Having two consecutive weekends off during what I now consider to be "the middle of the season" is a very strange thing. Right now, on this Wednesday after the first of those two blank weekends, I'm sitting on a sofa in the Twin Cities waiting to fly back to Spokane tonight. I better hurry up, too, because my flight is only 11 hours from now.
With this little pre-Atlanta hiatus, there's really nothing noteworthy to write about in terms of the race team, except for one exciting fact: Our transporter is being stripped and re-wrapped with all new graphics right now! It's a cool design, or at least it seems to be a really cool design when looking at the rendering, and I anticipate it's going to look even cooler in real life. Yes, there's still a race car in the design, and there's still a giant Wilk involved, but the new look is more corporate in appearance, which I really like. When you see it at the track or rolling down the highway, there will be no mistaking it for anything other than a race trailer, but it also plays up our very valuable marketing partners in a really effective way. Can't wait to see it.
So, with that lone bit of news out of the way, it's time to delve into a very long story that I'm asked about all the time. It's the single most commonly asked question I get at the track or via email, and no it's not "How are the boyz?" although that one is the second-most often asked. Okay, it's also not "Did you warm up yet?" which is by far the most common question, but that has nothing to do with this blog or with me. The question is "How did you end up doing this for a living?" or something along those lines. One day, and I hope it's one day soon, I'm going to put it all into words in long form, and it will end up as a book. It must be written, because the gems that represent the characters that have passed into and out of my 58 years on this planet are too rich to not mine, and the stories are too endless, and the places are too numerous. The last 20 years, here in my NHRA segment of life, are simply the latest incarnation of a charmed existence.
I assume that when people ask me how I ended up doing this, they're anticipating an answer that includes all sorts of things like relentless dedication, a carefully thought-out plan, and a life-long desire to be Public Relations representative for a Funny Car team. They would be incorrect in that assumption. It was more just a case of me following whatever new adventures presented themselves to me, often without even mulling it over for a minute. And here I am. It's such a crazy story even I have a hard time believing it. As for the young people who so often ask me for career advice, I feel compelled to give them a valid straight answer, and it's not "Just copy what I did."
When I write the book it will be detailed and vivid (I hope) but we don't have room for that here. Instead, this will be the short version. Back when I was in school, we would've called this the Cliff's Notes version. Do you remember Cliff's Notes? They were the "cheater version" of story outlines for students who didn't take the time to actually read the assigned book. If you prepared for a test via the Cliff's Notes version, you actually had a chance to pass but it was hard to get better than a C, although I don't recall ever using the Cliff's Notes version of any book. I just assume it would be hard to get better than a C. Trust me. The Cliff's Notes version of "A Tale of Two Cities" would've been something like "Obscenely rich French royalty treat the common people like pigs while they feast on the best of everything. Common people eventually get tired of it, rise up, and heads roll." Okay, it was a little more in-depth than that, but you get the picture.
So this is the short version of how I got here, my very own story as to how the dominoes fell in such a specific (yet random) order to have put me here, and I certainly hope it's not too boring in terms of material. Here goes, and feel free to bail out now if this doesn't seem like something worth reading (Run for your lives!!!)
The key point that makes all of this possible is the unavoidable fact that you cannot pick your parents. I was just lucky. Incredibly lucky. Like, amazingly lucky. In 1956 I was born as the fifth and final child in the Wilber family, the third son for Del and Taffy Wilber. My mom's real name was Edna Mae, and as a child she was adorably known as Eddie to her friends, but at some point the color of her hair earned her the nickname Taffy.
My dad was born and raised outside of Detroit (in Lincoln Park and Allen Park) and my mom was a native Texan, having been born in Del Rio and raised in San Antonio. They met during World War II, when Taffy worked at the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center, which is now Lackland Air Force Base. She was "Miss Air Force" at the time, and Big Del was a strapping 6'3" minor league baseball player. His job during the war was ostensibly a position as a "P.E. Instructor" but mostly he and a few big leaguers made up the baseball team for the base, keeping morale up by playing for the troops against teams from other bases or minor leagues. At the end of the war, the St. Louis Cardinals called him up to the big leagues and they bought a home in suburban Kirkwood.
Although Big Del would play only a couple of years with the Cardinals, and then later play for the Phillies and Red Sox before a lengthy career as a coach, scout, and manager, the Wilber clan always stayed in Kirkwood. Dad would simply leave in the spring and come back in the fall. We learned to cherish the winters, believe me.
All of us were athletic (my two brothers each earned Big 10 football scholarships and oldest brother Del Jr. signed with the Phillies to play baseball) but we were all also blessed with our mother's genes, and that was some very creative DNA. While I was growing up, Taffy worked for radio station KMOX in St. Louis, as a reporter and host of a show called "Taffy On The Town" before going to work for the Cardinals and then opening her own PR firm. She was a fabulous communicator and writer, and a determined buster of gender barriers. Also a great mom.
My dad's career meant that our family friends, the very people who would come to our house for parties, included people like Stan Musial, Marty Marion, and Jack Buck. Big Del's best friend from his playing days was a guy named Ted Williams. You might have heard of him. Ted was such a friend, he added Big Del to his coaching staff with the 1970 Washington Senators just to get him 90 more days of big league service time, which granted him a full pension. I spent that summer shagging fly balls during batting practice at RFK Stadium. It was an interesting way to grow up, believe me. The next four summers, I spent every day doing the same thing in Denver and then Spokane, as Big Del was by then the Senators' (who then moved and became the Texas Rangers) Triple-A manager. It was really too much fun. Those summers alone provide enough material to write a book. Maybe two.
Like my siblings, I attended Mary Queen of Peace grade school, a private school run by the nuns of the Sisters of Loretto order. When I was there, we still had plenty of nuns as teachers and for my first four or five years at MQP they actually wore the full black and white habits. As a group, they seemed very mysterious to a second grader. It was a terrific education, thanks to the likes of Sister Gertrude Marie, but even in my early years it was pretty obvious I was going to be a fine "liberal arts" kind of person but I certainly wasn't a math or science type.
Like my brothers, I then attended St. Louis University High, a Jesuit all-boys school in the city of St. Louis. Fortunately, the Jesuits and our other instructors held my hand enough to get me through those very challenging math and science classes, while I flourished on my own in terms of writing, speaking, and conceptualizing. Somehow, I managed to graduate.
I had been playing baseball since I was five, and after SLUH I accepted a full baseball scholarship to Southern Illinois University - Edwardsville, where I was lucky enough to be a part of two teams that advanced all the way to the NCAA Div. II World Series. I also majored in TV/Radio Broadcasting, because I was sure I'd play 10 years in the big leagues just like Dad, and then I could go right into the booth to do play-by-play. It was a heck of a plan. It was also the only one I had.
In college, where I could focus on my major and other classes I liked, I rocked. Dean's List every quarter. Straight A's most of the time. I also caught the eye of a few Major League teams and signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers after my senior year. After two years in their organization (Appalachian League and Florida State League) I was released but then immediately re-signed by the Oakland A's, who sent me off to Medford in the Northwest League. That lasted one season before injuries and a lack of talent ended my professional playing career, but the Toronto Blue Jays came to my rescue and offered me a scouting job. Four years later, it was finally time to leave the game (and the travel, and the mind-numbing job of watching far too many bad baseball games).
My sports marketing career kicked off with a job in the shoe biz (as opposed to show biz) with Converse. Basically, I handled some key retail accounts while I also signed college coaches and pro athletes to endorsement deals. Back then, Converse had Larry Bird and Magic Johnson under contract, so those were the kind of guys we'd get to hang with at our annual meetings. It was a fun job (one my brother-in-law Lonnie still wishes I had, since I kept the whole family in shoes for three years) but then my brother Del brought me into his sports marketing firm (DelWilber + Associates near Washington D.C.) and while I was there I was able to really work on my writing and marketing skills, although I still never even dreamed of doing PR. We had dedicated "real" PR people there, so instead of writing press releases I concentrated on proposals and marketing materials, for our client list that included IBM, Black & Decker, Chrysler, Audi, the NHL, and the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL).
Two years later, Del opened a satellite office in St. Louis and I happily moved "home" to work there. About a year after that, the MISL put an expansion franchise in St. Louis (the St. Louis Storm) and I landed the job as Vice President - Marketing. Again, we had a real PR person so I never thought of doing that. My P.A. announcer left after three games, though, so I added that to my resume' and had a ball doing it. I could draw out that "STOOOOOOORM GOAL" call for 10 seconds. And you can't even imagine how long I could draw out Claudio De Oliveira's first name if he scored the goal. It was epic. Also fun. And I learned that running a sports franchise could be stressful, but it could also be incredibly rewarding. When you walked out into the arena and saw 8,000 people in the stands, and you knew you led the way with your staff to putting them there, it would make the hair on your arms stand up.
Sadly, on the morning after our final game that year (the '89-'90 season) our Yugoslavian owner and our Yugoslavian coach sent their lawyer to our office at the old St. Louis Arena and he fired most of us. Bam. See ya later. Apparently they thought the team would make them millions. Turns out, indoor soccer was a lot like racing. The quickest way to become a millionaire was to start with 10 million and then own a team. I also never figured out why the country formerly known as Yugoslavia produced so many great indoor soccer players, but anyone who saw Stan Stamenkovic, Steve Zungul, or Slobo Ilijevski in their primes would remember them well.
I went back to Converse for a year, living in Dana Point, Calif. and covering eight states as a Promotions Director, so all I did was give shoes away and work with Magic and the Lakers every now and then. For the record, the NFL linemen I had under contract were consistently the nicest and most respectful athletes I worked with. You might find that hard to believe, but it's true. The Major League baseball players were a close second.
By this time I was about 35 years old, and I still had not spent one day as a PR person. Not one single day. Or, as Alan Reinhart would say "Not one dime" of my salary came from Public Relations.
After a year in So Cal, the old indoor soccer connection changed my life. The former Commissioner of the MISL, Bill Kentling, called me up and offered me an interview to be the General Manager at this place he'd just taken over as President. It was called Heartland Park Topeka, and I'd not only never heard of it, I'd never attended a drag race of any kind. Never. I knew names like Big Daddy and The Snake from the NHRA shows on "Wide World of Sports" but I'd never technically witnessed a race in person. Bill actually liked that, and I got the job. Was I a PR guy yet? Nope, we had the uber-talented Jade Gurss to do that, so I was still writing proposals, marketing materials, and advertising scripts. Jade went on to a stellar career and was Dale Earnhardt Jr's PR rep for many years.
After a year at Heartland Park, I was introduced to Bill Griffith, who represented Chuck Etchells and Mike Dunn. Bill hired me and brought me to New Jersey, where for the first time in my life I actually began to write press releases, pitch stories, and build relationships with the media, the sponsors, and the drivers. At the ripe old age of 36, I was finally a PR guy. And I seemed to be a pretty good at it.
As naive as I was, though, I figured I was such a PR genius that I'd be able to have my own agency with my own clients and do it by myself, so after a couple of years I moved back to Kirkwood and into an apartment not far from my folks, who were still living in the same home I grew up in. I figured the free meals might be important, and they were. I had one paying client, and that was Ash & Worden Racing, in the Pro Stock class, with Lewis Worden driving the car. They paid me $600 a month. My Funny Car client, British racer Norman Wilding, couldn't afford to pay me at all. He couldn't afford to race, either, so I will always be remembered as the guy who paid his client to keep him racing. After a year of that, I was broke. I was a PR guy, but I was broke. It was a much tougher business than I had anticipated. Being raw, inexperienced, and naive didn't help.
And then the Kansas City Attack indoor soccer team called, just as I was staring at my bank account and credit-card bills while wondering how I was going to survive, and they offered me a job as General Manager of the team. For two years, I had a riot working with a great staff and putting the team on solid ground, while I was also able to dig out of the financial hole I'd put myself in. We increased every metric from paid attendance to sponsor income, and it was some of the most rewarding work I'd ever done. I wasn't a PR guy though. I had one of those on my staff. I also had a very talented professional P.A. announcer, so I didn't get to do that anymore, but I would do the color analysis on the radio whenever I traveled with the team. Bob Rennison, who is still a good friend and a great announcer, was the guy I hired to do our games on the radio, and it was Bob's first job as a paid play-by-play guy. Much fun. And, when the NHRA tour came to Topeka we sponsored a Pro Stock car. Yes, it was driven by Lewis Worden.
Then, right before the end of my second season running the Attack, Whit Bazemore called. My life and career seem to be full of those weird moments when the phone rings and I'm offered something I never dreamed of, out of the blue. I resigned as GM of the soccer team, Whit moved me to Indy, and I was the full-time PR rep for the Smokin' Joe's Funny Car team. Whit and I are good friends now, but back then (1996) it didn't take long for us to figure out that our chemistry didn't blend very well. Remember, I was never a science or math guy so chemistry was not my forte. I was a little bull-headed, a lot cocky, and way too sure of myself though, and by late in that season I decided to make a change.
The Indianapolis Twisters indoor soccer team was playing at Market Square Arena back then, and the franchise wasn't just bleeding money, it was hemorrhaging dollars at an alarming rate. They brought me in to save the day as GM, and it was back to soccer for me, right up until the local minor-league hockey team (the Indianapolis Ice) offered to buy us. I thought it was a great idea, and the Ice had assured me that I'd stay on as GM. The soccer owner agreed, we scheduled a press conference, all the local media came right to my office, and the owner proudly announced that the sale of the franchise to the Ice was formally…… Declined! And, the Twisters would be folding and would cease to operate, effective that very moment. I had no idea that was coming. Wow. (For the record, before that announcement I did have time to sponsor Norm Wilding at the U.S. Nationals that year, in the Indianapolis Twisters Funny Car. I have a photo to prove it.)
That was a fateful day in one bad way, while it was also a momentous day in so many other good ways. One of the first phone calls I made was to Del Worsham, and by the start of the 1997 season, I was his PR guy. The CSK deal was brand new and very small, and it was my responsibility to give them real value (return on investment) while we built and developed the deal into something bigger and better. 12 years later, when CSK was acquired by O'Reilly, we could look back and all be very proud of what we had accomplished. It was an amazing run, full of great people, fabulous friendships, and an office full of Wally trophies.
Plus, not too long after I joined Worsham Racing, my college roommate Lance McCord introduced me to a fascinating woman named Barbara Doyle, and soon thereafter my cat Shasta and I moved to North Carolina. A guy's life could not take a bigger turn for the better in any possible way. Had the Twisters stayed in business, I don't think there's any way the script would've been the same. The day the team owner stunned us all by folding the franchise, another door opened and both Barbara Doyle and Del Worsham were in front of me. I'm the luckiest man in the world.
After the CSK deal went away, I was lucky again. For the 12 CSK years, Barbara would often ask me who I'd want to work for if I couldn't work for Del, and I always said "It's a short list, and Tim Wilkerson is at the top of it." The weekend we announced the end of the CSK era, a number of teams talked to me and Wilk asked if I'd speak to him about joining the Levi, Ray & Shoup team. A week later I took him to lunch in Springfield and we shook hands on it. Now I'm in my seventh season with him and LRS. And I'm a PR guy.
Taffy and Del Wilber. The lovely wife and the strapping ballplayer, out on the town.
I'm lucky enough to write, communicate, tell stories, create value, and build relationships. And I absolutely love what I do.
10 years ago I started this blog, but I wasn't sure I could make it last for a month, much less 10 years. And now I write a column for National Dragster magazine, I also write my "Bob On Baseball" blog for our family charity, the one that honors the memory of our wonderful late parents, and I've gone from being the naive "new guy" in this sport, the guy who saw his first drag race as the GM of a track on the NHRA Tour, to one of the longest-tenured PR people in the sport. I have to say that I really enjoy it when Dave Densmore comes to a race, because when he's not there I'm the PR person who has been doing this the longest with NHRA teams. Dens needs to attend more races, so he can maintain that title.
But the best news is the fact I get to work alongside some of the best and most talented communicators I've ever known. Plus, I get to sit near Elon Werner and simply bask in the PR glow he emits. The man is a legend.
And let's face it, I've had the impossible good fortune to have worked with Del Worsham and Tim Wilkerson since 1997. You could not possibly work for two better guys, and winning races with both of them hasn't hurt either.
I've met thousands of people I never would've met were it not for this blog. I'm friends with fascinating people who introduced themselves to me, because of this blog. My cats are famous because of this blog. And I get to write words for a living.
And you wondered how I got here… Now you know the short version. You'll have to wait for the book to learn the rest. Gosh I hope this didn't put anyone to sleep.
And now I only have nine hours to go before my flight.
As a former baseball player I have, over these many years, looked for direct comparisons between my original sport of choice and the one in which I've spent the last 20 years, that being drag racing (of course). There usually aren't that many, as I find our straight-line acceleration contests to be much more like golf or bowling than baseball, or any other sport. All you can do is put your best score on the board and see how it stacks up. You can't play defense, you can't come up with confusing plays or schemes, and you can't really even razz your opponent or try to get under their skin with jabs and late hits. But baseball? Not too many direct correlations. Except for one.
In baseball, you definitely need the breaks to go your way. As a hitter, it used to drive me insane when I'd finally snap out of a slump and hit four screaming line drives the next game. Four balls hit right on the button, as hard as you can hit them. And all four would be caught. You did everything right, as well as it could be done, but you hung another big fat 0-for-4 on the board. Meanwhile, some guy on the other team would go 4-for-4, and his four hits would consist of two broken bats, a fisted bloop over the second-baseman's head, and a 45-foot dribbler up the line that the third-baseman couldn't get to in time. Breaks. Sometimes they're really hard to come by.
Like in Houston. Wilk and our team would be hard-pressed to do any better than we did, on the track. Our four qualifying runs were 4.219, 4.041, 4.076, and 4.087. And the 4.21 we led off with was on pace to be about a 4.10 but Wilk lifted early when it put a hole out down-track. That's a 4-for-4 absolutely, and all drives into the gaps. Maybe we didn't hit a bomb of a home-run like Fast Jack did, with his 3.988 to take the pole, but we hit it right on the button all four runs.
We ended up fifth on the board, but only because of speed. Alexis DeJoria also ran a 4.041 but she ran 310.77 mph on her 4.04 and we ran 308.78 mph on ours. Yes, we ran 312.57 mph during Q3, but your qualifying speed is the number you ran on the lap when you set your low e.t., so Alexis got the fourth spot and we were fifth. For quite a while, that had us paired up with Bob Bode, and for just about all of qualifying Courtney Force and her team were really struggling to find the right combination. When Q4 rolled around on Saturday afternoon, we all figured there was still some shuffling to do, and with both Courtney and her dad down at the bottom of the sheet we were pretty sure they'd both provide the patented "Force Magic" and go from barely being in the field to being right at or near the top.
Courtney ran a few pairs ahead of us, and instead of jumping way up with a stellar run, she only improved a little with a 4.137, which moved her up just a couple of slots. Wilk, who must have numbers constantly spinning around in his head, immediately heard her time and said "That moved her up to 12th, didn't it?" It did. So on the basis of speed we were fifth. And then Courtney moved up, but only to 12th, setting up our first-round pairing. Remember that part about not being able to play defense? We could've used an all-out blitz right about then.
And yes, we still approached the first-round lap as we always do, just running the fastest we could in the lane we wanted to be in. And we did just that. Wilk hit another screaming line drive, with a huge 4.046 at 314.46 mph, and he did that after leaving the starting line with a slightly better than average reaction time. He's a very consistent .085 guy all day and all night, week in and week out, and his average going into Houston for this year was actually .088, but he got off the line with a .081 this time. Courtney was in a little deep, which makes all the times look a little different than they actually were, and her .066 got her off the line first, but despite the fact her 4.056 was technically slower, we lost by a foot.
Five great runs. Five line drives. And in the end, they all might as well have been caught because we went hitless on Sunday. I'm incredibly proud of the guys and the boss for putting those laps together, but I sure wish it would've worked out a little better for us. Just like losing by an inch during the semifinals in Gainesville, huh? Sometimes you just can't buy a break. Meanwhile, it's hard to go through eliminations at any given race without seeing at least one driver win a round or two with the drag racing equivalent of a bloop and a broken bat, smoking the tires one lap and being on the receiving end of his opponent's red-light foul on the other. Breaks are weird creatures and they capriciously go whichever way they want to go. When they're not on your side it gets a little frustrating, but all we plan to do is keep making good laps. At some point, we'll get on the right side of this deal. And if it takes a bloop to win a round, I'm okay with that too.
And did you hear about the Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher (Archie Bradley) who was hit in the face by a batted ball last night? I think he's okay, but it was a really scary scene that had both teams in shock until he got to his feet. The odd thing about that is the headline and story I saw, in an online newspaper story, in which the batted ball was called a "lined drive". So I've been involved in baseball since the day I was born, and I've never seen it referred to as a "lined drive" before. I've never seen such a hit called anything but a "line drive". Just when you think you've seen it all… I saw it in print and on the internet, so it must be true and it must be right! Huh?
And now I'm home in Spokane where spring has really sprung. Just a matter of days ago we went down to Walla Walla and marveled at how much further along their spring season was there, and on Monday I came back home from Houston to find all the trees blooming and the grass greening up fast. Bam! It's that point in the show where spring says "Pow" then drops the microphone as the confetti drops.
Golf Ball Alert! I should invent an "invisible dog fence" that sends an electrical signal to golf clubs. The strikers of errant approach shots might think twice about hitting their pitch shots off my yard if we did that! She hit a pretty nice recovery shot there, so I'll give her credit for that although she's going to have a long putt for par. And hey! Please replace your divots.
Yesterday was Barbara's birthday! I had a big bouquet of flowers (with two balloons, of course) delivered to her office, and the news of that delivery spread through Itron at the speed of light. Good husbands always embarrass their wives in their work place, right? And then last night we went to Cedars Floating Restaurant on Lake Coeur d'Alene, which was spectacular. So often, restaurants that are in unique locations rely on the view or the gimmick to get you in the door, and then they forget about the food. When I was younger, revolving rooftop restaurants were all the rage in big cities, and the rule of thumb quickly became "If it revolves, don't get involved". With Cedars being actually out on the water I was afraid of that, but the preparation and the flavors were incredible. What a fun night. And then we came back home and turned on the DVR to watch the latest episode of "Mad Men" on the big screen downstairs. Pretty close to a perfect night. Happy Birthday to my sweetie!
And, at some point yesterday I was researching something (I don't even remember what) on Google and one of the images that popped up was a set of photos of Boofus and Buster from when they were kittens and we'd just brought them home from the shelter. They both arrived with "kitty colds" we had to nurse them through, but it was such a delight to have them in our house when they were such goofy little guys. Now they're just goofy big guys, but seeing that photo (which was from this blog in October of 2007) brought back some great memories. Considering they're both here with me in my office right now, with Buster dutifully assuming his position as bodyguard, atop my printer, while Boofie sits on the window sill inside the blinds, watching birds, I figured I'd share the old "kitten pics" today, as well. Just to embarrass them. They're eight years old now, but still kittens at heart.
It. Was. Packed.
Oh yeah, a couple of other things about Houston. It. Was. Packed.
Friday's crowd was one of those where you looked up in the grandstands and thought "Well, that's pretty good for a Friday" and it was. Saturday dawned really dreary and wet, and for a while I thought we might actually not get to run and we might do that with very few fans in the facility. But then, the front moved through and the sky turned blue (parts of it, anyway) and the people arrived. In droves. Wall-to-wall humanity, filling the stands and standing at the fences.
I got up early on Sunday morning and had the thought "I wonder if this is going to be one of those races where Saturday is our biggest day, because it's going to be hard to beat the crowd we had yesterday". And then I got to the track and saw the traffic, already backing up at 7:30 a.m.
And it backed up, and backed up, and basically became gridlock. I haven't seen anything like that in a long time, and frankly I hope the track does some research to see how they can improve that incoming traffic flow, because there were still cars stacked up trying to get in when round two (yes, round TWO) was getting ready to go.
My buddy Dennis and his wife Keena came over from their home in New Braunfels (between Austin and San Antonio) and he was texting me as they moved, inch by inch, into the parking area. They barely made it inside the gate before round one.
Well done Houston NHRA fans. Well done. And thank you all for your patience.
And now it's time for lunch… A guy needs priorities.
Houston. I think it's kind of remarkable that when people think of NASA, whether it be the Space Shuttle era for younger Americans or the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions for an old guy like me, they typically think of the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. After all, those images of the Space Coast are welded into our memories and are as central to our national history as the words "We have liftoff". Yet, once those spacecraft left the pad at the Cape, the rest of every mission was directly connected to Houston, and the city's name was included in virtually every bit of radio communication between space and the ground. We all know what the inside of Mission Control looked like, whether it was the all-male, all-smoking, all short-sleeve white shirts with pocket protectors in the 60s, or the diverse and slightly more relaxed group in more recent times, but when you see the Houston skyline you probably don't think of outer space. You might think of great Tex-Mex or the Houston Astros, but you probably don't think of outer space.
That's what having only interior television shots will do for your PR effort.
There was no real reason for that opening bit, other than it was on my mind when I thought of Houston. Cape Canaveral got all the "beauty shots" of the beach, seagulls, and blue Florida skies. Houston got shots of nerdy looking guys in white shirts, staring at computer monitors.
And, once I get down there tomorrow, I'll only be a few scant miles from Mission Control. If you're a few miles from Cape Canaveral, you can see the launch pads. If you're across the street from Mission Control, you see what could be any high-tech campus of look-alike buildings and parking lots. Maybe they should've moved Mission Control to the floor of the Astrodome. People would remember that!
So, we're headed to Houston. Roger that. The weather forecasts are basically all over the map but if there's one particular place where you should actually avoid even looking at the forecasts, it's beautiful Baytown. With the Gulf of Mexico in nearby proximity, your shot of getting the weather outlook correct in a place that is consistently struck by the whims and vagaries of Gulf breezes and the enormous humidity inherent in such a place, is near nil. We've gone to bed looking at a 100-percent chance of rain for the next 24 hours, and then seen nary a cloud. We've also gone to bed looking at a 100-percent chance of sunny skies and been deluged. Or worse yet, instead of a deluge we've seen those 100 percent sunshine chances turn into swirling low clouds coming in off the Gulf, bringing only drizzle and mist. For days. The Gulf rarely cooperates with the meteorologists, so just ignore the forecast and get ready to race.
I remember, just a couple of years ago, getting up in the morning on Sunday and looking outside the hotel at gloom and wet stuff. I went down to the lobby to get a cup of coffee, and my mood matched the weather I'd seen, but then I saw Jon Dunn and he was all smiles. He said "It's gonna be a great day" and I was perplexed, but then he pointed out the windows facing the other direction from what I'd seen, and the sky was blue. You see, just like in life, your mood simply reflects which way you choose to look. Or something like that.
And who can forget just a couple of years ago, when we made our first foray into "Live" television, and prior to the race (when they told us about the turn-around time) Wilk said "Well, that guarantees we're going to be in the final. No way my guys can do that yet" as he referred to that generation of the various young crews we've had around here. Sure enough, we made it and we actually got to the starting line before Cruz Pedregon and his team, but we waited for them and then they beat us. If we repeat this weekend, we'll still wait for them but we'll win the race. You heard it here first.
No stop in Minnesota for this travel week. I leave GEG at 10:15 tomorrow morning and make a quick connection at SLC before heading down to IAH. Same thing in reverse on Monday morning. And I'm in the front cabin going both ways, so that's all good.
For the record, I need a haircut. That will happen when I'm done with this.
So now, looking backward to the past weekend, how about a little Walla Walla adventure? It was great fun and we really enjoyed ourselves for a couple of days. The weather was perfect, and it surprised us that even though Walla Walla is only about 200 miles south of us, it was at least three weeks ahead of Spokane in terms of spring, blooming plants, and green grass. It almost felt like summer, except it cooled way down at night to make things basically spectacular.
I also had no idea that Walla Walla was that cool of a town. The historic old downtown district is hopping with stores, restaurants, and a ton of winery tasting rooms, and the neighborhoods just south of downtown (where our Bed & Breakfast was) are full of incredible old homes. We actually walked to dinner (about a mile and a half) on Saturday night, and we took with us a guide to the registered historic homes along the way, most of which were built in the late 1890s or early 1900s. Amazing places.
As for our wine tour, it was also nothing short of spectacular. We had a driver for the whole day on Saturday, and we jumped around from winery to winery, often being able to spend some quality time with the official wine maker at each place, learning how they create their own little masterpieces. We got to taste straight from the barrels and vats (and bottles, as well, of course) and we spent just a little bit of money along the way. Good thing we took my car, so we had room in the back.
The highlight was our "Mixing Experience" at Northstar Winery on Saturday afternoon. Along with eight or so other nice people, we learned about Northstar's wines, tasted a few, and then were taken to a blending room where we could make our own judgements about the six different wines they had for us (yep, in the barrels) and then we jotted down our notes and decided how we'd like to blend any of those options into our own bottle of wine. Very fun, and coincidentally (without discussing it) Barbara and I weren't that far off in how we chose to blend. A little different, and I suspect different enough to be able to taste the subtleties of the different grapes, but very similar. We'll need to do a "blind taste test" with friends to see who did a better job.
A couple of years back, in Houston. Be very careful once the National Dragster guys spot you!
The B&B (which is called "Vine & Roses") was amazing. It was my first time ever staying in a Bed & Breakfast, so it was all a new experience and it was one I hope to repeat. The place was incredible, our suite was fantastic, the staff were world-class, the breakfast each morning was terrific, and the other eight or so guests were all fun people. If you're ever in Walla Walla, I'd strongly endorse a stay at Vine & Roses. Heck, I'd strongly endorse a trip to Walla Walla!
And now it's time to begin the process. Hair cut, laundry, pick up the dry cleaning, and start packing. Tonight, I'll be grilling chicken and asparagus for dinner, and there will no doubt be a hockey game on the TV. Tomorrow morning we'll have the countdown and then we'll blast off for Houston. We are go for liftoff.
Roger, Houston. Go for liftoff.
See you in Baytown!
Las Vegas is over, at least for the spring. Wilk picked up a round win with a spectacular 4.08 (yep, another one of those) but then lost in the second round thanks to a mistake with the counterweight on the clutch. Straight up into tire smoke. Still, a round win is better than poke in the eye with a sharp stick, and it's better than chipping your tooth on the curb, and it's better than no round wins, so we gracefully will accept it.
And now, it's time to take a weekend off before we head to Houston (Baytown) and in doing so Barbara and I are going to celebrate her birthday a little early, and then we'll celebrate it again when I get back from Houston on the day before her actual "special day". You can't celebrate birthdays too much, can you?
What are we going to do? Just look at the headline and you'll hopefully figure it out. We're leaving tomorrow for Walla Walla, down in the southeastern part of the state where the good grapes grow and the talented vintners turn them into spectacular wines. We'll have a couple of nights in a classic Bed & Breakfast, a couple of specially reserved winery tours, and two great dinners, before we head back up here on Sunday. Plus breakfast! Because it's a Bed & Breakfast. They don't call them Bed & Brunch, or Bed & Snacks. Just sayin'...
But that's this weekend and I can still ramble a little about Vegas. The key thing was the fact I wasn't there, but I sure heard from a lot of people who were, and heard from a lot of people who said other people asked about me, so that's very nice. I think sometimes people are afraid you're sick or injured when you miss a race, but my only malady is a tight budget, which in some ways is still better than a tight hamstring. I don't like not being at the track, but I try to stay in touch with my colleagues and stay in tune with the race car, whether it's running another 4.08 or smoking the tires right there on my computer screen on ESPN3. Plus I get to hear Alan Reinhart talk to me on the P.A. audio-cast, which is always great.
When we smoked the hoops right at the step of the throttle in round two, my first instinct was that we must've broken a clutch lever or had some other mechanical problem, because we rarely spin the tires that early and when we do it's almost never a tune-up related deal. Well, nothing mechanical broke, but a simple little mistake was all it took and the boss took responsibility for it, because he's like that. As he said "the crew did everything right, but I'm a knucklehead." I disagree with his personal assessment, but I always respect what a stand-up guy he is. He's really like that.
And then the guys packed up and took off for home. But I still had reps and peeps at the track, and that ended up turning out really well for a truly great friend.
The guy always I always refer to as "my actor buddy Buck" brought not only his lovely wife Mary to the track, but also their two boys Gibson and Hudson, and a few other friends as well. Two of the guys who came along are renowned sound engineers in the music business, working the sound for the likes of The Beach Boys, Bonnie Raitt, and Steely Dan, and they were both already NASCAR fans but total newbies at an NHRA race. Buck reports they were blown away. They basically couldn't believe the work going on in the pits, the incredible access and being so close, and the thunder of the Nitro motors. And that was BEFORE Buck actually took them behind the ropes.
I've known Buck for many years, and over that span we've not only become very good friends but I've also managed to introduce him to a wide variety of people at our races, and now he counts folks like Dave Rieff, Alan Reinhart, Ron Capps, Del Worsham, and many more to be part of his racing circle. That's one of the wonderful things about our sport, frankly.
So, even though I wasn't there Buck and the gang saw it all, did it all, and had a blast. Last year, I introduced Buck to Elon Werner (pound for pound the best PR person in the business, working for some guy named Force) and now they're friends as well, so Elon took them into the JFR hospitality area, arranged to have Brittany and Courtney come out to have their photos taken with Gibson and Hudson, and basically he just showed them a great time because he's like that. Plus, let's face it, people really like Buck and Mary instantly, and everyone who goes to "Jersey Boys" loves the show, so they enjoy having the guy around. I'm not sure why, but that's the way it is. I've seen photos of Buck when he was in the marching band in high school (yep, everything you'd hope for and more!) so none of this "Jersey Boys" celebrity nonsense gets past that blockade in my brain. Mary, on the other hand? That I totally get. What a sweetheart, and that Blackpool accent (that would be in England) melts people. Myself included.
Anyway, by the time the first round was over Buck had promises from Elon and from Suzie Oberhofer (yes, THAT Oberhofer family) that if any of their cars won the race they'd take him to the Winner's Circle. When the FC semifinals were over, and John Force and Robert Hight became the two FC finalists, Buck called me and asked what it was going to be like and should he really stick around and actually miss the show that night. I was adamant. I also insisted. I said "Yes, you have to stay. This is a bucket-list item."
The Hujabre family hangs with Mr. and Mrs. Wilkerson
Afterward, he called me and said "You were so right. That was awesome. What an experience, but I wish it had been with you and Tim." I couldn't disagree with any of that. And I'm glad they all got to live in that moment. There's really nothing like it.
What's also fun is that Buck and I have been collaborating on some stuff lately, all in the comedy vein of course. We've been writing together, riffing on concepts and jokes, even brainstorming things like sitcom characters and story lines, and it's been a riot for me to do that. I've always been a writer, and I think I'm kinda funny (at times) but I've never worked at actually (seriously) writing this stuff and I've certainly never worked with a guy as uber-talented as Buck. It's been a ton of fun and I think we'll both enjoy doing this sort of creative stuff together for a long time. We have many ideas going, and people in high places who are interested in making sure those ideas see the light of day in front of real people, so we'll keep at it in our spare time and see where it goes. I see it as being a lot like the pursuit of sponsors in my gig, in that you never speak of it publicly until after it's completed, so all I can say is stay tuned, and boy has it been fun. Kind of like learning a new position on the playing field, having to stretch my skills in a new way. Maybe that's why my "comedy writing muscles" are so sore.
Next week, Houston. And, I'm actually going to do a strict down-and-back this time, instead of spending a night in Minnesota on either leg. I'll be changing planes in Salt Lake City in both directions and should be home on Monday night. But first, let's go to Walla Walla!
Barb and I went there on one of our first free weekends after we moved here, because that region has become an absolute superstar in the wine world as of late. Then, she went back with her friends from Minnesota, and that's when they stayed in a B&B and had a ton of fun, so now I get to experience that as well. The time I went, we really didn't know which wineries to visit, other than L'Ecole because we already knew and loved their Cabs and Merlots, plus we stayed at the Holiday Inn Express. This trip ought to be a little more rewarding. And hopefully not too expensive… It's really easy to take one sip of a great wine and somehow logically make the leap to "We need to buy a case of this right now". And that's just at the first of 12 stops you're going to make.
This was a bit of a short one, but I've got some stuff I need to get cracking on (including the fact my "Behind The Ropes" column for National Dragster is due on Monday) so it's time to shape up and fly right, or something like that. And then, tomorrow, it's off to Walla Walla.