Thursday, September 20, 2018

That “flying fickle finger of fate” together with a little serendipity and a whole lot of good fortune!

There is a lot of truth to the saying, “being in the right place at the right time” and you can tie yourself up in knots trying to figure out just how it all happens. But as I look back through the years at the people that have entered my life it’s all happened without any planning or scheming and yet, many of these accidental encounters have turned out to be life changing. Top of the list, naturally, was how Margo and I met – me from Sydney, Australia, and Margo from Warsaw, Poland. Even as our paths had crossed almost the day I stepped onto the campus of Tandem Computers, the journey wasn’t linear by any means.

And then there was the chance encounter with John (JR) Robinson in the offices of Nixdorf Computers at a time when his company was just three people and the future looked anything but assured. It was JR who encouraged me to go to California to join Tandem Computers and work on a mutually beneficial program featuring his product. In the 1960s we called it “the flying fickle finger of fate,” according to Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, and it has become very noticeable through the years!

However and completely unrelated to work or to any IT projects I was associated with at the time, just by happenstance, I ran into a fellow Corvette owner sipping a latte at the Starbucks in the Simi Valley’s Wood Ranch shopping center. “Do you race that Corvette?” The question came from out of nowhere, but looking at the tables there was only one table occupied. Without missing a beat, I turned and responded, “Yes, I sure do!” This was the summer of 2008 and Margo and I had only just started out driving on track with the National Auto Sports Association (NASA) and we had managed all of one track weekend.

So yes, we raced the Corvette, although technically, we were participants in the more educational-focused High Performance Driver Event (HPDE) program. “Well, come over here and join me for coffee,” was the immediate response. “I have asked everyone who has driven a Corvette into the parking lot whether they race or not and you are the first to say that you do! Let me introduce myself; my name is Brian Kenny.”

Fast forward ten years and Margo and I find ourselves camped trackside at Sonoma, alongside the extended Kenny’s family as we watch the Kenny’s 18 year old grandson, Colton Herta, participate in his inaugural Indy race. Yes, following two years racing Indy Lights cars at 16 and 17 years of age, having competed in Europe in the UK-based MSA Formula series at 14 years of age, finishing third in the series (remember, he was just 14 and the youngest in the series) where he shocked the Brits scoring four victories to finish third overall and along the way, helped the United States win the Nations Cup.

The following year and still in Europe, he raced in the
Euroformula Open Championship at just 15 years of age, finishing third in the series with four victories, six podium finishes and five pole positions. All while spending most of his early teens away from family and friends even as he still had to attend to his school work. How many of us would have been prepared to do that and yet, it’s really what commitment is all about and Colton certainly was committed at this stage and was doing all he could do to establish himself as a potential future professional race car driver.  

Along the way, as the picture above so clearly depicts, with Colton holding onto the winners check, he beat out Lando Norris (the chap on the right of the picture) who only recently was promoted to the big leagues in F1, becoming a full time driver for McLaren in 2019. Let’s remember this picture, as I am sure one day their paths will cross again – maybe at the Indy 500 in a couple of years’ time given all the rumors circulating about McLaren’s entry into Indy racing.

But this weekend, the accomplishments of the past four years will be little more than distant memories as he steps up to race in the big leagues full time next year. Yes, he will be a pro racing Indy cars. Fortunately to us and again, purely by happenstance, as the Indy Lights program wrapped up two weeks ago, an Indy team gave him the opportunity to race in the last race of the Indy series of  2018 as a way to introduce him to the senior program.

And yes, you could have found Colton Saturday morning, under the tents in the middle of the vendor stands, tableside together with Wil Power, Tony Kanaan and the rest of the pros, signing autographs. At one point in the practice sessions he topped the leader board with the fastest lap time set in his Chevy powered car carrying the number, 88. It was only for an instant and by the time I pulled out my camera, his time had been eclipsed. As a rookie, his goal was to simply to take it all in and not mess up as the series final has four drivers in contention for a series win and that was very much on his mind!

In the ten years that conversation about racing Corvettes has led to us spending numerous weekends in Las Vegas, more dinners that I care to recall at Mastro Thousand Oaks, as well as Las Vegas and yes, even vacations together. Readers of post to this blog will come across numerous references to the Kennys throughout the decade that has passed and together Brian, Jan, Margo and I have vacationed in Europe and Australia even as we have spent time in Zion National Park and even in Albuquerque for the Hot Air Balloon Festival. This weekend, again all rather serendipitously, I was able to cross one more item off the list – I rode in a modified two-seater Indy car around Sonoma.

Honda has a program “Ride of a Lifetime” and I scored a ride – yes, I paid for it well, actually, it was a father’s day gift from Margo – but it didn’t come about without yet more input from that flying fickle finger of fate. When I logged onto the web site, I could book a seat almost anywhere Indy races were being held except Sonoma – seat time was sold out. So I emailed the Kenny’s son-in-law, Bryan Herta, who co-owns the Andretti – Herta team whose driver just happens to be Marco Andretti.

Over the course of just a few short years, Bryan Herta Autosports (BHA) has chalked up two Indy 500 wins, first with Dan Wheldon and then with Alexander Rossi – both wins coming as a result of clever strategy decisions made race by Bryan Herta. Yes, for the upcoming Indy series final race here in Sonoma, son, Colton, will be on a different team than dad, Bryan. “It’s just a business,” was the only response I got from Bryan when I asked him about that on the Friday night of race weekend.

On the other hand, Bryan’s intervention on my behalf secured me a ride in the two-seater Honda-powered Indy cars, a guest of Andretti’s. And yes two-seater Indy cars are managed by the Andretti team as a joint undertaking with Honda. And my driver when the day finally arrived? None other than legendary, Mario Andretti himself! A man of few words, mind you, but there I was behind the helmet of one of the most famous racers of all times having won Formula One, Indy and just about everything else.

Simply watching him walk up to the race car you have just sat in, pull up his drivers suit and then jump into the seat ahead of you, well who knew? There would be four two-seater Indy cars on track that day and I scored Mario! Not only that, but the outing is for just one lap around Sonoma however, as I was first in line, not only did they put me in Mario’s car but as he needed to warm up the tires, I did two laps – a warm up followed by a high-speed lap. And what laps they were! Yes the car was fast but the amount of grip and hence the ability to brake and corner are simply unimaginable until you have ridden inside an Indy car!

As much as this weekend has been about Indy cars and back-seat rides and about Bryan Herta and his team (and yes Marco qualified in the “quick six” for the first time that I can recall), it has mostly been about Colton Herta. And while he did top the leader board with one quick lap early Saturday morning, when it came to qualifying the setup of his car wasn’t to his liking as it caused considerable understeer to be generated. This didn’t help and when he pitted and put on the sticky red tires, it got worse. “Too much grip from the reds meant I couldn’t turn – the rear was just gripping too well,” said Colton afterwards.

So he didn’t make it out of the first qualifying series but will he change the setup? “Don’t think so; as the race progresses and tires degrade, the understeer will likely go away and maybe I will have a car I like!” I would like to say that being at Sonoma isn’t all about racing, but then I wouldn’t be providing an accurate report. Yes, it’s all about the thunder of 900 hp Indy Racers barreling down the short main straight before driving up through turn one and then into one turn after another all taken at speeds not even the two-seater Honda driven by Mario could emulate.  

It’s also about the time waiting in between sessions and thankfully, we have our company command center with us as we were at business events during the days leading up to this weekend’s event. So in that regards, waiting isn’t all that bad with all the mod cons of home within reach. Margo and Jan Kenny did make it to a nearby winery for a little wine tasting but it is all about the event. I have to admit with all the fires that scorched Napa and Sonoma I was a tad concerned about the current vintage but it seems like the grapes are doing just fine as the photo Margo shot for me clearly illustrates.

So what was the final race of the series like? How did Colton go and yes, who finally won the title for 2018? History will record that this Indy race was the last to be held at Sonoma as a new deal has been cut to run this race at Laguna Seca going forward. Fortunately, history will also record that in the very first Indy race at Sonoma, among the drivers was none other than Bryan Herta and so fittingly, it was the younger Herta closing out Indy at Sonoma. However, it was also a first after a fashion as the race held four descendants of other champion racers as joining Colton in the race was Graham Rahal, son of Bobby Rahal, Pietro Fittipaldi, grandson of Emerson Fittipaldi and of course, Marco Andretti son of Michael Andretti and grandson of Mario – a historic occasion all around.  

Before the race, Colton was happily eating lots of protein and taking it easy. Around noon I caught up with Colton biting down on a steak and when I asked him how he felt, his response was minimal as it was succinct, “ask me again in a couple of hours but for now, I am OK!” I didn’t get to see him again until after the race when he returned to the Kenny’s RV where we were all sipping martinis, as usual. Dropping into the nearest chair, he was spent. Never mind that he had driven some 80 plus laps among the best Indy racers on the planet. 

In the Indy Lights series just wrapped up Colton finished second overall with the winner being a young and really good racer, Patricio O’Ward. Together, Patricio and Colton would be on track racing for the same team and against all odds, Patricio made it into the final six Indy racers for the “Quick Six” race for pole where he finished up fifth. Colton had nothing on offer with the set-up he had and qualified nineteenth. Things didn’t go any better for Colton in the race and Patricio found it difficult to stay with the leaders, although he did finish in the top ten.

But then again, this taste of what lay ahead for both young racers became a lot clearer following the Sonoma Indy race – a new team was announced and they had chosen both Colton and Patricio as their drivers for 2019.For the previous two years, both drivers had raced in Indy Lights under the umbrella of Andretti but with Colton racing for Andretti Steinbrenner Racing and the relationship between the young Steinbrenner and Colton was easy to see. As the news broke of a new team ownership pairing coming together, Steinbrenner partnering with relative Indy newcomer, Harding Racing, this announcement didn’t come as a surprise for many Indy followers:

With neither racer yet to reach 21, the creation of the team with these sends an ominous warning to the rest of the Indy racers that fresh talent is coming to play and they are part of a team that doesn’t take losing easily – just look at the success of Those Damn Yankees over the years! Writing about those Yankees, at the time of the announcement the Yankee baseball organization gave Colton the opportunity to throw out the first pitch at Yankee stadium and again, I have to wonder, was that an accomplishment on Colton’s bucket list? When Colton’s picture appeared on the Jumbo-Tron, look closely as he was already being identified as the Harding Steinbrenner driver of car #88!

When Colton’s picture appeared on the Jumbo-Tron, look closely as he was already being identified as the Harding Steinbrenner driver of car #88! And what else did Colton get to do while with the Yankees? He just tweeted: "Thank you very much @Yankees was able to hold Babe Ruth’s last home run bat from 1922!!"

I have had many items on my bucket list, but being able to cross off the list, running in an Indy car with Mario Andretti driving was definitely a check mark I didn’t think would ever happen – I saw him race in the F1 event at Long Beach back in 1977, so it has been many years. And then there was spending a weekend with a team that ran Indy for the very first time only to win even more accolades as future winners for a brand new Indy team well, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

Talk about that fickle finger of fate! Who could have guessed the weekend would deliver so much for the families involved. In an Indy car, with Mario Andretti? You have to be kidding, right, and yet it happened! And oh yes, Margo visited Cline vineyards and returned with a great bottle of red so there will be much to celebrate in the coming days. Well done the Kennys, the Hertas and the Andrettis! Well done Steinbrenner and Harding! And yes, well done Colton!  

And I need to thank the many parties that provided photos for this post - Brian Kenny, Racer Magazine and AutoWeek  

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The bikes are gone …

There was a time, way back in the early 2000s, when the idea came to Margo and me to ride motorcycles. Together, we signed up for lessens that eventually led to us both to getting our motorcycle riders endorsements added to our respective drivers’ licenses. Cool! We were still very young back then and immortal. And so a two decades long adventure began. Of course, any opportunity to purchase an entirely new wardrobe meant a lot to Margo and while she stopped short of buying nail polish matching her purple trimmed motorcycle, I have to believe the thought crossed her mind more than once. 

My own adventure with motorcycles began when I was still a teen and at high school in Sydney. Friends at my school bought motorcycles as our final year came to an end and I thought that bikes were pretty neat and there was many a later afternoon spent hanging around their homes as they “played” with their bikes. Honda was the manufacturer of choice back then and, for a while, 250cc / 305cc twins were as big a bike as Honda sold in Australia. Working the summer at an underlay felt manufacturer, I saved up enough to buy my first Honda – a 250cc CB72. This was a sports bike, very light and its handling properties were excellent.

However, I never took a lesson and for two years, rode the highways along the coastline of New South Wales without a license. You see, if you gained a license it was only a provisional license and for one full year subject to cancellation following any incident that came to the attention of the police; zero tolerance for infractions of any kind during that probation period. I understood very quickly that I would never make it so I exploited a serious loophole in the system. Carrying only a learner’s permit technically, I didn’t have a license, so the only penalty I was subject to was a fine – and I paid a lot of fines during the years I stuck with that plan.

I also had lots of accidents! Untrained and unaware of the mechanics of cornering, I cannot recount the number of times I went into a corner too “hot” only to drop the bike. I went through a period where that Honda was in the shop being straightened more times than it was on the road. So, without giving it any second thoughts, I bought a used Yamaha 75cc motor scooter just to tool around on whenever the Honda was in the shop. Overnight I became a Honda and Yamaha fan but the two-bike affair didn’t last all that long as yes, you guessed, it! Both of them ended up in different shops at the same time …

I had my Honda 250 customized in such a way that the local constabulary recognized it as I rode by to the point where, at one time and leaving Sydney’s central business district, while stopped at a traffic light, I felt a hand on my shoulder. Shocked, I turned around to see it was the hand of the law. What on earth, I thought, before the policeman asked me, “don’t you recognize me?” He was the same officer who had pulled me over and ticketed me the previous Friday night and it was now Monday morning. “Don’t tell me you were pulled over by more than one policeman this weekend – I recognized the bike but I didn’t recognize you wearing that heavy coat!”

Customization was something that wasn’t so much along the lines of what we see with custom motorcycles today but rather, after taking the Honda apart, I removed the Honda badges, made the gas tank flush, filled with a little body putty and repainted a much brighter red. And then, every single piece of metal I could take off the bike, including the frame and the front forks, I had chromed – yes, this little red Honda stood apart from any other example motoring along Sydney’s roads. Was it loud? Well, a pair of twin piped Dunstall racing exhaust from England to give it the four tailpipe look went on and even as I was working in the data center of the steelworks in Wollongong, the operators could hear me arriving over the noise of the un-baffled IBM mainframe 1403 printers as they ripped through boxes of continuous stationery. No, standard bikes in off the showroom floor trim weren’t for me even back then, all those years ago.

Returning to the 2000s, once Margo and I had our motorcycle riding endorsements affixed to our driver’s licenses, we waited until we had finished building our Niwot, Colorado, home. At that time, there was plenty of garage space available to store a motorcycle or two or three. In fairly quick succession, we started with a small Suzuki for Margo and a mid-size Honda for me. The Suzuki was traded on a Yamaha Warrior for me, which gave Margo my Honda V Twin which was traded on a Yamaha 1100 V Star in pretty quick order. A third motorcycle was then bought so I could join Margo on her Yamaha cruiser; this time, it was a Yamaha 1600 RoadStar.

We had the Yamaha cruisers extensively customized and we had our helmets repainted to match each motorcycle. As for the Warrior, it was a brute and I loved to ride it, but after just a couple of years, a smooth-talking Yamaha salesman convinced me to trade it in on an R1 “1 liter” sports bike which for a gentleman of my age and physique was madness. So it too went in short order and Margo and I settled in on two cruisers for the next decade plus – Margo on the Yamaha 1100 while I returned to the Honda fold having purchased a Honda VTX1800 “110 cubic inch” heavy-weight cruiser and they looked pretty good parked between our normal daily drives!

In popular culture, motorcycles have become a metaphor for freedom and a life spent on the open road. Author Michael Sears, in a blog post supporting his 2015 novel, Ling Way Down, probably described it best when he said: 

“The great metaphor for the melting pot that is the United States was next door to our convention.  At the motorcycle show. Unless you ride, or know a rider or two quite well, it may be easy to dismiss the whole phenomenon as a fringe movement, populated by criminals, crazies, and sufferers from male menopause.  While the purchase of a motorcycle may be - along with decreased libido, weight gain, and depression – a symptom of early dementia among men, I discovered that the world of motorcycle lovers encompasses so much more.

“The first stereotype to fall was the idea that motorcyclephilia is solely a male condition, the only women involved being the babes in black leather bustiers and Daisy-Mae shorts who pose for the ride-customizing ads in the back pages of some of the rougher magazines.

“If the cowboy is the quintessential American hero, then bike riders are the modern equivalent.  The motorcycle has replaced the horse for the man – or woman – who rides off into the sunset in search of freedom and the next challenge.”

Margo and I didn’t quite fit the mold. When we first started riding around Boulder County, she encountered almost no women riders. However, what she did encounter was a community made of individuals from every walk of life who welcomed her with essentially open arms whenever we stopped for gas and other motorcyclists were present. She also become aware of “the wave” – no matter what road you were riding, even the baddest, toughest, biker we passed would take their left hand off the handlebar to give Margo a wave which, of course, she returned with a mix of surprise and amusement. We had become cowboys and we were enjoying it immensely! 

It took a year or two but sure enough, the rides around Boulder became rides around Colorado until eventually we were riding across state lines and into Wyoming and Nebraska. Over time we found our motorcycles living on battery tenders for much of the year. Winter months weren’t favorable to riding motorcycles although one January, I took the Honda VTX on a ride to Laramie and back as the temperature climbed into the mid to high 60s. This was covered in a March 9, 2008, post to our business blog, Real Time View From higher altitudes!

I guess you could say the end came when one weekend, with both cars and motorcycles having lain idle for the winter, with two cars in the shop for repairs and maintenance we were left without transportation. So one bike would be traded for another, smaller, city car that we could use for fun and essentially, a substitute for motorcycles! The natural choice was the Mini Roadster and the victim turned out to be my Honda 1800. Ouch, but the Honda didn’t go quietly. Riding it to the gas station the big Honda decided to break down – so it arrived later that day at the Mini dealership atop a tow truck. This left us with just the Yamaha 1100 which I gradually eased away from riding it only occasionally each year. 

Make of it what you want but there was something about knowing that there was still one motorcycle in the garage that well, kept me feeling pretty good at night. Margo wasn’t quite up to sharing in the “fog of youth” like I tended to do on occasion as, just a short time before the sale, she had fallen from her Yamaha. During the final turn into our street, following a nice afternoon ride for coffee, down she went. With bones in her hand broken, Margo never again felt the same way about her Yamaha. Even as she admitted later that she had messed up and failed to properly manage the turn using her rear brake, it didn’t really make amends for the pain she suffered over the next couple of weeks as her hand began to mend.  As for her Yamaha – it looked a little cross-eyed for a while before we had it fully repaired.

And so our days of motorcycle adventures have come full circle as just a few weeks ago, we sold the Yamaha to the local motorcycle shop. Looking at it for the last time, alone in the garage, was an emotional time for me. Almost two decades to the day after we gained our motorcycle endorsements! The motorcycle may very well have replaced the horse for those who ride off into the sunset in search of freedom and the next challenge but, closer to home and to how Margo and I found a shared hobby late in life, it’s not the only way to enjoy freedom, challenges and the allure of the open road. As we continue to zigzag across America, in cars, SUVs and RVs, there has been one constant the whole time. It’s not even the trip we are on at the time – but the one that comes next. Ever since we were married, we plan trips two at a time – the immediate journey and the one further out.

Motorcycles were always about doing something right now but they are now gone and we don’t feel as though life has relegated us to arm chairs and hammocks. A spirited ride up a Colorado front range canyon in the M4 is nothing to scoff at nor is a long day’s drive across the prairies in the i8. And then there are track days in the Corvette Z06. Notice a pattern here? What that first Honda did for me was to foster the desire to do something beyond standard and to look for something that is just a little more off-the-wall than usual.

Yes, we have a Jeep but it’s an SRT. We have a Corvette but it’s a Z06 and as for the BMW yes we have a coupe but it’s an M4 and, as for the 8-series coupe then yes, it’s not a regular coupe but the hybrid i8! So while we adhere to the adage of never say never and have already stopped by the local bike shops to look at a Harley trike and a Can-Am Spyder – a more sedate and indeed age appropriate way to pick up where we have left off – it’s nice that Margo and I can reminisce over rides taken throughout the nearly 20 years we have been married.