Behold the internet. It's a marvelous thing that has completely changed the world, from the way we shop to the way doctors diagnose and share opinions. From the way we spread information, to the way we "read the paper" without getting ink on our hands. And most importantly, it gives us a chance to browse funny pictures of adorable cats and share the most critical information, that being important facts like where we are right now and what we're about to do, or are doing, or just did, with a million friends on Facebook. That last one is really critical and I'm as guilty as anyone.
One of the more popular trends on Facebook is that marvelous thing called Throwback Thursday, or TBT for short, in which you and your friends wait until Thursday to dig out old photos of yourself or family members and post them for the enjoyment of everyone else. In the "olden days" all you could do was haul out the old photo albums and sit right down next to whatever friend happened to be in your living room that day, and flip through the pages, giving a play-by-play as you went. "And here's Johnny when we brought him home after he was born. Here he is when he was one. Here he is when he was two.." You know you've done it. We all have.
And yes, I regularly partake in Throwback Thursday because for most of my life I've been a pack-rat. I've not only kept many of the photos, I've almost always kept objects that represent momentous times in my life or any of my various careers. It was chronic problem, really, until I finally looked around our prior (very large) home in Woodbury and all I could see was a mountain of "stuff" I refused to let go of. Baseball uniforms, soccer shoes, soccer balls, baseball equipment, 27+ Wally trophies (I've kinda lost count), 27+ NHRA winner's jackets, every Winner's Circle hat I'd ever collected, and on and on.
So, I finally started cleaning up and parting with stuff a few years ago. I've given away a number of winner's jackets (despite the fact they all have my name embroidered on them) and decided to only keep one event-winner's hat from each series title-sponsor era. I've parted with many of the Wally trophies, but still have enough to fill any bookcase. For the record, after Atlanta I made the tough choice to not buy a Wally, but I made up for it by ordering a jacket. Hey, jackets are functional! Wally trophies are just symbolic(and expensive). And, of course, I kept the Mello Yello hat. That's a sponsor era I hadn't collected yet.
In today's epic (gigantic) photo gallery, I shall tell a tale in reverse order, starting with the present and working backwards, using only objects as my TBT memories. No, I do not go back to childhood. I don't even go back to high school, although I could because I still have my St. Louis U. High letter jacket, class of 1974. But hey, you gotta draw the line somewhere, so I only go back as far as college. Call it revisionist history. And the college object is the cover of the program for the 1977 NCAA Division II National Championship (aka the Div. II World Series). It's autographed by all of my SIUE teammates, but oddly my autograph is not on there. Why? Because it was my program and I guess I just wanted all the other guys to sign it for me. Seems inappropriate to go back now and retro-sign it as if I had back then.
And, you're actually quite fortunate because not all of my keepsakes (stuff I've hoarded) made the trip out to Spokane when we moved here. I have a ton of baseball and soccer stuff still in storage back in Minnesota, including my Detroit Tigers, Toronto Blue Jays, and Paintsville Hilanders duffel bags, still full of dirt, equipment, shoes, and empty bags of Red Man tobacco. Thank goodness I broke that nasty habit. If I had all that stuff in one place, this might have to be an ongoing series of blogs about Throwback Thursdays. Consider yourselves extremely fortunate that it's not all here.
There will be a lot of stuff to look at in the photo gallery, including hats, a trophy, a series of jackets, and a few other things. The last game-used Rawlings glove I ever used is in there, and one of the last two remaining Bob Wilber autographed Louisville Slugger bats (model U-1, 31.5 ounces, cupped end) is in there too, but like I said, there's a ton of stuff saved for the next rainy day (if said rainy day happens when all of my stuff is in one place).
Among the AWOL items sitting in the dark elsewhere is a side window out of Del Worsham's CSK Funny Car from the day the team won in Denver without me. A decal that says "In Memory of Del Wilber" is still on it, from that weekend after my father passed away. Del presented it to me at the next event.
I've worked in three different indoor soccer leagues for three different franchises, but you'll only be confronted with one game ball. The third team, for the record, was the Indianapolis Twisters in 1996, when I was their GM for only a matter of weeks before the owner surprised us all (and the league, and our players) by shutting down the franchise. I never had time to "liberate" a game ball. I think they were all confiscated. I do have plenty of memorabilia from the St. Louis Storm and Kansas City Attack.
The game ball I picked is from the Major Indoor Soccer League, and I chose it for a reason. The autograph of the MISL commissioner is visible, and it's Bill Kentling's signature. Just a few years later, Bill brought me over to help him in his new venture, at Heartland Park. That's the one degree of separation between soccer and racing. Kind of a neat (practically precious) collectible, I think. Dots connected.
The only three baseball hats I could find are my Bristol Tigers hat, my Detroit spring-training hat, and my Oakland A's hat. I know for a fact that Mr. Keep It All (me) would never have let go of my Paintsville Hilanders hat or my Toronto Blue Jays lid (or any of my college hats from SIUE) so they must be safely tucked away in storage.
In lieu of my Paintsville hat (or my actual game-used Paintsville jersey complete with pine-tar stains on the shoulder, which is also somewhere but not here) I've utilized the Paintsville pocket schedule I bought on eBay recently. The internet. It's a marvelous thing.
My first NHRA Winner's Circle hat (not shown because it's in storage too) was a Winston one, and it predated my time with the Worshams and CSK. My first job doing PR was with the guy in New Jersey who represented Chuck Etchells, and when we won the World Finals in Pomona that fall (1992) I got to go have team photos taken and was given a hat. Since Chuck had won previously that year (at races I didn't attend) my short history as a PR guy was already full of victories. I figured this stuff was easy! It's going to happen all the time, right?
I just remember standing in front of the old stucco building on the right side of the Pomona track, in the full darkness of the evening, slightly bemused by how important this all seemed to be in the eyes of the crew guys. Little did I know… The word is spelled "naive".
Once I joined the Worshams and I realized just how difficult and valuable these wins are, I started collecting everything and paying great attention to all the hoopla after the race. I celebrated as heartily as anyone, and for good reason. By that time, I was a key piece of the team and those wins were all incredibly special, to all of us. Our Team Wilk win a few weeks ago, in Atlanta, was among the best of the best, especially in terms of that emotional celebration of pure joy.
There were not just the jackets and trophies kept from every victory. If we landed on the cover of National Dragster I'd order a copy of it laminated onto a wooden board. I have a stack of those in storage still.
Photos of us in various Winner's Circles, whether it be the CSK or LRS teams, were routinely ordered and framed. Custom framing is not cheap, as you may know, so I'm guessing if you added up all the team photos, the "reaction" photos of us leaping in the air at the starting line, other shots related to wins, and the ND covers laminated and mounted on wood, I must have spent a grand total of well over $1,500 on framing and mounting during the last two decades. Heck, probably double that. Crazy, I know, but at the time they were all important enough to be treated with such care.
I also have all of my Bud Shootout plaques, which featured a full-size replica six-shooter. You didn't try to take those through TSA when you went home.
I've sold most of my die-cast cars, but still have a few important ones, including two renditions of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang. At one time, I'm sure I had at least 20 different Del Worsham or CSK blue-team cars, because we did a lot of special-edition bodies back then, and each one of them got produced in 24th scale. I had an entire four-shelf bookcase completely loaded with those at one time. Most hit the auction block at a garage sale.
Collectibles. And plenty of them…
So here it is. Throwback Thursday in the form of a scant few of all my collected symbolic objects. And you don't even have to be stuck on the living room sofa to be shown all these (and the many others).
Okay, back to the present day. It's time to move on to Epping, the second in this three-race series of races in which I'll be working from home for the entire trifecta. Our goal in Epping is to put the first-round loss in Englishtown behind us, and the best way to do that will be to qualify well once again and win some more rounds.
Did you know… Wilk's qualifying positions this year, so far, have been 10th, 9th, 4th, 12th, 6th, 5th, 6th, 2nd, and 8th. That's pretty good, right? And our round record is 8-8, but idiot me had a hard time figuring out how we could be 8-8 when we've already run nine races. I went back and re-counted, round by round, while scratching my dumbfounded head (emphasis on dumb). And then the lightbulb went on. You don't earn a loss at a race you win. Duh. That moment when you look around the room and think "Boy I'm glad nobody by Boofus and Buster witnessed this idiocy."
When I was doing some research for my pre-race feature story, I looked back at last year's Epping race and remembered that we lost by inches to Ron Capps in the opening round, despite the fact Wilk ran low e.t. of the entire day on that run. And, of course, we lost by an inch to Ron in Gainesville this year, we beat him for the win in Atlanta, and we lost last weekend in E-Town to him in the first round. As Tim is quoted in the story "No offense to Ron, but I think it's time we start racing other people."
So let's focus on New England (including, perhaps, the "Lobstah" and the "Chowdah") and go win us some more rounds. After all, there's more stuff to collect!!!
I think most of us have a few universes we pass through and invade throughout our lives. There's family, and neighbors, and "friends from home," not to mention old schoolmates and other orbiting planets of individuals. There's also our work colleagues, and to me that's a very special group of people and for that I am forever grateful. It's a good thing when many of the most fascinating (and enjoyable) people you know are people with whom you work.
But, even within that work group, there are various subdivisions. There are those you see at almost every race, including my PR colleagues, the NHRA marketing and management staff, Chief Starter Mark Lyle, and the Safety Safari. There are many we see on an occasional basis, like the NHRA PR staff and National Dragster reporters, who alternate races. And there are a few we see only a few times a year. For most of my career, Phil Burgess fit into that last group.
He's attending more races now, but with my hit-and-miss travel schedule we can go many months without seeing each other. Considering he's Editor in Chief of the National Dragster and NHRA.com, we correspond on a regular basis so we're very often in touch, and that's not all strictly business either because we do enjoy each other's sense of humor, but the face-to-face moments have been a little rare over the last 20-some years, and even when they occur we're "at work" and both focused on those tasks.
As I stated in last week's blog installment, you might be able to imagine my surprise and excitement when I heard from Phil a couple of weeks ago, at which time he asked me for some tips on seeing Spokane because he and his wife had picked my adopted hometown as a place to go see the Eagles in concert.
But first a quick aside, which only makes this story better. When you hear about a guy flying off to a distant city to see a concert, you immediately assume he's a huge fan who follows his favorite band wherever he can. I've flown all over the country to see Rush shows when they're not playing near me. Turns out, Phil had never seen the Eagles in concert.
He'd been a casual fan over the decades, but then he stumbled onto a documentary about the group (I know a few other folks who have seen it and raved about it) and it got him interested. He started digging into their catalog of music and realized how much of it he'd always liked, so the mission then was to combine a quick little birthday getaway with a concert. Originally, the destination was going to be Buffalo, but Phil and his wife Marie didn't want to be that far from home, so Spokane was the alternate choice.
Back to the story… Phil sent me that first note and I think I made it clear that Barbara and I were both excited about their trip and eager to do anything and everything they wanted, including guided tours and meals at our favorite restaurants. We wanted to be good hosts, but we also didn't want to intrude if what Phil and Marie were looking for included some quality time alone. I think Phil was on the other side of the same wavelength, hoping we could show them around but not wanting to intrude into what was a weekend off for me. Nonsense, I exclaimed! So, before they arrived last Thursday we had it all mapped out. They got in during the afternoon and checked into a downtown hotel that was convenient to many of the sights we were going to see, as well as the Spokane Arena where the concert was scheduled.
I drove downtown to get them, and we came back out to Liberty Lake for a quick drive-through tour of our little suburb and then a walking tour of the Wilber/Doyle mansion, complete with a social hour on the back porch, before heading up to Hay J's for dinner. As always, Hay J's delivered all aces and our favorite waiter Christian took total care of us. We ate well, we talked, we laughed, and we had a great time. Then we took them back to the hotel and kicked them out.
Funny thing about perspective. As Californians (they live in Glendora) where home prices are way higher than they are here, their perspective on just how much house you need is a little different than ours. We downsized by close to half when we sold our big house in Woodbury and got this nice little house in Liberty Lake. To us, the perception was that this place is really small and it took us a while to adapt. To Phil and Marie, the first comment after seeing the house was "This is way too big for just two people," and they're right, I guess. Plus, this place would cost a fortune in L.A. Seriously. A nice house on a golf course? We couldn't afford this house in So Cal. Not even close.
On Friday, Barbara had to work so I acted as tour guide and we had a fantastic time walking all over Riverfront Park (site of the 1974 World's Fair), Spokane Falls, the historic Davenport Hotel, and many other destinations in and around downtown Spokane. I'm sure we walked five miles, but it was all fun and it was a beautiful day to be a tourist. We even took the gondola ride that swoops down over the lower falls, and we pondered just when that ride might finally break and dump someone into the river. It's been operating since Expo '74, but fortunately it didn't happen when we were on it. Or, as a young girl exclaimed when she got off the ride as we were getting on, "We didn't die! Woo Hoo!" Well said.
I let them get back to their hotel a little early, to rest up for the concert, and the plan was for them to come out to our house on Saturday morning, because Idaho was the destination for that day and picking them up downtown was going in the wrong direction.
They were a little tired, I'm sure, after our big day walking all over Spokane followed by a fabulous concert that didn't end until after 11:00 p.m. but they got out here early and off we went. First stop, Wallace.
Wallace is a fascinating little town, on the far side of what people call the Idaho panhandle. I think that's a misnomer. Florida and Oklahoma have panhandles, because they look like panhandles. Idaho's is vertical though. I think it should be called the Idaho chimney or the Idaho stovepipe, but that's just me. Anyway, stovepipe aside, Wallace is about 80 miles from Liberty Lake, over by the Montana border, and it's a beautiful drive, so that was part of the allure.
The little western town was right in the way of I-90 when the interstate system was being built, and since it sits in a very narrow little valley the highway was basically going to have to plow right through it, and little Wallace looked to be not long for this world. The problem was, Wallace is pretty historic and it's right in the middle of a silver-mining region that is still going, so people not only wanted to save it, they needed to save it. One way to do that was to lobby to get every building in downtown listed on the National Historic Register, and they were successful in doing that. I-90, then, had to be elevated and built over the northern edge of town. While that was done, traffic was diverted through town and the last stoplight on I-90 was right in the middle of Wallace. They've left one hanging in place, although it doesn't work, just to commemorate that fact.
Our first stop was the guided tour of the Sierra Silver Mine, complete with hard hats. You don't, of course, go 3,000 feet down into a working mine, but they've done a great job of allowing folks to walk through what was the original shaft when the mine was started, and they even fire up some loud and powerful mining equipment to give you a feel for what goes on. Our guide, Wally, said "This gets pretty loud, so you might want to cover your ears" as he fired up a huge drill. Wally had clearly never heard two Funny Cars launch before. Okay, it was loud, but really…
The moment he flipped a switch and turned all the lights off? Now that was fun. Great tour, great information, and a lot of smiles. And, as Barbara said, we rocked those hard hats!
Then it was off to one very unusual museum. With all those miners living and working in and around Wallace, the ratio of men to women was heavily weighted in the male direction, so you can imagine that there was a call for "working girls" to set up shop. The mayor and police looked the other way, and the Oasis Bordello stayed open until the late '80s. No, not the 1880s, the 1980s! By all accounts, the madame was a solid citizen and benefactor in Wallace, but the FBI finally figured enough was enough and they planned a raid. The girls were tipped off, and all fled before the Feds got to town, but they left almost everything behind. It has been kept as it was, and the 1980s decor is pretty incredible.
It was fun, even though our tour guide was a young version of Bill Murray's character Carl Spackler (Assistant Greenskeeper, in "Caddyshack"). And with all honesty I can state for an absolute fact that my first trip inside a brothel was this one, and it's been closed for decades. Worth seeing, though.
Turning back to the west, we retreated to Coeur d'Alene, which has no brothel that I'm aware of, but it does have a plethora of great restaurants. We were starved by then, so we stopped in at Cricket's and had lunch, before more walking because walking is good. And Cricket's is just the restaurant's name. They are NOT on the menu (deep-fried or otherwise).
We had booked tickets on the final cruise of the day on Coeur d'Alene Lake, and at 4:30 we were onboard and on the rooftop of the cruise boat. For 90 minutes we saw the sights, enjoyed the scenery, and relaxed in a way only a boat trip can provide. Great stuff and I highly recommend this cruise if you're ever in Coeur d'Alene.
Once safely back at the dock (I was relieved it wasn't a "three-hour tour" and our ship's mate wasn't named Gilligan) we headed over to Cedars, the floating restaurant we've come to enjoy, and we collectively appreciated another spectacular meal. Life is good.
We headed back to Liberty Lake and enjoyed one last chance to visit on the porch, before Phil and Marie headed back to their downtown room. I'd say, without reservation, that we crammed about as much into three days as possible (and that's not counting the concert, which Barb and I did not attend). But, it was all good and it was really a pleasure to spend all that time with a guy I've known for so long, but never really socialized with. And Marie was a total treat, as well.
Throughout the weekend, Barb and Marie were noticing how similar Phil and I are, in terms of our humor, our interests, our passions, and the way we look at things. I don't think he and I ever realized it, frankly, but it was becoming more and more apparent as the days went on. Then, what capped it off was the moment they rang the doorbell at our house on Saturday morning. I opened the door and Phil and I just laughed. We both said "I guess you got the memo" while our wives just shook their heads and laughed. We were, basically, dressed exactly the same. You can't make this stuff up.
It was really great to spend so much time with my mentor, the guy who has taught me so much about writing and PR work (whether it was overtly or by example). When I first got into this gig, I had no PR training whatsoever. I was a decent writer, but I didn't know the first thing about press release formatting and AP style, or even working with the media, for that matter. I fumbled my way into this, never planning on being in drag racing at all, and then I found a niche doing something else I had never planned to do, as the PR rep for a couple of fantastic drivers and great teams.
Just an editor and a PR guy, hanging out by the Spokane Falls
All throughout that, I've learned from Phil and developed my individual version of this craft. There might not be a better editor to work with. And, when we were finally afforded the chance to just hang out and have fun for a few days, it was a valuable and completely enjoyable diversion. Many stories told, many names from the past resurrected, and a million laughs.
Gosh, I hope Phil and Marie enjoyed it as much as Barbara and I did. I think the most interesting factoid I learned throughout the weekend was that this trip marked the first time Phil and Marie had ever gone on a vacation alone. Amazing, but thinking about how hard and diligently Phil works and the fact they've raised kids, I guess I can see how that's possible. It was a pleasure to be a part of it.
And now… Englishtown awaits. Well, it awaits the NHRA Mello Yello tour, but for the first time since I've joined this team LRS is not going to host hospitality at Raceway Park so yours truly is not traveling. Like many of you, I'll be following along at home.
Go get 'em boys! And since I was fortunate enough to be in Atlanta when we finally won, you're all free to go ahead and win this one without me.
Atlanta was special, with us getting our first win in nearly four years. It was emotional, cathartic, rewarding, and exciting. Topeka was special, as well, but in a sort of "I can't believe what my eyes are seeing" rocket-ship sort of way. It was impossible, in many ways, but it happened right in front of us, especially in our Funny Car class. "There's another one" was a common comment, after any one of what seemed like a thousand three-second runs over the course of three days. For the record, I think it was actually a total of 15 three-second runs made over three days, and that's other-worldly.
It's probably fitting, though, because Heartland Park was the venue that gave us the first four-second pass and the first 300 mph pass in a Funny Car, and they happened on the same weekend back in 1993. As you surely know (and don't call me Shirley) Chuck Etchells was the first in the fours, and Jim Epler clocked in over 300, on a weekend where the cars were running into a stiff headwind out of the south. I remember. I was there.
This time, the threes were being presented like free cups of water being handed to marathon runners. Cruz Pedregon started it, in Q1, with a 3.979 that only got the ball rolling later that night. In Q2, Alexis DeJoria, Chad Head, and Jack Beckman added their names to the Topeka 3-Second list. Wilk dropped a cylinder early and had to lift, so we sat 11th and we were looking up at a preliminary Top 12 ladder that already had four threes and eight 4.0s (with our 4.061 only being better than Matt Hagan's 4.064 in 12th.)
On Saturday, it was basically nuts. And, it all happened in just one session, since the low clouds that had threatened us for a day and a half finally manifested themselves as rain and Q4 was washed away. Wilk kicked it off.
The run looked good to us, back at the starting line, and as I held the camera to my eye I was internally thinking "keep going, keep going" and then it sashayed a little at the top end and I actually had time to think "Oh great, that's going to cost us" before I heard the guys screaming behind me. 3.971 at 322.58 mph. Right there on the scoreboard. Amazing. And yes, the speed was a career-best, as well.
Wilk's all-time best going into this weekend was 4.013, set at Bristol last year. To get into the threes he needed a hundredth and a half. Why bother? He just jumped right over the 4.0s, the 3.99s, and the 3.98s to put what was almost a 3.96 on the board. Crazy.
And yes, as I typed that paragraph I had to go back and edit to put 3s at the beginning of a lot of those numbers. Just like I had to re-issue my Saturday night update because my fingers haven't yet learned how to type an e.t. that starts with a three. Made the same mistake again, in my Post-Event Report, but by then I was tired of the corrections so I just left it there as a reminder to me to pay better attention. Big dummy.
Before Q3 was over, Wilk had been joined by Ron Capps, John Force, and Jack Beckman to post threes in that session, and the ladder looked surreal, with seven (count 'em, seven!) drivers in the threes and five more in the 4.0s. Just for posterity, I feel the urge to write it all down. The top seven Funny Car drivers in the Topeka field were: 1. Chad Head (3.967) 2. Tim Wilkerson (3.971) 3. Cruz Pedregon (3.979). 4. Ron Capps (3.989) 5. John Force (3.990) 6. Jack Beckman (3.991) 7. Alexis DeJoria (3.994)
Matt Hagan was in the No. 8 spot with a 4.000 that must've seemed downright slow.
When we were getting ready for Q3, and we looked at the qualifying order at the time, our 4.061 in 11th was well behind Ron Capps' 4.038 in 10th, and our comments in the pit were along the lines of "We're going to go out there and make a fantastic lap, like a 4.039, and not even move out of 11th." Well… We made a fantastic lap, and it moved us all the way up to second, behind only Chad Head's stunning 3.967. Pretty amazing.
And here's what's also amazing. The racing surface had not been touched by a tire since last fall. The Heartland Park infrastructure, from the grandstands, to the bathrooms, to the concession stands, to the Media Center, had been locked up tight with the lights off. Heck, the city of Topeka sent the fire department out just to turn on the hydrants. And yet, through amazing hard work, dedication, and diligence, everything was just fine and the track surface was far more than that.
We always talk about how the Safety Safari is the best in the world at what they do, and all you have to look at is the qualifying sheets and eliminations ladders to see the proof of that. They took the greenest possible track and gave us Earth-shattering records. I'm actually shaking my head as I type this, because it's hard to believe.
We survived the overnight deluge and then had to wait through the lightest little drizzle you've ever seen (we couldn't race, but you could stand there and barely get wet) on Sunday, but again the Safety Safari got the job done time after time and we got the entire race in. Those men and women deserve a standing ovation.
When we did get out there (and believe me, just about everyone was on laptops or smartphones checking alternate flights and hotels if we had to stay over) the goosebumps continued. Wilk waited a long time to run his first three, but he didn't wait long to run his second. In round one, the LRS car ran 3.984 to beat Tony Pedregon, and that was good for lane choice over Del Worsham, who had run 3.988. Fast Jack ran 3.984 to join us.
We ran great against Del, but our 4.005 (which would've reset Wilk's career-best had we not run the pair of threes) came up just short of Del's 3.984, and yes that means there were three 3.984s in the first two rounds. Threes everywhere! Jack, who was on a three-second roll, added in a 3.972 for good measure
John Force added a 3.997 in the semis, and then guess what Jack ran in the final… Go ahead, guess. Yep, 3.984, the fourth one on the day, and Jack had two of them. He also won the race, and I'd say by any possible measure he absolutely deserved to.
So is this the new normal? Well, threes are certainly less rare than they've been since Hagan ran the first one, and Wilk's run in round one was the 50th three ever posted, but this was a perfect storm of conditions, both on the track and in the air. On Memorial Day weekend in Topeka, it can easily be in the high 80s with stout humidity, where 4.10s still look great and can win you the race, but we had complete cloud cover and cool "Where's my jacket?" temps on one of the smoothest and fastest tracks on the planet. And it was a three-fest.
Now, as the summer heats up, the three might go back into that rare almost-extinct zone again until the fall. We'll see, and we'll understand that the weather will have everything to do with it, but I don't think we'll see the likes of Topeka 2015 for quite some time.
It was truly something special, and here's hoping we get to do it again at Heartland Park next year, and every year.
As for me, I stayed until the final round, late in the day, and then drove over to the Hilton right by the Kansas City airport and spent the night there. In the morning, it was off to said airport and up to MSP, so that I could spend one short night in Woodbury. Up early on Tuesday morning, I caught the early flight to Spokane and here I am. Today, the Washington state high-school golf tournaments begin, and we have the girls Class 2A tourney going on right in our backyard, at MeadowWood Golf Club. Tournaments are fun, even from inside the house, because it's the only time we see spectators following the golfers. It's mostly families and boyfriends, but I've already seen a few photographers as well.
And, looking ahead, this weekend is going to be another special occasion. As it turns out, my esteemed mentor and editor, Phil Burgess, is a big fan of the Eagles (the band, not the birds, but I suspect he's a fan of the majestic birds as well, right?) He was looking at their tour schedule for this summer and wanted to turn a concert into a short vacation with his wife Marie, and he noticed that they're playing here in Spokane on Friday night. Much merriment is planned.
They fly in on Thursday afternoon, and once they get checked in at their downtown hotel I'll drive over and pick them up, for a quick tour of the Wilber/Doyle mansion before dinner is served at our favorite bistro, Hay J's, right here in Liberty Lake. On Friday, Barbara has to work at least part of the day, but I'll head back downtown to escort them on a walking tour of the city, including Riverfront Park (the site of the 1974 World's Fair), Spokane Falls, and some historic old buildings. Then, we'll get in my car and drive around to see some more sights like the South Hill, Cliff Drive, Manito Park, and maybe even Spokane County Raceway, just to tie in the drag racing angle (I wonder if that would make this tax deductible?). Then I'll get them back to their hotel with time to spare before they walk over to the Spokane Arena for the show. It would be utterly appropriate if an actual Bald Eagle would fly overhead during that walk.
Saturday is going to a big BIG day. We'll start early and head for Wallace, Idaho. I've mentioned Wallace on here before, but we've not yet been there and this is a great excuse to do so. It's an old silver-mining town (and the mine is still active) but mostly it's just a charming quirky historic town over by the Montana border, about an hour from here. Every building in downtown Wallace is on the National Historic Register, and because of that they and to elevate I-90 and have it go over the town, instead of through it.
There's museum in Wallace that was an actual working bordello right up until the late 1980s, when the Feds came to town to shut it down. The working girls had only minutes to flee and the museum has kept the place just as it was when that happened. Should be interesting. And, we plan to take the tour of the silver mine as well, before we drive back over to Coeur d'Alene for the rest of the day.
If we have time, we'll take the 90-minute boat tour, because that's a great way to see Coeur d'Alene and the lake, and then we're planning dinner at Cedars, the floating restaurant I took Barb to for her birthday. Should be every bit of a big day.
Getting it done in Topeka
And as far as Phil and I can recall, it will be the first time we've ever socialized outside of a drag racing setting. I've only known him for about 23 years, so I guess it's about time.
What a whirlwind couple of weeks this has been. I stayed out on the road for two solid weeks, and during that time my itinerary looked like this: Spokane - Minneapolis - Woodbury - Greenville - Lavonia - Commerce - Greenville - Minneapolis - Woodbury - Kansas City - Topeka - Kansas City - Minneapolis - Woodbury - Minneapolis - Spokane. No wonder I'm tired.
During that stretch I watched us win five consecutive eliminations rounds and one race. We didn't just dip a toe into the three-second pool, we jumped in with the biggest cannonball you could imagine. And we've finally begun to make people take notice that Wilk is not just a "hot weather tuner" when it comes to winning and going fast.
As Brad Littlefield wrote in his recent "Tuesday Morning Crew Chief" column at NationalDragster.net: "Wilkerson's performance was akin to an accomplished knuckleballer who started throwing 100-mph fastballs midway through his pitching career." Couldn't have said it better myself.
Threes for everyone!
First of all, I suspect I don't have to inform you that we won the race on Sunday, at Atlanta Dragway. I'm thinking that word probably leaked out and has, by now, made the rounds. As much as I wanted to jump right on this blog as soon as the race was over, that wasn't really possible because winning does a lot of things for you and they're all good, but for a PR rep it adds a whole new layer of stuff that keeps you hopping like crazy. And it's a great kind of crazy.
I had plenty to do at the track, plenty to do as soon as all the Winner's Circle festivities and media interviews were over, then I had to drive up to a hotel in Greenville on Sunday night (missing out on dinner with the team, but the work came first for me). I made it there just in time to finish up the last few interview requests, answer the most critical of the thousand or so emails I received (still wading through all of those wonderful notes, and they keep coming) and then I had time to flip the TV on to watch the race itself, on ESPN2. It didn't start until 9:00 pm, and as I began to watch and unwind I felt one very obvious thing: I was exhausted.
Four rounds of racing, all of the stress that comes with each one (especially the first one and the last one) and then all the stuff that happens afterward is like a huge injection of caffeine, all day long, and when it starts to wind down you feel like you could close your eyes and go right to sleep, but I wanted to make it to the end of the race show just to make sure it all really happened. It was closing in on midnight and I was actually watching the last few minutes with one eye, because I was the true definition of "half asleep" but I perked up when the Funny Car final came on and, sure enough, that Wilkerson cat won the race. It was the second time that day I saw it and lived it. Now, I have the NHRA YouTube video of it, so I can watch it over and over again. And, I have. Many times.
I'll just begin the story by mentioning a message I've been delivering through our PR platforms for many weeks. Despite the fact we came into that race in 12th place, we have a very good race car and we've been running very well. I think some people who only look at the standings were probably overlooking us a little, but this time around we made our point. They won't overlook us now.
On Friday, as you probably know, our first qualifying run was a bit of a debacle. The timing system was working just fine all day, until our pair came to the line and it failed, but only on one side of the track. Yep, our side. Imagine that. So, what was actually something between a 4.08 and a 4.10, showed up on the board as a 4.52, but the one person on our team who took that the best was Wilk. He knew what it ran, and he knew what it could run in Q2 on Friday night, so he calmed the guys down and got them back to work. And we ran a 4.048 to jump up to sixth place on the ladder.
On Saturday, we made two more great laps in much hotter and trickier conditions, and we proved we could get down both lanes. In all, we made four very good qualifying laps, but only three of them had accurate times associated with them. But then, just like in Houston, we qualified great but the ladder lined us up against another great team and driver. This time it was my old boss Del Worsham.
Every round out here is tough now, but somehow it just seemed right up our alley to qualify fifth and sixth at the last two races but then have to run Courtney Force and Del in the first round. Sorta like running fantastic against Ron Capps in Gainesville but losing by one 10,000th of a second. Some days you're the windshield and some days you're the bug.
I was pretty nervous going up against Del, because you just knew they'd get that yellow car sorted out and make a great lap, and after seeing that scenario up close in Houston, against Courtney, I would not have been surprised to see us lose by an inch again. I did tell Barbara, though, that "If we get by Del in round one, I think we're going to win this race."
Sunday morning seemed to last forever. I kept busy with social media and making runs back and forth from the Media Center to the pit, and finally (mercifully) the race began. We were sixth pair in round one, and by then we'd seen a whole lot of tire smoke and backpedaling, as everyone seemed to be having a hard time figuring out just what Atlanta Dragway was going to let us have.
As we pulled forward, the nerves began to mount. Like I said, I knew in my heart that Del was going to run great, so I figured it would take a flawless effort for us to win. I also figured that, if it was close, the way the breaks have been going lately it would really hurt to see us lose another one by an inch. It turned out I was right about the Del part, because he put a strong 4.106 on the board, but I didn't have to worry about the breaks, because Wilk basically stunned everyone in the house. Our 4.035 was a sledgehammer. It not only moved us on to the second round, it got the attention of every other team on the ladder, and it got us lane choice.
I think the 4.03 was really the crucial piece of how we won this race. Every team we faced on the day knew they'd have to push it to beat us, and they knew Wilk had not just a handle on things, but a firm grip on everything. And we got rolling… 4.085 against Fast Jack in round two, then that guy named Force in the semifinal where we ran a 4.163 at the hottest part of the day to take that win. When you're in the semifinal, it's kind of like a baby version of the final round, because the difference between losing there and getting the win is just utterly enormous. We had Ron Capps in the final, and just to make all of our nerves dance a little more, both teams had to really hustle to get up there in time. It was a thrash, but we made it and we were ready.
So, we hadn't won a race in nearly four years. We hadn't been to a final in nearly a year. A lot of our guys had never been to a final. And, the one stat that seemed to be impossible, Richard Hartman had never been a part of a win at an NHRA national event in his entire career. Not once.
I tried to stay calm, but frankly it was really difficult to inhale as the car began to stage. I know our guys wanted it so badly, and I wanted it just as much as they did. To work so hard, for so long, and not get the chance to feel that tsunami of wild emotions come over you when your car trips the win lights, well… It's hard to fathom.
I held the camera to my eye as they staged, and frankly it was bizarre. I saw Capps smoke the tires hard around the 330 mark, and I could hear our guys yelling and screaming right behind me, but my job is to keep that camera rolling. It was all I could do to stay with it and keep it pointed in something approximating the right direction. And then the LRS car started to haze the tires a little, and when you're brain is working at hyper-drive that much, it all seems to be happening in slow motion. Tim kept his foot down, though, and just as the wave of fear about Capps coming from behind to overtake us began to percolate, the win lights came on in our lane.
And… We. Went. Nuts. If you've seen the celebration I think you'd agree that it was truly emotional for everyone, but it was better than that. It was pure unbridled joy. The pressure is ratcheted up so high, the stakes are so enormous, and when it happens it's instantaneous happiness. When it happens for the first time in four years, it's off the chart.
It was all blur for a while after that, but the best part for me was just watching the guys. It had been a long time, but the truth is I've done this many times. To watch this young team celebrate, and hug each other, and just never stop smiling, was priceless. Absolutely priceless. Winning made me happy, but what made me the happiest was seeing this hard-working team finally get the payoff. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
Oh, and guess what? No need to mount that huge social-media "get out the vote" campaign for the Traxxas Shootout this year. We're in it already, thanks to that win. But I still can't thank you all enough for what you've done for us the last two years. Believe me, people all throughout this sport know full well how impressive it was for us to get Wilk in the Shootout via those votes. Wilk's Warriors absolutely rule!
Friday afternoon, about to embark on one totally special weekend
And Richard Hartman won a race. What's more brilliant than that?
Tim was effusive with his praise for all the guys, but he took pains to make sure he talked to the media about Richard, and what he's meant to this team. After all the photos were taken, Tim handed Richard the Wally. Now that's brilliant.
Dan Wilkerson was there, Richard's wife Tina and two of their three girls were there, Jim and Nancy Butler were there, Eric Buttermore was there, all of the Summit Racing Equipment guys were there, and I was there. I'm sure glad we did hospitality at Atlanta, because I would've hated to have missed that.
For the next 24 hours, at least, my phone never stopped blowing up. My email In-Box was overflowing, and both my Facebook and Twitter pages were exploding. And then, as a PR guy, I got the secondary joy of being the point person for a team and driver everyone wanted to talk to. We stacked up the interviews as best we could, and had Tim calling a wide variety of shows and reporters. All good. No, not all good. All GREAT! It's great to feel that rush of busy PR activity again. It seemed like I didn't have enough hours in the day to do all of that and get ready for Topeka, but here we are and the interviews are probably over for now. My Topeka pre-race feature story is out, and this blog is about to be done.
And I can still watch the YouTube video. Over and over and over. For the record, if you haven't seen it but want to, just go here:
That one was really special. I'm honored to have been a part of it. Way to go Tim, and way to go guys! One helluva team.