And…. VOTE!Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Before I delve deeply into Brainerd musings (and there are a few musings) let's get right to the really important stuff.  Once again, it's time to vote for the eighth Funny Car contestant in the $100,000 Traxxas Funny Car Shootout, which will be held during the U.S. Nationals in Indy.

Once again, we need Wilk's Warriors everywhere to unite, spread the word, share the love, and vote!  We did it last year, lapping the field and earning enough ping-pong balls to get the spot, and we aim to do it again. We're always up against tough competition in this fan vote, and this year is no different, with Fast Jack Beckman, Matt Hagan, Del Worsham, and a bunch of other popular and talented drivers on the ballot.

Here's all I ask, for all of you who are actually on Facebook… We want your vote! If you want to see Wilk in the Traxxas Shootout, go to this Facebook link and vote for Tim.


You can vote once per device, so don't forget to vote on your computer, on your phone, and on your tablet. And share the word with family and friends. Get out the vote!!!

I'm Bob Wilber and I approved this message.

So there you have it. Now let's talk Brainerd…

What a pleasure it is to go to a race and not have to get on an airplane. The scenic drive up to Brainerd is a great way to make the transition from "office work" to "track work" and I'm always excited to get there. This time, my arrival featured a totally unexpected bonus, for which I'm still appreciative, and all I can say is "Thank You!" to the fine folks at Madden's Resort.

I had reserved a standard room at the resort, but when I checked in I discovered that they'd put me in one of their quaint and charming cabins, up on top of a hill overlooking Wilson Bay on Gull Lake. These cabins are really cool, and very nice, so I was shaking my head at my good fortune as I took my bag inside. Then, I saw an envelope on top of the mini-fridge and in it was a card from a Madden's staff member, thanking me for the nice mention in the blog! Never in a million years did I think anyone at Madden's Resort would even know about this blog, much less read it. I was honored and touched by the thought, and I'll now be a loyal Madden's customer for life. Very cool and very much appreciated. And the cabin was great!

The race itself reminded me of "A Tale of Two Cities" in some ways. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…"  Also, over the course of three days it seemed like we were in two very different seasons of the year. Friday and most of Saturday were simply oppressive, in terms of the heat and the humidity. We did great in Q1, actually tying Courtney Force for low e.t. of the session (although she got the top spot on speed) and that earned us two valuable bonus points. After that, we couldn't hit water if we fell out of a boat. We ended up sliding all the way to the 13th spot and had to race Tommy Johnson in round one on Sunday.

When dawn broke on race day, everything had changed. It rained overnight and it was foggy, misty, and drizzly on Sunday morning. And Sunday afternoon. And Sunday night. It was also downright chilly, and we all scrambled for sweatshirts and jackets as the thermometer struggled to top the 60-degree mark. It was one of those days where it was almost impossible to comprehend the shift in the weather, and the heat and muggy atmosphere from the day before seemed like ancient history. It felt like we'd qualified in the dog days of summer but then rescheduled the race for two months later.

With that shift came a completely different set of conditions, and with the ongoing rain and mist came the need for patience. Time and time again we'd be about to go, and it would sprinkle again. Time and time again the Safety Safari would do their amazing work and put the track back together for us. And again. And again. I think the biggest challenge for them was keeping enough fuel in their trucks, tractors, and jet dryers. Safety Safari = The Best.

And after all of that. After all the waiting, the getting wet, and the standing around wondering if we were ever going to get to race, the super-tight track and the cool conditions overpowered our race car, and we shook hard at the hit. Day over.

We went into eliminations with a 36-point lead on Fast Jack, and he won in the first round. As it turned out, his teammate Ron Capps beat him on a little baby hole-shot (Alan Reinhart term) in round two, so at least we go into Indy still in the 10th spot. We surely do have some work to do when we get there.  Ron Capps and John Force still have some work to do, as well. The Funny Car final never happened, so they're going to complete the Brainerd race during qualifying in Indy. It was one of those days...

Okay, Brainerd ramblings…

Barbara came up on Saturday morning and spent two days at the track. It was her first appearance of the year, and with her crazy busy schedule it will almost certainly be her last. In addition to her consistently challenging work schedule, she's also going to start teaching at St. Mary's University in Minneapolis this fall, so any travel to the remaining 2014 races is probably not going to happen, but it was fantastic to have her with me in Brainerd. And I think she had some fun. 

As always, there was a ton of help with traffic flow at BIR, and it was never that tough to get in or out, but that traffic assistance didn't extend to parking assistance in the racer's lot. Once you pulled in, it was simply up to each driver to find a spot and try to keep it in order, which is usually never a good thing, and on Friday when I pulled in on the end of a row and parked behind another car, I actually had the thought "No one would be dumb enough to park behind me, right?  It's obvious these rows are going to be two cars each, right?"  Sure enough, I came out to my car on Friday evening after we got done, and someone had actually parked behind me. I had just enough room to get out, but I stared in disbelief that someone would look at the situation and think "This ought to work. I'll just block the aisle and maybe block this other car…"  Really?  It can't be that hard, but apparently it was for one driver. For the record, everyone else seemed to figure out how to make double rows and keep the aisles clear. Sheesh.

On Sunday night, after we wrapped everything up, Barb and I headed over to Grand Casino Mille Lacs, about 40 miles from Brainerd, and that drive only took us about an hour and a half. Ugh. The little road around Mille Lacs can often be congested, and this time the word "congested" could be defined as "walking speed or slower" for about an hour. We finally got there, got checked in, and had a good dinner followed by some good and/or bad luck on the slots before turning in. I had the good side of it, coming out a little ahead by the end of the night, while Barb had the bad part, receiving no love whatsoever from the machines. It was one those deals where she'd burn straight through $100 on a dollar machine and then I'd shift over and play it, and I'd win. As a couple, we went home with a slightly smaller stash of cash than we started with, but at least it wasn't a total shutout.  Hey, they don't build those casinos and hotels because they typically lose money…

I mentioned in the previous blog that our longtime friend Breanna Rachac was going to make her National Event debut in Super Gas, and guess what…  She won two rounds!  Way to go, Breanna. It was fun to watch her race.

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Gary Gerould and I suffer the consequences of a Dave Rieff photobomb.
Tom "Shorty" Shannon also competed in Super Gas, and he won in the first round as well. On top of that, he fed us brilliantly for three days. Much appreciated, sir.  And if any of you are ever near Cottage Grove, Minn., make sure to stop in Shorty's American Motorsports Bar & Grill for some Walleye Fingers, or other great grub.

We pitted next to a very familiar transporter and race car, as Brian Stewart made his second appearance in the Funny Car class, and Daniel Wilkerson was there to help out. After all, it was his former car and transporter.  They were unable to qualify, but it was great to see D Wilk again.

With the Media Center being on the far side of the Brainerd track, up at the top of the left-side grandstand, and with the facility itself being one of those sprawling venues where nothing is ever close, transportation to and from the working PR area was at a premium. We all looked out for each other with golf cart or scooter rides, whenever possible, but the sight of Elon Werner borrowing Nicole Erickson's cute girly bicycle and riding it back out to the JFR pits was worth the price of admission. I might be scarred for life.

Well, that's about it I guess. We need to get ready for Indy, qualify well there, and win some rounds. If we do that, good things will happen.

And don't forget to vote for Wilk! Spread the word, spread the votes, and wear your Wilk Warrior colors with pride!

Wilber, out!


Brainerd. Ah the memories…Wednesday, August 13, 2014

After a merciful weekend off, we now head to Brainerd. Funny how the title of the classic movie "Fargo" refers to a North Dakota city on the western Minnesota border, but 99 percent of the flick happens in the Twin Cities or Brainerd. I guess Fargo just seemed like a better name.

Anyway, as a public service I'm willing to ease the travel worries of many of you who might be considering a trip to the little burgh in the woods where Marge Gunderson hunted down the evil killers in the movie. If you live in New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, the Quad Cities, or even St. Paul, simply put your boat in the Mississippi River and go north. When you reach Brainerd, dock the boat and hitchhike to the track. Piece-o-cake, and with NHRA fans being such upstanding people, you'll get a ride in no time. Wear your Got Wilk? shirt and you'll get picked up even more quickly. You're welcome.

Since there was no race to report on after last weekend, I guess we'll just look forward with much anticipation to the Brainerd weekend coming up. It's truly (and literally, and really, and I mean it) my favorite race of the year. I'll be heading up tomorrow, and it's always a treat to travel to a race without having to even step foot in an airport. Also, thanks to our longtime fan and team friend Erica Moon, I've been tipped off that one of the optional routes from the Twin Cities (the one that goes north out of Elk River to Lake Mille Lacs) is under construction, so I'll be taking the primary route up toward St. Cloud and then north through Little Falls. Thanks Erica!

You already know that the Brainerd race is 100 percent unique on the tour, because a vast majority of the fans arrive as early as today, set up their campgrounds within the track property, and never leave until Sunday or Monday. That makes for a festive atmosphere and it also makes inbound and outbound traffic a breeze for those of us staying in hotels. Yay for that!  It's a fabulous race, and I'm told a lot of people have a ton of fun at a place called The Zoo. I'm not that big into caged animals, so I'm not absolutely sure of these stories…

Being in mid-August, Brainerd can experience all sorts of weather during the weekend, and the forecast for the race is mostly good, with a chance of scattered storms on Saturday and Sunday.  I'd say about 90 percent of the country has a chance of scattered storms this time of year, so that's not too bad. Brainerd is just far enough north from the Twin Cities to have a slightly different climate, and being such a small town, out in the woods surrounded by lakes, plays into that. There have been many Brainerd races where it's still very much summer in St. Paul but at the race I've detected the first hints of autumn in the air. You know that first late-summer day when the humidity drops and in the morning you just know it's about to be transition time. I dig that…

Speaking of  the weather (or more precisely, writing about the weather) I'm typing this blog installment on my laptop, which is always the case, but this time the description is totally accurate. It's a gorgeous day in Woodbury, and my two assistants and I are on the screened porch enjoying the delicious breeze and the sounds of birds chirping, the leaves rustling, and roofers nailing shingles onto yet another new house. The Twin Cities' housing market recovered pretty quickly after the recession, and once the backlog of foreclosures was mostly erased the new housing starts in this part of the metro area have been startling. There are new houses and entire new developments popping up like mushrooms. That's a good thing, so I choose to believe that the sound of roofers on a new house is a pleasant bit of atmosphere.

Let's do a little Brainerd rambling…

Those of you who are putting your boats in the water down in New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, or the Quad Cities wouldn't recognize the Mighty Mississippi up Brainerd way. It's a lovely little stream with clear water, and it's barely noticeable from the overpass. There's no Mississippi bridge in Brainerd. It's really just an overpass. I took a photo of the Not-Yet-Mighty Mississippi a few years ago, so since today's blog is mostly reminiscing, I'll post that one again today.

I got a text from my buddy Jeff Finger the other day. He's the former Colorado Avalanche and Toronto Maple Leaf defensemen ("defenceman" for my Canadian friends) who is a huge NHRA fan and now a big Wilk backer. He watches us every weekend we're on TV, and has come to the Brainerd race with his dad a few times. Unfortunately, he's not going to be able to make it this weekend, but he wanted to each out and wish us luck. Good guy, whose career was cut short by a series of nagging injuries and then finally concussions.

This time last year, the entire team dropped by Woodbury on their way up and we had that fun dinner over at Neighbor Dave's house. After this backbreaking string of 10 races in 12 weeks, they needed a little rest and had a lot of shop work to do, so no time to do that this year. In some ways, that cool Circle K car seems to have happened eons ago, but in others it seems like it was yesterday. In truth, it was about 365 yesterdays ago.

And no, I shall never forget my ongoing saga with the vinyl on the left side of that car. I spent hours trying to repair and tape up the rips that formed, but it was all to no avail when nearly the entire left side of the wrap blew off. It does seem like yesterday when I was up in the lounge after that run and Wilk came in, wearing his fire suit and still all wound up after just getting out of the car, saying with a laugh "Uh, you better take a look at the body now…"  All I could do was grab a razor blade and start cutting off all the wrinkled and ruined vinyl. Made for a nice ESPN segment though. The cameras don't show up just so Jamie Howe can report "Tim Wilkerson and his team just got back to the pit after that big win, and the huge news is that the Circle K vinyl on the car still looks great! Back to you, Dave."

I've stayed in a lot of different places up in Brainerd, but the truth is I've rarely ever stayed in Brainerd itself. There was an old Holiday Inn on the road heading into town, back when I first started in this business, but it was about as high class as it got for that little town back then so we never stayed there until it was rebranded about three times (and not in an upward trajectory). We finally stayed there a few years ago, and it could be described in two words: Bed Bugs.

For most of the Worsham years, we stayed at a "rustic" little Days Inn up in Nisswa, about 10 minutes north of the track, where the carpets might have been stained and the beds might have been awful, but the rates made up for it by being sky-high (which reminds me of the old baseball joke "I might be slow, but at least I can't hit"). We also used to stay in Baxter, right next to the old amusement park that's no longer there, featuring the Paul Bunyan statue that now stands outside a bowling alley, at a little dump that was so bad I've somehow forgotten the chain. That charming little inn had a five-night minimum. The fact Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox now have to stand outside a bowling alley is just wrong, but at least they still exist.

Ever since I've joined Team Wilk I've stayed at a different hotel than the guys in Brainerd, because Tim has a longstanding relationship with the people at little motel called the Chaparral Bunkhouse, and they only have enough rooms for our crew guys. Lately, I've taken to booking my room at one of the three rustic resorts on Gull Lake (and this time I mean rustic in the complimentary way).  This year it will be my second time staying at Madden's. Cragun's was sold out and Grandview Lodge, which is really a nice place, had rates that could only be described as stratospheric.  The rate at Madden's is just short of being on the edge of outer space, but Brainerd is one of those markets where they have a vast overabundance of hotel rooms for about 360 days a year. On those other five days, racers and race fans make up a huge part of their annual business.  When something like a Holiday Inn Express can cost you $250 a night with a four-night minimum, and the view out of your window is a parking lot or the dumpster behind a Perkins, you might as well spend another couple of bucks to get a lakeside room at Madden's. As I told Tim "You know, if you're going to pay ridiculous money for a hotel room up there, after a long day at the track I'd just as soon have a patio that looks out over Gull Lake, so I can wind down watching all the boats come in." 

When I first started in this business, I was usually broke and I always worked at it very hard to find the cheapest rooms, the least expensive rental cars, and the lowest airfare no matter what airline I had to fly or how many stops I had to make. In those years when we lived in Austin and our CSK team had a deal with now-defunct Vanguard Airlines, I'd often make the three and a half hour drive up to Dallas DFW airport to catch a free flight on Vanguard that would connect in Kansas City and have about 50/50 chance of ever getting me where I needed to be. It was always an adventure, and rarely a good one.

After a number of years of doing that throughout each long season, when I finally was in the black in terms of my annual P&L statement, I came to realize that your body and your mental health are as important as anything, and that if you simply flew the same airline all the time (to get that elite status that would remove the stress and put you in one of the comfortable seats), rented cars from one of the better agencies (which also gave you elite status and free upgrades), and made sure you had a good bed and a quiet room to stay in, over the long haul it really wasn't that much more expensive and at the end of each weekend you were far less worn out. Hence, no more Days Inn in Nisswa and no more Vanguard Airlines. It's worth it. I used to beat the bushes to save $20 on an airfare, or $10 on a rental car, and in the end it was better to just stick with Delta (rest in peace, Northwest) and Hertz.

I don't think it's there anymore, but there used to be a little place on the road to the track where a guy sold wood carvings he made from tree trunks. Barbara and I stopped there once, way back in around 2003 or so, and saw a great carving of a bear sitting under a pine tree. We couldn't resist and we bought it. It hung on the fence next to our hot tub at our old house, and it will always hang next to whatever house or hot tub we own.

You can buy cheese curds and mini-donuts at the track. So there's that!

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My current work station, with one of my assistants guarding me.
It's the one race where I usually wear one of my Minnesota sports team hats instead of one of my racing hats, when I'm at the track. Sometimes I swap them out and wear a different one every day, going with Twins, Wild, and then either Vikings or Timberwolves.  I haven't made that call yet. I also don't have a Vikings hat here, so that kind of eliminates them unless Adrian Peterson wants to FedEx one to me. Yo, AP...

I also love chatting with fans who are surprised to meet a guy from the Twin Cities who works for a famous Funny Car driver from Illinois. Wearing a Twins hat will often start those conversations.

The great news for this year is that Barbara has a plan to come up on Saturday morning!  Woo Hoo!!!  I'm really excited to have her at a race again, and she likes Madden's too so it's all good, as long as her trip to Boston doesn't get extended or include any canceled flights. Then, we'll escape the nightly rate madness at Madden's on Sunday, and after the race we'll drive over to the big casino/hotel at Lake Mille Lacs where the rate is $49 for a beautiful room, and that's clearly based on the mathematical odds of us spending way more than that on a couple of slot machines. We can also stop and see the giant Walleye statue, as we have in the past. And yes, as reported here a few years ago, the literal translation of Lake Mille Lacs is Lake One Thousand Lakes. You can learn things like that at the Department of Redundancy Department.

Dan Wilkerson will be there, with his old Funny Car, but since Team Wilkerson no longer owns that car he won't be driving it. As most of you know, Tim sold that entire operation to Brian Stewart, who lives here in the Twin Cities (Inver Grove Heights.)  Daniel will be helping out in the tuning department, as he did in Chicago when those guys made their debut.

Oh, and also on the good news side of things, I got a call from Tom "Shorty" Shannon, our friend who owns American Motorsports Bar & Grill near here, in Cottage Grove, and he will once again be feeding us with his incredible culinary offerings this weekend. The guys have been talking about his french fries for weeks. He's also going to be racing there himself, in the Super Gas class. I wonder who is sponsor will be? Some "car bar" in Cottage Grove, I assume.

Also racing in Super Gas will be Breanna Rachac, who we've known for at least a decade as a fan. She's a longtime blog reader, and was the girl who made up a sign that said "Big Man Fan Club" when Tom Leskovan and I were both on the CSK team. The next year she decided to honor Chase Steele with a similar sign. She's always been a sportsman racer, but as far as I know this will be the first time she has actually raced at the Brainerd national event. She's also in Super Gas, so maybe she'll face Shorty at some point. That would be cool!  Best of luck to both of them

Can't wait to get up there. I think it's safe to say that no other track on the tour has fans who have as much fun as the Brainerd fans. They're the best.

Now let's go win some more rounds.

Wilber, out!

So long, SeattleWednesday, August 06, 2014

I'm not sure exactly when it became my "home race" but Seattle has absolutely taken on that character for me, and I really enjoy that. It all has to do with this exact blog you're reading right now, because up until this thing was launched in 2005 I was just another nameless and faceless guy on a team, who wasn't actually getting his hands very dirty unless I was cleaning the body. I had met a few very friendly people over the years, but once the blog was started it seemed like Seattle became the world headquarters for new friendships. Apparently, my personality and the corresponding personalities of a large number of people from the Pacific Northwest seem to mesh.

It's almost impossible to mention everyone here, because there are so many people at the Seattle event that I now consider friends of the highest order, but let's start with Kim Campbell (aka Kim the Lawyer) and his son Andrew, who make the annual trek down from Vancouver. Kim is a brilliant guy and a terrific writer who spins elaborate yarns and tells fanciful tales in his emails. Let's just say that we don't often fire back and forth notes that simply say "How ya doin'?" Andrew is a fine lad I'd be proud to call my own son. His folks clearly had a good idea about how to raise their kids.

There's Chris and Jane Gorny, she of the now-popular nickname Crazy Jane, also from Vancouver. I remember the first time I had a real interaction with Jane. It was an email wager on an upcoming Canucks vs Wild hockey game, and if the Wild fell to her beloved Canucks I had to write an entire paragraph in the blog that was completely complimentary in terms of her favorite hockey team. The rivalry was intense, the good guys lost, and that was a hard paragraph to write.

There's Tom Miller and his son Doug, from West Linn, Oregon. Tom simply signs his emails TFWL, and I know exactly who it's from (Tom From West Linn). There's Terry Mattis who takes fabulous photographs and follows us avidly on social media. Scott Burris, also simply known as Scott The Pilot, who signs his emails STP while addressing me as BTPRG (Bob The PR Guy). Tristan Slezak, who I met 18 years ago when he was just a boy, but who stays so loyal to Del Worsham and now Tim Wilkerson. What a good kid. There's Jeff Eason, who is a real honest-to-goodness rock star. This weekend, we had a great conversation about the band Sevendust and his side of it was first-person, considering he was in a band that opened for them on tour. Great guy, and very talented. And Ryan Deccio, who is a huge fan of the Washington State Cougars. We see a lot of "Go Cougs!" license plate frames and window decals around Spokane, because WSU is located just about 75 miles south, in Pullman.

It's a group of folks who are all different in so many ways, but all very much alike in others. They all love NHRA and the Northwest Nationals, and they all enjoy this blog. Weird how they're all from the same part of the continent. And many in the group are now friends themselves, brought together by this blog adventure over the years. There are more, as well, and Seattle seems to be one of those races where I'm almost constantly being greeted by people I've rarely met (or often never met at all) just to have a word or two and make a connection with a handshake. I love it.

Bottom line: Seattle has become a very special race for me, and I enjoy every minute of every day. Okay, not the one full hour it took to get in my car and out the gate, trying to leave on Saturday even though I stayed in the pit for nearly two hours after the racing was over. Pacific Raceways is scenic and rustic, but it also has a real hard time emptying its parking lots because they all converge onto the only access road. There's a double-secret way out, just for the pro racers and officials, but even though I got there "early" in terms of when I typically arrive at the track on a Saturday, the little "lot" (it's really just a grove of trees people park between) inside the pits was already full and I had to backtrack to the huge Gold Key lot outside the gate. I therefore couldn't swim back upstream to use the secret racers' exit and had to wait it out. The troopers and parking attendants do the best they can, but it's tough. I actually thanked the two volunteers working the Gold Key gate, where it joins the main road, after it took me 30 full minutes just to go 30 feet. Why? Because without them stopping cars and making everyone alternate to allow people out of the lot, I might still be sitting there.

And one of the reasons it was so tedious upon exit was because there were a LOT of people there. Considering the annual SeaFair was going on the same weekend, where many thousands of people descend upon Lake Washington in Seattle, to see the hydroplane races in the water and the Blue Angels in the sky, the attendance at Pacific Raceways was almost stunning. A good crowd on Friday was followed by fantastic attendance on Saturday and Sunday. The big group filled most of the seats while many more were standing at the fences, and the pits were so wall-to-wall it was hard to get through. Bravo to the NHRA fans in the Pacific Northwest, and that makes it official that all three legs of the Western Swing were incredibly well-attended.

For us, it was a fun weekend with Rottler Manufacturing on the car and a lot of new partners and guests to get to know. We had a full house on Saturday, in our hospitality area, and not only did they all have a great time, it was even better because this was so new to almost all of them. Wide eyes and big smiles, all around.

I've been working with Anthony Usher at Rottler nearly constantly for the last few months, often trading dozens of emails and phone calls a day as we worked out all the details for the weekend. In just the last week before the race, Jeff Butcher came aboard at Rottler as their new Sales & Marketing rep, and it was great to finally meet both of those guys at the race. Very smart people, at a very good company, making and selling incredibly good machines. To cap it off, Andy Rottler was in attendance on Saturday, at his first drag race ever, and to see him so excited and engaged was a real highlight. Hosting that many important people is real work, but of the most enjoyable type. Great stuff, and great guests.

As you know, we won our lap in round one against my former boss (almost my entire drag racing career summed up in one round, right there) but we lost a heartbreaker to Gary Densham in round two. Yes, we lost by about an inch, but Tim's philosophy was "If we would've run what we were trying to run, it wouldn't have been close. We would've won going away, but the clutch didn't cooperate and we allowed ourselves to get beat." So, we go into Brainerd with a 30-point lead on our buddy Fast Jack Beckman, and we're also only 33 points behind Del. It's going down to the wire for sure, but doesn't it always?

I got my PR work done and saved it all on my computer until the race was over. That's a lesson I learned a long time ago, when email was first becoming essential and if I'd write my Post-Event Report and send it right out, after we lost early, some fans would get mad because once it popped up in their in-box at midday, they knew we hadn't won the race. In my career, that was the first example of a "spoiler".

Once all the writing was done, I headed back to the pit from the media trailer (yes, Pacific Raceways is the venue where the PR reps are in a trailer only a few yards behind the starting line, but we can't see the track. We watch the racing on a TV monitor while the real stuff is happening so nearby the trailer shakes every time two fuel cars launch) and I helped the team with the full tear-down. We were about done when the final round went off, so I traipsed back to the media trailer to send out my stuff, then packed up the laptop, said my goodbyes to my colleagues and friends in the PR world, and helped with the final tear-down. An hour after the final, when the Pros are allowed to finally move trailers, Tim brought the support rig into the pit and all of our hospitality stuff (flooring, tables, chairs, banners, walls, fans, lights, coolers, awnings, side skirts, and poles) was put away, followed by the golf cart. The whole circus goes into one 45-foot trailer, and there's still room for extra parts and the Ford Flex tow vehicle.

With everything done, I made my way back out to the dusty parking lot and battled the final vestiges of the traffic to head north, up to the Seattle-Tacoma airport, where I had a room waiting for me at the Radisson, right across the road from the main terminal. I didn't think I was that hungry, because I had been grazing all day, but I decided to order a Caesar Salad from room service just because I could. When I looked down at the plate about 15 minutes later, and saw that it was completely free of any remaining salad, I figured I'd actually been starving. Tasted good, too!

I got a good night's sleep, but woke up at around 4:30 a.m. for no good reason. I looked out my window in the darkness and saw traffic and headlights on International Drive, the road leading to the airport, for as far as the eye could see. Clearly there must be a lot of 6:00 a.m. flights out of SEA and there were a lot of people trying to make those departures. Just another reason I do all I can to not be one of those sleepy-eyed folks on those early-morning flights. Mine was at 11:30, and that was early enough for me. I went back to bed and got up at 8:00…

I was in seat 2A on the flight, which was the first 767 aircraft I've been on this year. It's been a while since I was on a jet with two aisles, but I was at a window anyway so there wasn't really any difference from my perspective. I picked that seat on purpose because I was hoping we'd take the same flight path we were on when I arrived in Seattle. Sure enough we did, and about 30 minutes after departure both Spokane and Liberty Lake were directly below my window. I posted the shots on Facebook with a remark about how totally weird it was to look down and see our Liberty Lake house, and Barb's office at Itron, from 38,000 feet. I waved. Barb said she waved back and could see me in the window seat. Still weird though, to look down there and know your wife is hard at work in her office in that big square building you're looking at, on the north side of town. Strange life we lead…

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They love their NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing in Seattle!
The final leg of my journey consisted of finding my car at MSP and driving home to two boyz. When we both are gone for more than a day or two, we hire a local cat-sitter to come over and spend the nights here, just to keep Boofus and Buster company, but as great as that is it's still stressful for them and they are sure to let us know when we return. It goes something like this…

They know the sound of the garage door opener, so they are usually both standing by the door that leads into the laundry room when I come in. I come through the door and there they sit, two brothers with wide eyes. Buster makes an "Erf" sound and Boofie turns and walks away, uttering one meek meow on the way. For the next 20 minutes or so, we play the game and they either ignore me or literally scream at me, just to make me understand that my being gone for nearly five days is simply unacceptable. They've been well fed, and Buster actually sleeps very near the sitter at night, but it's still totally unacceptable. About an hour into this, they realize there are treats to be had and the mood shifts. After some delectable goodies, everything transforms from being angry to being very (VERY) cuddly and needy. For the next few hours, as I watch TV, I'm covered in cats. It's a dance, and it plays out the same way every time I come home from a race. Buster is standing on my desk right now, staring at me as I type this.

So there you have it. We get a weekend off now, and then it's on up to Brainerd. You betcha!

It’s tight…Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Well here we go again. First of all, it’s July 30 and that means Friday, when we start qualifying for the Northwest Nationals in Seattle, it will be August. This is the point when, as a kid, I’d start to wake up with a stomach ache every day, knowing that the inevitable return to Mary Queen of Peace grade school was inching ever closer. Now I wake up knowing that another summer and another year and another birthday are all flying by at a ridiculous pace. I need to find the brake pedal.

Anyway, I’ll be flying out to Sea-Tac tomorrow and on Friday we’ll hit the track with our special-edition Rottler car. As I type this, the guys are actually at the Rottler headquarters displaying the car during a cool Demo Days promotion the company is doing, where they invite racers and engine builders to stop in and see the big machines in action. So yes, for the record, the Demo Days refer to demonstrations, not demolitions. We certainly hope.

We’re going to have quite a few Rottler employees and guests with us this weekend, with the biggest group coming on Saturday, so I’ll need to have my emcee skills sharpened and honed, as I’m sure many of these folks will be first-timers, especially in terms of actually being in the pitside hospitality area, getting such an up-close look at everything. I’m looking forward to it!

The headline on today’s blog installment has to do with the points situation and the Countdown playoffs. Once again, we’re locked in a tense battle to earn a spot in the post-season, and with three races left in the regular season I can state with great confidence that this is going to go down to the wire.

After the runner-up in Bristol, we were “movin’ on up” and in ninth place, obviously trending in the right direction as well. Then the three straight first-round losses during the rest of that four-in-a-row knocked us back to 11th. That would be what we officially refer to as “trending in the wrong direction”. Our buddy Fast Jack Beckman is the guy we’re currently locking horns with, and he went into Denver ahead of us by a round. We faced him in the second round and won, which put us back in 10th but only by a smidge (technical term).

The smidge was so small that Jack actually went back around us by a point based on qualifying position in Sonoma, but our final qualifying lap moved us into 13th and that meant that we raced him again, but in the first round this time. This is what we call a 40-point round, when you’re racing head-to-head against the person you’re battling with for a playoff position. In hockey it’s a 4-point game, and in drag racing it’s a 40-point round, because that’s the complete difference in positioning when comparing winning to losing.

Let’s face it, we didn’t exactly run very well in qualifying at Sonoma. Tim blamed his own greediness for smoking the tires on both Friday runs, trying to go a little too fast, but he felt good going into Q3. Instead, the beast did it again and we went into the final session 15th, but only because some other teams had messed up even worse. It was hot in Sonoma, as in frying pan hot, and even on Friday night when everyone was making their best laps, the marine layer never showed up and it didn’t massively cool off like it normally does. We went into Q4 knowing we at least had to go down the track just to have any sort of baseline for Sunday, and that’s what Tim skillfully did. It moved us up to 13th, and with Jack in the No. 4 spot we were paired up. I’d like to say we planned it that way, but it wouldn’t be true.

As reported earlier, I was not in attendance at Sonoma, but I did the PR work from home and the beauty of ESPN3 had me feeling like I was there. I was at our Liberty Lake home, out in Spokane, in the climate-controlled comfort of my office, but my palms were as sweaty as they would’ve been had I been there in person. I don’t get that nervous all that often, but I guess it was the combination of it being a head-to-head race against the guy we were then technically chasing again (since he moved back up on us by one point with those qualifying digits) and we were racing a car that had run way better than we had.

The whole reason I flew across the country to do the PR work from home was the fact Barbara was slammed and buried with work, so there was no way she could come back to Minnesota and this summer we’ve been in opposite places too much. She was working at the dining room table, and I was one room away in my office. I told her “We’re up next” as ESPN3 played on my laptop screen, and she came in to watch with me. If you saw the race, you know how we did. That lap was a thing of extraordinary beauty, and Barb and I were cheering along and high-fiving when the LRS car crossed the stripe first. We were back in 10th.

We lost to Matt Hagan in round two and our day was over, but some work had been done. The only hitch is that we’re 19 points up on Jack now, and that means we’re back in the territory where one round, up or down, can shuffle us again. We hadn’t raced Jack all year until Denver, when it was all on the line, and now we’ve raced him twice in two races. What are the odds for Seattle?

We’ve actually had a decent year, in terms of winning rounds. We’re 13-15 overall, and 9-6 in the first round, so we’re getting out of the first one enough to be in contention. The problem is we’ve only been to three semifinals, and we haven’t won a race. We haven’t won a race in three years! And where did we win that last one? Yep, Seattle.

To secure this playoff spot we can’t rely on anyone to help us, and we can’t hope for someone else to simply lose. We need to do what we’ve done every year since I joined this team, and that’s get hot when it matters. Right now, it matters. And you know what? I have more confidence in Tim Wilkerson and these guys than I ever have.

Three races left in the regular season. That means there are 12 rounds left, as well as qualifying points and bonus points. Bottom line, if we win one more round that Jack over these next three, we’re in. Or, we could both win three more rounds than Del and we’d both be in. The stark truth is that either Jack, or Tim, or Del, or possibly Cruz (but that’s a long shot) will not make the playoffs. There aren’t enough spots for everyone. Time to get busy, I think.

Other ramblings…

I sure picked the right weekend to go back out to Liberty Lake. The massive wildfires in central Washington had not only been blazing unchecked, but the winds out of the west were blowing all the smoke right over Spokane. The weekend before, Barbara said the sky was basically brown, and you could smell the smoke as if someone was burning brush right across the street. The National Weather Service didn’t just put out an advisory that the air was unhealthy for those with respiratory problems, they put out the most severe advisory they have, stating that air was unhealthy for everyone. Barb agreed with that assessment.

During the week, some much-needed rain helped the fire-fighting effort, and a switch in the wind allowed the crews to fight the fires better, while it also spared Spokane, and when I got there on Friday it was simply sublime. Upper 70s with a sky so blue you’d think it was fake. There’s a photo of our backyard in the gallery today, and it is completely as the camera saw it. Amazing.

Being in the same time zone as the race helped a lot too, and it allowed us to enjoy a nice dinner each day I was there. I broiled some chicken after I arrived on Friday, and we had that with Caesar Salad once qualifying was over. On Saturday we went to a new restaurant that has just opened in Liberty Lake, and it was fantastic. And on Sunday we enjoyed a dinner on the deck at Palenque, our local Mexican place, overlooking the ninth hole at Trailhead golf course. Yes, Margaritas were consumed. It’s a rule. You have to sign a contract when you walk in. Seriously. Okay, maybe not, but it’s still a rule.

I flew back to MSP on Monday, and as we took off from GEG we flew right over Liberty Lake and the view was right outside my window. It was another crystal-clear day, so I flipped my iPad over and took a photo. It’s in the gallery as well, and it’s the best shot I’ve ever been able to get of Liberty Lake from the air. The photo pretty much illustrates what the entire town is about. There are patches of subdivision streets, but only enough houses to give the town a population of about 6,600. There’s one little business district. There are a couple of parks. There’s Liberty Lake itself, from which the town gets its name. And there are three golf courses. From the air, the entire town looks like golf, golf, golf. And you can drive your golf cart anywhere you want. Kids can even drive them, if they stay on the sidewalks.

The seasonal differences in air travel between GEG and MSP are startling. In the winter, the aircraft is either a CRJ-900 regional jet, or an Airbus A-320 at the most. During the summer, it’s a Boeing 757-200. I wondered about that for the longest time, because it’s not exactly like Spokane is on everyone’s Top 10 List of Summer Destinations, so I asked the gate agent about it and her reply was so simple I couldn’t believe I hadn’t added that up. Yes, some people are flying in just to get to Spokane, but most are coming out for visits to Coeur d’Alene, and not just on vacations. Coeur d’Alene Resort is a top spot for corporate getaways, conferences, and other functions, so the inbound flights are often full of a lot of people who know each other and are excited to get to CdA. Makes perfect sense.

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I'm pretty sure Pacific Raceways in our only track from which you can see a volcano...
And now it’s time to get ramped up Seattle and Pacific Raceways. It’s a unique place, as you well know.

As often as I’ve been there, this time will be different. We’re staying in a hotel we’ve never been to before, right off I-5, so we’re going to have to be early each day to beat the traffic on Rte. 18. For the last few years we’d been staying up north of the track, which allowed us the pleasure of coming into the track from across Rte. 18, instead of on it. The traffic on 18 can get backed up for miles.

And, with the special Rottler car and all of their guests, it’s going to be a unique experience in that regard as well. All new faces, all new people to meet.

And then there are those pesky points. We need to keep earning them. That would be a very good idea.

I’ll take photos…

Wilber, out!

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