Wednesday, July 02, 2014
Seriously. How on Earth can it already be July? I write every year about how short the off-season is, but how long the season then looks when you're arriving in Pomona for the Winternationals, and yet I also have to always then relate how fast it all screams by once the season gets going. It's July! That's crazy.
And this weekend is Norwalk, the fourth race in my own personal "Guilt Trip Tour" since we don't do hospitality at three of these four consecutive races, and therefore my teammates are all out there busting it on the road and for three-fourths of this span I'm at home. Hey, at least I got to go to Chicago!
And speaking of Chicago, we got out of there just in time. For the past few years, and really for most of the time we've been racing at Route 66, we seem to have been a magnet for really bad midwestern weather, including rotating clouds, torrential downpours, awning-ripping winds, and just about any other summer catastrophe you could dream up. This time, lucky for us, all the potential scattered storms completely missed us. Unluckily for the Chicago area, all of that truly bad stuff arrived on Monday, when they had some wicked and powerful storms, including some wind gusts in the 80 mph range. Had that happened a day earlier, I can't imagine how many transporter awnings would've been ripped, torn, or tossed completely off their rigs.
It was, however, our first real taste of serious summertime heat and humidity. Like cold, heat is a relative thing. In the middle of a dark cold winter, when it's been below zero for a week, a day in the 20s seems like t-shirt weather. A month from now, if we're at a race and it's in the 90s, we'll be scorching but it won't feel unusual. Our weekend at Route 66 featured temps in the mid to upper 80s, but since it was really our first oppressive weekend, I think it felt worse than usual. "Soaking wet" would be a way to pretty much describe how we all were, most of the time.
On the track, I'm sure all of you know the results (No. 11 qualifying position and then smoked the tires at the step in round one) but there was a silver lining. While everyone else was putting up hero numbers in the two late sessions (the Chicago race has late-afternoon and night runs on both qualifying days) we managed to mess up a little on those runs. In Q1 and Q3, however, when conditions weren't as good, we were fourth-best and second-best of those sessions. When Sunday rolled around and it was warming up fast, I'm sure we all felt like we were in a good spot, in terms of being able to outrun just about anyone on a hot track. Well, as I've said a million times (and I've told myself a million times that I shouldn't exaggerate) if tuning one of these beasts was easy, we'd all be tied for first place. We smoked the tires, and that was that.
Other Chicago ramblings…
On our Facebook page, I posted a series of shots I called "Scenes From A Drag Race" and they were really popular. I've done that a few times this year, but Route 66 is such a picturesque place, and I just happened to get some really good candid shots to go with the shots of scenery, so I'm glad it worked out that way. I'm not a great photographer, but I think I get better with age and I do seem to have an eye for composition and subject matter. Maybe I'll just be a photographer when I grow up!
Saturday was a big day for us, in terms of LRS hospitality. We had well over 100 guests in the pit, and we were all pumped up and having fun with them. Everyone seemed to have a great time, so that's all good. When those days are over, you're both physically and mentally tired, but I think the hardest part was the racing schedule and the weather. It's a bit of a double-whammy to have back-to-back late qualifying sessions, because it's not like we sleep in until noon and show up at 1:00. We still go out to the track in the morning and then spend about 12 to 14 hours there, and in this case we were doing it in a sauna. By the time I got back to our Joliet hotel at about 10:30 on Saturday, I was beat. And then we had to get up at dawn to get out there for race day on Sunday. Everyone in the pits, from the crew guys to the drivers to the PR people were pretty much whipped on Sunday morning. Most commonly heard phrase: "I'm getting too old for this…" Probably said it myself a few times.
Route 66 is one of the more difficult venues when it comes to accurately assessing things in terms of attendance, but I thought it the three days could be ranked like this: Darn good Friday crowd, fantastic Saturday crowd, decent Sunday. On Friday, Travis Wirth and I were at the starting line and I said "Do you think this crowd would even fit in the stands at Epping?" and he looked around, thought about it for a minute, and said "You know, I don't think so." Basically, if Route 66 is half full, that's more people than a lot of other tracks can hold.
From a different perspective, I can say with certainty that the fans in Chicago always have a good time. They're avid fans, they run from pit to pit during warm-ups, and they whoop and holler as well as any spectators on the tour. Chicago is a great sports city, and it's pretty obvious that even the drag racing fans there are all-around sports fans who root passionately for their favorite teams and sports. Good stuff, Chicago! Always a pleasure to be there.
The only negative thing about my trip was the travel getting there, but I survived it without any scars. My flight from MSP to ORD was just about to board on Thursday, when I heard one of the gate agent's radio come to life. The voice on the other end said "Close the ramp. No more activity until advised." About a minute later, I looked out the window and saw one of the more magnificent and majestic things you'll see at an airfield, when Air Force One came in for a landing. Just before that, a fleet of black SUVs were driving up and down the runways. It was all pretty cool to see, but it did delay us about an hour.
When we landed, I was joined by two other passengers who had originated their travel at MSP (as opposed to having made a connection there) as we stood at the Delta baggage counter to inquire as to why our bags did not show up at ORD, despite the fact all three of us had gotten to the airport quite early and checked our bags with hours to spare. Turned out, when they shut the airport for Air Force One, they stopped loading bags too. The agent got on her computer and saw that my bag was already on the next flight, which landed an hour later. She offered to have it delivered to me down in Joliet, but I know how that works. They don't drive those bags all over town as they come in! They wait until all the last of the lost bags are in and load them all in a van to take them out to the hotels, and I didn't want to contemplate having my bag get to the hotel at 3:00 a.m. So, being the industrious and intelligent sort of guy I am, I simply went and got my rental car, drove it back to O'Hare, parked it in the garage, and went back in to wait for that next flight. Worked like a charm.
What didn't work like a charm was the fact my delayed flight and my missed bag put me right at 5:00 when I started the drive to Joliet. I do not believe I ever got over 20 mph the whole way. Most of the time I was completely stopped. And I don't cast any aspersions on Chicago traffic, because it's no worse than most cities that size, but that was no fun. For the record, when I drove back up to ORD on Sunday night, after the race (I stayed at an airport hotel that night, for my Monday morning flight) I probably never did less than 55. Smooth as silk. On the way down though… It's a one-hour flight from MSP to ORD. I left my house at 10:30 a.m. and got to the hotel at 6:30 p.m. The joys of travel.
And now the guys are in Norwalk. What a great place Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park is, and I have so many great memories from there, starting way back in the early CSK days when Norwalk wasn't even on the tour but the big July 4th match race always packed them in. Lots of fun then, too, except for the night Del crashed. That was a bad deal, and it really bothered me for a long time. For months after that night I'd hold that camera to my eye and worry about seeing that happen again.
Working the room and getting laughs
Norwalk means great fans, a great venue, a terrific staff, and ice cream. Not necessarily in that order.
I also vividly remember winning there in 2010, when bad weather was on the horizon and it was highly doubtful that we'd be able to run the final round before the downpour hit. NHRA made the smart move to alter the Pro final rounds to a sort of "whatever classes get up here first, will run" instead of just sticking to the schedule no matter what, and as it turned out we got up there before the rain, and the beat John Force to win the race. Towing the car back toward the Winner's Circle, the skies opened up and everyone got drenched. Did it matter? Nope.
This year, the calendar has finally conspired to make Friday night qualifying actually land right on the 4th of July. That's a cool thing for the fans, who get to enjoy a great holiday at the one track that is known for blowing people's minds with their fireworks shows. For unfortunate souls like me, who will be doing the PR work from home, that just means I can't join in all the reindeer games until qualifying is over. I might have to sprint to join Barbara and all of our friends at the park, to watch the local Woodbury fireworks show. Duty come first, though, so I'll be strapped into my office chair until the work is done. And I hope to have all sorts of great news to distribute to the media and our Wilk's Warriors everywhere. I have a good feeling about that.
Well, it may be hard to believe, but I've been basically swamped lately and it's been hard to carve out time to write one of these blogzilla things. Sorry for the wait, and hopefully I'll be able to get back into a more normal routine here soon. A lot of what I've been doing is related to the Seattle race, when Rottler Manufacturing will be featured on our car with a special-edition body. We've got lots of details to take care of, and since this is their first time being involved in a deal like this, all those details have to be addressed one-by-one.
I'll get back here soon. In the meantime, let's just go win Norwalk. The ice cream would taste a lot better if that were to happen…
It's Wednesday. Eliminations at the Ford Thunder Valley Nationals in Bristol ended on Sunday. I'm not sure why, but it took me this long to write about it. I think, frankly, my brain was just tired.
I heard some things in Tim's voice and in the words he spoke, leading up to the race, that gave me an indication of a slight change in either his approach or his philosophy when it came to how we attack the race track. Then, during the race, it became clear that I had been reading him correctly. Putting it all together, including the things he said to me on the phone and the interviews I heard him give on the PA and on ESPN2, I could put two and two together and see a slight shift in how he went into the race in general, but Q2 in specific.
Yesterday, as I was putting my Epping preview story together (no rest for the weary!) I ran the whole concept by him and mentioned how, to me, it seemed like a great analogy would be the dreaded "prevent defense" in football. He said "Yeah, I get that. That's exactly what it's like". Your favorite team scratches and claws to get a lead, and once they get it they stop being aggressive and go into that deep shell known as the prevent. Typically, it seems, all the prevent defense does is allow the other team to march right down the field in about 90 seconds. It often simply prevents your favorite team from winning a game they had been dominating.
And the reason is this: The prevent defense is a simple illustration of a team passively trying not to lose, as opposed to playing to win. Being aggressive for three and a half quarters had been working fine, and had given them the lead, but then the coaching staff got worried about the risks involved in being aggressive, so they removed the risks and softened up. I'd seen that in us earlier this year. We were racing not to lose, instead of putting it on the line and racing to win. We'd been playing a little bit of a prevent defense.
That being said, you can't go all out all the time. The track on Sunday was at about 130 degrees, so throwing all you have at it would simply be foolish. But on Friday night, just before the rains came, when the track was cool and the conditions were prime, we went for the touchdown and threw a bomb downfield. The result was a 4.013 and a new personal best for Wilk. Not to mention a No. 2 qualifying position, our best of the year. Bam!
That's racing to win. Throughout the weekend I could summarize Wilk's thoughts like this: We've always been pretty good on hot tracks, so that's not going to change, but during the "home run sessions" we have a tendency to be a little too safe. Being a little too safe makes us a middle-of-the-pack team in qualifying. Being a middle-of-the-pack team in qualifying makes it hard to win multiple rounds on Sunday. He literally said "I'm tired of it, so we're going to be more aggressive." Q2 on Friday in Bristol was the perfect time to be that way.
On Sunday, sitting behind my desk instead of being in the pit, I had a nervousness about me that I hadn't felt in a long time. We hadn't qualified eighth or ninth, we'd qualified second. We weren't just hoping for a big win the opening round, we were hoping to win multiple rounds and possibly the race. For the first time this year, winning the race was actually in the forefront of my mind. We were clearly fast enough and talented enough to do it, and the 130-degree track played right into our hands a bit. It was going to be tricky, but I know Wilk and I know how brilliant he can be when the track gets hot. The time for the sort of aggressiveness we showed in Q2 was supplanted by the time for the brilliance he can show when others are helplessly smoking the tires.
It was the longest day. When you're not there to help, even with emotional support, and you're tied to your desk through three rounds, the minutes tick by so slowly you'd swear your watch was faulty. When I'm there, it all flies by so fast you think real life is somehow in fast-forward, but on Sunday it felt like we were living in slow-motion.
We knew the ladder had worked out exactly as it probably should have. If there was one car and one driver who had been right with us all day, and even a little quicker than us frankly, it was the Make-A-Wish car with Tommy Johnson at the wheel. TJ and Wilk were simply and clearly the top of the class throughout the first three rounds. It was going to be close, it was going to be tense, and it was going to be a battle. And the clock kept ticking so slowly…
And then Krista called. She was obviously stressed, and had been calling me a lot during the day because I'm her support and sounding board at the track. After the warm-up prior to the final, she called and had an even more nervous sound to her voice. She said "They just warmed it up and there's something wrong. It didn't sound bad, and nothing was leaking, but Tim told them to take it apart."
I tried to calm her by asserting my belief that our guys will fix whatever it is, and they've done the service work so well and so quickly that we had plenty of time. I sat and stared at my computer. I got up and walked around. I stared some more. Finally, on ESPN3 the final rounds started to happen, and when Pro Stock was going off I could see the Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby in the background. And I saw and heard it fire up for the burnout. All I could hope was that everything had been fixed.
It launched okay, but Tommy's car was clearly going to make another end-to-end charge. And then it put not one, but TWO cylinders out on the left side, which caused the LRS Ford to basically make a left turn. And no, Wilk didn't even have time to put his turn signal on. He had to lift, Tommy won a richly deserved Wally, and we came up just that short.
I waited a while before I called, just to let everyone decompress a little, and when I did get Wilk on the phone he was his typical normal "It's over, it's in the past, so get over it" self. He was in a fine mood, and he'd already turned that corner where you go from being so disappointed that you lost in the final to be so happy and proud that you'd made it that far. In the moment, when you can practically taste the win as the cars are staging, it feels like a bit of a crushing blow when you don't get it. But just minutes later, you turn that page and realize how much more it hurts to lose in the first round, or the second, or the semis.
He told me about the ignition gremlins they'd been dealing with all day, and he knew there was something wrong during the warmup. They thought they'd done all they could to fix it, but at about 400 feet it put two cylinders out at the same time and that was all she wrote. As he said "We'd backed it down a lot just trying to keep all eight lit, so we weren't going to run the number Tommy ran anyway."
And that's how it went. I was proud of the guys. I'm always proud of them but on Sunday it ramped up a little higher. I just want this crew to be able to celebrate a win some day. They truly deserve it, but man it's hard. In this class, the way it is right now, it's hard to qualify well. It's really hard to win a round. To win three seems like climbing an enormous mountain. Getting that fourth one is something that we just haven't been able to do for almost three years.
I'm lucky. In my 18 years doing this I've been to so many Winner's Circles I'd really have to dig back through the records to get an accurate count, but my guess is the number is around 26 or 27. There were a few years when the two CSK cars were doing it so often you'd actually feel a pang of guilt when you didn't celebrate as earnestly as you did when the wins were as rare and as special as any feeling you'd ever experienced. When you're winning six or seven races a year, no matter how much it means it really doesn't feel exactly like it does when you haven't won in years, or haven't won at all. Your brain knows it and your heart knows it, and you're fully aware that each one might be the last.
If I never get there again, I still have a room full of Wally trophies to bring the memories back in vivid detail. We have a few guys who have never experienced it. They've earned the right.
This weekend in Epping? Why not…
Quick, who are The Dovells? Do you know? Are you shouting the answer at your screen already?
I originally wrote "Who were The Dovells?" in the past tense, but then I did 30-seconds worth of research and it appears a couple of members are still actively performing, despite the fact they formed The Dovells in the late 1950s.
As for the answer, The Dovells were a singing group, and I mean that in the classic late 50s and early 60s doo-wop sort of way, because they were simply singers. They were from Philadelphia and scuffled around making a few records until they recorded "The Bristol Stomp" and it took off, selling more than one million copies. One of those copies was in the Wilber house on Woodleaf Court in Kirkwood, Mo. We had the 45, of course, and we played the grooves right out of it on our "record player" (quizzical looks now being generated by anyone under 30).
The Dovells weren't precisely certified as "one-hit wonders" because they had another hit with "You Can't Sit Down" but "The Bristol Stomp" left a lasting impression on anyone who was around then to hear it, thanks to some creative vocals, tight street-corner harmonies, and a great hook. "The kids in Bristol are sharp as a pistol, when they do the Bristol Stomp…" I can hear it now.
When Bruton Smith first opened the completely rebuilt Bristol Dragway, one of the first pre-race feature stories I wrote had "The Bristol Stomp" right up front as a reference, so I can no longer ever do that, just like I do my best to avoid gambling references in my Las Vegas stories. But, after putting out my Bristol preview yesterday I quickly got an email from my brother-in-law, Jim Doyle, who asked if I remembered the song, despite the fact it was not mentioned in the story. I'm sure simply seeing the word "Bristol" brought it to mind for him.
I wrote back and told him that I not only remember the song, I also actually owned the record, and I think I impressed him with my "maturity." In other words, we're old.
So, moving along from The Dovells and into 2014, let's look ahead to Bristol in a detached sort of way. I say detached because, like last year and the year before it, I'm not going to actually technically be there. No hospitality, no Bob. I feel a little guilty, because the tour is assaulting this four-in-a-row series of races after just having completed a three-in-a-row, and yet I'm only going to one of the four (Joliet). No Epping and no Norwalk for me, either. I'll be a PR guy behind a desk many miles away, but like always I'll be in direct contact and dialed in via apps, websites, and the audio-cast.
I miss the people most of all, when I don't go to the races, and that will be the case again this weekend. When you have an owner, a crew chief, and a driver with Tim Wilkerson's sense of humor, it makes the experience all the better. When you have a crew like ours, with so many varied personalities, it makes it all the better. When you work with people like my PR colleagues and the NHRA staff, not to mention the ESPN folks and the P.A. announcers (Hi Alan!) it makes it all the better. I'm very fortunate to know and work with so many smart and talented people…
Bristol is a little different, though, because it's a track I really miss when I don't go, and now I'm working on three straight years of being absent. I love the area, I love the people, and I totally love the track. The staff is amazing (well duh, they work for Bruton Smith) and the venue itself is just so cool you can't help but look around and admire it even though you've been there for years on end. I will officially miss all of the above, but I'll be diligent in my PR work and tied to my desk for all three days.
So, I'll be there mentally but I won't be there in person. Somehow, Elon Werner is going to have to survive without me… And yes, there are some vividly great memories for me, personally, in Bristol, as many of you know. After signing my first contract with the Detroit Tigers, in 1978 (for $500 per month with a $500 signing bonus!) I was assigned to the Bristol Tigers in the Appalachian League. You'd probably expect me to remember that somewhat vividly.
Looking back over the years at Bristol Dragway, I dug back through my old photos from seasons gone by and did some research on how we've done there, when I was writing my preview story, and it all brought back some other good memories.
For instance, in 2011 we had our deal in place with Summit Racing Equipment, to have Dan Wilkerson run a few races for them, and the first big Summit race as part of that program was Norwalk, but Tim and Dan both thought it would be best for his team to have a shake-down race in Bristol, just to make sure everything was in top form the next week up in northern Ohio. It was a cool looking car, that's for sure, and it photographed extremely well, as you'll see in the gallery. You'll also see, in the gallery, what is perhaps the greatest photo of Dan Wilkerson and Elon Werner ever taken in the history of photography. Just sayin'…
The year before, in 2010, we beat Melanie Troxel in round one, Ashley Force Hood in round two, and Del Worsham in the semifinals to make it all the way to the final, where we faced John Force. Just after the hit of the throttle, the LRS car went silent and the parachutes came out, so we all figured we somehow had banged the blower. Afterward, we found out that the automatic safety switch had malfunctioned, and it shut the car off and tossed out the 'chutes for no good reason. That was a little frustrating, but we went on to Norwalk the next weekend and we won there. I guess the Bristol win was just not to be, but the runner-up finish launched us on a pretty solid run for the rest of the year.
As I wrote in my preview story, getting to the final this weekend would be great and if you could guarantee us that the runner-up deal would be followed by a win at the next event, that would also be great, but by now all of us just want to win. The albatross around our necks has joined the big hairy monkey on our backs, and after 64 straight races without a visit to the Winner's Circle, we're over it. Right now, we're all like Al Davis. It's "Just win, baby" for us.
Other odds and/or ends…
The current issue of National Dragster has my third column of the year in it, on page 28. This "Behind The Ropes" edition is a little more on the light side than the first two this year, which were kind of wonky "Sports Marketing 101" technical monologues about perceived value, ticket pricing, and ticket sales. It's entitled "Livin' The Dream" because that's a term so many of us throw out automatically when we're at the track and someone says "How are ya?"
If you haven't seen it yet, the column starts out by focusing on the crew, and on people who think they have what it takes to be on a crew. Most don't, and those that do still have challenges awaiting them on a daily basis. In the piece I recall the world record for shortest tenure by a new crew person, when the Worshams brought in a new guy during pre-season testing in Phoenix, and at noon he said he was going to get a burger. He never came back. There are probably some shorter stints than that, but it's the one I was present for so I'll never forget it.
It's been very rewarding to write this column, because it took me out of my comfort zone and made my stretch my writing skills in a new direction. I write this blog in a very relaxed "stream of consciousness" way, just writing whatever pops into my head, and I write my PR stuff in a very formulaic way as well, with a reporter's mindset to get the facts out in a "Who-What-Where-When" sort of style while still trying to create it in an enjoyable fashion. The column, though, is another animal altogether and I found myself really slaving over every detail from the first paragraph of the first one, last year. It needs to be entertaining, but it also needs to be professional and informative, so the last thing I want is for it to sound like I dashed it off in 15 minutes. Generally, I spend close to a week writing and editing each one.
Bristol Dragway. Easily one of the coolest dragstrips in the world.
Like the muscles in your body, you have to stretch out and go through some pain with your "writing muscles" to build them up and take them to a different level. I'd say this "Behind The Ropes" experience has been one of the more memorable of my career, although there's a lot to be said for having crunched out about three million words for this blog over the course of nearly nine years. The blog changed my career (and therefore my life) because it totally redefined how I do my job, how I communicate, and how much I have to stay disciplined and motivated, so I'd think it's fair to say that without the blog there might not have been a "Behind The Ropes". And I have no idea what the next one will be about. Probably time to get thinking about that…
On a totally different subject, late last week I saw the local forecast for Sunday and every expert was calling for it to be one of the nicest days of the year, so when I saw that and noticed the Twins were playing the Astros in an afternoon game, I got online at once and found two seats right down by the railing, just behind first base. The day was exactly as advertised, and it was great to be at Target Field in the sun, but the Astros didn't comply by letting the Twins do much of anything. The blowout score was secondary to the experience, though…
Our seats were so good. How good? SO good, and all I did was buy the best available tickets on the Twins website. Early in the game an Astros runner dove back into first to avoid being picked off, and we could clearly hear the scrape of his jersey on the dirt. We were THAT close… At that point, I turned to Barb and tried to articulate how great it was to be down there, almost in the action. When you sit up higher in the grandstand, even if you're in the lower level, the game seems different than the one I played for so many years. It all just seems bigger, in every way.
When we sat down just off the field, I could look out there and see that it really is still the same game. It's the same 90 feet between bases and the same 60 feet and six inches from the mound to the plate. The players are amazing, but I played at a high enough level to know what most of those double-plays and diving catches are like. It warmed my heart to be down there and realize that even at the highest level, it's still the same game and these guys play it with the same love and intensity I'm familiar with. When you sit that close, you can see it in their eyes. I remember the look.
Later in the game, a towering foul ball seemed to be coming straight to us, but even at my advanced age I pretty much immediately knew that it would spin back and land a few feet in front of us. Everyone around us was jumping up to catch it, and Barb was a little nervous, but I said "Don't worry, it's going to be short" and sure enough the Astros first baseman caught it right in front of us. Towering foul balls like that have a ton of spin on them, because the hitter just barely got wood on the ball, so they go up and come down in a sort of elliptical path, like the top half of a figure eight. That's why catchers immediately go out and turn around to face the backstop when one goes straight up, because it will be curving toward the mound as it comes down. Okay, that's enough baseball… Strike three, you're out.
One other different subject… I've written about and shown photos here before, of our friends Gerald and Kari, who have come to a bunch of races and fed us like royalty at most of them. They got engaged last year, and then got married a few months ago, but they kept the whole thing very low-key and with Kari being a Minnesota native, from White Bear Lake, her family wanted to have a party for them as soon as they could both fly back here. That was this past weekend, and we were invited! We met a ton of great people and really enjoyed sharing the evening with two truly fantastic friends. Congrats you two crazy kids!!!
I guess that's about it… Remember, the kids in Bristol are sharp as a pistol, when they do the Bristol Stomp!
Okay, so I'm in the Norfolk airport and I only have about 18 minutes to write this, but I figured I could maximize the use of these 18 minutes by dashing something off. So dash away I shall. I'll fill in the blanks in the next few days.
Englishtown: The operative words were as follows… Pollen. Round win. Beat Courtney. Lost to Del in a battle of my bosses.
Also things like "all turns from the right lane" and the barricaded compound that was my hotel by the Newark Airport on Sunday night.
There you have it. Bye!
Just kidding. I still have about 16 minutes. One of the highlights for me is always the "yellow haze" at exactly 10:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, and it did not disappoint. 32 nitro cars warming up mostly at once, and this time the only "rule breaker" was a team firing up at 9:59 while some others waited until the mayhem was over before spinning over their motors. If you've never experienced anything like it, you should.
Another highlight was the attendance of my buddy Nathan Scherich and his wife. Way back when I had first met Buck Hujabre (and Buck was still in the touring company for "Jersey Boys") our race in St. Louis coincided with their run there, so Buck came out to the track (I was still working for Del at the time) and he brought Nathan with him. We've stayed friends ever since, and now Nathan is in the Broadway production of the show, so this is the second time he's come to E-Town. It was, however, the first time Allie has ever attended a race, and that was the extra-fun part. I think he filled her full of stories so overwhelming that he had her almost completely psyched out about it, but she quickly came to appreciate what was going on and it was 100 percent fun to have both of them there.
After the "one up - one down" day on Sunday (a recurring theme for us this year, so far) I helped tear down the circus and then headed north for my hotel near the Newark airport. Let's just say that it's never really easy to find where you're going in that area, if you're not already totally familiar with the spaghetti bowl of roads, but this one was an even greater challenge and a few poor prompts from the hotel's own website sent me into a neighborhood where I might not be interested in buying a house. Or renting. I finally got out of there and to the hotel, then passed through by guard shack and the metal gate, to enter the defenses of the compound. Once in there, it was actually fabulous and the room was terrific. But, it seemed somewhat wise to just stay there. In the morning, the same deal only in reverse as the hotel's directions were so nebulous and inaccurate I made four wrong turns just to get to an airport I could clearly see from my hotel window. Sheesh.
The trick at that point was to see if Delta could get Barbara and I together despite the fact we were flying into or out of three huge airports, two of which are fairly well known for either late departures or missed connections. She flew from MSP down to ATL while I flew from EWR down there as well, and amazingly we were both on-time and we met in the Sky Club right next door to our gate for our flight to Norfolk. The airport code here in Norfolk is ORF, and that always looks like much more of a sound than an airport, when I see it. Like maybe the sound you'd make if someone socked you in the solar plexus.
All went well, we flew to ORF (ouch) and drove four hours down to Hatteras Village on the southern edge of the Outer Banks. For three days we crammed all of the fun and relaxation we could into it, and we ate like royalty with every meal at home (one made by me, the others by Barb's cousin John or her Aunt Angie). Tuna, red snapper, blackened chicken, you name it we ate it. Beach time, fun time, good time.
On Wednesday, Barb and I took the ferry over to Ocracoke Island for another fun day… Fact, Ocracoke is where the good guys finally killed Blackbeard, the famous pirate of ill-repute. The Outer Banks are such a challenging area to navigate by boat that there are literally thousands of shipwrecks there, and it was a good place for "real" pirates (as opposed to Johnny Depp) to hang out. Needless to say, there's lots of pirate stuff on the island, which makes it even more fun. Argh.
The ferry ride used to be about 20 minutes, but the latest "super-storm" that crushed the east coast also crushed the Outer Banks, and the huge tides and massive currents pushed so much sand through the inlet from the Atlantic into Pamlico Sound, it is still too shallow and therefore impassable as a direct route. So, the ferries have to make a circuitous route that is initially "S" shaped and then become a large square, wherein they go about five miles out into the sound to get to safe water. It makes for a lengthy ride, but we mingled with other passengers and enjoyed ourselves.
(I'm down to three minutes)
My buddy Nathan and his lovely wife Allie. Good times!
Once on the island, we parked the car and rented a golf cart, making it far easier to get around and see the sights, hit the shops, and grab a bite at a dockside bar, with pelicans watching us while belligerent seagulls dive-bombed the tables with impunity. All in all, a great day, a great few days, some fun beach time, and spectacular company.
Now, back to reality. We made the four-hour return trip earlier today, and from ORF (ouch) we split up again as Barb headed to New York for a day of meetings tomorrow while I head back to MSP to spend the week in Woodbury. Her flight into LaGuardia was delayed two hours, however, but we found a flight to JFK at the next gate and she got on with the last available seat.
Time for me to board now, so here I go. If you ever get the chance to visit the Outer Banks, don't miss it. If you ever have to stay at a hotel right by Newark airport, confirm the "real" directions first.