The headline today is both a description and a name. This part of the country is known, collectively, as the Great Northwest or the Great Pacific Northwest, and many people think that's a truly accurate description, myself included. It's a pretty great part of the country. As a subset of the Great Northwest, the Spokane area calls itself the Great Inland Northwest, since we're all the way across the state from the Pacific, but I think to someone in Florida, Texas, or New York it probably is included in the overall term, which generally means Washington and Oregon.
Okay, with the geographic story out of the way, it's time to describe my last week, which started right about this time one week ago, on last Tuesday, when I drove down to Portland. Of course, you would know that if you read my last blog installment, but it seemed appropriate to once again set the stage. On Wednesday, I was up early, packed up, checked out, and on my way to the Western Star truck assembly plant, and I arrived at our rendezvous point at the McDonald's on Swan Island right on time. Amazingly I got there just a minute after Jason Curry from Curry's Transportation pulled in, and also just behind the Western Star rep who had just arrived. I did beat someone there, since I got there about one minute before that big gorgeous Team Wilkerson transporter turned the corner as well.
You've probably seen the Curry's Transportation logo on our race car (rear quarter panels). Jason and his wife Hope own the company, based in Muscatine, Iowa, and they've become a valued partner in our racing organization. As a Western Star dealer, they made it happen for us to take delivery of our new Western Star truck this summer. We often call sponsors "valued partners" and Jason and Hope are the perfect example of that. Great people, too.
We headed over to the plant, and it took a while to get us checked in through the security gate and parked in front of the building, but it all went well and we were all truly excited to be there. Western Star had thought this through, and set up a company cookout lunch for all the employees on the day we were scheduled to be there, so they parked our rig out front and we set up the race car right where all of them would come out of the door to get their lunch. Before that, though, it was time to tour the plant.
We got our yellow vests and our safety glasses, as well as ear pieces so we could hear our guide explain things via radio (too noisy in there to have to shout all time), and then we put some stylish yellow plastic caps on the toes of our shoes. When our guide said "If you want to wear these clackers, we can get off the tour trail and go anywhere we want in there. Do you want to wear them?" As you can probably imagine, there was an instantaneous and unanimous positive reply to that comment.
I've toured other plants and businesses before, including automobile assembly plants, breweries, and wineries and they've almost universally been pre-planned and carefully choreographed deals that stuck to a safe route where we could only observe the work being done from a safe distance. This deal was going to be very different, and it was one of the cooler things I've done.
Our guide John took us in and our first impression was a little bit of awe, looking at the size of the place and all the work going on. We traced the assembly process from the bare chassis to the finished product. We saw the paint booth in action, saw the motors get installed on the chassis, watched as the cabs were mated to the trucks, saw interior assembly of the day cabs and sleepers, and saw finished trucks roll off the line.
I'm not what you'd call "a truck guy" and I really never knew if there was much of a difference between any of the brands, but it didn't take long for even a PR guy like me to realize just how different these Western Star trucks are. The level of craftsmanship, the attention to detail, the ability to totally customize each truck in just about every way ("Do you want two horns or four horns on the roof?") and the commitment to making the best trucks in the world, even if the assembly process takes longer, is far more labor-intensive, and costs more, was beyond impressive. And if you're thinking "Well that sounds like Western Star trucks are the Mercedes-Benz of the trucking industry, Bob" you'd be absolutely right. Western Star is a division of Daimler, the company that also owns and builds Mercedes automobiles.
There really wasn't anywhere we couldn't go, and one of our biggest concerns was staying out of the way as the units were inching along the assembly line, but the workers were very gracious and treated us with great acceptance. We also had our heads on swivels to make sure nothing was going to roll over us, into us, or on top of us!
When the tour was sadly over, we made our way back outside just as the lunch cookout was about to start, and that's when the interaction really kicked up a notch. The workforce grabbed their hot dogs and drinks, and after they ate they descended on the race car to have a closer look and get Tim's autograph. Easily one of the best displays I've ever been a part of, and as soon as it was time for all of them to get back to work we loaded the car back into the transporter to head about a mile away, where Stage 2 of our day was another display at the Daimler Trucks corporate headquarters.
Daimler is building a new headquarters right next door, but the current one is still a spacious and modern place. They blocked off the right lane of the road out front, for our rig, and then we rolled the Funny Car up onto the plaza right in front of the building, which houses not only the executive team but also a large contingent of engineers who design these fantastic trucks.
So try to picture this… A Funny Car rolls up right below all of the front windows in a building full of automotive engineers. What happens next? Well, it looked like a fire drill. The doors opened and too many people to count came pouring out to see what we'd put in front of their office building. Now at almost any other display, especially if it's just for the general public at a retail store, the people who come to look at the car tend to be a little shy (maybe intimidated, even) and a bit standoffish, because they don't want to get too close to something like this. You generally have to say "Come closer, and get a better look at this thing…" to even get them to peek under the body. Truck engineers are not the general public.
These men and women poured out of the doors and never hesitated to crawl right up under the body, to point at different parts of the car and marvel at all of it. I have never been a part of a more enjoyable display. I think the reason for that is because these men and women asked really intelligent questions about every function on the race car. They make huge and powerful trucks, but the concept of 10,000 horsepower and 0-to-300 mph in less than four seconds made their eyes wide and, typically, made them laugh in amazement.
It was a fantastic day, and we even let it run a little long because the Daimler people kept asking questions we enjoyed answering. Tim even made sure a couple of them got to sit in the car, including the President of the company. Awesome day, awesome display.
Most of our team had actually taken the support rig straight up to Seattle from Sonoma, to get our Hospitality Center set up, so it was just Nitro Nick and Joe Serena with the rig, Tim and Krista in their rental car, me in my new car, and Jason and Hope in their rental car. We got loaded up, and the Wilkersons and the crew guys hit the road for the race track. Jason and Hope had more Great Northwest touring to do, and I was headed for the coast.
It was a fun ride over to Seaside, and I got there late in the afternoon at the RiverTide Suites hotel. As the name would imply, there's a river running right in front of the place (the ocean beach is a couple of blocks to the west) and I saw firsthand why the hotel has that name. The ocean tide backs up into the channel and the river can either be right up on its banks, like it was when I looked out my window, or it can be almost empty, like it was when I checked again in the morning. Fascinating. Also, the hotel was a really nice place and Seaside is a great little town. I'd recommend it to anyone.
The next morning, it was my time to tour the coast, heading up US 101. The only problem with driving on 101 by yourself is that you have to be so focused on the actual driving part of the deal and that makes it a little hard to soak it all in. When the choice is keeping the car in its lane or driving off a cliff, the option is pretty clear-cut. But, I did love the drive, especially the really winding and curvy parts, and then I came to Astoria, where the Columbia River empties in to the Pacific Ocean.
Big tanker ships have to get through there, but 101 has to get over the river too, so they built a truly massive bridge to make that happen. There's not a lot of flat land between the steep hills and the water, so to actually get up onto the bridge you have to drive up a circular ramp, like you might see in a parking garage except roughly 10 times bigger. Then, it's up and over the bridge, with one lane in each direction. I'd like to tell you how fantastic the view was from up there, but I have to admit I was pretty focused on just going straight. Big bridge. Very big. And very high.
(10 minutes later…) I'm back. Yesterday, I didn't have the energy or the interest to do much more than write a column for National Dragster, compile all my receipts from the trip and enter the amounts on my "Travel Expenses" spreadsheet, and answer a bunch of emails. Today I'm doing laundry. I dropped off all my dry cleaning before I started this, and had four loads of clothes to put in the washer. The last load of colors just got done and I needed to do the folding before it got out of hand. The whites are in the dryer now. I'm sure this is all really pertinent and entertaining stuff I'm writing, right? Laundry time!
The difference between flying out on a standard four-day racing trip and being on the road for a week, doing a lot more other than just flying and working at the race, can be measured in laundry. I took a lot of extra stuff (no need to worry about checking bags!) and although I didn't wear all of it, I consider it all "dirty by association" because the clean stuff and the worn stuff all shared the suitcase on the way back. It's almost done…
Back to the trip. So after I didn't die driving across the mammoth bridge at Astoria, my GPS did an odd thing. My eyeballs saw the signs for 101, and I followed the signs. According to my GPS, though, I had wandered off the road and was driving around on a peninsula with no pavement whatsoever. Just as I was about to sort that out (or possibly backtrack) I saw another sign for 101, so I just kept going. After 30 minutes, another road merged with 101 and I think possibly that other road was a short-cut of some kind, that my GPS liked. But why it thought I was driving through the forests is still a question that remains unanswered.
My next destination was Aberdeen and Grays Harbor, to find that old ballpark I told you about in the last installment. Well before the days of everyone having GPS, back in the dark ages when you had to carry maps or an atlas, I had an absolutely uncanny ability to arrive in any town (when I was a baseball scout for the Blue Jays) and simply find the ballpark without any effort. I'd almost always just drive right to it, despite the fact I'd never been there before or hadn't been there in years. It's still an ability I have, apparently. I drove straight to Olympic Stadium. It's still there. I also recognized the motel we stayed in, when we came there to play the Mets in 1979. That's how my brain works. I remember all of this stuff from so long ago, but can't remember any of my passwords.
Also, smartphones have made us all lose the ability to know anyone's actual phone number, because we just tap on their names or faces on our phones. When I was five years old, our phone number at home was 966-3237. Right now, I have no idea what Barb's work number is, and it usually takes me a while to get her cell number right. I don't know anyone else's number in my phone. I need to remember Barb's because it's the number tied to a lot of our "frequent purchaser" accounts at various retail stores, but I still have to think about it to get it right, and it often takes two tries. But, I digress.
Olympic Stadium is, indeed, still standing and still in use. The baseball field is tucked over in one corner (I could see the mound from where I parked out beyond left field) and there are football goal posts where they play that sport too, with the end zones being in the right field corner and out in center field. The place is not huge in the sense of having hundreds of rows of seats or multiple decks, but it's enormous in terms of its footprint. As they did when I played there, they have to put up a temporary fence from the right-center gap to the left field foul line, or a home run to left would have to travel about 600 feet. Crazy place.
And did I ever tell you the story about one of our pitchers being thrown out of the game at Grays Harbor? It was, of course, drizzling and we were all pretty miserable. On top of that, we felt like the home-plate umpire was missing calls terribly, and over the course of one inning he just seemed to get worse and worse. Being in foul moods to begin with, we first began chirping at him about his strike zone, but as it got worse so did our shouted complaints. Finally, he'd had enough and he whipped off his mask and headed straight for our dugout. Looking at us sitting on the bench, he pointed at one guy and said "You're okay" and then went down the line for four or five other guys saying "You're okay, and you're okay, and you're okay, but YOU are OUTTA HERE!" and he threw out Keith Call, one of our starting pitchers. Keith never spoke all summer, and he surely didn't yell anything at the umpire, so that only made us more indignant and we all started yelling back "You idiot, he didn't say a thing" or lines of that sort. Then, our manager Rich Morales yelled at us all to shut up. When we did, and the umpire went back to the plate, and Keith went to sit in the bus, Rich taught us a lesson about something we had missed. He said, "Don't you realize what he just did? He knew Keith pitched last night. He threw out a player we didn't need. You guys are the idiots." I guess we were. Still felt bad for Keith, though.
Okay, after that diversion it was time to finally head up to Seattle, and I got to the hotel right around rush hour. I know this, because after a full day of leisurely driving through incredible scenery, the last 50 miles of this trip, basically from Olympia to the hotel in Auburn, were awful. There were times the traffic stopped for minutes on end, especially in Tacoma. That was not a fun way to finish a great day. What was great, though, was my view out of my hotel window. Yes, I-5 was down below, but I had an unobstructed view of Mt. Rainier. Awesomeness.
With it being a big weekend for Rottler, our great partners who make the best engine building machines in the world, we knew it was going to be a busy weekend but they had assigned a couple of really great people to this adventure, and between the Rottler staff and our staff, I think we pulled off a huge and popular event. Basically, they loved it. We had a very big crowd on Saturday, and it was a ton of fun to have them all there. A giant shout-out to Anthony, Ed, and Melissa. You guys were fantastic, and thanks for taking care of everything on your end so that we could focus on entertaining your staff and your customers. I love it when teamwork comes together!
We "Rottler-ized" our hospitality area pretty well, too. When this new set-up was made, Tim had the foresight to order one privacy panel (the smaller waist-high "fence" that goes around the base of the area) with a Rottler logo on it, and another with a Summit logo, because we knew we'd be hosting hospitality for both great companies this year (Summit Racing Equipment hosted guests at Norwalk). It all looked great for Rottler, and they were all-smiles.
It helped that we ran great all weekend, running better every run from Q1 through the first round on Sunday. I'm not sure I remember another race where we ran right in the thick of things in every session and improved on every run on top of that. And we ran our best lap of the weekend in round one (4.010). Unfortunately, against my buddy Del Worsham, in the second round, we put a hole out at the hit of throttle and he whacked us.
In terms of a second-round finish, though, it couldn't have gone much better. We beat Cruz Pedregon in round one, and he's the driver right ahead of us in points. We left Seattle only two points behind him (he's in seventh, we're in eighth). Behind us, Robert Hight was a round ahead of Alexis DeJoria, who came into Seattle in 10th. She raced Courtney Force, who came into Seattle right behind her in 11th. Alexis beat Courtney, and Robert lost to Chad Head. When Alexis lost in round two, she moved into a tie with Robert and we kept the same gap on her. We picked up a round on both Robert and Courtney, and we're now 124 points ahead of Courtney. That would basically be seven rounds, and you might say "But Bob, that's seven rounds and there are only eight rounds left. You're a lock!" but if you said that you'd be forgetting that this year they made Indy more "interesting" (also read that as "stressful") by making it "points and a half" for each round. It'll be 30 points a round in Indy, instead of the 20 per round everywhere else. That's a throwback to the old days when the points for "The Big Go" were (I think) double what they were at other races. So, there's still a lot to be settled, but we're running well and I'd sure rather be in our position that in some of the others…
In terms of friendly faces in Seattle, I really have to say that it's become my single biggest race in terms of not only seeing blog readers who have become real friends, but also meeting longtime readers who I had never met before. This time I think I shook hands and chatted with at least 12 people who have been reading this since Day 1, and I'd never met any of them before. I also had a number of people say hello, who live either right here in Liberty Lake or near here in the greater Spokane area. Crazy.
The longtime group was out in full force. We had Crazy Jane and her hubby Chris, Tom From West Linn (TomFWL) and his son Doug, Scott The Pilot (STP - and we even went out for pizza together Friday night), Kim The Lawyer and his son Andrew, Terry the Poster Man, Tristan my longtime buddy from back in the CSK days, Rush fan Wayne, and Ryan from Walla Walla, among many others. I'm sure I'm leaving someone off this list, so I'm sorry about that but you all know I appreciate the support and, in many cases, great friendships.
Touring the Western Star assembly plant, with our yellow "clackers" on our shoes
And now we're closing in on an important date in blog history. The Brainerd race is next week, and that marks a big anniversary for this behemoth. 10 YEARS! That's impossible to believe, and I can't even fathom how many millions of words I've written over this decade of Blogmania.
It's been a pleasure. It's been an honor. And it's been a real privilege to do this. And the biggest thanks go to my esteemed editor and mentor, Phil Burgess. It was Phil who heard me loud and clear back in August of 2005, when I said "I can't really do this ghost-writing it for Del, because I'm in Minnesota and he's in So Cal, and he won't have any desire to write it and have me edit it. So what do we do?" His idea was to see if a guy nobody ever heard of could write about stuff most people didn't care about, and still keep them entertained. And I was supposed to do it for a whole MONTH! I figured that was impossible, but I'd give it a shot.
My wife Barbara thought I was nuts and destined to both fail (because why would anyone want to read about my life?) and on top of that I'd probably be publicly humiliated. Well, okay, that second part is fairly routine for me, but I don't think I failed. It's been riot to do this, and we still have more of this interaction to come. Thanks, to all of you, for hanging in there this long. I'm still stunned, on a weekly basis, how many of you are out there.
Finally, on a lighter note, Barbara and I have officially taken the step to go from "Class A - Crazy Cat People" to "Elite Platinum-Level Certifiably Insane Crazy Cat People" with the delivery of our new deluxe "Cat Stroller." I got the idea from Tina Hartman, Richard's wife, who brought their dog to the races in a purpose-built pet stroller, and Boofus and Buster absolutely love this thing. They jump right in and the mesh top snaps down over them, and it allows them to see in all directions.
Last night, when it was dusk and the final golfers had left the green, I loaded them up and we took a long stroll on the cart path. They just sit in there and stare at everything. Pretty much sublime, for them. So, we're guilty-as-charged, but they really are our kids… And yes, they're pretty spoiled, if by "pretty" you mean completely and utterly.
Hey, we get a weekend off now but Brainerd beckons. See you next week. Has it really been 10 years? Wow...
Hi there, and welcome to the Holiday Inn by the Portland airport. No, I did not fly here from Spokane but it seemed like a good location for everything that has to happen tomorrow, so here I am. And they upgraded me to a two-room suite with a view of Mount Hood and approaching airplanes! And not just a typical suite like at an Embassy Suites, either. This used to be two full-sized adjoining rooms but they turned one side of it into a full living room with a wet bar. I now feel obligated to go back and forth to "get my money's worth" out of this.
And also, in the interest of factual reporting, despite the fact the date at the top of this blog installment says it's Wednesday the 5th of August, I'm writing this on Tuesday evening. I have to be at Western Star Trucks at 7:15 in the a.m., so I figured I better get this written. It won't be a lengthy installment, because it's now 7:45 and everything I've eaten today consists of one bowl of Cheerios and two granola bars, purchased at a gas station right before I crossed over into Oregon.
The drive down from Liberty Lake was almost six hours, and the first 90 minutes of it was pretty boring, but then you cross the river into Oregon and the hardest part is to keep your eyes on the road because the scenery is stunning. I-84 basically just hugs the southern shore of the Columbia River all the way from where you join it south of the Tri-Cities (that would be Pasco, Kennewick, and Richland) until you arrive in Portland. The word scenic doesn't do it justice.
Sadly, a trip like this brings the realization that the entire western United States seems to be on fire right now, and we've had a couple of awful days in Liberty Lake where it was not just hard to breathe, it was hard to even do anything outside. I went to the grocery store yesterday and any car that has automatic headlights had them on, mine included. It's eerie when the sky is a dirty shade of gray and the sun is just a dim red orb you can stare at. Very eerie, and very unhealthy.
We were getting "fresh smoke" from a fire just to the northwest of downtown Spokane, but then the wind shifted and the fire fighters got a handle on that one. In its place, came tons of smoke from northern California and Oregon. This is pretty horrible.
As I was cruising westward on I-84 today, pointed toward Portland, I had blue sky above me and could see blue sky on the horizon, but in-between there was a towering mass of brown and gray smoke. It turned out the wildfire was just on the northern shore of the Columbia River, and by complete coincidence it was located directly across the river from a "Scenic Vista" pull-off. It was crowded, with lots of people stopping to look, so I had to join the masses as well. Photos below.
It had already burned hundreds of acres and it featured multiple hot-spots that were churning through the bone-dry grasslands as if they were soaked in gasoline. I didn't see anyone fighting it until further down the road where it was coming close to some homes. I guess they just let the grass go and concentrate on the buildings and people. Scary stuff.
I'll sleep fast tonight, because tomorrow morning the guys in the transporter will meet up with me and one of the people from Western Star Trucks at 7:15, and we'll do so in the parking lot of a McDonald's not far from their plant and headquarters. They'll escort us over there and get the big rig parked, before we head inside for a tour of their assembly plant. Photos are must, as long as they let me take them. After the tour, Tim and Krista should arrive in time for our display and autograph session at the corporate headquarters. I hope they do, because nobody much wants autographs from the rest of us. We need to be out of there not long after 12 noon, so that the guys can head on up the road (that road being I-5) to Seattle and the track.
I'll head westward to the coast, and spend a night looking at the waves and the Oregon beaches, then on Thursday I'm going to follow US 101 all the way up to Aberdeen, then turn right to pick up I-5 to the track. Aberdeen is on Gray's Harbor, and the last time I was there was 1979 as a member of the Medford A's in the Northwest League. We played the Gray's Harbor Mets for four days and I remember two things: It never stopped raining, and we never played in front of more than 150 people at the strangest ballpark I'd ever played in. Photos will be taken. And for the record, I felt truly sorry for the Mets players who had to play there. At least Medford was a fine place to spend half of our time that summer and we packed our ballpark every night.
Speaking of the Medford A's and (earlier) of the highway along the Columbia River, the last time I made that drive was also 1979, after we had just played four games against the Walla Walla Padres and were headed back to Medford for a home-stand. We got out of Walla Walla close to midnight after the final game, and somewhere around 3:00 a.m. our ancient, decrepit, ridiculous, awful, "How is this thing allowed on the road?" bus broke down again. It did that regularly.
We weren't on the interstate, so we must've already made the turn onto US 97 to cut off the upper lefthand corner of Oregon and head down through Bend and back to Medford. It was a moonless night and as dark as it could be, and while some of the guys were able to just sleep through it, many of us were up and walking around outside, on the side of an empty two-lane road in the middle of absolutely nowhere. At some point near dawn, a vehicle came by and stopped, and our skipper (Rich Morales) talked to them and arranged to have them stop at a phone in the next town (it was THAT long ago) to find us a replacement bus. It turned out to be an elementary-level school bus. Made for really little kids.
At the time, I was not at my healthiest. I was finally recovering from getting hit in the face with an errantly thrown Louisville Slugger, which granted me the right to get about 50 stitches just below my right eye, while it also broke both of my front teeth basically in half, and it loosened just about every tooth in my mouth. For three weeks I couldn't chew anything, so I subsisted on soup, scrambled eggs, milk shakes, and Taco Bell burritos, which I open and eat with the classic Taco Bell spoon/fork utensil, praying the plastic "spork" wouldn't touch any teeth.
By the Walla Walla series I was able to gently chew, so I was gaining back some strength, but on the last night of the trip I got drilled in the left elbow by a 90 mph fastball. I wasn't about to come out of the game, so I trotted to first and my trainer did what all trainers did back then. He sprayed it with ethyl chloride to freeze the elbow and numb the pain. Very high-tech sports medicine back in '79.
The school bus didn't have a lot of range, so we had to stop in Bend at a McDonald's for gas and lunch. I think I've told this story here before, but a lot of you might not have heard it so let's do it again. We got exactly $8.00 per day in meal money for road trips, and you got it all in an envelope on the first day, so you had to spend accordingly (remember, no ATMs back then). I was out of money. And I was hungry. And my teeth still hurt horribly while my elbow swelled and throbbed. And we were on a school bus. This, in a nutshell, is the glamour of the low minor leagues.
I just stood in the back as my teammates ordered, and finally the woman at the counter said "What would you like?" and all I could say was "I'm sorry, I'm out of meal money" but her reply was "That's okay. What would you like?"
That Quarter Pounder and chocolate shake tasted better than any other I've ever had. I can only imagine how horrible I looked to warrant a free meal at McDonald's…
Gorgeous drive across Oregon on I-84, alongside the Columbia
Should you be so inclined, you can read about that entire summer in the Northwest League here, at my "Bob On Baseball" blog: http://www.perfectgamefound.org/a-lifetime-of-memories-from-a-summer-in-the-northwest-league/
So now I have to wrap this up, get something to eat (I won't need to look pathetic to get my meal tonight) and then sleep fast for the day at Western Star tomorrow. We're thrilled to get to know the fine folks at Western Star, who custom-built our new tractor that pulls the LRS transporter trailer, and we did so through a valued sponsor, partner, and friend, Jason Curry, who owns Curry's Transportation out of Muscatine, Iowa. Jason has been helping us a lot, and supporting us in every way he can, including this introduction to the Western Star staff and our chance to meet them all and see the plant. We're looking forward to it!
I'll keep snapping pics throughout this big weekend, and we should have plenty of great material for a new blog after I get back from Seattle next week. Rottler Manufacturing will once again be doing hospitality with us, and we'll have the special-edition Rottler body on the car throughout the Seattle race. Remember, it's black with a big ROTTLER down the side, so don't be confused when you see that car and hear Wilk's name.
Let's go win us a race in the woods, at Pacific Raceways!
Today's headline wasn't necessarily written to make any sense. I was going to call this blog installment something simple like "Denver Ramblings" and just get right into the odds and ends sort of stuff about last weekend, but once I typed the word "Denver" I thought of an omelet. For the record, a Denver omelet consists of eggs (duh) with onions, red bell peppers, green bell peppers, ham, bacon and whatever other goodies you want in there, on there, or near there. Like cheese. How can you even make an omelet without cheese?
Anyway, let's get right to the ramblings and away from the omelets.
What a weekend. Incredible racing, incredible performance, incredible upsets, and incredible crowds. Bandimere Speedway was basically packed for all three days. From our annual perch up at the top of the lanes, overlooking all the parking lots below, we can keep a handle on how many folks are there just by watching the lots fill with cars. Once the paid parking is full, and the grassy lot below the pit entrance reaches capacity, they start parking cars on the other side of the road. When those lots are packed with cars, the track is basically full. On Saturday, the place was full. On Friday and Sunday, maybe (just maybe) they could've squeezed another line of automobiles out there.
Great work, as always, by the Bandimeres, Jeff Sipes (the track's uber-talented PR guy), and the entire staff at Thunder Mountain. And great work by the NHRA staff and Safety Safari for taking a mile-high track and making it into something record-breaking.
This was the third straight race where we ran in the early evening and at night on both Friday and Saturday. That schedule is great for the fans, and all of us are really behind that, but it can be pretty tough on the crew guys. They're not really trained to sleep in very well, so you hit them with two very late nights and then on Sunday morning you're up at the crack of dawn, kind of sleep-walking for a while until the cobwebs clear. Plus, this past weekend all the lowlanders were working at altitude and in the heat. Everyone survived, I believe.
With all four qualifying runs being made in the evening, Wilk went for the big swing right out of the box, and our 4.02 in Q1 was a show stopper, a jaw dropper, and an eye opener. It was also low for Q1 and got us three bonus points. And, it was still good enough to survive as the No. 2 qualifier after three more sessions. So how big are those bonus points and the qualifying points? A round is 20 points, so if you're 19 points ahead of somebody you're one round in front. If you're 21 points ahead of them, you're two rounds in front. Those bonus points put us into a tie with Cruz Pedregon for seventh place in the points, and they increased our lead over Courtney Force (who is in 11th place and trying to knock one of us out of the Countdown) from 74 points (four rounds) to 82 points (five rounds). When we won in round one, and Courtney lost, we put another round between us.
Sunday, being everyone's first time on the track in the middle of the day, was pretty exciting. We were racing on a track that was way hotter than qualifying, and the 315-foot in-track cooling system really came into play. It used to be that when it got really hot on the mountain, you could barely get off the line without spinning the tires, but with the cooling system it allows the teams to launch hard and get up a head of steam. The tough part is the transition to the rest of the uncooled track out there just short of the 330 block. That's why crew chiefs, who can figure that stuff out, get paid the big bucks. It sure made for some thrilling pedal-fests all day long.
Our hospitality center was at capacity on Saturday, including the annual Denver appearance of Dick Levi and many of his best friends and relatives. It's always a big day for us, and we chose a new way of doing our afternoon raffle, thanks to a great idea and great execution of it by Leah Hook and Shelley Williams. We've always just handed out regular raffle tickets as our guests enter, but this time we simply wrote a number on the hospitality pass that hangs on a lanyard around each guest's neck. Shelly then made up a corresponding set of printed and laminated numbers (about one inch square) and I pulled the winners out of a box. Instead of having to read a six digit random raffle number, I could just say "Number 55" and we'd have a winner. Worked like a charm.
By Sunday, down in the Media Center on the first floor of the Bandimere tower, my PR colleagues were all trying to figure out when they'd have to leave their hotels on Monday morning to get out to Denver International Airport on time for their flights. Or, as Alan Reinhart likes to call it "Western Kansas Regional Airport" because it feels like you're driving that far to get to it.
The timing is hard for all the following reasons: It's a long drive to the airport, it's a lengthy hassle to return a rental car and then ride the bus to the terminal, it's a huge terminal that's earned a reputation for epic TSA lines, and once you get through that you have to ride the subway out to your concourse to get to your gate.
The consensus in the Media Center was the anyone who had an 8:00 a.m. flight on Monday morning should probably just leave straight from the track on Sunday night. Why risk it? I solved part of the problem by getting a room out by the airport and heading there on Sunday night. And I made it even easier by then booking a flight at 12:00 noon. Simple and foolproof…
In the parking lot of that hotel, I was stunned to see a decrepit and apparently abandoned old car just sitting there collecting dust, leaves, and other trash. It was an old Triumph TR7, with a convertible roof that was shredded and an exhaust system laying on the ground. Why the hotel hasn't had that thing towed away is beyond me, because it clearly doesn't run. I know this, because I had a brand new TR7 back in 1976 and like other Triumphs it didn't really run very well then. I owned it for a year and a half and it was in the shop for about four total months, for various ailments. The one thing they couldn't fix was the gearbox, which ground the gears for real on every shift of the four-speed. You had to put in the clutch, pull the car out of gear, and then gingerly ease it into the next one. No speed-shifting the TR7. You had to drive it basically like a grandma, one slow shift at a time.
Seeing that old junker did bring back a few fond memories of my old TR7, which was classic "British Racing Green" in color, with the wedge-shaped silver stripe kit on both sides. I loved the car and I adored how it looked, but it sure was piece of junk. In other words, great to sit in, great to be seen in, but really a mess to drive. In cold weather, you'd have to sit in the parking lot at school shivering while the car barely came to life and sputtered (even with the choke on) for a good 15 minutes. Trying to let the clutch out and drive any sooner than that was fruitless.
And even in the summer there were times I knew well enough to park it facing downhill, in case the starter wouldn't work and I'd have to pop start it by letting it roll and the releasing the clutch. But man oh man, it was a gorgeous automobile, especially for a college kid.
My payments were about $150 a month for that thing, and to make them I went and got a job as an usher at Busch Stadium for Cardinal games and at the St. Louis Arena for Blues hockey, Spirits of St. Louis ABA basketball, and St. Louis U. hoops games. That paid $13 dollars per game, so I had to supplement that income with an additional $2.20 an hour I was paid to work as an editor and paste-up person on The Daily Alestle, the daily student newspaper. That was a lot of work, just to have a car that barely ran.
After leaving the TR7 behind and heading to the terminal, I got an alert on my iPhone that my connecting flight in Salt Lake City was an hour delayed, and I actually thought of that as a positive development. My itinerary had been altered since I made the reservation and it only left me a 35-minute layover, so I had been sweating that. Turns out, that delay was a game saver.
We boarded the small regional jet right on time and then pushed back from the gate. Then we sat there. And sat there. For probably 20 minutes. I had my headphones on but I finally turned the music off because I knew the eventual announcement had to come. Sure enough, the captain came on the intercom and let us know that we had to go back to the gate because the temperature had gone up a couple of degrees and our full airplane was now too heavy to safely take off with that new corrected altitude. Yes, that's the same corrected altitude NHRA crew chiefs are always looking at and analyzing, because that's the altitude at which the race car "thinks" it's racing. The captain let us know to sit tight while they figured out what to do.
What they did was actually pretty impressive. They needed four volunteers to get off the plane, in order to make it lighter, and I figured that was going to be a tough sell to anyone, especially any passengers that checked a bag. Instead, the gate agent came out swinging strong, and right up front made the offer of an $800 credit voucher for the first four people who wanted to be rebooked. I could literally feel the floor of the cabin shaking as five people ran up the aisle to be there first. And the airline was more than happy to let all five of them have the vouchers. Then they had the baggage handlers go into the belly of the plane to find all five of those volunteers' bags. We ended up only getting to SLC about 45 minutes late. Well played.
Under the lights in front of a capacity crowd. Awesome!
So that was Denver. We won a round, we earned some points, and now it's on to Sonoma for Stage Two of the fabled Western Swing. I won't be in attendance, which is too bad because I have many friends in that area and I love Sonoma and the associate grapes in that region. But, next Tuesday I'll get in my own car and drive to Portland, to be there the night before our display at Western Star, then after the display and factory tour it's over to the coast on Wednesday night, and then up the coast to Seattle on Thursday afternoon.
I'll be doing the Sonoma PR from right here at this very desk. Looking outside, I can't say I'm surprised that there is not an abandoned Triumph TR7 sitting anywhere near here. I was frankly shocked to discover there was still at least one left on the planet.
I'll be back after the Sonoma race is in the books. A win would be very nice. Just winning rounds at a rate of one or two per race in Sonoma, Seattle, Brainerd, and Indy would probably cement our playoff spot, but winning one of these races would be way more fun.
Oh, and speaking of Brainerd. I had made the decision to go to that race, even though there's no hospitality and we're not in Minnesota for the summer. Then the big storm hit the track and the resorts on Gull Lake and it became a real question mark for me.
The good folks at Madden's Resort made the decision for me, when they called last week to unfortunately let me know that they would not have the entire resort reopened in time for the race weekend. They gave me a full refund. I still have my plane ticket into and out of MSP though, so I think I'll go still fly back to Minnesota and I'll do the Friday and Saturday PR "remote control" as I always do when I'm not at the track. Then, I booked a room for Saturday night in St. Cloud, which is just far enough away from Brainerd to not be too expensive on the race weekend, if $139 for a room at a Holiday Inn Express is considered not too expensive. Being in St. Cloud will at least allow me to get to the track by 9:00 on Sunday, without having to leave the house at 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. in order to do that. I'll be there for race day, and then after it's over on Sunday night I'll drive back down to the Twin Cities. My flight back to Spokane is the next morning. Pretty hectic schedule for a race I don't have to attend.
I have no idea how they're doing there, in terms of repairs at the track, but I guess we'll all find out when we get there, in a little over three weeks. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. First let's go win Sonoma! And Seattle too! That would work just fine.
Tomorrow: Denver. Today: Blog.
I'm back in Liberty Lake as we near the end of July and I have to say, without reservation, that the last three weeks were easily classified as a whirlwind, despite the fact I never made it back out here to the Inland Northwest throughout the entire trip. It went something like this:
July 1 - Spokane to Minneapolis-St. Paul July 2 - Minneapolis to Detroit then drive to Willard, Ohio July 3 to July 5 - Norwalk race July 5 - Drive to Detroit Airport after the race, stay at the Westin July 6 - Fly back to MSP July 9 - MSP to Chicago O'Hare then drive down to Joliet July 10 to July 12 - Chicago race July 12 - Drive back up to O'Hare after the race, stay at the Hilton July 13 - Fly back to MSP July 15 - MSP to Detroit, meet Lance McCord at DTW July 15 - Detroit to Newburgh, NY, drive rental car to Cooperstown July 16 - Cooperstown and Hall of Fame with Lance McCord, Bob Ricker, James Noffke July 17 - Drive back to Newburgh, take taxi to Hudson River Line station in Beacon, NY July 17 - Ride train down to Grand Central Station in New York City July 17 - Walk toward Penn Station, stop for lunch at Petite Poulet July 17 - Catch Acela high-speed train down to Washington, DC July 17 - Take taxi to Washington hotel July 18 - Tour DC by Metro subway, attend Washington Nationals game July 19 - Meet brother Del Wilber and his wife Kay and have lunch at National Airport July 19 - Fly back to MSP July 20 - Fly back to Spokane
Badda boom, badda bing. That was a heck of a trip. And tomorrow, it's back to the airport again to head to Denver. As noted earlier, I won't be attending the Sonoma race, but next Tuesday I'll be driving down to Portland so that I can meet the team at a display on Wednesday morning. We just took delivery of a gorgeous new Western Star tractor for our transporter, so we'll be stopping at their corporate office in Portland for the display and then we'll get a tour of the factory. Once that's over, I'm heading to the Oregon coast for the night, and on Thursday I'll drive up the coast to Seattle. First road trip for my new car!
So… More details about the Cooperstown trip. The only "racing" involved with the rest of this blog will be the racing we did from city to city or attraction to attraction, so feel free to bail out now if a "guys' trip" with a baseball theme doesn't do anything for you. I won't be offended. Well, I might be offended, but I won't admit to it.
Lance and I met at the gate in Detroit, after he flew up from Cincinnati. By our best recollection, it's the first time we've seen each other since around 2007, when he didn't quite get to Charlotte in time for the race but he did join the Worsham team and me at our hotel, for dinner and a couple of beers. He really hasn't changed a bit, except for the fact I do believe he's in the best shape of his life. Running many miles a day will do that for you. Put it this way, he single-handedly skewed the average body-fat numbers for the four of us.
Bob "Radar" Ricker and James "Oscar" Noffke were flying out of St. Louis, and they went into Syracuse, which is the closest airport to Cooperstown. For some reason, I couldn't find any decent fares into there, though, so we went into Newburgh and drove about two hours up to Cooperstown, getting in just in time to have dinner with the other two guys. I posted a picture from dinner on Facebook, and my witty wife commented "Champagne and chicken wings! That's my guy."
We stayed at the historic Landmark Inn, a bed & breakfast only a few blocks from the Hall of Fame, and Radar and Oscar had already gotten us reservations at a restaurant down on the lake. I hadn't seen those two guys in a much longer span of time, like probably 20 years. Or, in Radar time, I hadn't seen him in particular in the span of two new hips. Both guys are exactly like they were when we all roomed together (other than Radar's hips). The key word would be "Hilarious".
We got up on Thursday morning and headed to the Hall, where our only plan was to tour the place and take many pictures. Our entire plan for the trip was simply "being" in each stop along the way, so it was all very spur of the moment and unstructured, which suits the four of us just fine. We had a great time at the Hall, wide-eyed and mesmerized. I loved the section devoted to the women's league that's featured in the great movie "A League Of Their Own" and the four of us agreed immediately that we all consider it one of the finest baseball movies ever made. Remember, there's no crying in baseball.
We did quite a bit of shopping in downtown Cooperstown, looking for souvenirs and other collectibles, and felt good that we'd done our part to help the local economy. More than our part, probably.
We stopped by Doubleday Field to watch a bit of a youth baseball game, on a perfect day. Then it was dinner in town and another good night's sleep. We had just enough time to wolf down the spinach omelets in the morning, and the split up again as Radar and Oscar went back to Syracuse to fly down to Washington, while Lance and I took nearly the full day to make our way down by car and rail.
We had reservations on the 5:00 Acela train out of Penn Station, so working backward from that we felt like we needed to be rolling by 9:00 out of Cooperstown, to make sure we had plenty of leeway. Our timing was spot-on, but we needed a little luck to make it all happen. We had to drop the rental car off at Newburgh, and then just assumed there'd be no problem getting a cab to head across the Hudson to Beacon. There was one, but another guy had already gotten in. Not another cab in sight, but the cabbie called his dispatcher and said "No problem. One will be here in 45 minutes." That was not good news. If we waited 45 minutes, we'd miss the 1:00 train out of Beacon and that would make for an arrival at Grand Central at about 4:00, meaning we'd have to hustle seven blocks to make the Acela. Then the passenger asked us where we were going and then said "Heck, jump in. I'm not in a hurry." We made the Hudson Line train with 15 minutes to spare. Almost two hours later, we were walking through Grand Central Station and out into the bright light of New York City.
We were hungry by then, and were scouting restaurants as we walked (pulling carry-on bags down the busy sidewalks) and when Lance spotted Petite Poulet (little chicken) we walked right in. Awesome lunch. When Lance worked for IBM, they sent him on a multi-year assignment in Paris, so he's all about French food. Glad I was tagging along.
We got to Penn Station in time to go relax a bit at Club Acela, sort of the train version of the Delta Sky Club. We had bought First-Class tickets, so the lounge comes as part of that deal. My brother Del, who rides the Acela quite often, also gave us the double-secret tip to request a "Red Cap" porter when we checked in. We didn't need him to carry our bags, but when you get a Red Cap he takes you down to the platform early, so you're not fighting the crowd. Cool tip! Worked like a charm.
When you're in First Class on the Acela, it's like being on a plane but with bigger seats and a wider aisle. You also get drinks and a hot meal brought to your seat. I wasn't really hungry, but the Moroccan Chicken Salad sounded too good to pass up. Plus, I had paid for it with the First-Class fare, so why not? Very good.
The train was fun, although there's not much to see. As Lance put it "Lots a blurry trees flying by and mostly industrial areas. You'll notice they don't put the train tracks through the nice parts of Newark, Philly, and Baltimore." Point well made.
On the train, Lance got a call from Radar after he and Oscar had arrived at the Marriott in Foggy Bottom. It turned out that the hotel had messed up our reservations and guess who didn't have a room? Yep, that would be me. That's not a concern these days, though, because I got on my iPad and within minutes found and made a reservation at the Hotel Lombardy, a very historic old place only a few blocks from the guys. Worked out just fine, and it was a really cool old place. A real trip back in time.
Saturday was our "Tour D.C." day, including tickets to the 4:00 Nationals - Dodgers game, but when we woke up it was overcast and drizzly. It was hardly raining hard enough to get you wet, but the forecast wasn't good and we figured if we all ponied up for umbrellas the very act of purchasing them would make it pour for sure, so we hung out in the lobby for a bit and then, quite miraculously, the storm moved through. And the sun came out. And the sidewalks started to steam. And the temperature went up. It was very quickly 90-degrees with about 80 percent humidity, but we were on a mission.
We walked over to the nearest Metro stop, figured out the ticket dispensing machines and each bought a full-day pass, then we hopped on the next train to head over to Arlington National Cemetery. I've lived in D.C. on two separate occasions, and have driven by Arlington a million times, but had never actually toured the place. It was Radar's idea, because he really wanted to see JFK's grave and the eternal flame, so off we went. That's how the whole trip happened. Not much structure, but also almost full agreement on just about everything we did. We were like that in college, and haven't changed a bit.
Arlington was fabulous and somber all at the same time. I'm very glad we went, and we took the trolly around the place to see as much as we could in the time we had. It just so happened that as we arrived at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, they were doing the ceremonial changing of the guard. Very impressive.
I'll just say this about Arlington. If you haven't been there, you need to go. I'm sorry I waited so long to visit, and if you have a compassionate bone in your body you'll be awed by the massive collection of so many heroes in one place, where the headstones line up forever. It stays with you.
We took the Metro back around to the Smithsonian station, and then toured the Mall and the monuments, starting with the Washington Monument, then the World War II Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Vietnam Memorial. That final stop is still young enough to be very emotional, and many families were there finding their relatives' names on the wall.
It was time to get to the ballgame by then, so we hailed a cab and all hell about broke loose. Lance waved at a cab that was empty, and the driver immediately pulled over for us. The tricky part was the fact another cab and another driver wanted our business, too, and he tried to get the nose of his car in front of the guy we'd actually waved at. We then witnessed everything up to but not quite including a wreck, and we all had to jump back as the second car careened up onto the sidewalk just inches from us. Craziness…
It was the first time to Nationals Park for all four of us, and it's a great ballpark. Clayton Kershaw pitched for the Dodgers and he's not great. He's far better than just great. He's frankly unbelievable, and nearly unhittable. Eight innings pitched, 14 strikeouts, three hits, and no runs. Also no walks. And he struck out Bryce Harper three times. And it wasn't close. Truly one of the most dominating performances I've seen in recent history. Much fun was had by all. Hot dogs were also consumed, along with approximately 50 bottles of water. Luckily, when I bought the tickets (just above the third-base dugout) I had no idea which way they faced, so we were all pleased to see that they were in the shade, while the same seats on the first-base side faced directly into the sun. I'd like to take credit for that, but it never even occurred to me to figure that out when I bought them. I just hit "Best Available" on the website and those were the seats we got.
After the game, another cab ride back to the hotel, with no near catastrophes this time. We'd had designs on a nice dinner in Georgetown, but we were all in need of a shower and all very tired. Because we're old.
Instead, we ate at the lobby restaurant at the Marriott and quickly called it a night. Not quite the rambunctious young men we were in college, but still. This trip was GREAT!
You make a lot of friends along the way, and many of my colleagues in drag racing would rate as some of the best friends I've ever had. But college. And baseball. And apartments or rental homes. And classes. And teachers. Those guys are truly the best friends anywhere. Radar was the one who said "This took way too long to happen. We need to do this every year. We can go different places, and meet anywhere, but we need to do this. Life is too short." He's absolutely right.
The Landmark Inn, at Cooperstown. Great place!
I did get to see my brother Del and his wife Kay in the morning, as they acted as my final taxi to get me over to the airport. At DCA, there are many restaurants outside security, so we all went in and had a nice lunch while we caught up on all things Wilber. Very much fun, and also too long in the making.
Now, I'm back in Liberty Lake but still glowing about the trip with my former roomies. The laughs and the memories were as sharp and as heartfelt as they were back at SIUE in the late ‘70s, while the sights and attractions we visited were new and completely enjoyed.
It took us 37 years, but we all finally made it into the Hall of Fame. All we had to do was pay the admission…
Now, time to pick up the dry cleaning, finish my laundry, and get ready for Denver. Saturday will be the big day, as it is every year when Dick Levi and about 125 of his closest friends and relatives descend on our pit for a huge hullaballoo. It's a fun one, and as always our goal is to not just entertain them and feed them well, but to run well for them as well. Having a good qualifying day on Saturday in Denver is always a very good thing.
See you all soon.