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!