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Let the swing begin…Monday, July 14, 2014

Denver. Thunder Mountain.  Bandimere Speedway.  Spin those blowers and try to make some power, but take your time walking back up the staging lanes to the pit.

And here we go, it's Week 1 of the Western Swing after a weekend off to recover from the four-in-a-row swing that doesn't have a name. The Western Swing has taken all sorts of liberties with its own schedule, even having Denver come in last as the third of the three races once, but I always feel like the current incarnation is the "correct" one, for no good reason. It just somehow feels right to go from Denver to Sonoma and then up to Seattle.

I'll sadly be missing the middle leg of the trio, since we don't do hospitality in Sonoma. If I lived in Sonoma I'd be first in line at the track each day, but it's an expensive proposition for me and the team if I just feel like going for the fun of it. I know you'll find this hard to believe, but the hotel owners in places like San Rafael and Novato know there's a race that weekend, and the rates reflect that knowledge.

Had it not been for the fact we're running a special-edtion Rottler - LRS car in Seattle, that race wouldn't have been on my schedule either, but now I get to go and I'm looking forward to that because I love the Seattle area and the fact I'll get to see some of the longest-running blog reader friends out there, including Kim the Lawyer, Crazy Jane and her hubby Chris, and Terry the poster man. Hopefully I'll even see a few other long timers there, as well.

But first, let's not jump ahead. Denver is on the docket and I'll be headed that way on Thursday.  Saturday is the big day for us on the mountain, as it's the annual "packed house" full of special guests all personally invited by Dick Levi. We've always called it "Dick's Family Reunion" and he does have some family there, but that's really a misnomer. Still, it's a great group and they have a great time at the drags with us. I always look forward to that one!

I was looking back through my photos from last year, and that's one of the many wonderful things about the technology we have today. When I first got started in this profession, I shot photos at the track with my 35mm camera and then had to take the film to the mall to get it developed. At least they had progressed all the way to being able to do that in an hour at the time, instead of the week it used to take. From there, the envelope full of prints would join a million others just like it, clogging up a complete drawer in my office and mostly just being a nuisance. Once we got into the world of websites, I had to actually mail the photos to our original webmaster guy, because he had the space-age ability to scan and upload.  We've come a long way.

Anyway, now I can just go back through my iPhoto library and look at all the pics I've taken since I got my latest digital camera and Apple provided the application for looking at, storing, and organizing pics. That first race with this technology would be Norwalk in 2009, and I know this because the folders of photos are stored chronologically and Norwalk '09 is always staring at me as the top folder in the the stack.

Looking through last year's pic, I noticed that I didn't take as many photos in Denver as I do at some other races, although it's certainly one of the most photogenic venues on the tour. I think the reason is that I'm so busy with hospitality that I don't have as much time to cruise around as an ersatz Ansel Adams (although in color).  I did see the pics I took of the massive, huge, ginormous thunderstorm that mercifully formed to the east of us as it moved away. We're all fully accustomed to the afternoon thunder boomers that come over the mountain around 5:00 out there, but luckily the big one in 2013 only gave us a photo op, not a reason to run for cover.

I'll put a few from last year in the photo gallery below, just so we all have something to look forward to this weekend.

Things about Denver…

People who don't live at altitude (me) really do feel it in Denver. It's not like you feel it when you step off the plane, but the first time you walk up the ramps and then up the staging lanes from the parking area you sure do. Every year I figure that I start to get accustomed to it by Sunday, and then I wonder if when I fly home I will feel the reverse, like I'm in super shape. Doesn't seem to work that way.

The Denver crowds are always great, and they come early, stay late, and have a great time. They also seem oblivious to the fact they're mostly broiling in the sun, which also seems as if it's only about 15 feet above our heads. Sunscreen is an essential part of the Denver experience.

Our standard pit spot at Bandimere affords us a "back patio" where Dick Levi likes to hang out. The patio, which is really just an empty space forward of our hospitality area (but patio sounds way better) gives us a fantastic view to the east and on Saturday and Sunday we can see the traffic start to back up on the highway down below. Fortunately, the Troopers who work the traffic flow into and out of Bandimere do a great job, or it would be way worse. We get to the track early enough each day to miss out on the inbound backups.

Denver was the second national event I ever attended.  Back when I was GM at Heartland Park, my whole staff and I went to the Gatornationals to see our first race, and then in midsummer I decided to jump in the HPT Corvette pace car and make the trek to Denver. There are probably more boring drives than the one from Topeka to Denver, but it's gotta be on the short list. Did have fun though, and got my first taste of how the Bandimere family runs the track. Those were useful lessons to take back to Topeka with me for our race, which was in the fall back then.

I've only made the trip "over the hill" to Red Rocks Amphitheater once, just to go over there and check that box off the list of concert venues I've always wanted to visit. The place is wide open when it's not in use, so there are always people working out by running the stairs, or just looking around wide-eyed like me.

I used to watch my VHS tape of U2 "Live At Red Rocks - Under A Blood Red Sky" all the time, back in the early 80s, and to me the venue was a mystical looking place. It didn't hurt that U2 was playing some mystical music on a blustery night when low clouds and fog blanketed Red Rocks. They couldn't have ordered up any better atmosphere for songs like "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day".  It was fun to finally make the quick trip around to the other side of the same mountain Bandimere inhabits and just walk around the place, but the first thing that seemed impossible is that the stage is so tiny. It's looks like it's about the size of a large living room, when you're standing on it. Doesn't seem possible that bands like U2 and Rush could play there. I also parked behind the stage on the day I went, which presented me with a stairway of at least 100 steps just to get up to the place. I earned the visit.

And I'm sure I've written about this before, but it's a segue I can use. My first visits to Denver were in the summers of 1971 and 1972, when my dad was the manager of the Denver Bears, who were then the Triple-A affiliate of the Washington Senators (who then became the Texas Rangers). I was the bat boy, and I got to run around and shag fly balls all summer at the old Mile-High Stadium during afternoon batting practice, before I had to do my "job" picking up bats or taking balls out to the umpire. We lived at the old Continental Denver Motel, just a few blocks away.

Back then, Mile-High was only half as big as it ended up being. The Broncos were in town but the stadium hadn't been finished to completely encircle the football field. The giant stadium grandstands just ran from the right field corner to just a little bit beyond home plate. The football field ran from the third-base line out to right field, where another grandstand stood (the one that had the huge white Bucking Bronco atop it) beyond what would be the end zone for football but right field for baseball. The Bears used the Broncos locker room as their clubhouse, so every player got two lockers (even me) and the place was huge.  Needless to say, those were a couple of fun summers. Players like Jeff Burroughs, Pete Mackanin, Lenny Randle, Dave Nelson, and a whole slew of other guys who were either on their way to the big leagues or had already been there. Great memories.

I have to run now (taking my car into the shop), but I know there are a few of you who also follow along with my other blog, "Bob On Baseball" so here's your tip that a new one has been posted (see, there's the segue I was talking about). 

http://www.perfectgamefound.org/the-life-altering-college-years/


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Last year, getting ready to rock on Thunder Mountain
 
It's about my college years, and how richly rewarding they were, in terms of baseball yes, but mostly in terms of some of the best friendships ever and a fantastic education. I grew up more in those four years than in any others in my life.

Southern Illinois University - Edwardsville wasn't Harvard, by any stretch, but it was fantastic place to mature and become an adult.

I just posted it over the weekend, but so far people seem to like this one and I'm getting a lot of nice emails, so I'm happy for that. As opposed to this blog, where I try to write more often and usually am just flying by the seat of my pants in a sort of stream of consciousness way, my other blog is one I write far more infrequently, but I always have a plan and an actual outline when I dive in. I see those installments as practically mini-books, and maybe someday I'll find a way to combine them into an actual book. Throw in my sports marketing days, my soccer experience, and then my "second career" in drag racing, and you'd have a publication that might break a coffee table, much less sit on one.

Okay, I'm off to take my car in then I'll be back at it behind my desk this afternoon. While I'm waiting on my car, maybe I'll figure out the theme for my Denver preview story…  To avoid cliche, the word "mountain" should not be in the headline.

See you soon. Wish us luck.

Wilber, out!
 

I got nuthin'…Thursday, July 10, 2014

I know it's time to write a blog installment.  I know how to write blog installments.  I've pulled them out of thin air before when I had nary a clue as to what I was going to write about. But this time, despite it being the time and me being the guy who can do it, I don't have much. I guess that means today's headline is misleading. I got somethin', but I ain't got much.

First of all, Norwalk was not all that good for us. I'm sure you know that. We're resilient though, so I'm sure Tim and the guys are ready for a big rebound and we're approaching some races where we've traditionally done very well (rhymes with Seattle) so I'm optimistic.

The best thing about Norwalk, for our team, was pretty much a spectacular photo, taken during the fireworks on Friday night. The uber-talented Marc Gewertz, who shoots for National Dragster and NHRA.com, captured a seriously brilliant image of our transporter and the legendary Bader family fireworks all in one very tricky shot. I don't get the impression this was a "point and shoot" sort of photo, because the level of lighting in it and the composition of it are truly art. Would it surprise me if Marc won some sort of award for that shot? No it would not.

When I saw the shot online, I actually immediately assumed Marc had taken it. He's a flexible guy, and he loves to get down low for interesting perspectives when he shoots the race cars. Call it his "signature look" and it's very interesting. Bravo my friend, great stuff!

Speaking of the fireworks, I worked the Norwalk race from my desk in Woodbury, and the gang in the old neighborhood put together another spectacular outing which started in Neighbor Dave's garage as a rollicking party, and then transferred to Terry and Lynn Blake's house, before finally moving to a little park in the neighborhood that's right behind the Blakes' place.  Buck Hujabre and his wife Mary Luty will know the park, because it's where little Gibson showed his fearless side and went down a slide by himself when they were staying at our house, during the "Jersey Boys" tour.

This year, the city of Woodbury moved the fireworks show from Ojibway Park to the expansive new sports center on the south side of town, so for the first time ever we couldn't sit in our driveways, on lawn chairs next to coolers, to watch the show. We went to the park instead, and had much fun. No sign of Gibson Hujabre, however.

But (and here's the hitch) the party had to start without me. I was tied to the race, and since it was a night session on Friday and the schedule was for qualifying to end just in time for the epic Bader pyrotechnic show, I couldn't get my PR work done until all of that happened. I had the benefit of one timezone's worth of daylight, but it was still a scramble to get my work done and get over to Neighbor Dave's to join in the festivities.  Got there just in time, and it turned out they had an iPad set up with ESPN3 on it, watching along to figure out when I'd be screeching to a halt in front of their place.

A couple of other ramblings…

I saw the new issue of National Dragster online today, and in it was my fourth 2014 installment of my "Behind The Ropes" column. This one is entitled "The Evolving World of PR" and it was an exercise in rediscovering how old I really am. My first job in drag racing was 23 years ago, and yet drag racing is my "second career" after baseball, soccer, and other sports-marketing pursuits.  It's good to have a whole second career, but man the years add up.  Still hard to believe we used to write press releases on typewriters and then send them out taped to the legs of carrier pigeons. Those were the days…

Just today we unveiled our latest "Fan Of The Month" over at TimWilkerson.com, and it's our loyal follower Erica Moon from Becker, Minn.  Erica is such a great person, and her parents are as well. She's the girl with the license plates that say WILKFAN on them, and ergo she's fully deserving of the honor.

Denver is up next. How is that possible?  Saturday will be our single biggest pitside hospitality day of the year, as it's reserved for Dick Levi and a lengthy list of special invitees, including family members and good friends. It's always a big day, and I'm looking forward to it. But really, how in the world are we already on the cusp of another Western Swing?  Mind boggling...

I'll be skipping Sonoma again, which is sad because I love the area and love that race, but we don't do hospitality there so Bob doesn't go. Oooh, that was me typing in the third person. I need to stop that. Bob Wilber does not need to type in the third person, so Bob Wilber will stop that right now.

Under this plan, I would normally not go to Seattle either, but we have a really cool special-edition car for that race, and we'll be doing hospitality because of it, so off I go. I'm not stopping off in Spokane on the way, though, because Barb will be so busy we'd hardly see each other out there anyway.

Rottler will be on our car in Seattle, and they've been a lot of fun to work with. They're even opening their doors for all the racers who are coming into Seattle on the Western Swing, to show off some of the big machines they make and putting on demonstrations for racers and engine builders. Want to make your own blocks and heads? You'll probably want to buy a Rottler machine for that.


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The amazing work of Marc Gewertz
 
And then it will be Brainerd. And then Indy. And then, in a blink, the season will end. And then I will have done this for 19 consecutive years and I'll be 143 years old. Or something like that.

Hey, I get emails all the time asking me to show Boofus and Buster more. Seriously, that is actually the No. 1 request I get. I think I show them too much, but people keep asking, so…  A couple of shots of two content and happy boyz, hanging out on the porch here, on a magnificent Minnesota afternoon.  In a month or two, we'll be headed back to Liberty Lake for the winter and they'll lose their porch privileges, and that will make them sad.  Me too, because I enjoy watching how much they love it out there.

So that's about it. It had nuthin', but I made it into somethin', or is that sumthin'?  Either way…  See you in Denver!!!  Let's go to Thunder Mountain.

Wilber, out!


 

July?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.


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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…

Wilber, out!

 

Echoes of Bristol…Wednesday, June 18, 2014

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…

Wilber, out!

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