The Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done (Part 4)

Part 4:  PRE-STAGE

There’s not much that goes through my mind in this moment.  I’m not worried about unfinished tasks at work, bills that need to be paid, or if the upstairs light was left on all weekend.  This is my perfect point of personal clarity as I sit at the controls of my life’s vision and focus on a singular task that lay before me.  I stare intently out the plexiglass windshield at the crew chief who is in control of every action I take now.  He lifts his hands up and motions me forward.  My dad has almost always been that man and I know in this moment as he brings me forward that everything mechanical with this car is right, at least from his perspective.  I slowly creep forward waiting for the command to stop.  He reaches over the long hood and removes plastic plugs at the end of air bleeds.  As each one comes out, the idle increases ever so slightly to reach that optimum point for launch.  When he is finished with his tasks, he walks away, giving me control of every action from here forward.

Driving a nitro funny car and all the associated tasks that go with it remind me of what it was like to fly an airplane in the U.S. Air Force.  Much like my racing career, my military career started at the very bottom and I had to work very hard to achieve my goals and dreams.  I enlisted in 1995 as an Airman Basic and attended Basic Military Training in Lackland AFB, Texas.  Once finishing basic training I was given the rank of Airman 1st Class (E-2) because I had attended a year of college before volunteering to serve my country.  I attended training to become an Aircraft Electrical Environmental Specialist and enjoyed the specialized career skills that I was given at such a young age.  Having grown up around race cars, working on airplanes came natural to me and I excelled at it.  It was the movie Top Gun that inspired a 9 year old me to want to fly them, and it seemed to always be the thing that I daydreamed most about, apart from racing.  As a child I would collect books about airplanes, draw schematics of them, memorize their specifications, and fantasize about dogfighting the Russians.  From a very young age I envisioned myself as a pilot that spent his weekends racing cars.

First to Solo

It wasn’t very common in those times for an enlisted man to make the transition from being a ground pounder to the cockpit.  One fortuitous day I happened to be working on my assigned A-10 when a young pilot came out to pass more details about a particularly difficult problem we were troubleshooting.  He was very helpful in describing the symptoms he encountered in flight and seemed to have a connection with the old Warthog that helped him convey the issues.  As we began to chat more casually I found out that this young Lieutenant had previously been a crew chief before trading his maintenance badge for pilot wings.  I shared my dream of wanting to be a pilot and was emboldened to share his own story of how he accomplished his goals.  As the flood of encouragement came my way, I was quickly set on a course that would forever change my life.

That chance meeting on the flight line was a moment in time that propelled my dream of becoming a pilot into forward actionable momentum.  I attended college at night and began looking into the opportunities to begin a commissioned officer.  It didn’t happen overnight and it certainly didn’t come without a lot of agony, struggle, and strife.  I had gotten married at a very young age, and my very cantankerous marriage was soon to add a young child into the already difficult dynamic.  Through numerous twists, turns, a lot of drama, and never ending pain, I eventually achieved my B.S. in Aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.  I was then accepted to Officer Training School and also given the opportunity to attend Undergraduate Pilot Training.  It took me over 7 years to reach that goal, but I remember that chance meeting on the flight line with the A-10 pilot that set my life path in action that afternoon.

Here I sit in the blazing hot afternoon sun wreaking of disgusting Columbus, Mississippi humidity as look intently at the crew chief before me holding his arms up in the sign of an X.  The shrill noise of the jet engine T-37 Tweet spins in rhythmic chaos on either side of the cockpit as I sit patiently waiting for his next motion.  He stands in front of me trusting that my hands and feet are clear of the controls while the maintenance folks surround the aircraft to remove the chalks and last few “remove before flight” pins.  It’s 2002, and this is my solo flight as a USAF student pilot at Columbus AFB.  I’m the first of my class, and each of them stand outside the  flight operations building observing my actions as they rehearse the pre-flight routine in their own heads.  While there is plenty of action around me, I feel as if each instructor is staring intently at me waiting for me to make the wrong move so they can swoop in and fail me, ended my quest for wings.  My stomach was in knots hours before the flight as I pre-flighted my parachute and life support systems.  My instructor grilled me on all the particular aspects of the aircraft and flight maneuvers and I was nervous that my opportunity could be yanked away in a moment.  But now, as I sit at the controls, I am calm and deliberate in my actions.

The crew chief suddenly unfolds his arm, raises them above his head and begins motioning me forward to begin the taxi procedure.  I instinctively look over to the right seat to make sure that the instructor isn’t about to yell at me for forgetting something, but this time the seat is empty.  It’s all up to me now.  Nobody will suddenly reach over and grab my oxygen hose forcing my head down as a brutal reminder of my ignorance.  The penalty for failure, forgetfulness, or complacency could ultimately end up with me crashing into the ground, or best case, floating to terra firma under the canopy of my parachute.  I must execute perfectly, or well enough to keep myself alive.  I push the controls forward and the Tweet makes the rather familiar whistle as it begins to waddle forward.  He motions to his left and I respond with the right rudder pedal as I turn out of parking and line up on the taxi line.  I look out my left wing as he passes.  In this moment, I know that from his perspective, everything mechanical with this aircraft is right and I trust him.  He crisply pops to attention, and salutes.  I salute back with absolute pride knowing that less than six months previous I had been in his boots.  It’s all up to me now as I slowly taxi toward the runway.  The training and practice that I’ve received have all led up to this moment as I prepare for the flight that I’ve rehearsed countless times in my head before.  I’m the first one in class 03-13 to solo and I know my peers are watching closely to learn from my mistakes and to also support my endeavor.

There are lots of traditions in the military and getting dunked after a solo flight is one of them

There’s 1,000 Feet Between Me and Success

Top bulb is lit…….deep breath, visor down, fuel pump all the way on, foot off the clutch………,exhale, tickle the second bulb, focus………

I’ve stood on the loud pedal of the No Mercy Nitro Funny Car a total of 10 times from April of 2016 through finishing my license in October 2017.  I made two runs in Robert Schwab’s Team Black Sheep Nitro Funny Car when it debuted in May of 2016, neither of which helped me in my quest for a license but was a grateful opportunity to garner more experience.  While some may wonder why it took this long for us to make just a handful of runs, let me point out a few simple facts about our team that separate us from the others.  To use a military term, these are our limiting factors.

Limiting Factors
  • The NMR team is truly a low-buck independent team that does not accept debt in our operations. We plan our events on a budget, pay our bills on time, and attempt to make the best fiscal decisions one can make while running a big show nitro funny car
  • We built our operation from the ground up and a lot of the parts and pieces required extensive work in order to be operational, fit correctly, and perform in the required manner. Additionally, rule changes, upgrades, and improving our equipment has been a top priority since the beginning
  • We needed to acquire the necessary equipment required to maintain our parts in the best capacity. Procuring quality test and measuring equipment from Richard Hartman and other sources proved a wise investment for long term growth.  NSTS LLC stepped up and outfitted our entire team with top-notch Snap-On tooling.
  • We did not have a tractor/trailer when we began building the NMR Nitro Funny Car. While we still have the trailer we used for running the Pure Heaven Nostalgia Funny Car, it was not a long term solution.  Procuring our trailer, organizing it, and getting it in top-notch working order took a significant amount of time and manpower.  Additionally, our team pitched in numerous hours getting it to a level of appearance that was a professional representation of NMR
  • Our race operation is based in Las Vegas, Nevada. Our crew is spread out mostly on the west coast and we are all hard working professionals or business owners.  Thus, our availability for work weekends is limited.  We typically meet two weekends a month.
  • NMR also campaigns the Pure Heaven III Nostalgia Fuel Altered owned by legendary fuel altered patriarch, Leon Fitzgerald. To maintain his heritage we continue to proudly race the iron nitro powered big block Chevy Bantam at several nostalgia races.  This takes time, effort, and logistical capability away from our ability to run the big show nitro funny car.  While some may think this is a distraction, it’s important to note that we are a family race team and giving honor to Grandpa Leon is an important part of this short life we all live
  • There are limited test dates available to test a professional NHRA Nitro Funny Car. We have to carefully balance the cost of attending a test event versus the ability to successfully navigate the track.  You would be surprised how limited testing availability is from May through August
  • Probably the most important factor is, we refuse to run the car if we are not comfortable with the situation, tune-up, parts, or the decisions being made. This is our dream.  This is something we all love to do and we want to enjoy it as a family because like I stated before, life is short, and we will enjoy this opportunity that we have to do this together.  It’s not worth pushing or rushing.  Our time…our moment, will come.
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I’m not a very patient man.  Although I embody and believe all the statements I’ve made regarding preparedness, faith, belief, and doing things right, I’m still human.  As I sit inches away from the pre-stage beams for the 11th time down the 1,000 foot strip I know that I must wrestle this machine from A to B at a quicker elapsed time than 4.70 seconds and faster than 230 miles per hour in order for the time to count towards my license upgrade.  I’ve previously posted a 4.82 and a 4.79 at other test events in Bakersfield and Las Vegas that didn’t count; both teasers falling short of the required time and frustrating me.  I’ve made plenty of runs to 300’ – 400’ that have fallen short of being able to continue.  I roll forward slowly and grab the brake handle as the top bulb lights up.  I’m not in a hurry and I’ve done this enough times in various cars through the years that I have my own pacing.  I always follow the same routine just like I did during my pilot training days in the USAF.  I slide my visor down and despite my quick heart rate, I attempt to slow my breathing because I know in humid conditions it will begin to fog the visor.  With my left hand I reach down and slowly raise the fuel lever handle all the way up from its previously trimmed position.  I can hear the tone of the motor get deeper as the fuel pump begins filling each cylinder with several more gallons of raw nitromethane/methanol mixture.  I slide my left foot off the clutch pedal and find the precise place on the floor that will support it on a titanium crossmember.  My right hand releases the brake handle ever so gently to ease the lurching beast into the beams.  She’s mean and ready to leap as it belches raw power out each of the eight tubes on either side of the carbon fiber shell.  Both lights are lit; pre-stage and stage.  I don’t guess…I wait.  I’ve practiced it numerous times so that it is pure instinct.  I focus on only one bulb, the bottom one.  It flashes-GONE….I slam the pedal forward with my entire foot using the power of my leg.

RUN #11 (October 2016 – 12:12 PM) – It launches soft but immediately makes a hard left turn toward the centerline.  Not so far out control that I’m compelled to release my pressure off the throttle…just yet.  I immediately counteract with the butterfly steering wheel a complete correction to the right and the car stops making a move to the left.  It might be hard to believe, but the thought that goes through my mind as the car traverses the far left side of the groove with a full correction of right steering wheel is I can’t let my team down by aborting this run,…just yet.  I promise myself that if she moves one more inch left I will have to give up because once one tire loses grip it is sure to turn a direction that might not be recoverable.  However, it doesn’t on this run, and I’m able to keep the nose of the black NMR Dodge Charger pointed in a straight trajectory despite the wheel cranked fully right.  As it picks up more speed and downforce I’m eventually able to correct it more into the groove and charge through the traps at a 4.50 @ 274 MPH.  I have made one of the two full passes required to upgrade my license!

After the run I find out it had two cylinders out on the left side as soon as I hit the throttle which causes the car to want to drive left for much of the run.  Normally, this would be disastrous as the additional boost in the other cylinders would cause a lean condition which will typically result in catastrophic engine failure, fire, etc.  In our case, the tune-up was extremely conservative, and it didn’t hurt anything besides a few scuffed pistons.

RUN #12 (October 2016 – 2:55 PM) – I have a plane to catch at 5pm.  This is our last shot at me completing the necessary runs to upgrade my license.  It’s been 576 days since the very first time I’ve stood on the loud pedal.  For me, this was the equivalent of sitting in the final round with my very first wally on the line.  Maybe even my first championship.  It was down to the wire and it needed to get done.  No mistakes, let’s do this!  It launches slightly better than the first run and tracks perfectly straight and smooth.  For a moment, I thought this might be the first pass that I’ll make on all 8 cylinders, when suddenly just one second into the run, the nose yaws left as if I was flying my training jet through a crosswind on landing.  I immediately counter it with a hard right correction and yank the front end back into a straight trajectory and continue to fight the old girl all the way down the track.  Again, some of you might not believe the clarity of thought that I had as 8,000 plus horsepower propels me down the track, but I have to tell you that as I approached the end of the track I noticed that I was very close to taking a direction that would cause me to possibly hit the 1,000 cone.  I quickly deduced that I had made enough forward progress that if I lifted slightly early I would once again having steering command and could bring it back over without coming anywhere near that potentially license ending cone.  I executed that exact thought and sure enough brought the car fully back into the lane as I crossed the centerline at a 4.48 @ 265 MPH.

WE DID IT!  TEAM NMR

  • Jeff Bennett – My dad, my best friend, my hero. The man who lit this fire in me when I was a young boy.  His dream, my dream, our dream.  We did it!
  • Brad Miner – The man who was always a close friend to my dad, an uncle to me. A dedicated crew guy.  Stepped up, and believed in us, and invested in our future.  Became a partner, a friend, our family.  We did it!
  • Rick Prewitt – We shared a shop when we built the Pure Heaven IV NFC. He painted the gorgeous colors and did all the body work.  He’s become family.  Always dedicated and devoted.  A man with a golden heart who has passion and love for our team.  We did it!
  • Andrew Gude – Came to our team at a low point and helped us build back up from the ground. Brought experience, maturity, and friendship.  A hardworking, logical, dedicated crewman that stays positive in adversity.  We did it!
  • Jay Hao – Has been around since the Pure Heaven IV NFC days and his friendship is dear to us. Always encouraging and hard working.  He’s a close friend and his family is our family.  We did it!
  • Joe Powell – Known him since the days we ran CIFCA funny cars together. A man with passion, and a huge heart who is supportive and encouraging in darkest moments.  We did it!
  • Nick Limber – A friend, a brother. A guy who picked it all up very quick and strives to learn.  A cheerful joy to be around with a never ending positive vibe.  We did it!
  • Johnny West – There was once a young boy that stood at the rope of the Hawaiian Punch Funny Car and dreamed he could one day be you. You made that dream come true.  Johnny has moved on to another team that has a full 2018 schedule and all of us at NMR wish him best of luck…as long as he’s not in the lane next to us.  We did it!

Several others have helped in tremendous ways throughout the years and I could list them all but unfortunately I may have lost most of you already.  The point is, people come and go in our lives at different moments for different reasons.  It can be hard to let go of someone close but it might be the best for you and them in order for your lives to move forward.  I am forever grateful for every single person that has come into my life.  The good, the bad, the indifferent.  You have guided, shaped, educated, hardened, and taught life lessons that you may never know.  I thank you for all you have done.  Lastly, we must all thank our families who have encouraged, supported, and tolerated this tireless endeavor.  This is a special moment and you play a special part in making this all a reality.  We love you all!

We did it!

It’s not over yet, we’ve got to slow this beast down and get it stopped.  Check in next time for “The Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done….so far (Part 5): Shutdown”

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