Friday, September 18, 2020

More normal? What will follow remains to be seen!

Standing in the checkout line at a CostCo this week, looking around at the patrons emptying their carts, Margo turned to me wryly observing that this is now looking more normal. Yes, our favorite brand of TP was readily available. And yes, the passage through the checkout stations and then on through to the exit for a final count of items, there was little acknowledgement that anything other than a kind of normalcy had returned. Yes, there were still a strong contingent of naysayers on social media dwelling on the downside of this global pandemic but to anyone living in Northern Colorado (NoCol), observing the bare minimum of social interaction anyway, it meant that well, it was getting harder by the day to see anything having changed at all!

During my early trips to Tokyo, Japan, I have to admit I was taken by surprise to see passengers on commuter trains and buses wearing masks. Turns out that for Tokyo residents, waking up of a morning with a sniffle meant that out of common courtesy you wore a mask. Better to  minimize the chance of spreading anything nasty than having every head turn your way should you happen to sneeze in the confined spaces of commuter carriages.  Indeed to these Tokyo residents, nothing appeared out of the ordinary when masked commuters entered transit hubs, banks and stores or places of work.

Clearly, we have left normal behind and are well into the process of adjusting to life that is a little more normal. This past week has seen Margo and me, heads-down at our desks, finalizing the September 2020 issue of our digital publication NonStop Insider. Now that the task has been completed, it’s been a time of sitting back, drinking coffee and skimming through magazines that I have ignored for some time. With the weather now a little more normal in that the snow that fell earlier in the week and with it, daytime temperatures hovering around freezing, the return to warmer weather has seen us stepping out onto our decks.  

By chance I picked up an older copy of Racer magazine – the May / June 2020 Return to Racing Issue.  As a fan of the articles by Marshall Pruett, I turned to his feature Dawn of a New Normal:

“We won’t forget the year when the world buried its foot in the brake pedal and brought out the red flags for auto racing.

“Fundamental alterations to how we go racing are guaranteed. But this experience will change us in other ways that aren’t fully known yet, carrying the permanence of a new normal as it’s established.”

Pruett then quotes Indy Car team owner, Chip Gnasssi, after he made the observation:

“We have no option but to take a fresh look at how we do the things we do. And all of us from the sanctioning bodies, to the tracks, to the team owners, to the engineers and mechanics, and everybody in between, has no option but to do the same.”

As for fresh looks at doing things including stepping up security trackside, a newspaper in Toronto published the cartoon above. A not so subtle reference to the up and coming Indy stars being as young as they are these days with many in the twenties and a couple just barely twenty. Pictured as the two “race babes” are Colton Herta and Conor Daly, with former Indy winner Hinchcliffe acting as the trackside reporter for NBC. As a historical side note, it was Hinchcliffe who won the pole for the 2016 Indy 500 but where it was team Herta with driver Alexander Rossi who won that year’s Indy 500, the start of an even closer tie-in with the Andretti dynasty.   

It is not always easy to take the words coming out of sports programs literally or to quickly apply to our daily lives. And yet, in all the conversations Margo and I have had of late it’s been hard to ignore the comments about what we are doing differently today. No more handshakes or hugs, no more sitting bar-side at your favorite restaurant and no more gathering as friends over small talk and chitchat. On the other hand, elbow bumps seem unnatural even as we have adapted to something more normal that gives us a form of contact that we have been deprived of for most of the year.

This past week two posters appeared on my Facebook feed that struck a chord. Next year will be a big year for me and even though Margo and I just cancelled our 2021 return BizCation to Australia and New Zealand we are both adamant that we are not getting old. No question about it, we continue to be in good health, to enjoy the work we do even as we plan our next road trip. However, we were only recently reminded that it was two years ago, this past August, that we spent our last weekend trackside. The red Vette was still our sports car of choice and on the Friday prior to the weekends outing with NASA – the National Auto Sports Association – I took Jim Miller out for a couple of laps. 

The skies were even more ominous than that depicted at the top of this post. Not influenced by fire as much as by converging weather systems that were not normal for that region of Colorado at that time of year. Symbolically, after a fashion, a tornado just happened to sweep past the track and, completely unaware of its potential for destruction, I completed the lap. Time to seek shelter!

On the other hand as not normal as this was, the symbolism had more to do that it would prove to be the last time I blasted around High Plains Raceway (HPR) and while I had the notion that indeed this may prove to be the case, I also happened to think that there would be more events to come. Ten years’ of weekends that normally saw us heading to a race circuit somewhere out in the western states for a combination of socializing and on track shenanigans, had come to an end. 

NASA certainly stood by Margo and me as we slowly advanced up the ranks. And our thanks to Ryan Flaherty, John Matthew and Fulton Haight as well as to instructors like Steve, Mike and Tom. When you encounter a group director with the name Maddog, you know you have to be on your best behavior. There were occasions when I wasn’t particularly behaving at my best but even then, a day or so later, Ryan would call me and walk me through whatever issue I had at the time, spending his own time to encourage me to keep at it! 

Which leads me to the second poster that caught my eye the same day! In these times when so many of us argue over this precaution or that, it’s really a time to weigh our option. Priorities are becoming quite different even as CostCo continues to build up its inventory of items that complete disappeared from the shelves a short time ago. We have finished our downstairs storage area – carpets, storage racks, and more – and even as we find ourselves referring to it as our thrift shop or even the downstairs pantry, we now ensure it’s always kept well stocked. No hoarding mind you, but enough good to ensure we are OK. But then again, what’s OK? I guess this is the message of that second poster.

We aren’t quite yet at the point where we can say we have arrived at the new normal. I am not sure we will fully appreciate the new normal when it does arrive as it’s probably going to be a moving target for at least the next two years. However, I am quite OK with living in the more normal circumstances we encounter up here in NoCo. The forest fires seem to have died down even as there remains a hint of burnt pine needles in the air. Parts of the sky remain hazy but even with the presence of forest fires we shrug our shoulders and dismiss them with the thought that after a dry summer, they were expected. They are just another part of normalcy we live through each year. 

It’s been quite a while since I referenced Colton Herta, the grandson of our good friends the Kennys. This weekend began the beginning of the end for the 2020 Indy series with just five races left to run. Colton had worked his way into fifth place overall but then, in a difficult first race on Saturday he slipped back to seventh place in the standings. Still, with the potential of ending the season possibly as high as third, Sunday was going to be challenging as rain was heading towards Ohio. 

Fortunately, Sunday started out well for young Colton and for the Andretti team of which Colton is now an active participant. In tricky conditions that brought out the red flag for the first group of qualifiers Colton, running in the second group ended up the fastest on track securing P1 for the race. After a season without a podium and far from normal for Colton and the Andretti Harding Steinbrenner Autosport it spelt a return to what we all expect from Colton. But then again, there were 75 laps to complete only a matter of an hour or two later in conditions that seemed to be changing by the minute. 

For anyone that follows a favorite team or sporting identity, there is nothing more nail-biting than watching events unfold where they look likely to win! Motor Racing is nothing if not entertaining and on occasion it delivers something exciting. I once drove from Edmonton, Alberta, as winter was still hanging around, to Long beach to watch a Formula One event on the streets of that seaside town. Yes, Mario Andretti just happened to have won but the significance of this win escaped me at the time. 

It would be more than two decades later that I sat in the stands at Monte Carlo to watch the 2004 Formula One event that was won by Giancarlo Fisichella, an upset win as Montoya took out Schumacher in the tunnel while under a full course yellow! Racing is always full of drame as the hours unfold. Then again, even as we sit at home glued to our television sets, there were no surprises this Sunday; Colton won the race.

“That was sweet!”

Colton led every lap apart from the laps as the race leaders made their pit stops. It was as clinical a win as I have ever seen with the distance separating Colton from the other placegetters clearly visible as he crossed the line.  With the laps winding down and with the appearance of being caught by fellow Andretti team members, Colton was in fuel save mode. On his radio, asking for when he could return to racing (as those Andretti drivers closed the gap), it was with a sigh of relief when, with about three laps to run, his crew chief gave him the signal to go race.

Nothing like a quick chat with the "boss" 

And race young Colton certainly did, quickly pulling away from his adversaries. Yes, he won; pulling away and in so doing closed the gap between himself and the driver in third place in the championship. It’s always good to be greeted by the boss and team owner Michael Andretti couldn’t be more pleased to see three of his drivers make it to the podium for the very first time in forever. Then again, it was history too after a fashion:

 “The last time Andretti Autosport swept the podium was in 2005 at St. Petersburg when Dan Wheldon scored the win and fellow Andretti teammates Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta – Colton Herta’s father – followed to sweep the top four finishing positions for what was known as Andretti Green Racing at the time.”

The significance of that F1 win by Mario all those years ago then hit home. Hertas and Andrettis have enjoyed close relationships for a very long time and it’s only normal then that Colton has found a home with a winning team. From seventh place on Saturday night for Colton it meant a jump up to fourth on Sunday afternoon. In times when there’s so much that is normal and where conversations oftentimes harken back to when it was normal, the sense that we were seeing something a little more normal was encouraging.

And the drama continued as the week unfolded. It was as I was reading a digital update from Racer, news came that perhaps Colton now have bigger ambitions than simply finishing this year’s Indy series in third place. Marshall Pruett, once again, led with a heading
Formula 1 still on Herta’s radar

 “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack,” (Colton) said. “I think it would have to mean either being with a top three team or incentives of, if I do good enough, getting to a top three team.

 “So I think if having that U.S. driver can push the market forward and drive the market, I think it’d be very beneficial for Formula 1.

“I’d love to give it a shot; I think you’d be a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he said. “But if I don’t, I think I’m going to be just fine and enjoy driving IndyCars just as much as I’d enjoy being in a Formula 1 paddock.”

Maybe just maybe there’s more to that connection with Europe and F1 in Colton’s friendship with Mario after all!

It’s only a matter of days now before we head to Southern California (SoCal) where the forest fires have been more extreme and not to be trivialized in any way. Returning to the highways for only our second roadtrip of the year in a way further highlights how life is becoming a little bit more normal. There is a long way to go and there’s no discounting the tragedy that has been faced by many families around the planet. Shocking, and heart-braking, to say the least. This experience will change us in other ways that aren’t fully known yet … What will follow in the months that lie ahead isn’t clear but there is a growing sense of us becoming adaptive to our changing circumstances.

At the very least, our cars will have masks in the door pockets and we will be carrying plenty of hand sanitizer. The only question we have been asking ourselves is whether or not we should have been doing this all along? Perhaps what comes next is simply a greater appreciation for keeping our neighbors safe and isn’t that something that none of us will be tired of doing any time soon? And when it comes to winning, isn’t taking simple steps like this all that counts in our life race?

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