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!
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.
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…
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!
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.
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.
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…
Denver is in the books, and it was a good story. As I'm sure you know, we had a great qualifying run on Friday night, which temporarily had us on top with a new track record, and then we capped that off with a semifinal finish, making our best lap of the day in that semi but coming up just short to Robert Hight. All in all, it was good and everyone was smiling and proud of a job well done. Plus, the win over Fast Jack in round two moved us back into tenth place in the points, albeit by a margin so small it could be easily overcome by the little bonus points. There's lots of work to do to secure a playoff spot, but we're back to trending in the right direction, and that's a good thing.
Rather than tell a story most of you already know (especially with the "live" TV on ESPN) I'll just launch straight into Denver ramblings…
The Friday night run was a thing of beauty, and it was one of those moments where we did something grand at the time you're supposed to do that. We're not often known for being a big home-run team, although we certainly do have our moments. People tend to think of Wilk as a "hot weather expert" and I'm happy to say that such a designation is also true, but from time to time we can swing the big bat, make solid contact, and hit one out of the park. Q2 was one of those bombs, with a 4.071 that earned us the No. 3 spot on the ladder. Way to go boys!
We added a new staff member to the team this past weekend, and she'll be with us at a lot of races going forward. Leah Hook has worked for a few teams in the past, and she'll be helping us with hospitality and pitching in on the car at times when we're not flooded with corporate guests. She's a very nice and very focused young lady, and she's an asset for sure.
We didn't let her dip a toe in the waters gingerly, either. The Denver weekend features our single biggest day in terms of hospitality all year, when Dick Levi and about a million handpicked friends descend on our pit for a long day of enormous fun. Leah did great. And Jim and Nancy Butler were there as well, helping out and working so hard in the heat and mile-high air. The Butlers have really become a valued part of our Team Wilk family.
Sunday was not only a good day to win a couple of rounds against tough competition, it was also my day for camera calamities. Our old video camera was really struggling earlier in the year, and only the MacGyver magic performed on it by Rich Schendel kept it going. It was finally so beat up and on its last legs Rich found another one just like it online and we brought it out as a replacement. But, that new one had some sort of flaw in the way it "unlocked" the tapes and they'd constantly get jammed. so Rich performed some extra magic on the old one and it's been chugging through the races okay.
On Sunday, as I got ready to shoot round one, it wouldn't go into "Record" mode. I tried a dozen times, even as the car was backing up from the burnout, but it wouldn't work. So, no video of that run. I gave it a few more tries back in the pit, but with no luck, so I grabbed the newer camera and hoped for the best in round two. The car did its burnout, and I turned it on… Just to see a flashing red cassette icon on the screen. I figured it was jammed again, so I opened the tape slot only to see something far worse. I motioned to Krista and showed her the open slot, where there was NO TAPE at all. I had turned that camera on to make sure it would work, but it didn't occur to me that I should confirm there was actually a tape in it. Ugh.
After that round I gave it one more shot with the old camera, figuring I'd just manhandle the on/off switch to try to get it into "Record" mode. After all, if I broke the thing it wasn't like we were at a net loss. It was already not functioning. It turned out to be the right thing to do. I pushed it in the other direction, to the "Play" mode and felt the switch give just a little. I guess the MacGyver switch Richie had created was out of alignment a little, and the hard push got it back where it was supposed to be, and it would then have room to move forward to record. Whew… I'll never forget standing there before round two and opening that thing up to see it was empty. Won't make that mistake again!
It was great to see one of my nephews and one of my nieces at the track. James Doyle was there on Friday and Saturday, and Erin Doyle came on Sunday. Both brought newbies too, so that adds to the fun.
As we were servicing the car and beginning the tear-down process after the semifinal loss on Sunday, Tim got a text from Graham Light at NHRA, and it was a warning that some strong winds and heavy rain were on their way. We started strapping things down and moving some chairs when a huge gust of wind hit the front of our pit, knocking over our complete solvent cleaning station and about tearing the whole transporter awning off. We're very lucky nobody got hurt in that deal, and with all the heavy metal stuff crashing around it missed the nose of our Ford Flex by a mere inch. Everyone ran over there and a few of us grabbed awning poles to keep it from flying away, while others picked up all the overturned stuff. There's an awning panel on the end there, and it was catching the gusty wind like a sail, so it needed to come off, but with all the debris on the ground there was no way to set up a ladder. Big Tom Leskovan, from the Tasca team, had heard the noise and he'd run around to help out, so he just had Nick Casertano get up on his shoulders, so that Nicky could unsnap the panel and take it off. Sometimes you have to be creative, and Big Tom came to the rescue.
Just as the final round was going off, after that weather delay, I rounded up Leah and we headed out toward the Denver airport. Her original itinerary had her leaving on a 4:00 flight on Sunday afternoon. I have no idea why, and the only way anyone would've been able to get her there was if we'd had a horrible race day. So, we got her flight changed to Monday morning but she then needed a room for that night. As I often do, I had already planned to check out of our race hotel on Sunday morning, and had reserved a room at the Embassy Suites right by the airport for Sunday night.
When I do that, I pay whatever I feel like paying for a nice room, because by Sunday night the things I crave the most are a good bed, a quiet room, and a place that has room service. For Leah, since Tim would be paying for her room, I checked all the budget chains out by the airport and they were all higher than the $139 rate I had secured at the Embassy Suites, so I called the hotel to ask about availability. The nice guy at the desk said it was no problem, and he had a "best rate" of $119. Perfect! So he transferred me to the reservations center, which is located somewhere else and not at the hotel itself.
I told the reservations agent that Reggie at the desk had quoted me $119, and that I'd like to reserve a room for someone at that rate. Her reply was "We do have a $119 rate but it's for specific handicapped-access rooms, which we can't reserve in advance." Huh? I told her that the nice gentleman at the actual hotel had told me he had a room with a king-sized bed available for $119, so how about we just do that. She said "That rate is not available." So, Reggie had a room at $119, but it's not available. I believe we call this the old "bait and switch" and I told her that. I did get a room for Leah at the same $139, but I was none too pleased by the whole "disappearing rate trick" pulled on me. Still, the $139 was cheaper than even the discount chains, and it's a terrific hotel. My Caesar Salad from room service was nice, as well, and the pillows were outstanding.
I called Barb at around 7:00 on Sunday evening, because I was so tired I didn't know if I'd even be able to stay up until 10:00. Sure enough, by 9:00 or so I was zonked out and probably snoring. When I woke up (very early) on Monday, I was recharged and ready to fight through the mayhem of Denver International. That place can be a total zoo, and sure enough the TSA lines were snaked all the way back through the massive mazes on both sides of the main terminal. Even with TSA pre-check it can be a hassle, but I gave myself plenty of time and got through it with only a modicum of stress.
Barb and I had to do the old "car swap" at MSP, which is always not fun because it means we've missed each other as we travel. I left Thursday and she picked the car up when she flew into MSP on Friday. She flew back to Spokane on Sunday night, and I picked the car up on Monday. We each have a set of keys for that car, and we text each other with its location after we park. It's the part of the "life we lead" that makes this tough.
Massive crowds at Bandimere, for all three days.
This weekend is Sonoma, but I won't be there because we don't do hospitality. Barb has to stay in Spokane for work, so I'm going to fly out there and do the PR work from my home office in Mayberry (aka Liberty Lake). Again, the life we lead…
So… Denver was hot, the sun was bright, and we did some good. We also almost got totally blown off the hill at the top of the lanes when those gusts of wind about tore us apart, but we survived. And now onto Sonoma, where Tim has won twice and been runner-up once. Let's add to at least one of those columns, eh!
On a totally different note, I was contacted yesterday by a gentleman named Patrick Despain, who is a baseball writer for WFAA TV in Dallas, which is the station where my old friend and roomie, Pete Delkus, is the head meteorologist. Patrick had discovered one of my old "Bob On Baseball" blogs about Pete, and his amazing career as first a pitcher in the Twins' organization and then as a weatherman of enormous repute, and he wanted to blog about it on the WFAA website. He asked me for some additional background on Pete, to add some flavor to his story by having an old friend, roommate, and teammate relate those memories, and I was happy to trade emails with him yesterday. It turned out to be a fantastic story, and it's here:
Good stuff, about a really good guy. And, if you missed that original Bob On Baseball and want to learn more about Pete, you can find that here:
I've been incredibly fortunate to know and be friends with a lot of amazing people in my 58 years on this planet. It's been a life so rich in that regard that I'd be classified as a Billionaire in the friends department. Pete Delkus is one of those people. One of the best guys I've ever known…
So, with all that said how 'bout we just go out there and win Sonoma? I'd be good with that.