Features

From Toe-Town to E-TownWednesday, May 28, 2014

Just a quick one today, because it's a very short week and I need to get everything in order to make the transition from Topeka to Englishtown. And what a transition that is… From Kansas to New Jersey. It's a bit jarring, to say the least, and we're not even talking about things like jug-handle turns or what exit you need to take to get where you're going off the New Jersey Turnpike.

When thinking of this Toe-Town to E-Town transition, it's natural to think of things like traffic, diners, and accents, but it struck me today (when I was flipping through photos) that the biggest transition is really all about the two race tracks…

Heartland Park Topeka is sprawling. Old Bridge Township Raceway Park is compact. HPT is out in the open fields south of a small city. Raceway Park is crammed into a small footprint in a residential neighborhood south of the most iconic and congested city in America. The grandstands at HPT are far apart and separated, while the old historic stands at Raceway Park are as old-school as you can get. It's night and day, really… And then there is the difference between a Kansas "hello" and a Jersey "What? You lookin' at me?" but you knew that.

I love both places, really, but for such different reasons. Both can be "difficult" in some ways, but a joy in others. Heartland Park is so spread out, because of the road course running through it, that time and space appear to be warped. Our pit area was right at the finish line, but to get to the starting line you needed a vehicle or sturdy shoes, because it's about a mile to walk it.

Even with the golf cart, Topeka is the only track on the tour where the tow vehicle and race car can get back to the pit before Krista and I can on the cart. First we had to walk back under the tower and around the bend to the staging lanes just to get to the golf cart, then we swam upstream against the flow of other race cars to get back out of the staging lanes, around another bend, across the road course, through a gate, and back into the enormous pit area, at which point we still had to putt-putt in the cart until we got to our pit. After each run, just as we were pulling up to the Team Wilk set-up, the tow vehicle was pulling the car in at the same time. At any other track, including Englishtown this weekend, we'll get back to the pit and have anywhere from two to five minutes of calm before the race car comes back and the cacophony of engine service fills the air.

Englishtown is bold and brash and every bit of New Jersey, where life in general seems like it's all a bit caffeinated, if you know what I mean. The audience at Raceway Park is made up of absolutely huge fans, and they really know their racing. They cheer robustly and crowd around the pit for every warm up. And then there's that fabulous deal on Sunday morning when every nitro car in the pits warms up at the exact same time, due to the noise curfew. That, right there, is worth the price of admission. The yellow haze is epic!

We seem to float around the Englishtown area to a different hotel each year, although I'm not sure why, and this season we're back up at East Brunswick, north of the track and right at the exit from the turnpike. The last time we stayed at this place it hosted a massive high school prom in the banquet room, much to our surprise. Dozens of charter buses were in line to drop off the kids in their formal attire, and just wading through that group in the lobby was a bit like being on one of those New Jersey reality shows. I'm pretty sure I saw Snooki (just kidding).

Anyway, back to Topeka. We qualified well, we beat a Pedregon in round one, but then we lost to a Pedregon in round two. The headline on my post-event report was "Wilk Bats .500 Against Pedregons". It's good to win round one, that's for sure, and we've done that at five of the eight races so far, but we all want to win more rounds than just that one and every person on the team is focused on doing that. Winning four this weekend would be just what we all need.

It rained in Topeka, but never hard, and this year we felt fortunate to not hear any weather sirens and not have to seek shelter from rotating masses of clouds that conjure images of Dorothy and Toto. Just a little drizzle, and none of us melted.

Daniel Wilkerson was there, along with his lovely wife Brianna, and it was great to see both of them. We had a good sized crowd of LRS guests on Saturday, so Brianna came along to pinch-hit and help us with the hospitality and she did great.

On Sunday, after we were eliminated, we got to work tearing down the pit and hospitality center, and it was the first day this year when it was summer-like and really pretty hot. I know I worked up a soaking sweat, but I'll take that over freezing cold or driving rain any day, and it felt good to be hot for the first time in 2014. Then, Nick Casertano needed a ride to the Kansas City airport so just as the final round was about to happen we got in my rental car and made the hour-long drive over there. Nicky kept an eye on the NHRA app on his phone and we were both happy to learn that Courtney Force had won the race, marking the 100th win for female professional in NHRA history.

Speaking of that, I was in the Media Center on Saturday night when Courtney and her sister Brittany both qualified number one, and when the two of them were joined by their dad in front of the media, well… Pretty much vintage Force hilarity and also pretty hard for Brittany to get a word in edgewise.

Back to Sunday after the race… Nicky had a night flight back to Newark, but my flight was Monday morning, so I checked in at the Hilton. When I got there, I saw chartered buses all over the parking lot, and you can imagine my joy when I discovered that those buses had all been used to transport about 100 youth baseball players (who all looked to be about 12 years old) for some big tournament. Like 12-year old boys, they were all on their best behavior, very quiet, very respectful, and absolutely none of them crowded 16-at-a-time into the elevators and hijacked them all to the top floors, not letting them back to the lobby. That sentence right there is what we call "sarcasm". 


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Dan Wilkerson, in the house!
 
The hallways were quickly turned into party central, but finally around midnight a few adults put an end to the shenanigans. Hey, I was that age once and I can recall having no concept of adult people trying to sleep behind every door on the floor. The elevator thing wasn't that funny, though…

So now I'm finishing up this blog, and wondering if it is even in the slightest bit entertaining (I'm feeling rushed today). I'm thinking it's not, but I promise to make it up to you all with the next one, which will surely win a Pulitzer. And don't call me Shirley.

Time to finish up my pre-race work, think about getting packed, and also remembering that on Monday instead of coming back here I'll be meeting Barbara down in Norfolk so that we can join some of her extended family at their vacation home on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It's an amazingly wonderful place, but now I have to figure out how to pack for a race and for a quick three-day vacation at the same time. Maybe I'll just wear shorts and flip-flops to the race track. I said "maybe".

The beach is incredible, and there are lots of fun things to do, plus I'm really looking forward to seeing all of the extended Doyle clan. We'll have fun, that's for sure!

Next stop New Jersey. What? You lookin' at me?

Wilber, out!

 

BizarrityWednesday, May 21, 2014

The word I used in the headline today is totally made up, but it was the first thing that popped into my head when I sat down to write this so I'm claiming it as my own. I'd copyright it if I could, but I don't think you're allowed to copyright made-up stuff. Something about "frivolous copyrighting statutes" or the like…

Anyway, we're all on a very short break between Atlanta and Topeka and this past weekend was just bizarre, surreal, exhilarating, and confounding. Also expensive.

The good news first…

Friday was a really good day at the track, with some very nice laps made by a few of the teams.  It was a late schedule to begin with, but we were all out there bright and early anyway and that just made it an even longer deal than it was officially supposed to be. I think on Friday we were at the track for about 14 hours. What happily surprised me was the number of people who ventured out to rural Commerce for Friday qualifying, and once again the negative naysayers were confronted by those pesky facts and didn't have a leg to stand on when crying that the world is coming to an end and drag racing is washed up and kaput. Friday was really pretty strong for any track in any market.

Saturday was amazing. At our last race, in Houston, they finally had to declare it "SOLD OUT" on Saturday, and although I don't know if they did that at Atlanta Dragway, they certainly had to be very close. It was packed, wall to wall and end to end, on both sides of the track, and one of our corporate hospitality guests called an LRS staffer around midday to say that he had arrived a little late and the state troopers out in front of the facility had told him they wouldn't let him in because there was no more room.

As I traversed the pits each day, I also noticed another pleasant bit of demographic goodness. It's been said a lot lately that our crowd is getting older and "the kids" aren't interested in drag racing anymore. Well, I need to start looking around more at other tracks, because the crowd at Atlanta Dragway was many things (including huge) but one thing it wasn't was old. There were a lot of families there, but more importantly there were a lot of teens and 20-somethings in the mix, and that bodes well for all of us. And Bob Bode was there, so that bodes well for Bodes.

The Friday evening session got pushed back about two hours, due to various delays and a little surprise weather, and that's when the bizarre stuff started, led off by Antron's mishap that started with a motor that was "all blowed up" and ended with a scary looking crash that he walked away from with no ill effects.

On Saturday, during Q3, Wilk was in the right lane and Jack Beckman was in the left, and as I stood there behind the car holding the video camera to my eye, I watched as our LRS Mustang took off and ran right down the middle for what was sure to be a fine run. Then all I saw was fire and much of the body disintegrating.

For the record, I will admit to having video-taped a goodly number of runs that have ended with explosions or crashes, going all the way back to the early CSK days with the Worshams. I do not believe, thinking back, that I was ever able to keep my thumb away from the on/off button for any one of them. I don't know why, but it's just impossible. Your brain sees the explosion and your thumb turns the camera off before you can even process the thoughts.

What's weird is that I've also shot a number of final round winners where the car in the other lane either red lights or smokes the tires early, and I can hear all of my teammates cheering and celebrating behind me, but I still stand there and dutifully do my job, holding the camera steady until the car crosses the finish line, and holding my celebration in because I'm taping the whole run. So, my brain thinks quickly enough to overcome that temptation but it doesn't have the available neurons to keep shooting when the car blows up. This time, it was a little different but not in any kind of better way. I saw the car blow up and instead of just turning it off I subconsciously lowered the camera so that I could look with my own two eyes, instead of through the tiny viewfinder. Then my brain announced "Hey, the camera is still running dummy but you have it pointed at the ground" so I lifted it back up again and pointed it down track, as if that was going to make up for it. It's just really weird, and I've never been able to overcome it.

Del had quite a few calamities over the year, tossing a number of bodies into the air (we all remember the Mountain Dew car, the Max Life car, and the all red car we called "Big Red") but I never managed to get more than a tenth of a second of any of those explosions on tape. See bad thing - Turn camera off.  I hope there are no other times in my career where I even have a chance to make good on my pledge to keep the camera running, but we'll see…

Anyway, we did that in Q3 with Fast Jack in the other lane, and as it turned out we were paired up again in Q4, with Jack now over in the right. And that's when his motor exploded and his carbon-fiber body shredded into a bazillion pieces. That's a real number. It comes right before a gajillion on the periodic scale. Tim had smoked the tires at the hit so he was way behind, but one little piece of Jack's car hit our LRS body (our back-up, since we trashed the new one in Q3) right in the nose. It put a nice dent in our car, but we kept it like that as a point of pride and toughness.

And let me say a word about our guys. After Q3, they didn't just have to replace the body, they had to strip the chassis down quite a ways to find everything that was destroyed and either fix or replace all that stuff. And it was a lot of stuff, let me tell you. We had broken parts spread all over the pit, including the blower and intake manifold, with said manifold still being slightly attached to the blower but about 99 percent separated and grotesquely destroyed. It looked like something you'd see in the Zapruder film.  So, bottom line is our guys rallied and got the work done, and we were actually ready to run and waiting to go in the lanes when Q4 came around. Well played, boys!

We'd been watching the weather all weekend, and the Sunday forecast just kept getting worse and worse. Still, it is Georgia in the springtime and things change fast, including weather arriving when it's not expecting and expected weather not arriving at all. All we could do was hit the sack on Saturday night, after another enormously long day at the track, and hope for the best.

Our hope didn't help. I got up at 6:30 and looked out my window to see the gloom and the rain. And it rained all day…

There are long days at the track, and both Friday and Saturday were prime examples of real marathons, but there's nothing quite like a complete wash-out. It's pretty tough on everyone, really.

As you all know, they did all they could to get a round or two in, late on Sunday, but the reality of it was that it just couldn't be done. It was cold, wet, and pretty horrible and after a few pairs of Top Fuel it had to be called off.  The Safety Safari gave it everything they had, but it just wasn't possible

My flight home was Monday morning, out of GSP, and I had planned on driving up there on Sunday night to stay right by the airport. I took one quick look at a few websites and the numbers associated with changing my travel plans were not pretty. Between changing the Delta ticket and extending my rental car another day, plus the fact the race wasn't officially called until well after when I could cancel my hotel room, it was going to cost close to $400 to make the changes, so Tim told me to hit the road and go home.

I drove up to GSP in the dark of a rainy night, and when I approached Greenville I realized I only had a general idea where the Holiday Inn Express was, and I wasn't really sure how to get there. Two exits from the airport I saw a Holiday Inn Express sign and my brain thought "Geez, there can't be two Holiday Inn Express hotels here by the airport, so this has to be it". This is the same brain that can't find a way to keep the camera running when things explode.

I had a memory of looking at the hotel map on their website, and did recall it being on the right side of the road and down around a curve somewhere. This Holiday Inn Express was on the left right by the road. Hmmm…  And it was about 10:30 after three really long days and a 90-mile drive, and all I wanted in the whole wide world was to get to my room. I was pretty sure I was at the wrong place, so I left all my stuff in the car. Sure enough, it was not the right place and my hotel was one exit further on the interstate.

It was still hard to find and on my first try I found nothing, so I pulled over and called the hotel from a parking lot. The very nice young lady gave me directions in the way only a southerner can. She said (and use your best Georgia accent here) "Okay then, you're gonna wanna go left at the Bi-Lo, then go up two lights and you're gonna see a Walgreens on the left. So you're gonna wanna turn left at the Walgreens and you'll come to a stop sign. Just go straight on through there, though, until you come to another stop sign, and you're gonna wanna turn left there and follow that road until the picket fence ends. When the picket fence ends, you're gonna wanna turn right and we're just up ahead around the corner."

When I got there, I entered the lobby and found a welcoming sign by the front desk. You'll see it in the photo gallery. For one night, I was a big celebrity!

The race on Monday was supposed to start at 10:00, and that worried me because my flight was at 9:45 and the little regional jet I'd flown down there on, out of Detroit, did not have WiFi.  Fortunately, after I ate breakfast and got to the gate, I saw that the start had been pushed back some more, and it was going to be a little after 11:15 when they'd run. My flight arrived in Detroit around 11:20, so I had hope.  I figured that with three more pairs of Top Fuel and with Tim and some guy named Force being the third pair of Funny Cars, I might just make it to the Sky Club in time to be a PR guy.

As soon as we landed I turned on my phone and saw that the timing was perfect. I got off the plane, headed down the concourse and through the LSD-like "tunnel of light" at DTW (I'm speculating, since I've never taken LSD, but I saw all those 60s movies so it seems pretty accurate) and into the Sky Club that sits on the second level of DTW right across from the cool fountain that shoots ribbons of water back and forth, mesmerizing little kids but also attracting a constant flow of adults who find it equally as fascinating.

Once I sat down and set everything up, I was right on time and I followed Alan Reinhart's audio-cast from there. I couldn't gain access to ESPN3 from the club, but Alan gave me all the info I needed so with that and the "Live Timing" app it was just like being there, except without the nitro fumes.  And I could hear one car smoke the tires and then the other smoke the tires, and I knew we had ourselves a pedalfest…  When Alan informed me that Wilk had won, I was on Twitter and Facebook within seconds, spreading the word.  Sweet!

Then, with my layover being about 2 hours and 30 minutes, I was able to stay right there and report on the second round, which of course we lost. One up and one down, but we took out the 16-time champ in the first one so that's a good thing (for us).

After that, I got on the flight to MSP and was happy to see an all new interior on the 757-300 we were on, including entertainment units, a USB port, and an electrical outlet right there at my seat!  That was a good thing, because my iPad was about done and it needed juice. I'm so dependent upon that thing now, when I fly, I think I might spontaneously combust it I didn't have it on…

Barb picked me up at the airport, we went back to Woodbury, and I got right to work, putting together my post-event report and holding off the sheer exhausted tiredness I was feeling. When I sent that out, I congratulated myself for handling the PR as if I was there, even though I was not only doing it remote control but also while traveling home. I got lucky, in other words.

After I finished my work, we went out to eat at Lakes Grill (I had the walleye) and then back home to watch a little TV and try to make it to a respectable bedtime. It was actually all I could do to make it to 10:00…  And I slept about 12 hours that night.


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Packed, all the way to the end of the grandstands, on Saturday
 
So now we ramp it all back up and head to Topeka, which of course means we head to Kansas City and drive to Topeka, and the next week we'll head to Newark and drive to Englishtown. This apparently happens a lot.

There are some destinations on our tour that I don't look forward to getting to. I'm happy at all the race tracks, but it's the "getting there" part of it that can be unpleasant and stressful, especially if overcrowded busy airports with notoriously bad TSA lines are involved, or if there's really bad traffic and long drives to be made, which is specifically why I fly into GSP instead of Atlanta's airport, so that I don't have to deal with the first 45 miles just getting through the Atlanta madness.

And even though it's a pretty decent hike from KC to Topeka, I still enjoy that drive and I always very much look forward to getting to T-Town.  It's where I started in this sport, and I have a lot of great memories of not only Heartland Park, but the people and the town as well.  And I usually make a slight detour on the way to the track one day, just to drive by the house I used to live in there. And I enjoy Kansas City too, considering I lived there for two very enjoyable years when I was the GM of the Kansas City Attack indoor soccer team. It's a great town with great people and I look back on those days and that job very fondly.

It's all good. And here's hoping for good weather, on-schedule runs, a great crowd, and a win. A win would be great!

Wilber, out!

 
 

More than just a triple-header…Monday, May 12, 2014

The NHRA "Western Swing" is the stuff of legend. It must be, because it actually has a name and everyone who is a fan of the sport is aware not only of that name, but also of the races which make up the designated three-race trifecta. The odd thing is, it's not only not the sole three-race swing we do, it's not even tied for first place in terms of how many consecutive race weekends are on the schedule. Did that make any sense? My allergies are in full swing and my head currently resembles a cinder block, at least from the inside, so I'm not sure I'm typing in real sentences…

Anyway, this week marks the beginning of the single most insane part of the schedule. We start with a triple-header, going to Atlanta this weekend, then on to Topeka, and then we finish that up with our annual trip to Englishtown ("You lookin' at me?"). This trio of races is just as daunting as the Western Swing, when it comes to distance and disparity of locations, but it sadly has no name.

After Englishtown, we have a weekend off. Then we set the gold standard by going for four in a row, also hitting some very disparate locations by visiting Bristol, Epping, Joliet, and Norwalk back-to-back-to-back-to-back, or something like that. This quartet also has no name. Then, we get all lazy and have another weekend off before we hit the trio that does indeed have a name, with Denver, Sonoma, and Seattle.

That would be 10 races in 12 weekends. Top that!

But, first things first. Last year, we all traveled down to the lovely little burgh of Commerce, sitting out there on the interstate about halfway between Atlanta and Greenville, just a bit north of Athens (which gave us REM and the Georgia Bulldogs), and right next to a significant landmark, if by "landmark" you mean "outlet mall", and all we did was get wet and cold. It was not a fun weekend, and it finally ended mercifully with a postponement. It's a good thing last year's schedule had a pause between Atlanta Dragway and Heartland Park, or that postponement might have been indefinite. Here's hoping for good weather this weekend!

I also recall vividly the fact that we were all going to Georgia in mid-May, which generally means we were all planning on being hot and sweaty, so most of us didn't bring anything approaching jackets or sweatshirts in our suitcases. Instead, it was basically miserable. I would've liked to have controlled the concessions for hoodies that weekend… I also recall vividly the fact that I flew in and out of Greenville-Spartanburg, but our hotel was in Braselton, about 25 miles the other direction on the Atlanta side of Commerce, so when the plug was officially pulled we were all in scramble mode to get out of our hotel rooms, onto different flights, and also get everything rebooked for the next weekend. I somehow managed to get back to the hotel and get packed before turning around and driving right back past the track to get to GSP and catch a flight that night. To add to the utter hilarity of it all, I had booked an itinerary last year that had me connecting in Atlanta in both directions, so I could look out the window and see the track as I flew over it. If I only had a parachute…

This year, I'll be getting on a Thursday flight out of MSP with Rich Schendel, and we'll connect in Detroit to fly down to GSP, before we get in my rental car and make the 90-mile drive. Yes, it seems odd to go to the Atlanta race and never actually go to Atlanta, but GSP is such an easy and painless airport, which is a good thing, and as an added bonus it's also not on the southwestern side of a huge city like Atlanta, with all its built-in traffic problems. So, if the drive is going to be a lengthy one, it just seems better to use the simpler airport with less traffic.

And, looking ahead at this 10-race marathon, it's also a bit startling to realize that when this deal is over the summer will be coming to a close, the Countdown will be looming, and we'll all be three months older. So there.

On a personal front, I'm sitting in Woodbury, Minnesota as I type this. That's because this past weekend was "the big trip" for our little family, made up of me, a certain wife of mine, and two fuzzy boyz. Just like last year, we're utilizing the Twin Cities as our summer base of operations, and to do that we once again made the drive over the course of three days. Had I been doing it solo, without said bride and felines, I'd have done it in two 13-hour days with one stop somewhere around Billings, but with us traveling as a group it's just easier to knock four hours off on the first day, spending the night in Missoula, and then making the long trek to Bismarck on Day 2. The final day is still a solid seven hours, and once you arrive you certainly feel it. I slept 11 hours on Saturday night, after we got here.

The drive can be gorgeous, especially the part from Spokane to Bismarck, but we got ripped off this time with lousy rainy weather and low clouds. If you're going to drive through scenery that looks pretty much like a spectacular national park, you ought to be able to actually see it, but mostly I could just see my windshield wipers going back-and-forth in front of my eyes. Finally, as we approached downtown Minneapolis on Saturday evening, a royal blue sky emerged from the overcast, as if to welcome us back to the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Ta Da!

The boyz were amazing. Last year, it was pretty traumatic for the first few hours on the initial day, and they were very unexcited about getting in their carriers to go in and out of the hotel rooms, but they clearly remember it now and were almost perfect. They'd even get right in their carriers without any trouble at all, without much squawking in any way, and they seemed pretty much "at home" in the two hotel rooms. In the car, they mostly just slept and Boofus spent most of the trip on my lap. Good boyz.

So that's how we spent the second of these two off weekends. The first one started with Barb's birthday present, which was the overnight stay we enjoyed at the Coeur d'Alene Resort, topped off by our dinner at Beverly's. It was all we had hoped for and more. The lake is spectacular in every respect, and I'd reserved a suite near the top of the hotel with wall-to-wall lake views and a balcony overlooking the marina. The incomprehensible part of the deal is that it's about a 15-minute drive from our house in Liberty Lake, but it feels like another world. A very luxurious and well-appointed other world. A 5-star other world. With champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries. Oh yeah.


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Not a bad view! Coeur d'Alene Resort, as seen from our room.
 
So, the Coeur d'Alene weekend is behind us, and the 1,400-mile drive to Minnesota is behind us, and now Atlanta, Topeka, Englishtown, Bristol, Epping, Joliet, Norwalk, Denver, Sonoma, and Seattle are staring us in the face.

And with our new partnership with Rottler, who will have a special wrap on our car at the Seattle race, as well as hospitality there, I'll be going to the great state of Washington for that event but it will be "just another race" in the old sense, because I'll just fly from MSP to Sea-Tac without stopping in Liberty Lake. It will be pretty cool if we fly over Spokane, though… I'll be looking.

Last night at dinner, Barbara and I were talking about how much we're going to miss Hay J's and Palenque, our two favorite Liberty Lake restaurants, this summer. Right now, Woodbury is in a bit of a flux in terms of upper-end dining experiences after one steakhouse closed and another fine establishment went into full-on renovations and a name change, and I'm not even sure when it's going to reopen. Last night, we headed up to Lakes Grill (another favored spot) for a fine Walleye dinner, but they were slammed with a late Mother's Day crowd and we couldn't get a table. We almost made a smart decision to head over to Acapulco, a good Mexican place, but instead we were lazy and went to another little Mexican joint that was much closer, and basically it was underwhelming, if by that you mean terrible. Ugh… Lesson learned.

And now that we're here, Barb has to head out tonight for the week. And she'll be back in Liberty Lake pretty consistently all summer long, when she's not traveling to other far-flung places. I'll be going to most of the races, but skipping a few as is now the norm when we don't do hospitality. Such is the life we lead… One of these years we'll try to find a way to settle down and be a bit more normal, if that's possible for two people like us. I'm not sure we'll ever be normal in any sense but hey, you gotta have goals!

See you in Commerce!

Wilber, out!
 

Houston hoedownWednesday, April 30, 2014

What a weekend of contrasts that was! The whole Houston experience is kind of surreal and blended into a mishmash of things in my brain, probably not aided by the fact it was our first true weekend of actual hot and humid weather, but we ran great on all four qualifying runs before we then we messed up and the car didn't cooperate in round one. Add in the fact we had a major engine catastrophe on Saturday but it had nothing to do with the car, and I made three (count 'em, three) trips to Houston's Hobby Airport even though I flew in and out of Intercontinental, and it was all just weird. But there were plenty of good things to report.

Let's start with the crowd. It has become sort of the Negative Nelly "complaint du jour" for some people to scream about the sky currently being in a "falling" position on a regular basis, mostly stating opinions about the state of the sport and fan interest. Keep in mind that most of these people on internet soap boxes are not even at the races. Generally speaking, being a guy who is at most of the races with first-hand knowledge of how the events happen and how many people are there to see them, I can assure you that the complaints are typically overblown and not credible, and the overly optimistic statements are typically overstated. The truth falls somewhere in between, and it varies up and down depending on the day and the track.

There is, however, absolutely no escaping or avoiding the truth regarding the Houston race. Friday, for a Friday, was good. Saturday was incredible and off the charts. It's hard to argue with the words "Sold Out" or "Standing Room Only". Royal Purple Raceway was truly at capacity, and the fans had a heck of a fun day. Sunday was pretty much a replay of Saturday, so I'm going out on a shaky limb here to state that this year's running of the O'Reilly Auto Parts Spring Nationals was a success. Well done, Houston staff and NHRA! And there we no signs of the sky falling anywhere near Baytown.

As for Team Wilk, we made four of the most consistent and beautiful qualifying runs you can make. We were never in the top three during any session, so we didn't earn any qualifying bonus points, but we were right there (just out of the points) each time. It's more typical for just about every team to have a qualifying effort that includes a whiff or two, a single or a double, and a home run. For us, Houston was like four straight run-scoring doubles into the gap, all hit hard and right on the nose.

And then on Sunday, for the first time all weekend, the car actually didn't do what Tim and the guys asked it to do. It rattled a little leaving the line, and when it did that it moved over about a tire width or two, and when it got out of shape and out of sync like that it just kind of plowed into tire spin. Round over. Day over. Race over. It's a crazy sport, isn't it? You know, in basketball if you swish a three-pointer, you get three points. If you clank it off the rim like a brick, you get no points. Drag racing takes all of those black-and-white "win or lose" concepts and sometimes turns them on their collective heads. I can't count how many times we've run so well in round one but still come up short, usually losing to the only other car in the entire round that outruns us. It's like you swish a bucket from outside the arc but the ref says "Sorry, didn't like your form. No basket."

And everyone has had those laps where we absolutely blow it, smoking the tires, blowing up, looking terrible, but the other guy red lights. Hello round one in Vegas (you're welcome Ron Capps) and hello round one for John Force in Houston (you're welcome Cruz Pedregon). You hoist up a bomb from way downtown and it literally hits the top of the backboard before bouncing into the seats, but the ref says "Hold on. We didn't like the way the other guys were playing defense. Three points!" Crazy…

Houston ramblings…

On Friday, between the two qualifying sessions, everything was going along smoothly when, with no advance warning, "all hell broke loose" in terms of the noise coming from the generator box on the front of the transporter. If you want to hear carnage personified, it sounded that bad. The guys all raced to the generator box and turned it off, but the patient was already deceased.

We ran an emergency power line over to Bob Tasca's rig, and that at least allowed us to turn a few lights on, but we were truly stuck in the dark ages. No real machinery, very few power tools, no air compressor, and NO COMPUTER in the lounge. For the first time in a couple of decades, a Funny Car crew chief did the tuning with a pencil and paper, and his brain. We had no data whatsoever. So how'd that work out? We ran another great lap right down Broadway.

The generator, however, was a total mess. I hustled to the track office to inquire about finding a portable generator, but we needed a big boy, not a little Honda machine that could run a stereo at your campsite. We're talking 35 kw minimum. Those aren't hard to find at equipment rental places, especially in an area like Baytown where so much heavy machinery is constantly at work, but guess what… It was 5:15 on Friday afternoon when this happened, and all the local rental shops closed at 5:00, and they were not going to be open over the weekend.

The staff at the track mobilized for us, though (Thanks Royal Purple Raceway!) and it turned out that they had a company on call for any similar emergencies they might have. They put a call in to their guy, who called me right back, and he had a 36 kw unit ready for us if we needed it. I'm sure it would've cost "something" but we never got that far.

What we did was change over from a small standard power cord between our rig and Tasca's, moving up to a heavy-duty line that could bring us all the power we needed without draining any from them. Big (HUGE) thanks to the Tasca bunch, who have stepped in to help us on many occasions. We ran off their power for the rest of the weekend.

A few minutes ago, I received some photos from Travis Wirth, showing the inside of the generator's motor. We broke a piston and mangled some valves, and it pretty much looked like a small version of a Funny Car motor after a big boomer. I'm confident our guys have the technology and talent to put it back together.

Travis also sent along some pics of our newest Rottler machine, as well as the big Rottler unit we got last year, just so you can see how impressive these things are. Photographic proof in the gallery.

Our hotel was in La Porte, which is pretty much due south of Baytown, across the huge bridge that spans the shipping channel. It's about a 20-minute ride from the track, and usually the traffic is going the other way, so it's really pretty convenient and it's a really nice place. Candlewood Suites hotels are terrific, and we love staying there.

Hobby Airport is about 30 to 45 minutes west of La Porte, on the south side of Houston proper, but to get there you're really at the mercy of Houston traffic, which can be legendary. On Friday night, Shelley Williams from LRS was due to land there at about 9:45, and we had a 7:00 p.m. qualifying session, so as soon as we were done and I shot off a few bits of PR work, I got in my rental and headed to Hobby, and to do that I frankly had little choice but to head back toward La Porte as if I was going to the hotel, and then turn right on a major parkway to make the drive over to the airport.

I got there about one minute before Shelley landed, and only had to make one lap around the airport before she was waiting at the curb. Perfect timing. To be a nice guy, I had even already checked her into her room so I could just hand her the key and she didn't have to mess with the front desk.

Her flight back to Illinois was at around 9:00 or 10:00 a.m. on Sunday, but obviously none of us were going to be available to drive her over there on race day, so we arranged for Shelley to have a hotel room on Saturday night right by the airport, and after we were done with our hospitality and qualifying, I drove her over to Hobby again.

On Sunday, Nick Casertano, along with Tim and Krista, were all flying out of Hobby on Sunday night, while I was flying out of Intercontinental on Monday morning. So, we all got in my rental right as the final round was about to go off, and I dropped them all at the curb right around 4:30, then I turned north and drove all the way up to Intercontinental on the far north side of Houston, where I dropped my rental car of and took the shuttle back to the terminal. There's a Marriott right in the airport but it's not part of any of the terminals, so I just got off at Terminal B, and then went down into the lowest level where a Disney-like tram runs back and forth, and it has a stop at the Marriott. Singing "It's a small world, after all…" was optional, but now I know I've planted that evil ditty into your heads, so there is that…

It all went smoothly, I had a nice dinner, a good night's sleep, and then had the ability to leave my room at 9:45 a.m. for my 11:00 flight and still have a few minutes to kill at the gate. Smooth as silk.

So, that's how you make three trips to Hobby Airport even though you flew into and out of Intercontinental.

I know you all are familiar with Dana Sherman, one of the top-notch camera operators on the ESPN2 telecasts. Back in the "good old days" Dana and Nelson Jones were always with us at the starting line, and fist bumps on camera were pretty standard, but now Nelly usually operates from the top of the tower or on a riser behind the line, and Dana works in the truck running a robotic camera. We all miss the interaction.

The key thing in Houston, though, was that I finally got to meet Dana's family, and let's face it: That's the most important thing. What a great looking group they are. Photographic proof in the gallery.

My trip home went like this… Leave hot and muggy Houston and fly three hours to Minneapolis, where the weather was officially listed as "awful" considering it was 36 degrees and raining, with some nice "breezy" wind added in.

When I woke up on Tuesday morning, it was 33 degrees and snowing. Perfect! Fortunately, by the time I got to MSP around 9:45 a.m., it had warmed up all the way to 36 and it was just raining. Two and a half hours later I disembarked in Spokane and it was 70 and sunny, with no humidity at all.

Today, I'd call this idyllic. Spokane does have some incredible summer weather…

Last night, Barb and I had dinner with another couple up at our local amazing bistro, Hay J's. Here's how this worked. Barb is on the Board of Directors for the United Way of Spokane. Also on the board is Carla Altepeter, who is the CEO of the largest credit union here. They are very similar people, and hit it off immediately.

They were going through a "getting to know you" conversation recently, and Carla told Barb that her husband Tom was from St. Louis, so of course Barb told her that I was from there also and one of them instantly asked the question about where we went to high school. It's a rule for every native St. Louisan to ask "Where'd you go to school?" as soon as they meet another resident or native of the Gateway City. It's a way of immediately finding out how many degrees of separation you have, and usually it can be just one or two.

Carla said "Tom went to St. Louis U. High" and Barb shot back, "So did Bob! I wonder if they knew each other?" Tom and I were both in the class of 1974. How small a world is it when Barb can meet a woman originally from Los Angeles, who then moved to Oshkosh, Wisconsin and who now lives in Spokane, and her husband and I went to high school together? Crazy!


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Two words: SOLD OUT!
 
It was fantastic to see Tom and meet Carla last night, and before we sat down someone asked "When was the last time you guys saw each other?" and we both replied in unison, "Graduation!"  40 years ago. Amazing. And now we owe them dinner, and will be happy to do just that.

What made it even crazier was that we have a favored waiter at Hay J's, named Christian. He's a great guy and a fantastic server, and it's always great to have a regular favorite local restaurant with the same person taking care of you. Oddly, last night we didn't have one of Christian's tables, but we saw him and he came over for hugs and handshakes. Turns out, Tom and Carla go to Hay J's often and Christian is "their guy" too! Max crazy. Planet Earth = Miniature.

And… Tom and Carla are playing golf on Saturday, and will be playing the course where we live. Barbara and I haven't played in a couple of years and we want to hit the range a time or two before we play an actual round, but we know when Tom and Carla's tee time is and we're going to wait at the second green (right outside our backdoor) for them to play our hole. We'll be the gallery. Photos will be taken…

So, that's about it. Tomorrow afternoon Barb and I will head over to Coeur d'Alene to have a sumptuous dinner at Beverly's and a fabulous overnight stay at the Coeur d'Alene resort, to celebrate her birthday. Can't wait.

Boofus and Buster say hello, too.

Wilber, out!

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