Features

A Thanksgiving break…Tuesday, December 02, 2014

I'm going to go out on a not-very-shaky limb here and state that I believe this little end-of-season Thanksgiving hiatus might be one of the longer spans of time I've ever gone without writing a blog installment. It's been one day short of two weeks since I wrapped up the season with my post-Pomona blog, and that's eons in my blog-writing world. Also, I may have just set a new take-it-to-the-top standard for "Most Hyphens In An Opening Paragraph". I wonder what I win for that…

Of course, the downside to having the season end is the fact there's no more racing to write about, but we've somehow plodded our way through nine previous winters with this blog, writing in-depth examinations of all things nonsense, so I suspect I can do it again. Whether it's interesting or not is a completely different question, but I've discovered I'm pretty good at stringing together inane threads of irrelevant craziness, so here we go. If your real desire is to hear about new crankshafts and blowers, I got nothin' for ya.

After Pomona, I needed a few days just to shift into post-season mode and start to wrap things up in that regard. Then, before I knew it, it was Thanksgiving week and we had a house-full of visitors fly in for the holiday. Barbara's sister Kitty came in on Tuesday, and after I picked her up from the airport we drove straight to the South Hill area of Spokane to make an epic shopping stop at Huckleberry's, an organic and natural grocery and bistro, where we stocked up on everything she would need to create her Turkey Day feast. It was mind boggling.

We spent all day Wednesday prepping and cooking, and by "We" I mean Kitty and Barb. I was the sous chef for this extravaganza, doing a lot of slicing and chopping, with a little dicing thrown in for flair. Everything was made from scratch, so the process was fairly intense and it went right on into Thanksgiving Day.

On Thursday itself, while Kitty and Barbara continued to get after it like two Iron Chefs in "Kitchen Stadium" I headed back to the airport to pick up Kitty's son Todd and his wife Angie, who also flew in from Orlando but couldn't get away from work until a dawn flight, which came even earlier for them because they only got about two hours of sleep on Wednesday night. With three guests in the house, we had one spare bed but had to shuffle chairs around so that we could all sit at the dining-room table at the same time. We also had to move an extra recliner into the theater room, and we watched a movie each night. Well, we started to watch a movie each night but our Floridian visitors never did actually make it to the end of any of the flicks before sleep deprivation and three time zones caught up to them. They tried valiantly, but to no avail.

Boofus and Buster were pretty calm throughout the whole thing, although they mostly just observed everything and everyone from various doorways and corners. Angie is clearly a cat whisperer, though, and both boyz took to her quickly. Heck, within a couple of hours Boofie was rubbing up against her leg and asking to be picked up.

It was all great, and it was particularly wonderful to have such fun family with us. Todd, Angie, and Kitty came to the Gainesville race for a day this year, but I didn't have the chance to do much more than have a chat with Angie and show her around a little. This was my first time to really get to know her, and it was a fabulous few days. She just got certified as an anesthesiology nurse, and is working at a major Orlando hospital, while Todd just got his real-estate license, so both of them are taking off on new career courses and it's all very exciting in the Norwood home. Speaking of that, the two of them also are just now in the process of moving into a new house in Orlando, so there's not much calm in their world these days.

In addition to feasting on Kitty's masterpieces, we also had a plan to do as many fun things in and around Spokane as we could fit in, and we hoped for decent weather to make that happen. Friday was pretty good in that regard, at least for a while. We drove over to the northwest side of Spokane, to Riverside State Park, where there's some spectacular scenery and a gigantic swinging bridge over the Spokane River. We crossed over said bridge, and hiked all around the park to check out a variety of trails and vistas, and much fun was had by all.

Plus, I was wearing one of my Minnesota Twins jackets and right after we parked another couple got out of their car and the husband said "Win Twins!". Turned out they had just arrived in Spokane to visit their daughter, and they only live about 15 miles from Woodbury. Craziness.

The weather was getting a little worse as we left the park, with some low clouds, fog, drizzle and a few renegade snow flakes thrown in for best effect. Our next stop was the South Hill, which is our favorite part of Spokane and the place where we almost closed on a condo before we found this home out in Liberty Lake. Much of the South Hill reminds me of sections of St. Louis, so I've felt a connection there since our first trip out here when Barb was considering the job.

We toured around some cool neighborhoods, took everyone to Manito Park, and finally found our way back to Huckleberry's for a late lunch. By then, it was about to get dark and the weather was getting a little more miserable, so our plan to walk around the riverfront and see all the sights there (Spokane River Falls and a lot of the stuff left over from Expo '74) had to be adjusted.

Instead, we went to the historic and beautiful Davenport Hotel hoping to see their annual charity Christmas tree display on the mezzanine, only to find out it wasn't yet in place. Foiled! But, the Davenport has so many impressive things to see we still had a great time and it's not hard to stand in any part of the main hotel lobby and feel like it's 1915.

The Davenport is historic, period, but it's also part of my personal history in yet another coincidental way. I've stayed there twice, with the more recent visit being a little more than three years ago when Itron put us up there during a recruiting trip. It was fabulous, and now that's it's been so dramatically and perfectly renovated and brought back to all its glory, it doesn't bear much resemblance to the dark and dingy place I "stayed in" back in 1974, if by "stayed in" you really mean "lived in". Back then, my dad was the manager of the Spokane Indians (the Triple-A affiliate of the Texas Rangers) and I spent much of the summer out here, after my senior year in high school, running around the ballpark in an Indians uniform, shagging fly balls, taking batting practice, and even taking infield with the team prior to every game, at home and on the road. It was a heck of a summer, but the Davenport experience wasn't quite as luxurious back then. It's spectacular now.

It was also the summer of Expo '74, and the thing about the World's Fair that fascinated my dad the most was the fact they'd send water tanker trucks through downtown late every night, to clean off the streets and the sidewalks so that every visitor to the Fair had a perfect experience. The funny little things you never forget… I don't know half my internet passwords, but I remember the nightly street washing during the summer of Expo '74.

Okay back to our Thanksgiving festivities. After touring the Davenport, we decided to make a dash for the riverfront anyway, but as we got closer it started to rain and that was the only excuse we needed to head indoors again, to ride the historic Loof Carousel, a gigantic machine with classic horses. It was built in 1909, but it still runs like a well-oiled top, to this day. And even at our age, it's a good adventure to spin around, up and down, and try to catch the gold ring. After our ride, it was actually raining sideways and about 38 degrees, so the walk back to the Davenport parking garage was more of a sprint. A cold and miserable sprint, at that. All in all, a great day.

Saturday's plan was to possibly visit Wallace, Idaho. It's an amazing little silver-mining town about 85 miles from here, where every single building in the little downtown district is on the National Historic Registry, but you have to go over a couple of high passes to get there and the weather in that part of the state was getting pretty bad, so we shifted our sights to something a little closer to home and went to spend the day in Coeur d'Alene. And, oh my, what a long day it was…

We actually went past Coeur d'Alene at the start, to drive around to the south side of the lake where migrating Bald Eagles can be spotted pretty easily this time of year. It was snowy at the time, and getting worse by the minute, but just as we were about to admit Eagle-watching defeat, we spotted five at one time, soaring majestically above us. We even saw one swoop down to the water's surface and then take his lunch back up into a large tree, where we could see his white head sticking out through the branches as he enjoyed his fish entree. Box checked.

Then we parked the car in downtown Coeur d'Alene and spent the next five or six hours eating, walking around, shopping, and looking at all that wonderful town has to offer, before we headed out on the docks by the Coeur d'Alene Resort for a brisk sunset. It was chilly for Barb and me, but the three Floridians (especially Angie, who really never gets to see snow or feel a 20 mph breeze when it's already 25 degrees outside) found it "refreshing" if you know what I mean. To warm up, we headed inside the resort and had a glass of wine while we watched the incredible holiday lighting display come to life.

Once back in Liberty Lake, we headed over to Hay J's Bistro, our fave restaurant here, for a wonderful dinner. Another epic day, and we mutually agreed that we're all good at a lot of things, but collectively we are all great at eating. Some natural talents can't be coached.

Kitty had a morning flight back to Orlando on Sunday, so we all dropped her off at GEG and then the four of us decided to make the trek up to Mount Spokane, the tallest peak in this part of the state. There's a State Park up there, and a ski resort, but the snow hasn't been coming down up there much this fall, so the resort has not yet opened. Still, Barb and I had never gone up there before, so this was the perfect reason to do so, and there was enough snow on the sides of the road for Angie to get her first real introduction to the fluffy white stuff. It's a beautiful 45-mile drive, and it was a terrific experience to just get up there for once. We can see Mount Spokane from just about anywhere in Liberty Lake, and on winter's nights you can even see the lights on the ski runs, but we'd never even thought about going up there. Way fun, and really pretty.

Todd and Angie left on Monday, and Barb was actually on the same flight to MSP with them, since she needed to fly to New York and all three of them were making connections there. In Minneapolis, she got to walk them to their gate before she got on her plane to NYC, and that officially ended our family holiday. They granted me an exemption from having to drive out to GEG yet again, and at 6:00 a.m. the cab pulled into our driveway and I got to share one last hug and a goodbye with everyone. Boofus and Buster got up with us, but as soon as the door closed behind the travelers they went directly back to bed. Buster got up at 4:00 in the afternoon, and Boofie only beat him by an hour or so. I'm not kidding. I think they enjoyed having guest humans in the house, but they were completely exhausted. I think we all were, actually. We crammed a lot into just a few days, and we pretty much destroyed all the leftovers before it ended. My Thanksgiving grade: A+


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The Wilber/Doyle/Norwood group on the swinging bridge.
 
And now we're only a couple of weeks from seeing more family, when Barb and I fly off to Hawaii for a week, before Christmas. We'll do some island hopping, and our first plan is to see our dear friends Francine and Mike, in Honolulu. Who are Francine and Mike? Francine is the widow of Adam Vincent, and if you've been around this blog long enough you know what a special man he was. Mike is their son, and I'm really looking forward to seeing them again. Adam was a special guy.

After our Oahu stay, we'll spend a couple of days on Maui, and then it will be time to spend three great days on Kauai with my sister Mary and her husband Lonnie. They are officially Hawaiians now, at least in my book. When you sell or give away just about everything and head off to the islands with only a couple of suitcases, you're living a dream most people can't even fathom. Can't wait to see them and enjoy everything their island home has to offer.

So there you have it. This winter's first blog installment of rambling whatever, as we begin the off-season for real. I'm thankful I had some stories to tell, about family, Thanksgiving, and a nice warm home full of laughter and spectacular food. It's all good.

Wilber, out!

Another season complete…Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Man oh man, time doesn't just fly it soars at the upper reaches of the atmosphere and it streaks by at supersonic velocity. How can another season be completely over? Sheesh.

I guess, considering I have yet to master any sort of time travel or time manipulation, I'll just have to replay the Pomona weekend here and look ahead to an "off-season" that is anything but "off". Especially considering there's much to do in terms of wrapping up the PR work and getting going on 2015. And, utilizing my limited math skills, it looks like we'll be back in Pomona is something like 85 days, which is about 12 weeks.

Speaking of limited math skills, though, maybe that's the ticket for slowing down the passage of time. If I took eight hours of high school algebra each day, time would seem like it's standing still. Worth thinking about. Not worth doing, but worth thinking about.

Okay, so Pomona. I knew, going in, that I wasn't going to get there in time for the Summit Bracket Championships dinner, but I didn't know that my connecting flight in Salt Lake would be 90 minutes late, which got me into John Wayne Airport at around 6:30 p.m. on Thursday. Factor in waiting for my bag, getting my rental car, and pulling out of the airport and it was about 7:00ish. If you've ever been to Orange County and driven from John Wayne up to Pomona, you might be able to imagine the scene as I crawled through traffic to take the 55 to the 5 to the 57. That was So Cal speak right there. "The 55". You have to speak that way in So Cal, or you can be pulled over on "The 5" and given a citation. It's true. Don't risk it.

Anyway, the trip from the airport to about Angels' Stadium was 45 minutes in a sea of bright red tail lights. That's to go maybe what, ten miles? The rest of the ride up to Pomona was free and clear, except at the constant bottle neck where the 57 merges for a bit with the 60.

I am now officially ending my SoCal freeway speak. Here in Spokane we call it I-90.

I was ravenously hungry by the time I got to my room, so the first thing I did was hit up room service for a chicken Caesar, my current go-to salad at home or on the road. Made myself one last night, actually, and blackened the chicken to take it to the next level. Like many hotels, the Sheraton adds an 18% tip to the bill for you, because they're really nice like that. The 18 percent tip on a Caesar salad was $2.33, and as I always tell the person delivering my tray "No one should ever bring me food for $2.33" and then I handed him a five. I mean really… It's just not that hard to tip well, especially when you're dining alone and the tab is so small.

The weather was terrific all weekend, and the racing was as well. As the days went by, and the championships either got decided (yes, Tony Schumacher showed up, which clinched it for him) it really got more and more thrilling and interesting. I know there are still some people who don't like the Countdown, but I guess there are also people who don't like the playoffs in other sports, or kittens, or apple pie, or even 78-degree sunny days in Pomona when the thrill of "final day" championships made the air electric.

It really was just that. Each one of those laps just ramped up the pressure, and I think the Pro Stock battle was epic. I like Jason Line a lot, and that team is incredible, but the story was clearly Erica Enders-Stevens and what drama it was. I was in the Media Center for each round, watching with my PR colleagues even though Team Wilk had been eliminated in round two and my work was done. It was absolutely a thrill to watch, and a thrill to be there with all those talented PR people, many of whom absolutely still had horses in various races right to the end. I had goosebumps when that Pro Stock final was happening.

Everyone had simply thought that if John Force didn't pick up two rounds on Matt Hagan he would not earn his 17th championship. But then we started seeing all those low 4.0s, even on race day, and as the rounds ticked by I watched the JFR and DSR folks huddling in the front row of the Media Center (because where else would they sit?) when it became apparent that John could still win the big trophy if he beat Matt in the final and also set a new national record. To do that, he'd have to "back it up" with another run within one percent of the record, so the PR people were calculating that as John ran his semifinal round. He needed something along the lines of a 4.004 to have the back-up in hand prior to the final. He did win that round, but he ran 4.044, which meant the magic was over for the year.

To have it all come down to the final weekend, and in one case the final round, was pretty special.

And, I'm about to sound like a broken record again (someone somewhere just wondered what a broken record is) but once again the Friday crowd was really good, the Saturday crowd was really big, and the Sunday crowd was truly packed and enormous. I know a lot of longtime Pomona experts who specifically stated that we raced on Sunday in front of one the largest crowds ever for this race. When I started in this business, Pomona was always packed but the old temporary grandstands were quite a bit smaller than the permanent ones we have now. This was a great weekend, with great crowds. And man oh man, they stayed right to the end. Drama like what we had will help you keep butts in seats all day.

And did you know… The old temporary grandstands that had to be completely erected for each Pomona race, were also the grandstands used to line the streets in Pasadena for the Rose Parade. True fact, as far as I know, and corroborated by various NHRA types who told me that fact. They wouldn't lie to me, would they?

I waited until the final run was made and the fireworks were blowing up the darkened sky, and then I fired off my Post-Event Report to my email distribution list. I circulated through the Media Center and said as many goodbyes as possible, then headed back to the pit to hang with my team for a while, chatting with our guys, many of our friends, and a bunch of people from other teams. There were post-race parties set for a number of pit areas, but after a decade of throwing and participating in the most epic post-Pomona parties ever, in the Worsham pit, I figure I've not only been there and done that, but I'll never be able to replicate it. So, there's that, plus the fact I'm old, and I headed back to the hotel. And Mega-Rita no longer makes appearances at Pomona. Those were the craziest of the crazy parties.

Monday morning at the hotel, when you're staying in a place that's packed with racers, is really surreal. For four days, it's felt like home and you're surrounded by people you know. Then you get up on Monday morning and head to the lobby, only to find it full of business people who are not even vaguely familiar. Like, who ARE these people in OUR hotel? It's weird.

And on Monday after Pomona, it's a slightly different feeling of tiredness. I'm tired after every race, but it's a little different feeling after the last race. And it was as if my mind and body weren't ready to shut it off yet. I woke up at 5:30, just like I do every day during each race, because my brain features a built-in internal alarm clock that will start waking me up at 30-minute intervals starting about 90 minutes before I plan to get up. Even if I have my iPhone alarm set for a stupidly early morning, like in Gainesville, I will always wake up about an hour early, doze back off, and then wake up two minutes before it goes off. I'm odd like that.

What that means is that I had planned to recharge by sleeping in, but by 8:00 I was going nuts so I finished packing, spent about an hour online doing follow-ups and replying to a million emails, and then by 10:00 I was checked out of the hotel and in my rental car. At that precise moment, I knew I had to hurry because I only had six and a half hours left until my flight left! I tried to remember why on Earth I booked a 4:30 flight out of John Wayne, but then I remembered that the other option that was open was something around 7:00 a.m. Easy decision to make, at the time. Why I chose to fly into John Wayne instead of Ontario is a question I can't answer. I have no idea. It was the end of another season and my brain wasn't functioning at 100 percent.

Maybe it was the subconscious realization that I would have a lot of time to kill, and therefore with John Wayne being near that big body of water we lovingly refer to as the "Pacific Ocean" I could go there for a bit. So I did.

I drove down to San Clemente, then up through Dana Point (where I lived for a year back in 1990) and then on up the beautiful Pacific Coast Highway, which even non-Californians call "The PCH" to Laguna Beach, where I parked for a bit to take some photos and smell the sea breeze. I also had lunch. It was, believe it or not, something other than a chicken Caesar. Wacky, I know.

After that I drove on up to Newport Beach, cruised around Orange County in general, and finally turned the car in at 2:00 for my 4:30 flight. I had run out of things to do. There's no Sky Club at SNA, but there were plenty of empty gates so I just went to one of those and fired up the laptop for 90 minutes, then went to my gate so I could elbow all the other passengers out of the way like an NBA power-forward, just to be the first person to board. That little old lady with the walker had no chance… I'm kidding, she got to pre-board.

Then, to add to my lengthy day, I had a two and a half hour layover in Salt Lake. A) Thank goodness for the Sky Club there. B) Thank even more goodness for the upgrades Delta has been making in terms of food in the club. For the last 20 years, whether it was the Northwest World Club or the Delta Sky Club, your food options generally consisted of individually wrapped cheese squares, nuts, celery, and Greek olives (which are really hard to spear with those little toothpicks). Bagels too, but only in the morning.

Now, we have mixed green salads with three choices of dressing, two soups, various crackers and chips to dip in various cheeses or, and wait for this…. Tapenade! I love olives, and tapenade is my absolute favorite side-dish or appetizer. Bam! The Greek olives are still hard to spear with those funky toothpicks, but the new-look version of Sky Club grub is a huge step up. Plus, I didn't have to go sit at an SLC restaurant and pay $15 for dinner. All good.


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My view from "the office," otherwise known as the Media Center.
 
Oh, I posted this on Facebook but it's worth repeating here. At the SLC Sky Club, we were graced by the presence of the single most important man in the world. He certainly felt that way about himself. He was wearing an enormous suit, reminiscent of the one David Byrne of The Talking Heads wore in that one video, although Mr. Important's suit was grey, not white. He was on his phone, with his earbud plugged in while he held the cord up to his mouth, and he graciously made it a point to walk around every room and corner of the Sky Club, so we could all hear the marvelous and important things he was saying, in a voice the peeled paint. Round and round he went, adding joy and comfort to hundreds of weary travelers, with pleasant comments like "You have to show this to our European customers. Trust me, I know this. Do I lie? No, I don't lie. I know this. They will love it." All of this at a volume that might very well have been loud enough to reach the person on the other end without the use of a phone at all. I felt honored to be in his regal presence. So much so, I was humbled by him and didn't feel worthy to be in the same room, so I went to the gate an hour before my flight to sit there with the rest of the common people. It was better there. Some people...

All added up, I left the Sheraton in Pomona at 10 a.m. and walked in the door here in Liberty Lake at 11:15 p.m. Long day…

Barbara had just completed another crazy business trip to Europe last week, which included stops in London, Amsterdam, and other places I can't remember, so when her flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis landed on Friday, she used the weekend as a decompression stop in Woodbury. She and neighbor Nichol even went to the Minnesota Wild hockey game. Then, when she flew back to Spokane on Monday, she got in a couple of hours before I did, but I told her not to waste time just sitting there to meet up with me, although even that advice wasn't necessary. By then, the grind of her travel had run her batteries down, and she knew she was getting a cold. And it's a doozy. Basically, she didn't get out of bed yesterday. She's better today, and even went to a meeting at her office, but she's still a few days away from being back to 100 percent. And next week we have visitors from Orlando coming for Thanksgiving, so I hope she's fully better for that! I'm using a combination of Zicam and quarantine to limit my chances of getting what she has.

Boofus and Buster clearly know when one of us is not feeling well, because they focus all their attention on the sick person. I've barely seen those two guys since I've been home. They've been with her the whole time…

Now, time to start putting my "Year In Review" publicity summary together for Dick Levi, Shannon Heisler, and Tim. Even though we only got to one final round and we're still in our incredible streak of three-plus years since our last Wally, I'm proud to say that this year's binder will be bigger than ever. All year, I keep three files for the binder. File No. 1 is "Feature Stories" which is a term that loosely refers to any publicity we get that is not a preview press release, a daily update, or a post-event report that I wrote. This is the first time I've ever had to start a second "Feature Stories" file folder, because the first one was about to burst. The other two files, the pre & post-event releases, and my daily updates from the track, are always the same size. It should take me about a week to design a new look, put it all together, come up with 10-12 pages of fun photos, and then get all the copies made the binders put together. After that, it's time to enjoy Thanksgiving (if I can get it done by then), and then we'll start to work on things for next season. We're going to need new starting line shirts, that's for sure, and I want to make sure we're ahead of the game in terms of souvenir t-shirts for the track (we'll be back at the PiranaZ trailer) so that we're not scrambling to have anything for the Winternationals. There's plenty to do… Plus, I have to get to work on the 2015 PR effort, to make sure next year's binder is even bigger than this year's.

And now I have a guy named Boofus on my lap. I think that's a hint that it's time to wrap this up. If I don't blog at ya before Thanksgiving, please enjoy and cherish your time with family. That's about as important as anything you can be thankful for.

Wilber, out!
 

A trip down Memory Lane…Thursday, November 13, 2014

I've noticed that I've established a bit of a new trend as of late, and that in itself is kind of remarkable considering I've been writing this blog for nine years. My blog writing day tends to be a Tuesday or Wednesday each week, because that's just how it works out when coordinating PR stuff and other writing, and when writing on those days I can either look back at the race we just had, or ahead at the one coming up.

Well, for the last time in 2014, I'll be writing about the next race coming up, because here we are heading to Pomona for the final outing of the season.  Hence, I'll be looking ahead to the race, and since part of this new trend I've established involves looking ahead by looking back, we'll do just that. There's plenty to look back upon when you're talking about Pomona.

Did you know that my first trip to Pomona was for the Winternationals in 1992? I'd wrapped up my 13 months at Heartland Park in January, and the Media Relations Department at NHRA invited me out for an interview, which mainly consisted of me joining in doing the PR work for them throughout the weekend. This was back way before the tower was built behind the starting line, and the "press room" (in some stretch of the definition) was in the old stucco building on the right side of the track. I don't remember much about the race, to be honest, but I remember toiling away on some truly archaic little computer that only showed about four lines of copy on a small dot-matrix looking screen.

I didn't get the job, and it's probably a really good thing I didn't. I'd only spent one year in the sport, and was a total newbie in that regard, plus I'd never actually done PR or media relations at all.  At Heartland Park, I had the esteemed Jade Gurss as my PR guy, and he then went on to a stellar career with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Since then, he's written a couple of books and is something of a celebrity in his own right.

Had they offered me that job, I'm afraid I would've failed at it or become disillusioned with things, and I probably would've headed back to the comfort of my stick-and-ball sports, which are in my DNA. Things happen for a reason, and sometimes they don't happen for a reason.

Not long after that, I interviewed with a guy named Bill Griffith, who owned Motorsports Marketing Inc. in New Jersey. He hired me to be his Vice President, and I helped him as we did the PR and marketing work for Chuck Etchells and Mike Dunn. That's where I really began to learn this gig, and what it takes to be a good PR rep and a good communicator. In many ways, it was like a boot camp for me, and it even included a move to New Jersey for about a year and a half.

And that leads to the second time I was ever at the track in Pomona. At the Winston Finals that same year, Chuck Etchells won the race, and I actually got to go to the Winner's Circle and get a hat. Do you remember who sponsored Chuck then? It was Nobody Beats The Wiz, an electronics chain on the east coast.

To be honest, as such a rookie in the sport I didn't even understand the gravity and importance of winning a race. I just went with the flow and I suspect I just figured that this sort of thing happened all the time, so no big deal. Looking back on it, it's almost surreal that I had that brief little experience way before I really knew what I was doing or how to do it. When people ask me about my first win, I almost always say Seattle in 1999, when Del drove the CSK car to four round wins and we all went absolutely nuts. By then, I'd come to learn how hard this is, and how precious a race victory is. Back in '92, it wasn't like that but it was, technically, my first win with a team. Weird to be involved, and yet really an outsider and a spectator.

I'm also breaking into a new style here today, because I'm at GEG about to fly down to Salt Lake and then from there to SNA, John Wayne Airport in Orange County.  So, I'm going to take a break right now, to get my stuff together and board the flight, and then I'll head straight to the SLC Sky Club to write some more when we land. If I run out of time, I'll keep my laptop out on the SLC-SNA flight to get this finished.

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Sky Club at Salt Lake

Well, it turns out that I only have about 30 minutes here, and I spent the first 15 of those editing and cleaning up all the stuff that's above this. No way I'm going to finish this before we board the flight to SNA.  Do you know why John Wayne Airport in Orange County has the designation SNA? It's because the largest city close to the airfield when it first opened was Santa Ana. One more tidbit of trivia to impress your friends with at a cocktail party.

So, I did get through my first two visits to Pomona in the first part of this blog.  My next one was 1994 for the Winternationals, but I was there without a team!  I was on my own for the first time, as RJW Marketing, and I was doing PR for two teams, but neither one of them went to the Winternationals. Pro Stock driver Lewis Worden, one of the all-time great guys ever in this sport and still a valued friend to this day, was my "headliner" that year, so I figured it was best to go out there and represent the team, and maybe represent myself as well. I also represented British Funny Car driver Norman Wilding, but his budget was so tight I often had to kick in cash just to haul the race car to an event, so driving it to Pomona was out of the question, back then. All I remember about that race was hanging out with my PR colleagues in the newly christened tower.

After that, it was back to indoor soccer for a couple of years (the Kansas City Attack) and my next trip to Pomona was for the Winternationals in 1996, after I left the soccer team to go to work for Whit Bazemore. Times were changing fast back then. The sponsorships were ramping up, John Force was establishing himself as a legend to be, and everyone was going faster. For me, going to work for Whit, while working with our sponsor RJ Reynolds, was a huge step up in terms of responsibilities and the need to do the job the right way. Whit is a great guy, and really a smart and intellectual type who can be fascinating to spend time with, and away from the track we got along famously. Unfortunately, I think I was a bit too inexperienced to be able to work well with a driven and laser-focused guy like him at the track, where he had a different personality and winning was all that mattered. I lasted about half a season before I had to think things over in this business, deciding if it was really for me.

When Del Worsham and I spoke in December, my life changed. So, my next Winternationals was my first race with Del, with our funky blue and white CSK Oldsmobile (we only raced that body once, before moving over to new Dodge bodies, but Del's car stayed blue and white all year.)

We qualified No. 3, and raced Ray Bolger in round one, driving the Creasy family car. We lost, but a friendship and a wonderful business relationship was formed. All of the good things that have happened for me are a culmination of all the moments in my life, starting out as a child, but the key moment, as far as I'm concerned, was when I went to work for Del and Chuck and they gave me free rein to do the PR and sponsor relations any way I wanted. A pretty big moment, if you ask me. I'll always look back on it with both happiness and pride.

1997 doesn't seem that long ago to me, at least until I researched the Funny Car field for that race. On the ladder were the following drivers: Wyatt Radke, Chuck Etchells, Randy Anderson, Kenji Okazaki, Whit Bazemore, Al Hofmann, Ray Higley, Tom Hoover, and Richard Hartmann. Not one of them is still driving. The drivers in that field that are still active?  Del Worsham, Tim Wilkerson, Tony Pedregon, Cruz Pedregon, Gary Densham (although he's not very active), and John Force. Sounds like ancient history when you see it that way.

Hey - Just got a text alert from Delta that my flight is delayed about 45 minutes. My goal is now to get this done...

Over the CSK years, we had some other key moments…

In 2001, Del smoked the tires at the hit of the throttle in the final round, but Whit fouled and we got the win. Much fun was had by all.

In 2003, Del fouled at the start, and the big ugly red light was shining at us like a laser beam. Our teammate, Cory Lee who was driving the Terminator 2 car in relief of Arnie Karp (who was injured) was on his way to his first (and only) career win. For about 660 feet. At that point, as the red CSK guys were walking over to congratulate the other guys, our buddy Cory crossed the center line.

Two wins in three years, and both included red lights and weird circumstances.

One really bad memory was from 2006. We were in the right lane during qualifying and the red CSK car blew up big-time in the lights. We couldn't see much, until we looked up at the big screen and we could tell the body was buckled and Del couldn't get to the parachutes. He was screaming down the track, and all this only took a few seconds, but it seemed like an eternity before he hit the sand trap at high speed and did a complete somersault.


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Nobody Beats the Wiz! My first Winner's Circle.
 
I remember running to the left, for no good reason, and then someone from another team, who was on a golf cart, said "Come with me" and a couple of us got on. Even with the pedal mashed, we were going so slow it was agonizing. Finally, Robert Hight came by from the other direction and he said "He's okay" as we went by. The rest of the slow ride was more easily undertaken, but I still couldn't wait to get down there. Del and a broken tailbone, and we spent quite a few hours over at the Pomona Valley Hospital about two miles away, but he even managed to race on Sunday.

2008 was my last year with Del, and we were all pulling for one particular guy to win the championship. It seemed like hundreds of other team crew guys from all over the pits were up there to watch Wilk race Force , and almost universally our shoulders slumped when yet another red light came on. What's the deal with all the red lights in Pomona?

2009 was my first year with Team Wilk, and it got off to a rough start. Bad weather plagued us all weekend, and we only got one qualifying run in, on Saturday. We didn't make a good lap, and earned a DNQ to kick of our new relationship and our new season.

Since then, there's been beautiful weather and lousy weather, including hail. There's been snow in the mountains, and heat on the track. There have been friendships made and new numbers earned for the side of our Levi, Ray & Shoup car.

I haven't been to the Winner's Circle since 2003, and I'd like to get back there again. I wouldn't bet against us…

And there will be In-N-Out this weekend. That's a guarantee.

Now, I gotta get to my gate.

Wilber, out!

A Vegas for the ages…Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Okay, that headline might represent a bit of hyperbole, but it was a pretty spectacular weekend all around, if you ask me. Great racing, great crowds, great weather, great accomplishments, and great fun. Rather than replay it all in pure chronological order, I'll just ramble. Because, you know me, I'm a ramblin' guy.

Though we did have a wide range of temps, and some clouds, and even a little drizzle overnight, the race came off under generally beautiful skies. The only thing that slowed down the schedule was a huge field of Pro cars and motorcycles. I think there were 350,000 Pro Mod cars on-site. Actually, there were 28 (I think) but that's a healthy field with way more cars than can fit in a 16-car field. There were also 21 Top Fuel cars, 22 Pro Stock Motorcycles, 18 Pro Stock cars, and there were 20 Funny Car teams on the property, but only 19 raced. The story we heard was that Jim Head hurt his foot or ankle down in the Caribbean and he was unable to fly back to the States, so the team just did service work in the pits but never fired the car.

So, there were a lot of racers there, but there were also a lot of fans. Friday was what I consider a "good Friday crowd" especially for Vegas. It's hard to get a handle on how many people are in attendance when there are clearly visible areas of empty seats, because the grandstand at The Strip is officially referred to as "ginormous" by attendance experts, but it was a healthy Friday gathering. Saturday was really good, with the main grandstand and the smaller seating on the other side both basically filled. At a lot of our races, Saturday is the biggest day now and there's a bit of drop-off in attendance on Sunday, but Vegas is not one of those races. I'd say the Sunday crowd was as good as any we've raced in front of all year, if not the biggest. Great stuff by some truly avid fans who were all clearly (and loudly) having a great time.

And before I go any further, I want to get to the truly important part of this blog. During the last two installments I've been mentioning my friend and colleague, Elon Werner, a lot. He's worthy of such mention. In Vegas, on Friday, someone in the media center told me to make sure I was present at 9:45 on Sunday morning, because Elon was going to be presented a very prestigious award. I was there, with bells on.

The Jim Chapman Award for PR Excellence in Motorsports is not an NHRA award. It's an independently selected award for the best job done by a PR rep in all of motorsports, whether the competitors go in circles, in a straight line, or all over the place. This year's recipient could not have been any more deserving. Elon Werner, from John Force Racing, was presented the plaque on Sunday. The JFR team was there in numbers, all of Elon's colleagues were there, his wife Jenn was present, and even Ron Capps and T.J. Zizzo were in attendance, to honor Elon. And when Papa Force spoke, he thanked everyone and mentioned that he thought it was great to see Capps come to show appreciation. Then he said "And Rizzo is here too." You don't need to make up anything funny when Force is speaking. He brings his own material.

The simplest thing I can say to Elon, though, is: "Well played, sir. You earned it."

Okay, back to the fun and games…

My actor buddy Buck was there on Friday and Sunday. Both days he brought his lovely and wonderful wife Mary along, as well as both boys, Gibson and Hudson. What a hoot. All sorts of fun with the Hujabre family. And on Friday, he brought along Aaron DeJesus, who is also in "Jersey Boys" and who has become a big fan of our sport.

As I mentioned in the last blog, Buck was supposed to complete the Doug Foley racing school on Monday, but it got pushed back to Tuesday. Therefore, I couldn't be there but between Mary and (apparently Aaron, who was there to see Buck drive, as well) I grabbed a couple of cool shots off Facebook. It's okay. I just "borrowed" the pics. I'll put them back when I'm done.

And, as I mentioned earlier, Gerald was there all weekend and we ate like kings, thanks to him. Good thing I averaged about 16,000 steps per day during the race, because I sure ate too much…

Fan Fest, on Thursday night, was as packed as ever. Each time we do that deal I wonder if this will be the year it's finally not wall-to-wall with fans, but every year it just gets bigger.

As for the slots, The Cannery was not kind to me. I took a set amount of money with me to blow on the machines, and I had pretty much lost half of it the first night. I got a little of that back on Friday, but I was basically down to $100 by Sunday night, when I relocated to New York - New York to be down by the airport. After dinner, I contemplated just taking a knee and accepting defeat by taking the $100 bill back home with me, but I figured I'd brought a certain amount of cash that wasn't going to make us bankrupt if I lost it, so I headed to the casino (which I really like, by the way). Most casinos in Vegas just look like casinos, but the one at NY-NY makes you feel like you're actually in New York. It's cool.

It also was very kind to me. I hit a couple of big winners within about 10 minutes of each other, on two different machines, and I deposited $900 back into our bank account when I got home. I basically came back with more than double what I went there with, and if that was easy to do on slots in Vegas those casinos wouldn't be as fabulous and opulent as they are. So, I left on a good note and didn't spend another dime after I hit that second winner.

We also won another round during the race, giving us five round-wins in five Countdown races, and we'll head into Pomona with a 53-point lead on Cruz Pedregon, as we aim to keep a single digit on the car for next year. If we want it to be the number 8, we'd have to pick up 41 points on Alexis DeJoria to make that happen, but the key thing for us is just staying consistent and getting at least one more round in Pomona, if not four of them.

The key thing about qualifying with a 4.079 and then winning a round on Sunday, was that we did it with a six-disc clutch in the car. As you know, our testing budget is thin, as in it really doesn't exist at all, so we have to find days or sessions where we can test new stuff, whenever and wherever we can. After we ran a 4.122 on Friday, Tim and I both took a look at the field (we both did that independently, without talking about it) and we simultaneously came to the conclusion that a 4.122 wouldn't be stellar, but that it would make the field. Looking at the teams behind us, and considering their career-best numbers, we figured it would probably end up 14th or 15th, but it was safe to make the show. And, as long as we were going to be in the show, we might as well test the new clutch and get some data from it.

As it turned out, the 4.122 would've actually made the field in the No. 13 slot, but on our first pass with the six-disc (Q3) we ran the 4.079 to hold onto the 10th spot. That was also encouraging enough for Wilk to decide to leave it in the car for Sunday. We smoked the tires way down track in round one, but he analyzed the data and made an adjustment for round two, where we faced John Force. Rather than be "a bunch of dummies" and try to step way up to run with Force, and likely smoke the tires and not have a chance, we aimed to make him beat us by getting to the other end under power, and the changes Wilk made allowed us to do that. As he said "I like it, because it actually reacts to the input the way I want it to. I'm pretty happy with the whole deal." So there's that. Which is good.


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Sunday. Wall-to-wall packed.
 
I did not eat at In-N-Out all weekend. Perhaps I won't be so calorie-conscious in Pomona. We'll see.

As I mentioned last time, my flight itinerary heading home was Las Vegas to Seattle, and then Seattle to Spokane. I'd never done that, but I liked it. Sea-Tac Airport reminds me of MSP a little, because the main terminal building has a lot of really good restaurants and shops, so the options are way better than all the look-alike and taste-alike places out on any typical airport concourse, and I had a Mahi Mahi taco that was outstanding. Salt Lake is a nice airport, but the food choices are pretty standard fare there. Seattle was a nice change of pace, also, and the flight from SEA to GEG was 45 minutes.

When we deplaned at GEG, I came out of the jet bridge into the gate and I felt like I'd walked into a surprise party. Delta had a balloon archway set up for us to walk through, and had set up a big buffet of food and drinks. At least six Delta reps were there to greet us, cheering and clapping and offering a little party for a reason I was unable to understand. I said to one of the Delta agents "Well, you don't see this every day" and he said "Well, we don't greet our first-ever flight from Seattle to Spokane every day either!" Ha! I had no idea I was on the first plane to launch their new nonstop service between Seattle and Spokane. Surprise!!!! And that was really nice of them.

So now we have a weekend off and then we wrap up another season in Pomona. The drama in Top Fuel is basically over unless Tony Schumacher gets kidnapped or lost on his way to the track, but the other Pro classes are going to be fun to watch next weekend. Those "little points" we earn in qualifying won't be little at all.

So I guess that's about it. We won a round, I won some money, Buck went fast on Tuesday (10.25 seconds at 125 mph), and Delta threw a surprise party at the airport. All good, I'd say.

I'll try to check in next week before I head south, back through the familiar confines of SLC for my connection. Looking ahead, though, I'm going to check on that Seattle connection any time I go south. Heck, it might even be a better way to go east, since it's only a 45-minute hop over there. I have so much more seafood to sample in the terminal at SEA… It's going to take a while for me figure out all of my new favorite stops.

Wilber, out!

 

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