Friday, December 28, 2012

An Unusual Weekend Getaway: The U.S. Grand Prix

It escaped the attention of most American sports fans and nearly all other Americans, but Formula One returned to the United States in November.  Not only that, the F1 circus came to a brand-new, purpose-built track constructed for that very purpose just outside of Austin, Texas, something unprecedented in American sporting history.  In the motorsports world, this was a Big Deal.  Amazingly, I was able to be a part of the race weekend.

My friend Kevin was not only my baseball co-coach and Kelly's last soccer coach, he is also an auto enthusiast of the first order.  We first connected in a way that went beyond youth sports at one of Kelly's soccer games when he drove his race-prep Audi to game.  I noticed the track number decals on the car, struck up a conversation about it, and a friendship borne of a shared, unusual hobby began.

With the US Grand Prix scheduled for November, tickets for the event went on sale in April (when the track was still very much under construction).  Kevin alerted me to it and proposed that we both go to the race.  It was a no- brainer for me, pending approval from Cheryl.  She graciously gave me a hall pass for the weekend, recognizing how excited I was, even though, even after more than 20 years of being around me, does not understand the appeal of auto racing.  With that, we booked hotel rooms in San Antonio (Austin hotel rooms were scarce and pricey, and San Antonio was only an hour away), booked the flight with frequent flyer benefits, arranged for a rental car, and then sat back and waited for six months.  

I'm really going!
When the weekend finally arrived, we flew directly to Austin and stayed Thursday night with one of Kevin's colleagues and his wife, a sociology professor at the University of Texas.  Kevin obtained his masters degree at UT, so he and his friends had a lot in common to talk about and fun little haunts to show me around town.  We had a great evening in their home, and did our best to explain what the whole Formula One thing was all about.  The people of Austin have lived with the battles -- political, financial and otherwise -- to get the track built in their community, and the day of reckoning had finally arrived, bearing with it a sport and personalities about which the locals knew almost nothing.

After a very fun evening, we headed to the track Friday morning.  The track was built out of scrubby ranchland a few miles east of Austin.  The biggest fear for all who would be attending was access, as there are only two or three small rural roads that went to the venue.  The organizers arranged for hundreds of buses to run between the track and the city, which did an admirable job of alleviating traffic congestion over the course of the weekend.  We opted for a parking pass, and had no trouble getting to our assigned parking lot.

It had been years since I had been to a professional auto race, and I was as giddy as a five-year-old pulling into the parking lot at Disneyland.  We arrived just as the first Friday morning practice session for the Formula One cars was coming to an end.  Grinning like an idiot, I rolled my window down as we parked just to hear the scream of the race cars' engines.  Those engines, incidentally, are mind-bogglingly loud.  Ear protection makes the whole thing easily tolerable, but being around those cars driven in anger with my ear buds out made me very glad I had them.

We spent the entire day at the track, exploring nearly all of the grounds for the best vantage points.  All the while, the track was filled either with Formula One cars, or cars from the supporting races, including the Ferrari 458 Challenge series, a Porsche Cup series, and vintage (1965-1983) Formula 1 cars.  After the last practice session in the afternoon, we drove to our hotel in San Antonio using the brand-new 85 mph toll road, which took us about halfway to San Antonio.  The road was a marvel: gentle curves through low rolling hills, no billboards, the strip malls, and no traffic.  Oh, and an 85 mph speed limit.
In San Antonio, we stayed along the Riverwalk.  That may be a cliché, but it was fun to be among tons of other race fans.  The tire manufacturer Pirelli posted an enormous contingent of their personnel in our hotel, and many other fans were in evidence, sporting various automotive and racing-affiliated gear.  We fielded questions from several people who were trying to figure out what all the fuss was about.

Saturday morning the hightailed it back to the track to spend the day watching more practice sessions and the qualifying session for the races.  The race was next to last on the calendar for the season, and the battle for the driver’s championship was close but could be determined at Austin, so there was a lot of intensity surrounding the Formula One qualifying session.  Surprisingly, even though the live experience at an auto race is much different than the televised experience, in that there is no commentary and it is difficult to know what is going on out the far reaches of the track, the many video boards and rentable real-time telemetry gadgets did a good job of keeping us informed of each new development as the best drivers topped each other to reach pole position.

After another full day (and a pretty pronounced facial sunburn), we stayed in Austin for dinner and to explore the fan events that took over downtown Austin.  We also had a chance to walk around the legendary Sixth Street, where live music tumbled out of nearly every doorway.

Race day dawned just as every other day had: comfortably warm with not a cloud in the sky.  Attendance at the track increased each day, and peaked on Sunday at about 117,000 spectators.  We encountered some traffic entering the track, and there were many more people that found our chosen seating area on a large slope overlooking turns 19 in 20, but overall the crowds were not a problem.  

The race itself was tense and dramatic, as the championship leader was unable to hold off a strong challenge from a rival, guaranteeing that the championship would not be resolved until the next race.  All told, the racing all weekend was excellent; the venue, while barely finished, was terrific for the drivers and spectators alike, and even the feared traffic hassles failed to materialize in any significant way.

Although the event was the United States Grand Prix, held at the Circuit of the Americus, it might as well have been the Grand Prix of Texas.  Half of the food concessions were Texas barbecue, the national anthem was sung with the twangiest of country twangs, and instead of traditional baseball caps emblazoned with the sponsor's logo, the podium finishers received massive cowboy hats … emblazoned with the sponsor's logo.  The drivers and teams, by all accounts, had a great time, enjoyed the region and the festivities, and loved the new track.  It all bodes well for the future, although it remains to be seen whether races over the next coming years will draw as well as this year's did.  I expect many people were like me, looking to fulfill a long-time dream of attending a Formula One race.  Having done so, I and many people like me will probably not go back every year.  It would be a shame if attendance declined, because the event is well run, the track is a great venue and the overall experience is that of a top-notch sporting event.

For those who like this sort of thing, the opportunity to see vintage old racers like these take the track at speed was an unexpected and welcome pleasure:

 Of course, we were all there to see these guys:

These short clips do not begin to convey the noise these things put out, nor does it transmit the excitement that comes from experiencing these beasts rip into view and hammer away into the distance, but it is at least a sample of some of what we saw:

Historic Racers:

 The Race:

Boring?  Not a chance. Anyone who has been enthusiastic about anything knows that the enjoyment comes from knowing and understanding the details.  By the end of the weekend, we could identify several teams just by the sound their cars made (and, knowing those teams, where they probably were in the running order).   It was a spectacularly fun weekend for me, partly because I enjoy this sport, and partly because it was the first “boys’ weekend out” I’d had in about a dozen years.  Other than trashing my phone the morning we were to leave (there’s another story), it was an absolutely perfect trip.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012 Fall Sports Report: Baseball Wrapup

Our boys only ended up with one win on the season.  They never stopped competing, though, and showed good spirit.  Some of the players, Michael among them, showed distinct improvement over the course of the abbreviated season as they all adjusted to the larger diamond.

Michael carried a hitting streak all the way through the season, ending up with hits in all ten games, hitting .500, stealing a bunch of bases, scoring a bunch of runs and driving in a few (I abandoned my hyper-aware stat keeping for the fall).  His defense, which was always strong, improved during the season.  As the regular shortstop, he struggled at times with runners leaving from second crossing in front of him as he prepared to stop the ball.  After we talked it through and analyzed how to handle that situation, he made several outs in that exact situation (they had a lot of runners get to second base against them) late in the season.  He made a point of mentioning that he worked hard mentally on that scenario and was pleased that his own work paid off. 

Michael's pitching was up and down over the course of the season.  It was never terrible, but some days he was a little too hittable because he doesn't yet have the fastball to make big kids swing and miss.  Still, the manager liked to use him as a closer because he was one of the pitchers least likely to issue a lot of walks. 

The case in point came in the final game of the season.  The game was played on the day daylight savings ended, so daylight was suddenly at a premium for a game that started as usual at 3 pm and was scheduled to run two hours and fifteen minutes.  Before the sixth inning started, the umpire called the managers together to discuss how much more of the game would be played, since the light was fading fast.  It was clear the game would not go a full seven innings, but our boys wanted a last chance to bat in the bottom of the inning (they were losing, but not by much), so the umpire agreed to play the sixth inning.  He asked the teams to keep things moving along, though.  After another pitcher got into some trouble, retiring only one batter and leaving a runner on second, the manager brought Michael in.  Michael had been frustrated by the umpire's wide strike zone as a hitter.  As you will see, though, he used that (and the umpire's impatience to get home before dark) to his advantage:

Two batters faced, eight pitches, six strikes, two strikeouts.  Pretty efficient work for less than two minutes of real time, and very smart pitching.  He explained afterward that he knew the umpire had a wide zone, and worked the first batter outside before striking him out with an inside pitch -- as intended.

All told, it was a pretty nice way to end the season, even one in which the team only won a single game.  Michael has a lot of development to do to be a strong player at this level, but he held his own for the most part against much bigger boys, and showed himself to be one of the best of his age group.  It will be very interesting to see how he measures up against the rest of the league when the full season gets underway next month.  He has always been in the midpack of his age group, but as he has developed strength to go with his generally good technique, he has crept up the leaderboard.  He still needs to work on some positioning instincts on defense, and arm strength will come as he grows, but going .500 for the fall season, with a double and a triple, is a major step forward for him. 

Astonishingly, evaluation day for the spring season is only a month away.  Time to start tossing the ball around again

Friday, December 21, 2012

2012 Fall Sports Report: Soccer

After what can only be described as a breakout dominant soccer season last year, Michael moved up a division to the fifth/sixth grade level.  In a little pre-season backroom maneuvering in which one team was disbanded and the players distributed to the two remaining teams, Michael was snagged by his coaches from two seasons ago.  They like him and appreciated his work ethic and talent, but I don't think they fully appreciated how far he had come as a player in the intervening year.  The only question was whether returning to the younger side of the division would slow him down.

The answer, emphatically, was “no.”  Reunited with several of his teammates from two seasons ago, Michael quickly found a place for himself as a top forward on the team.  Among younger players, strong players are marked by their ability to dribble through other teams.  At higher levels, the ability to see the field and make passes starts to become the hallmark of great teams and players.  Michael has the all-around game; he has a big leg and power with both feet, but he also has better passing instincts than most players his age.  Michael quickly fell into a rhythm with several of his teammates where they looked to pass to each other as they moved down the field, and all of them could finish with skill.  The fact that Michael was one of the younger players was no longer relevant.

The season had its ups and downs, and started particularly poorly because the first two games were against teams that, it turned out once the season is over, were by far the best teams in the league.  Once we started playing teams that were more evenly matched, our boys held their own.  They scored some high-scoring wins, some tight wins and losses, and two absolutely thrilling draws.  In one game, our boys played most of the match with their backs against their own goal, fending off a relentless attack and unable to break out to set up an attack of their own.  They went down 2-1 late in the game.  Somehow, though, in the last ten minutes, our squad started to dominate the run of play.  Michael and a couple of his cohorts had multiple open runs down the field and several shot opportunities.  Still, despite close plays, they could not manage to put the ball in the net.  With the referee glancing frequently at his watch, one of our guys delivered the ball to Michael on the left wing.  He sprinted down the field, cutting to a stop at the corner of the penalty area to clear the defender who was pursuing him.  Spying a teammate drifting toward the far post, Michael delivered the ball into the goal area.  The ball did not go exactly where he wanted, flying too close to the goal for his teammate to reach it.  However, in a happy accident, the ball was struck with enough pace and in just the right location to skip past the keeper and into the far corner of the net.  The players' (and parents’) joy was immediate and genuine.

The kid celebrates with style
The opposing team was only able to kick the ball off before the referee blew the final whistle.  That draw was every bit as good as a win.

(The end of that game saw a remarkable and disappointing bit of gamesmanship by the other team.  Having scored late to go up 2-1, a player on the other team delayed the kickoff by intentionally untying and re-tying his shoes to run the clock down.  It was what could be called a savvy move, but for youth sports, it was a bit over-the-top.  When Michael scored his game-tying strike, the same player sprinted into the goal to retrieve the ball and dashed back to the center circle to try to restart play before time ran out.  He was the other team's best player, and his behavior in the two post-goal moments showed clearly that he knew how to manipulate the game clock.)

The final game of the season was a wild, full-field affair, with close goals, long-range goals, near misses, dramatic saves, and good play all over the field for both teams.  They kept Michael bottled up for most of the game, but in the second half, his coach encouraged him to be more aggressive in making runs at the goal.  That was all he needed.  In one beautiful sequence, he retrieved the ball near the half line, deftly dribbled through the other team's best defender by deking him with the outside of his foot, then finished the play with a slick left footed pass to a trailing teammate who put the ball in the net as the keeper came out to challenge him.  That brought the team back to a 4-3 deficit.  Only minutes later, he was involved in a corner kick that saw one of our kids with the least raw talent getting a rare taste of life in the forward position poke the ball past the keeper for the game-tying goal, once again at the death. The game ended as Michael was on yet another run toward goal, using his head to pop the bouncing ball behind his defender where he chased it down to prepare for a cross just as the whistle sounded.

There is something pure about the natural drama of sport, whatever the level, that is a joy to those who are lucky enough to be there to see it.  The honest and unrestrained glee of little boys, whether they are five or 15 or anywhere in between, is worth the hours spent on cold, wet Saturday mornings.  There are no agents, media, Twitter accounts or performance-enhancing substances any stronger than Capri Sun to get in the way of the raw emotion that comes from the purity of achieving team goals through individual effort and talent. 

To cap off the season, Michael's coaches chose him to be one of three players from our team to play in the All-Star game.  He had the opportunity to play for men who had coached Kelly in volleyball several years ago, and they remembered Michael as the little brother who ran around playing pretty impressive volleyball for a second grader.  He proved his mettle, even as one of the few fifth-graders on the field in the All-Star game, by scoring a goal in his team's victory.

On the season, Michael scored seven goals, fully 25% of his team's output, with a like number of assists.  Although baseball remains his favorite sport in general, he loves playing soccer most of all.  He even turned down an opportunity to step in with the tournament baseball team for a weekend in the fall because it would have caused him to miss one of his soccer games. 
Any time you find something that gives your kids confidence in any area of their lives, you embrace it.  Soccer was essential to Kelly as the source of identity and confidence even as a young girl.  Michael tends to carry himself with more self-assurance in more areas than Kelly, but even for him, soccer holds a special place in his life.  We could not be happier for him.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Wrenching, and More Wrenching

A bill deferred will still come due eventually.  Whether the obligation is jury duty, a dentist appointment or car maintenance, the piper will always insist on payment.

Keeping cars for the long term rather than regularly cycling through newer cars is better for the personal bottom line, at least in terms of large outlays of cash that succeed in purchasing only depreciation.  However, the downside of keeping cars for the long haul is that eventually, no matter how well-loved the car may be, parts will wear out merely as a function of age and use.  No amount of buffing and polishing will keep, let’s say, an alternator with 130,000 miles on it from wearing out.  Then, the well-loved but aging car will strand its owner, perhaps twice in a week, at the roadside, demanding immediate payment for maintenance deferred.

My well-loved car has been reminding me steadily that, although it remains fundamentally sound, its component parts do wear down and require maintenance and replacement.  I recently ordered all of the parts needed to replace the brakes, and have been contemplating replacement of the springs and shocks as well.  Both jobs require a fair amount of skill and a specific set of parts and tools.  Thanks to online forums, however, neither job is beyond the capabilities of a reasonably diligent and brave shade tree mechanic.  Neither project, however, instilled in me the necessary sense of urgency needed to force me to set aside my other responsibilities to spend time getting dirty and, possibly, making things worse instead of making them better.

The car shut down in the middle of the street, twice in one week – that got my attention.  Driving home from work one day, the instruments, which are electronically actuated, started to go haywire; eventually the radio cut out, and finally the engine itself refused to remain running.  As I coasted to a wide spot on the side of the road, it was obvious the car had no more electrical juice.  That same evening, after receiving a flatbed tow home, I purchased and replaced the battery.  Thinking this solved the problem, I drove to and from work the next day.  The day after that, the car exhibited the same fluttering eyelid behavior on the way to work, and I was only just able to park the car safely on the side street off the canyon road I drive to the office.  The flatbed driver, a clever young lady, lacked the tow hook required to drag the car onto the truck, but figured out how to use her portable charger to allow me to simply drive the car onto the back of the truck.  After a slow but harrowing drive through canyon roads much too small for the truck, I pushed my car into the garage, again.  The only difference from two days earlier is that the battery was new.  It was, unfortunately, just as dead.

A quick bit of research indicated to me that I didn't have a battery problem, but rather an alternator problem.  Rebuilding or replacing alternators is time-consuming, expensive business.  However, additional research showed that replacing a small component of the alternator could solve the entire issue.  All that was required was to extract the alternator … which is connected to the engine fan, which is connected to three different belts, one of which is connected to the air-conditioning.  The whole project requires a specialized tool that you can't just get Sears.  And all of the work must be performed in a space the size of a pizza tray.

Given that it appeared that the problem could be completely solved with the exchange of only a small part, I figured there was no reason to spend ten times as much as a part on professional labor.   At a busy time of year, though, and with other cars available, it took a long time for me to get around to tackling this project.  I printed out all of the relevant repair guides written by fellow amateur mechanics, ordered the parts I thought I needed, went to an auto parts store to purchase additional tools I didn't realize I needed, went back to the auto parts store to purchase another tool to replace the first tool I bought that was the wrong size, and ordered additional parts as spares anticipating that my typical trial-by-error methods would leave the repair job half done unless I had replacement parts at the ready.
I began the project last week, laying out all my tools and parts, with extra lighting, rags and, most indispensably of all, an extendable magnet.  

We're ready for you, doctor
It all started so neat and clean
I took pictures frequently, knowing that by the time I got around to putting the car back together, days, if not weeks could pass, meaning I would need a strong photographic record of what the car was supposed to look like.

I sure hope it looks like this when I'm done
After some anxious moments, a lot of grease (elbow and otherwise) and obsessive re-checking of my references, I managed to remove the alternator and engine fan assembly from the car.  

We're committed now ...
... don't break anything
The voltage regulator, which contains the metal "brushes" that convey electrical charge through the alternator, was indeed thoroughly worn out.  

New on the left, old on the right
The replacement of that part took only a couple of minutes, by far the easiest aspect of the entire job.  The most difficult portion of the project, other than becoming a contortionist to reach some of the various nuts and bolts in the engine bay, was replacing the belts.  The car uses two-part pulleys, which makes the final adjustment of the belts a bit tricky for the neophyte mechanic.  Complicating the process was the fact that the battery was still dead, but the belt replacement procedure call for turning the engine over to spin the crank and the pulleys in order to seat the belts properly.  One more trip to the auto parts store for a charger, and all the pieces were literally in place to finish the job. 

Late last night, on one of the coldest evenings of the year, I secured the last bolt, and, for the first time in two months, fired the car up.  Kelly, inside the house, could hear me whoop and holler even over the sound of the car.  It was astonishing, and extremely gratifying, to hear the car crank right up with no bangs, clanks or warning lights.  I drove the car around a while in the immediate neighborhood to test the strength of the electrical system, and all ended well (i.e., the car finished the drive in the garage under its own power).  After staying on the charger all night, the battery was fully recharged this morning.

I can now tick off a few more squares on my auto mechanic’s bingo card.  In addition to repairing a worn-out component, I also replaced the belts, which were likewise due for regular replacement.  As this saga brought home to me, I do not often get ahead of regular maintenance items, so replacing the belts before they suffered a catastrophic failure is a major step forward for me.

Now to deal with the water pump on the other car… but that's another story.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Never Had It So Good

Most little boys, if they are going to bond with a baseball team, start paying attention by age 7 or so.  Consider the expectations that the child in this scenario is building:

Age 7:  team's new star pitcher wins Cy Young Award.
Age 8:  team's star pitcher wins second consecutive Cy Young Award
Age 9:  team's new star catcher comes up mid-season, sets franchise rookie consecutive hit streak, wins rookie of the year award.  Oh yeah, and the team wins the World Series for the first time in more than fifty years, and the first time in its current city.
Age 10:  team's star catcher suffers horrendous injury partway through season, yet team remains in hunt for playoffs until final days of the season.
Age 11:  team's star catcher returns to win batting title and probably the MVP award, ace pitcher throws perfect game, and the team wins the World Series again.

That is Michael's context for following the Giants since he moved to the Bay Area.  I have no frame of reference for this kind of parade of success.  The World Series wins are precious to me because my context for the same ages was nothing but losing, wind-swept cold, and third-rate status in the baseball world.  For the Giants to be the focus of sportswriters and fans nationally for several years running has gone from merely novel to downright surreal.

I still bear the proud, bitter temperament of being a fan of a team that is generally overlooked.  Recent triumphs do little to erase the complex that comes from being ignored.  On the other hand, being a Giants fan has been nothing but rewarding to Michael.  Every year, he has had something truly remarkable to cheer for.  In his experience, the Giants have always been a relevant presence on the national sporting scene.  I fear that there is only one direction this can go.

Get ready for disappointment, kid.  But enjoy it now, because being a fan is pretty sweet these days.

Update:  I guess I am not the only person drawing these conclusions.  Local columnist Ann Killion seems to agree with me.