series. Yes, we had Peter Brady in the house. Oddly enough, we didn't know he was coming and he was there with Cara and Jim (whom I think is Cara's father, although I can't guarantee that). Cara was an actual LRS guest, but none of us were aware of the connection.
Word shot around pretty quickly, but none of us really wanted to hassle the guy. You figure someone as recognizable as a "Brady Bunch" kid must get tired of the attention, over the years. The exact opposite was true, in this case. Krista wanted a photo with him but she was completely afraid to ask and worried he'd be mad that we were getting in the way of his fun anonymous day at the drags, but I introduced myself and we chatted briefly. He was the most gracious, genuine, happy, outgoing, unaffected, down-to-earth guy you could meet, and he was happy to take photos not just with Krista, but with everyone who wanted one. When asked if he got tired of the attention he said "I consider it a privilege, and playing in that show was an honor. I'm always happy to talk with anyone at any time. It's what my life is about, actually, and that's a gift."
Turns out he's a big fan, and has been to many races. We hit it off great, and during the ensuing rain delay I spent a good couple of hours with them, answering all sorts of questions and showing them how the systems on the car worked, and as the evening went on it clear we'd met one of the most likable celebrities ever. Christopher Knight, you might be Peter Brady but you're one heck of a nice guy.
The very next day, once I checked in at the O'Hare Hilton, I got an email from him thanking me profusely for the wonderful day they all had. What a highlight, and if his name had turned out to be Joe Smith and he'd never been on TV because he worked in shoe store, he still would've been a total pleasure to get to know.
At the same time, we had another pair of guests in the pit, who Tim and Krista already knew. Once I was introduced to them, I thought my brain might explode or my head would spin around in circles. Hard to believe both of these introductions happened on the same day.
If you're really into drumming and drummers, this will blow your mind. The gentleman was Gregg Potter, a legendary session musician who is extremely well known throughout the music biz, and his significant other was Cathy Rich. As in the daughter of the massively legendary Buddy Rich, whom most consider to be the greatest drummer to ever sit behind a kit.
Gregg is playing the drums these days with Buddy Rich's band, and Cathy is involved with all sorts of promotion and foundations for her late father's legacy. Buddy Rich's legacy is pretty simple: There was only one Buddy Rich. It's likely there will never be another.
Both Gregg and Cathy were awesome, and very funny. Between the two of them, there probably aren't any star musicians they don't know, but as people they were just two folks at the drags, two big Wilk fans, and two hilarious individuals with many stories to tell. Put it this way, when I wrote my actor buddy Buck Hujabre that night, and told him who I'd met, his mind was blown. Buck is a drummer, among the many things he can do with a wide variety of instruments, and his description was "Gregg is nothing short of a legend. In side-man circles he's known as an amazing rhythmic time keeper. So jealous you got to hang with him. I'd have died to meet Buddy Rich's daughter. I listened to his tapes all the time when I was first learning to play. His command of rhythm was incredible."
If you want to see Gregg doing his incredible work with the Buddy Rich band, just go here:
So, we all had a pretty big Saturday. Christopher and Cara are planning on joining us in Pomona, and Gregg and Cathy are thinking of coming to Vegas, which of course will then have to entail a night at "Jersey Boys" and a get-together with all sorts of amazing people. Can't wait!
It's hard to believe we ran a 3.98, qualified second, and met some of the most incredible people ever, all in one day. Mind blown…
As I mentioned above, I drove up to the O'Hare Hilton on Sunday night, and got checked in just in time to have a little dinner and notice online that a huge damaging storm was rolling through Minnesota, and it looked like it was targeting the Twin Cities. I called Barb and warned her about that (she was in Woodbury while I was in Chicago) so she stayed on alert until it all passed around 2:00 a.m., but as it turned out nothing really bad happened in Woodbury. The same cannot be said for Brainerd.
Apparently the vicious storm was at its peak when it passed through the Brainerd Lakes area, and many of the resorts suffered heavy damage. The worst news, for us, though was that Brainerd International Raceway really got slammed. If you haven't seen any of the photos, just Google "Brainerd Raceway storm damage" to check it out. The roof of the Media Center was torn off, as was the roof of the main maintenance building. A scoreboard was knocked down, but most amazingly the biggest most stunning damage was with one of the aluminum grandstands on the pit-side of the track. That section of seats was torn up, twisted around, and thrown over the wall almost onto the track. Big time damage at a track we're due to visit in just five weeks.
The entire town of Brainerd has a lot to clean up, but the track was already clearing downed trees by Monday afternoon. Here's hoping they can get it into some sort of reasonable conditions before we get there. They have a ton of stuff to do in a very short amount of time, and we wish them (and everyone in the Brainerd region) the very best.
That same storm came through Chicago in the wee hours of the night, waking me up on the sixth floor with a good thunder and lightning show, but there was no real damage to any structures, as far as I know. What was heavily damaged were the flight schedules at one of the busiest airports in the world.
Staying at the Hilton, I'd already turned my car in and could walk through a tunnel to get to the Delta terminal. My flight was at around noon and I was already bored by 10:00 so I figured I'd stroll over there and get through security, then kill some time in the Sky Club. You can imagine the look on my face when I stepped off the escalator and saw nothing but an endless sea of humanity, stretching all over the terminal building. There were, quite literally, thousands of people standing in lines that stretched out of sight, winding back and forth across the building.
I found the Sky Priority line, and compared to the main counter it was much shorter, as in maybe 25 people. Typically, on a normal day at any airport, I can walk right up and not stand in line for more than a minute, using Sky Priority, but this was not a normal day and O'Hare is not a normal airport. Let's just say it was a good thing I went over there early.
The problem wasn't the length of the lines, it was the heavy technical lifting the agents were having to do because all sorts of flights on all sorts of airlines had been cancelled by the storm, so every engagement with a customer was a long drawn-out affair instead of a quick check-in. One hour after I got in line, I was finally within four people of being at the front. That's when the fun really started.
I was looking around when I felt a slight punch on my arm and I turned around to see Allison McCormick, who does PR for Alexis DeJoria. With the line being so dense I never saw her standing a few people in front of me. She just said "Good luck" and smiled as she walked away. A few seconds later, here comes Sadie Floyd, who does PR with Kelly Topolinski for all sorts of teams and organizations. They are two of the best in the business, and two very good friends.
A big weekend at Route 66, for sure
Sadie had been stuck in one of the longest lines, and when Allison passed her she said "Hey, Bob Wilber is up in the Sky Priority line, go see if he'll let you cut in…"
Sadie "worked it" beautifully, and although I was taken by surprise for a second I knew how to play along. She ran up saying "Hi Sweetie!" and gave me a big hug. Sold. No one behind us in line said a thing, because her acting ability made it clear we were together (except we weren't). The funniest part was the guy directly behind me in line, who only a minute before had heard me talking to Barbara on the phone, when I signed off by saying "Goodbye, Sweetie. I love you!" And then Sadie ran up shouting "Hi Sweetie" and gave me a hug. I glanced at him and he just shook his head and smiled.
I didn't know until later that Sadie was already eight hours into her travel day when she came running over, so she was a bit desperate to get home. Glad I could help. Sadly, I think she got stuck in Atlanta and I'm not sure if she ever got to Charlotte, where she was headed.
All kinds of NHRA people have the same stories to tell, because O'Hare was simply a zoo and a mess and a very large hassle. My flight ended up only being 30 minutes let, so I got off easy. By 3:00, I was in Woodbury. Sadie was still in Chicago.
And now I have to sign off. I actually got a lot further with this blog than I thought I would, so I'm happy for that. Tomorrow morning, it's off to Cooperstown, where Wilbs, Lance, Oscar, and Radar will reunite for a very fun weekend. Should be epic, and there will indeed be planes, trains, and automobiles involved.
See you next week…
Norwalk is in the books, and it was a good weekend for us. A semifinal finish moved us from 10th in the points up to eighth, but the truth of that particular matter is that from seventh to 11th (otherwise known as "from Cruz Pedregon to Courtney Force") we are all so jammed in there with only a few digits separating us, so the pressure stays on to keep winning rounds. I'm not a math guy, but my theory is that winning rounds is the key to being in the Countdown. I'm pretty sure of that.
Right now, it looks something like this in the bottom half of the potential Countdown field, and I draw that arbitrary line because John Force is in fifth place with about 100 more points that we have: 6th - Tommy Johnson (680 points). 7th - Cruz Pedregon (657). 8th - Tim Wilkerson (642). 9th - Robert Hight (633). 10th - Alexis DeJoria (626). 11th - Courtney Force (621). 12th - John Hale (472). 13th - Chad Head (453). 14th - Tony Pedregon (437).
As you can see, we're only two rounds out of sixth place, but we're also only two rounds out of 11th, and depending on the "little points" you can earn during qualifying, we could be just one round ahead of Courtney by the time Sunday rolls around at Route 66. I'm not sure I've ever seen anything like this. It sure keeps your attention, that's for sure, and I seem to be in a constant update mode with my points spreadsheet at the track.
So now I'm sitting here in Minnesota preparing to jet down to Chicago O'Hare tomorrow evening. I've taken the afternoon flight that gets in around 5:00 a few times, and each time I try to remind myself to not do that again. Chicago traffic wins every time. This time, I actually did remind myself so I booked a flight that doesn't leave MSP until around 5:30 and it gets into ORD around 6:50, so we'll see how that works.
I got a little confused writing that last paragraph because on my iCalendar I show the flight leaving MSP at 7:30 and getting in at 9:00ish, but then I looked at Delta.com and it shows me on the 5:30 flight. Finally, I saw the little exclamation-point icon on my Delta page and I realized they changed the flight altogether, making it two hours earlier. Good thing I'm on a non-stop, because that would cause a world of hurt if it was a connection. Also, I'm glad I looked that up. It would not have been a good thing to head to the airport at the same time my plane was actually taking off.
Norwalk ramblings, looking backward…
As always, the great fans around Ohio came out in huge numbers for the Norwalk race. Friday's crowd was very good, Saturday's was incredible, and Sunday's was very fine as well. Saturday was, though, the biggest day and think everyone had a blast of a great time, and the fireworks show after qualifying was over was a fine way to cap off two great days of qualifying. The Bader family certainly does nothing "halfway" and once again it was phenomenal. I actually ducked out to the reserved Media parking area and watched the opening salvos from my rental car before beating the crowd out of the track.
And for as many people as we had in the stands on Saturday night, there were thousands more lining the roads in all directions, getting their dose of fireworks for free. As I drove south from the track, toward Willard, they were literally parked in every possible place for two solid miles.
We were a little fortunate to get out of the second round on Sunday, when we were racing Cruz. At around halftrack, a line came loose on the ignition timing system and all of a sudden it was like the car threw an anchor out. It dropped two cylinders on the right bank, which caused it to make a sharp right turn toward the center line, but Wilk managed to muscle it back before it got to the stripe, and at the same time I guess Cruz smoked the tires pretty hard. I guess that because I really never saw him in the video camera until Wilk got the win light. I sometimes have the best seat in the house, and sometimes it's the worst, because I see every lap on a little tiny monitor inside the camera. My view of the racing world is extremely limited, in that regard. Mostly I just try to hold the camera steady and then I hope to see win-lights.
Our little country motel in Willard was actually great. Clean, quiet, and no traffic. They also now have cell service (at least Verizon, which is my carrier) so you don't have to walk to the highest point in town to make a call anymore. Basically, it was all good!
Other miscellaneous yet noteworthy items…
Here's a really cool story, that I want to share with all of you. I got an email last week about a non-profit organization called Ainsley's Angels, and in particular the person who sent me the link (Thank You, Jill!) mentioned an amazing cross-country trip that is happening right now. On foot. Running. With a child in a rolling chariot!
Shaun Evans is what as known as an ultra-marathon runner, and his son Shamus was born with cerebral palsy. To raise awareness for the great work they do at Ainsley's Angels, Shaun is actually RUNNING from Seattle to New York City, pushing Shamus the whole way. Yes, you read that right. Amazing. Bookmark this link, and you can follow along as Shaun and Shamus make the 3,186-mile journey, all the way across America, and maybe you can even see them come through your home town, if you're on the route. At this link you can read all about the great stuff the charitable organization does, giving people with challenging disabilities the freedom to be included in so many ways they otherwise could not:
Great stuff. And the concept of not only running across the country, but pushing your son the whole way just blows my mind.
And, there's also a 13-year old girl we know from our races, who is about to face open-heart surgery. Leah's a fighter, there's no doubt about that, and Tim wanted me to share this link with all of you, so that all of us in the drag racing community can show our support for this brave young lady. The drag racing family is one of the best and most supportive groups of people I've ever had the pleasure to be a part of, and I know young Leah is feeling the support.
I'm buying my "Team Leah" t-shirt right now.
In my last blog I wrote about how Facebook allowed Vince Bienek and me to reconnect and eventually reunite a couple of weeks ago. There's a lot of fairly useless stuff on the internet, and a lot of people spend an inordinate amount of time doing some fairly useless stuff on Facebook in particular, but the one thing Facebook does better than anyone has in history, is allow those sorts of reconnections between people who have totally lost track of each other. That's truly the beautiful thing about Facebook.
And now it has provided another reconnection for me. The first Funny Car driver I ever represented, on my own and not working for someone else, was Norm Wilding from Essex, England. Norm was such a character, and basically a one-man show back in the days when you could actually do that and stay afloat from race to race. We often didn't have two dollar bills to rub together, but we worked at it as hard as we could and every little bit of success we had was something of which we could be proud. Norm finally had to face the fact that after nearly 10 years of effort, the money just wasn't there and he had to stop driving. That was roughly 14 years ago.
We lost track of each other then, after I had I gone to work for Del and Chuck Worsham, and for the last decade or so I hadn't talked to Norm at all. He now builds fabulous custom motorcycles (of the two-wheel and three-wheel varieties) and has his shop in Columbia, Missouri. Just days ago we found each other on Facebook and today I called him on the phone. That was stupendous, and he's still got about 100 percent of that English accent he had when he put his old Baretta Funny Car into a container and shipped it to the USA to run with the big boys. The last time I talked to Norm, Barbara and I were still living in Austin, so that had to have been 2000 or 2001, but within a second it was as if we'd just talked last week.
Times were tough for Norm back then, as they were for a lot of guys who were still trying to make it as fully independent racers with a very expensive hobby, but he's doing great now and he and his wife Linda (whom I also remember from way back then) are closing in on being married for 14 years. Looking at Norm's website, it's fantastic to see how successful he's become. And, we're aiming at getting him and Linda to the St. Louis race for a day. That would be another fantastic reunion. Thanks, Facebook!
Lots of folks in Norwalk!
Check out Norm's awesome bikes and trikes (and it's cool that he even has a pic of his old Funny Car on the page, too):
I guess that's about it. Time to head up to the gym and get some exercise. Thinking about Shaun and Shamus running across America is enough to get my lazy butt off this chair and go work out. Push those weights. Walk those miles.
It's off to Chicago tomorrow, then down to Joliet for the weekend. And, like Norwalk, the schedule for Route 66 features two days of nighttime qualifying. Friday's Nitro sessions are slated for 5:15 and 8:00 and then Saturday's are 5:00 and 8:00. Be there! We'll have plenty of Illinois support all weekend, especially from so many of Wilk's Warriors who always attend this race. It's a blast to feel all of that attention and support. Thanks everyone.
Greetings (initially) from Gate 6 on the B concourse at Spokane International Airport (GEG). I figured I'd write this blog as I traveled today, so the first installment comes from right here in my typically uncomfortable black "pleather" seat at the gate, waiting for my plane to arrive from points unknown.
I'm traveling on Wednesday, for the Norwalk race, because I'm actually traveling for much of the month of July. And how about that? It's July already! Sheesh. It feels like July out here in Spokane because Mother Nature has turned up the thermostat and it's been brutally hot for the last week. We're talking temps in the 100s, and one day I do believe it got up to 109 but thankfully that was when Barbara and I were down in Oakland over the weekend.
Anyway, the next three weeks consist of Norwalk, Joliet, and Cooperstown, so I've chosen to do the back-and-forth segments of those trips from Minnesota, to cut down on costs and time in the air. I simply booked one long round-trip between GEG and MSP, with the return segment being on July 20, and then booked flights to Detroit (for Norwalk), O'Hare (for Joliet, duh) and Newburgh, N.Y. (for our "guys trip" to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown). I labeled this trip my "Bracket Trip" for my records, because it's a set of brackets around the other three trips, and all in all it's going to save me a lot of travel time and some real money.
As for our excursion down to the East Bay area over the past weekend, we had a great time and saw a lot of fabulous stuff. We also ate well, but we're pretty good at that no matter where we are. The highlight, for sure, was Friday night in Sonoma, where we met up with Vince and Mary Bienek to have dinner at the El Dorado Kitchen restaurant, right on the square in quaint/wonderful Sonoma. As detailed in my previous blog here, Vince and I were teammates on the Paintsville Hilanders way back in 1978 and we had not seen each other since that season ended.
All I can say is this. We laughed out loud for two straight hours over dinner, we told stories, we remembered tiny little details and spent a lengthy amount of time recalling the names and personalities of our fantastic teammates on that club, then we went for a stroll and saw their fantastic house just a few blocks away. Barbara and I both had a wonderful time, and it truly felt like I'd just seen Vince (The Bronze Fox) a year or two ago, not 37 years ago. I brought along the photo I posted last week, of the two of us in the Paintsville clubhouse prior to a game, and after dinner we had Barb and Mary pose us to match it as much as possible. Much fun.
Baseball and racing aren't that different, once you get away from the actual sports themselves. When you're involved as a participant, you meet people who may just become friends for a season or two, but they often remain friends for life. Even if you don't see them for 37 years. What a great night, with great people!
Back here in the world of NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing, we're on to the summer crunch now, with a hectic schedule as we close in on getting the Countdown playoff groups set. Right now we're 10th in the standings, with Courtney Force right behind us, 41 points in arrears. Just ahead of us, Alexis DeJoria is only four points up on Wilk, Robert Hight is just six points ahead, and Cruz Pedregon is only 22 points up, so it's jam-packed here in the bottom half of the Top 10 in the standings, and something is going to have to give. Here's hoping we can get on our typical summer roll and start adding to the points total. I have a suspicion we're about to do just that.
We've had some success in Norwalk, including a victory there (over John Force) in 2010 and a runner-up (to Mike Neff) in 2012, but we've been knocked out in the first round the last couple of years. That tells me that the cycle has been completed and we're due for a big weekend at Summit Motorsports Park this weekend.
Okay, they just called us to board. I gotta go. Back later!
An hour later…
We actually were a little late off the gate at GEG because the gate agents were losing their minds. It's a full flight (when are they not anymore?) so they wanted to check a lot of bags at the gate. That kept the two guys busy, strapping tags on the bags and then hauling them down the jet bridge, and they left the woman (Oksana, who is clearly from the part of world previously known as the Soviet Union) to fend for herself in terms of getting the boarding process started. When she saw five (count 'em five) wheelchairs, six unaccompanied minors, and a slew of families with strollers and car seats, I thought she was going to implode. She did okay, though, and here we are at 33,000 feet jetting eastward toward MSP.
Anyway, back to Norwalk memories. I wrote about the 2010 victory in my pre-race feature story, because it was one of the more unique finishes to any race I've been a part of. It had been cloudy with threatening weather all day on Sunday, but the threats didn't come to fruition for most of the afternoon. Then we saw a thick band of heavy thunderstorms approaching on radar after we won the semifinal, and there was no logical way that bright red and yellow band of storms was going to miss us. It was just a matter of when, not if.
NHRA reacted to the weather, and they let all the finalists in all the classes know that they were going to take the very rare step of simply running whoever got up to the lanes first, no matter what order that happened to be in. If my memory is correct (this was a long time ago and we were thrashing) I believe Top Fuel might have run before us. Maybe not, but it seems that way through the fog of time. We got up there to run Force and it was doing everything but raining. You could smell it coming, you could hear the thunder, and yet it held off.
Somehow we managed to get the round done, and we won. At the top end, as the interviews were finishing up, it started to rain. Then it absolutely poured. Instead of towing back up to the Winner's Circle in the lanes, the guys simply went back to the pit and then Tim and I took an umbrella and went up to the Media Center. I had my hands full with my camera and something else, so Tim held the umbrella while we dashed from under the grandstand around to the tower, and boy did we hear about that when we finally got up to the Media Center, with the comments mostly coming from Elon Werner, who said to Tim (loudly) "Wait. You and your PR guy are coming over here in the rain and YOU hold the umbrella for HIM?"
After the interviews, the rain had stopped and we walked back down to the starting line to cross over and head back to the pits, but before we got in view of the Media Center windows (you might remember this story, because it was hilarious and I wrote about it back then) Wilk said "Hop up on my back." I weigh 205, so I was hesitant to do it, but he insisted and I jumped up piggyback style. We casually strolled across the track that way with me waving like royalty, waiting for Elon or anyone else in the Media Center to spot us, and when they did you could just about see the whole tower shaking with laughter. That was one of the funniest stunts Wilk has ever pulled.
So now we head to Norwalk again, and if history wants to repeat itself I'll make the call that we'll have a good weekend. We're due. In the last five seasons we've won seven rounds at the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals, but the hitch is that we've won them all at just those two final rounds I mentioned above. Since we've gone out in round one at the last two Norwalk races, it's clearly time to get on a roll again. You heard it here first.
Oops. I'm in the front cabin and lunch is on the way. Need to put the laptop back under the seat. Salad with a chicken breast, I'm told… Back soon.
An hour later (again)
You know that time when I foolishly thought the wit and wisdom of this particular blog installment was going to be the biggest news today, on the NHRA landscape. I guess not. Just as the flight attendant was passing out the meals (it was a salad with chicken, but bonus points for it being a nice Caesar) I checked Twitter just in time to see it blowing up.
While I was writing that last section just above, Peter Clifford was announced as the new President of the National Hot Rod Association, replacing Tom Compton who is retiring. It's kind of staggering to realize that in the lengthy history of this fine organization Peter will still only be the fourth President ever. On behalf of everyone at Team Wilkerson Racing, I congratulate Peter and wish him all the best as we move forward. We all collectively have a lot of ongoing work to do, and as an overall team our series and our events will successfully entertain our avid fans. Of that, I am sure. Onward!
So now what? I'm not really sure, but I guess I'll plow forward with thoughts of Norwalk.
Talk about events that entertain our fans. The Norwalk experience and the superb management of Summit Motorsports Park have been well known since the track got its initial national event. The fans come out in droves, the facility is immaculate, and the racing is usually fantastic, no matter what the weather. We've practically broiled there a few times, running during this July 4th weekend, but the forecast for this weekend is pretty stunning. The forecast highs are 76, 78, and 82 for the three days, with plenty of abundant sunshine. Bring it on!
We're staying down in Willard, Ohio again, at a little country-style motel that is home base for many railroad workers. The best thing about Willard is, as I've outlined in the past, it's an easy commute to the track, coming up from the south. You can honestly see as few as four or five cars from when you leave the motel until the moment you arrive at the stop sign behind the starting line. Easiest traffic flow on the whole tour, because everyone else is arriving from the north.
Both days of qualifying are also unique, in that Friday and Saturday are basically twin nighttime affairs. We run at 5:45 and 8:30 on Friday and Saturday, and then the track's epic 4th of July fireworks show will light up the sky after we're done on Saturday night. It's one of the rare times we actually have 4th of July fall on the Saturday of this race, so the stars are clearly aligned.
Speaking of stars being aligned, how about planets being aligned? Have you seen Venus and Jupiter right next to each other in the western sky this week? It's pretty amazing. Venus is the brighter of the two in the sky, and because it's way closer to Earth it actually looks bigger than Jupiter, but we know that's not the case. Jupiter is enormous, but it's really far away.
I know one thing. I won't be actually submitting this blog from the plane. We have the GoGo Wi-Fi going, but I think a lot of people on this jet are sucking up all the bandwidth. It's as slow as maple syrup dripping down a tree trunk on a chilly day. How was that for being descriptive?
And the trip begins on the little concourse, at GEG in Spokane.
I could probably get the blog email to go, but there's not a chance I could submit the photos. I mailed just one photo to myself, from my iPad to my laptop, and it took 15 minutes for it to download.
And there we go. Just felt the engines get throttled back and the descent began. Next stop, MSP. After I get to Woodbury I'll fire this off, but I bet the gang at NHRA.com is a little busy right now, with today's announcement. We'll see if they have time for the likes of me…
A couple of hours later
So I'm here, and it's a nice day in the Twin Cities. A little hazy, but not too hot and that feels great after what we've been dealing with out in the Inland Northwest.
Now, my next order of business will be to get all my pre-Norwalk stuff up to date, have some dinner, and then sleep fast because I have a morning flight to Detroit tomorrow. A lot of people fly into Cleveland, but I think it's just as simple to fly into Detroit and when you're leaving DTW airport heading south, you really never drive through any urban traffic jams. You're pretty much out in the country by the time you get going. And then there's Toledo, the home of the Mud Hens, but it's usually not too bad. On down to Willard, and badda-boom, badda-bing you're there. That's kind of a mixed message, using New Jersey to talk about Ohio… I don't know any Ohio-speak. Go Browns? Go Buckeyes? Go Blue Jackets?
Guess I'll fire this off and we'll see if my editor pals at NHRA.com have the time to post it. If this shows up 24 hours from now, we'll all know they didn't.
Writing a lot can really be a pain in the neck. No, I'm not casting aspersions on this blog or on any of my PR work, because I mean that literally. As you may recall, I have a couple of vertebrae in my lower neck that are narrowed, and from time to time they can pinch the nerve. I've gone through two full rounds of steroid injections, and it's been pretty good for a while, but for some reason here lately the pinched nerve has been buzzing a bit and making a general nuisance of itself. On the bright side, all of those injections upped my home-run total by 24. And none of my hats fit anymore. (See: "Bonds, Barry" for the hat reference).
Writing, while seated at my desk, is a real contributor to the neck issue. Like most writers with lousy posture, I sit here all day looking down at my computer, kind of hunched over, and I can feel the muscles in my neck and shoulders tightening up as the day goes by. I'm the perfect poster-child for all those times your mom or your teacher told you to sit up straight.
So, with this trio of consecutive races there's been a lot of typing. Heck, I'm typing right now. And I'm trying to sit up straight. With my pre-race feature stories, my post-race reports, my daily updates, all the social media, and this blog, I suspect I've written somewhere around 25,000 words in the last three weeks. Maybe more. You wouldn't think typing is the sort of thing that "wears you out" but it does take its toll, especially over long spans of time. Like, say, oh the last 20 years. I'm a brave soul, though, so I'm willing to take one for the team. I'll gut it out.
Today's installment is one of those "Q & A" types, because I've been keeping tabs on some of the more relevant questions I've been asked in the last couple of weeks, and I figured I might as well just go ahead and share those with all of you. And away we go…
Q. On a three-race swing like the one you were just on, do the crew guys get to go home or are they on the road for the whole thing?
A. Not all consecutive race swings are total "stay on the road" deals, but this one we just finished and the upcoming Western Swing certainly are. The races on both swings are just too far from Springfield, Ill. to make going back there worthwhile, or even possible. So, the guys stay out there and stay in a lot of different hotels. I'm sure they eat healthy, too. (Sarcasm alert!)
Q. Why did Tim sit out the final qualifying session in Bristol, when he was number one qualifier going into it?
A. Part of the answer to this question is in the answer to the question above. Basically, we sat out because it was more important to have enough parts to get through Sunday than it was to run in Q4 and potentially hurt anything, large or small. Being a one-car team with a single transporter, and being on a swing where we didn't get back to the shop for three weeks, we needed to bring as much stuff (in the form of parts) to get us through the whole thing with only basic service being done on set-up days or between runs. Unlike the multi-car teams (who also tend to be multi-transporter teams, with lots of spare parts) we can't ask teammates to loan us stuff, nor can we run out to the other rig and get a few more motors or cylinder heads.
Tim was getting concerned that we might not have enough good stuff to get through Sunday, after all those runs we'd made in E-Town, Epping, and Bristol, so he elected to sit it out. Losing the top spot was not nearly as damaging as possibly being a no-show been in the semifinals or finals. There was a very good chance no one would've knocked us off anyway if the day wouldn't have had so many rain delays, but that wasn't a factor in the decision. The fact we only slipped to sixth once the rain quit on what turned out to be an unplanned second lap under the lights, means we were probably a little lucky to stay that high. Some teams that could easily run quicker than 4.02 didn't in Q4. Five did. So, it was really a decision that was easy to make.
Q. Are all the Funny Cars wrapped in vinyl now? I liked the good old days when they were all painted.
A. No, they're not all wrapped. There are a few still using good old-fashioned paint. Our Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang is one of them. That new paint job you see is truly a new paint job. Yes, there are some decals on the car, but there have almost always been decals on race cars.
Q. Why do the teams not whack the throttle during a warm-up anymore?
A. Consistency. With the level of competition being so unbelievably strong right now, especially in the Funny Car class, you have to find ways to be as consistent as possible, or you're going to be left behind. During the warm-up, the most inconsistent thing was that throttle whack, which we did to seat the clutch. With a human being in charge, you could almost never do it exactly the same way twice, and that brought a lot of inconsistency into your tune-up, especially with the clutch. It was fun, and the fans loved it, but I have to admit that we all love winning, too. We still make tons of delicious fumes and plenty of noise, but we strive to keep up with the competition and that's all about being consistent.
Q. Who was the craziest driver you've ever known?
A. There really aren't too many that are anything close to crazy. I surprise people when I tell them most of the Funny Car drivers I've known are very methodical, down-to-Earth, and safety conscious. They are not really daredevils at all. They just like going really fast, but they also like being as safe as possible. But that being said, Dean Skuza was pretty crazy. And very funny.
Q. Are you relieved to be in the Traxxas Shootout, so you don't need to win the fan vote again?
A. That's an understatement. Our little band of Wilk's Warriors are amazing, and I'm proud of the job all of us did to get Wilk into the thing the last two years, when we were up against some very popular drivers in the vote (and yes, I'm proud of the job I did, promoting it). As the slots started to fill up this year, I'll admit I was feeling a little dread that I wouldn't be able to pull that miracle off again. It was a week of nonstop social media, each time, and awesomely rewarding to win it, but I'll take it this way every time. Nicky Boninfante came over to me in the staging lanes at Indy last year and he said "If I ever run for office, I'm going to hire you as my campaign manager." Keep me posted on that, Nicky.
Q. What do you guys do during those long rain delays, like Saturday in Bristol?
A. Not enough to keep it interesting. I wasn't even in Bristol, and it was still an incredibly exhausting day because the rain was so intermittent that there was almost always a chance we'd be running in 45 minutes, but it ended up stretching into about a 10-hour marathon. At the track, there's a lot of waiting. In the media center, there are a lot of stories being told, lies being imagined, and many laptops with MLB.com on the screen, as PR people follow their favorite baseball teams.
Q. With the new evidence released this week, should Pete Rose ever be allowed in the Hall of Fame?
A. No. And, I was in the "maybe" camp for a long time, when all we thought was that he bet on baseball when he was managing. Pete's not very good at "contrite" but I felt like if he really came clean and begged for forgiveness, maybe he should be allowed in. After all, betting didn't have anything to do with him being the all-time hit leader (once again, see Bonds, Barry). But now that we know he bet on the game when he was still playing? No way.
Q. What's your favorite track?
A. I have many, and can't really narrow it to one favorite. But, the leaders are Charlotte, Bristol, Sonoma, Las Vegas, Chicago, St. Louis, Gainesville, and Pomona, in no particular order.
Q. Will you be in Sonoma this year?
A. Sadly, no. It's one of my favorites (see prior question) and I absolutely love the area. Much fun has been had in Sonoma over the years, especially back in the CSK years. Many dinners in Sausalito and San Francisco, limo trips with teammates to go wine-tasting on Monday. Just a wonderful place. Sorry I won't be there.
But guess what? I'm going to be there this weekend! With no racing to cover, Barbara and I are headed to the Bay Area for a couple of days. She's in Seattle right now, so I'm leaving tomorrow and we'll come back to Spokane together on Saturday. Friday night, when we'll head up to the actual town of Sonoma, is something I'm really looking forward to.
Thanks to Facebook (and this is really what Facebook does right) I've reconnected with a large number of former classmates and baseball teammates, all over the country. I even reconnected with the first player I signed when I was a scout for the Blue Jays, a pitcher named Keith Gilliam. But, the connection to Sonoma is that I also reconnected with Vince Bienek, who played Class-A minor league ball with me in 1978, on the Paintsville Hilanders. Vince was a really good player, but we never saw each other again after that season ended, nor did we ever connect again in any way. Until Facebook.
Vince actually married a girl from the tiny town of Paintsville, in rural eastern Kentucky, and I remember Mary very well from that summer. Now, as it turns out, they are both in real estate and living in Sonoma. The plan is for Barbara and I to drive up there on Friday (about an hour's drive from where we're staying) to meet Vince and Mary for dinner. I have an old faded photo of the two of us, taken way back then in the Paintsville clubhouse before a game, and I think we should re-do the same pose, 37 years later. I'm really looking forward to it.
One of the coolest race tracks in the world. Good work, Jon!
I honestly don't recall if I ever wrote about Vince here on this blog, but I know I have over on my Bob On Baseball blog. Paintsville was a co-op team in the Appalachian League, so our roster was made up of a bunch of guys from different organizations and some guys who were free agents and didn't belong to any Major League club. I was the property of the Detroit Tigers and Vince belonged to the White Sox. When we all reported to Paintsville, the P.A. announcer asked all of us if we had any nicknames. I told him my college teammates had dubbed me "The Hawk" and Vince then took it to a whole new level by insisting his nickname was "The Bronze Fox". Imagine our surprise when, during our home opener, the announcer introduced him like this: "Now batting, the bronze fox, right-fielder Vince Bienek." I got the same treatment. And, for the record, neither one of us asked him to stop announcing that way. It was too funny, and too classically minor league. The Hawk and The Bronze Fox will be back together this weekend.
Since I wasn't in Bristol, I really had no photos for today, but then I remembered a solution!
One of our part-time volunteer guys, who comes to a bunch of races to help with washing parts and other jobs, is Jon David Culver, and he takes a lot of photos throughout each race, then posts a bunch of them on our Team Wilk Facebook Fan Page. So, I poached a bunch of his great shots for the gallery today. All of the Bristol photos are credited to Jon David Culver. I simply liberated them. Or stole them. It's all just semantics, right?
Well okay then… It's off to the Bay Area tomorrow for some fun, food, and I'm sure a glass or two of Sonoma's finest. Then, next week I get back into travel mode. Norwalk and Chicago are next, followed by my much-anticipated trip to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown with my college teammates, and then the Western Swing. I'm not going to be here in Liberty Lake too much for the next month and a half. I'll rack up a bunch of Delta miles, though…
See you again soon.