2016 Ultimate 4 tour Blog
Days 1 – 6
Tuesday August 9th to Sunday August 14th 2016
Being one of our smaller group tours it is usual that we would all depart together from Sydney on the same airline at the same time. But this year, because we had groups from different states (plus Russell who is currently on the Month of Money tour), it was organised so we would all fly direct from each State. Fortunately only one group was booked on Delta Airlines and that was Luke and I out of Sydney.
Delta has been our airline of choice for every tour we have done and without exception they have always provided excellent service. However due to a major computer meltdown, there would be a different scenario this time and although we had an on time departure from Sydney, we were not aware they would cancel 2,000 flights in the USA the following day.
Consequently we were stranded in LA on arrival and then dispatched to San Francisco as we were told that the chances of getting accommodation in San Fran were way higher than in LA. Both were a zero chance by the way, so a night spent in the airport terminal resulted in total travel time of 42 hours. To say it was an extremely frustrating start to the tour would be a major understatement.
However the good news was that the rest of the group (the non-Delta flyers) all arrived on the day they were meant to and were picked up together at Des Moines Airport ready to begin their adventure the next day. As for Luke and I, we too eventually arrived in Pella, albeit a day late, tired and frustrated. However please do not think this was anything but exceptional circumstances, as it has never happened before, despite our many tours and fortunately did not affect the whole group.
The next day was a brand new beginning and after a much anticipated good night’s sleep at the exceptional Royal Amsterdam Hotel we were ready to meet our traveling companions on the Month of Money Tour and more importantly head off for our first ultimate event, the four nights of the Knoxville Nationals .
If you are also keeping up with the MoM blog you will know how this event never disappoints. And with three Aussies in the top ten and Jamie Veal and Kerry Madsen on the second row, should we dare think that we would be the first ever tour group to witness an Aussie victory?
Unfortunately not. Despite looking the goods at the mid race break and both almost driving the wheels of their respective cars, it was a thriller that went right down to the line between Donny Schatz and Jason Johnson. The latter enjoying the most popular victory I can remember seeing and hopefully we will get to see him race again in Oz over summer, along with what is expected to be a huge contingent of drivers.
How do you top that? Well you can’t completely, but a day at one of the world’s biggest fairs which is as American as baseball and apple pie, is a nice memory for the MoM group who will head home tomorrow and a nice diversion for our U4 group who have only just begun. So for us it is on the road to Bristol.
Days 7 – 12
Monday August 15th to Saturday August 20th
The second instalment of the blog comes at a time when we should be at the track watching the 500 lap Sprint Cup race at Bristol. But more about that later.
Apart from the racing the biggest thing we will miss about Knoxville is Brian and Tammy’s family BBQ. We have been fortunate enough to have been invited many times during our tours and along with Stubb we have made lots of friends over this time. Someone that I was most impressed with when we first met was Polly the potty mouth mechanical parrot who will deliver a nonstop verbal diatribe of the most colourful language to all and sundry. Hence it was decided on this occasion that Polly would benefit from a year in Australia to broaden her vocabulary to more than just the colourful and so it was decided that she would join the tour and then return home with us.
It was such a great day, with so many sad goodbyes to everybody, except Luke who managed to beat all and sundry in both singles and doubles at cornhole. But there is the promise of revenge on the next occasion the boards come out.
Polly’s first flight to Indianapolis went well and without question she has bonded with the rest of the group from her proud position on the dashboard, secured by double sided tape for all the world to see and HEAR. She sits alongside Buzz Lightyear who travels with me each time. After bidding them goodnight we all headed for everyone’s favourite place to eat …. the Bourbon St Distillery. We will return there many times before the end of the tour.
An early start to Louisville in Kentucky was the order of the day where Polly made her first visit to Wal-Mart. Then it was on to Churchill Downs an American horse racing institution. Checked in at the very impressive Galt House Hotel and still there was time to visit the Muhammad Ali Centre and the Louisville Slugger factory, both extremely impressive. The day finished by listening to the dueling pianos at Howl at the Moon on 4th Street. A perfect lead in to Nashville.
Polly complained a little about the rain on the way to the Jim Beam Distillery the next day, but after the completion of the 9.30am tour and the obligatory tasting I assured her all would be fine for the Camping World Truck Race that night at Bristol. We duly checked into our hotel and took the short twenty minute drive to the track only to find the Modified race had been stopped due to earlier rain. However the good news was the Trucks started on time and as always were great to watch on that track. There is no doubt this place has the WOW factor.
The next day was to be a new experience for us all at Bulls Gap Speedway where we were rained out last year. A huge field of Late Models would be on hand due to another rained out event they were scheduled to be at. After a delightful seafood lunch at Red Lobster we headed off for the 50 minute drive up the freeway. “F@#* the rain” said Polly as we sheltered in the van. Well they got it in and it was better than GOOD, even though it was 1.00am in the morning. Not so bad as we could sleep in tomorrow.
That brings us to today, Saturday August 20th. The upside is we will see the big boys of NASCAR. The downside is we will need to be parked by 12.30pm with a race start scheduled for 8.00pm. A long day, so we had better pace ourselves on the beers. Plenty of other stuff to do with a never ending array of trade and fun stuff in the Fan Zone, cowboy music bands for me and cornhole for Luke. We had all gone our separate ways with a plan to meet up later. After I had been defeated at cornhole again by Luke, we found a spot on a hay bale. I had acquired a taste for Yee Haw beer and we watched the pro’s play the final of a 300 strong comp. Those boys are good.
We had had a huge downpour earlier, but all was good and dry for the driver introductions and another singing of the star spangled banner. “Wow. Did you see that lightning? How big are those rain drops? Ladies and gentlemen please vacate the grandstands.” It’s not easy for 120,000 people.
“What do you think Russ? It ‘ain’t going to stop. I agree” said Bob & Pat. “What about you guys Ian & Mark?” “Harry (one of my many nicknames) let’s get out of here,” said Luke. On the way home we heard the race start on NASCAR radio. “Buggar, did we make the wrong call?” But as we sit in the comfort of this fine establishment sipping Jim Beam at 11.00pm watching TV and waiting for the race to restart after yet another downpour, it is great to know we will be all sound asleep before 3.00 am which will be the earliest option, if in fact it gets in at all.
As a bit of a sidelight, just as we were watching the cornhole comp, we noticed a charming NZ girl who worked for the local Bristol TV channel. Upon hearing the accent she enquired as to why the hell where we here. Upon telling her, she requested an interview for the local news.
It was also posted on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/news5wcyb/videos/10154537670393825
If you care to watch, the link is above. So far it has received over 6,000 views. Wonder if they would all like to do a GST Tour?
Days 13 – 16
Sunday August 21st to Wednesday August 24th
As we departed Bristol on Sunday morning we still had unfinished business at the track with the washed out NASCAR Sprint Cup rescheduled for 1.00pm that day, not that we would be in a position to watch it. We had accommodation booked in Nashville and our drive there was to include a visit to Floyd Garrett’s legendary Muscle Car Museum with over 90 of the best on display. And then, by request of Bob and Pat whose son Scott races a Charger sedan in Australia with the same General Lee livery, it was on to Cooter’s Place made famous by the Dukes of Hazard TV show. Enroute the comment was made several times on how bad the weather was and would they even get the race in today.
Both the Museum and Cooter’s were better than expected. Even though I had high expectations of Floyd’s place, it was way better and both will be welcome additions to future U4 tours. NASCAR radio was still advising of race delays as we arrived in Nashville at 4 o’clock.
Our accommodation here is exceptional and perfectly located within a block of Broadway with that incredible music and atmosphere. To take that all in whilst enjoying dinner was the order of the evening and what a great experience it is, whether it is your first or twenty first time. This is always the night that I outlast the group as I find the lure of the music and honky tonk bars irresistible as I try and wind my way home.
Tomorrow we would all be on the Hop on Hop off trolley for a city highlights tour and each of us would then visit our own preferred venues. That is all but Luke, who has unfortunately picked up a very painful infection and only saw Nashville from inside the hotel room, despite a valiant effort to try and join us for dinner on both nights.
Onward to Memphis the next day with Luke unfortunately not feeling well, so the decision was made to see a doctor on arrival as my drug inventory, whilst vast, was not doing the job. However the first order of the day was a visit to Jack Daniel’s Distillery and Village in historic Lynchburg. Always a great experience, no matter how many times you have been, it takes a couple of delightful hours to absorb it all, but well worth the time. A real highlight.
It was then off to Memphis. Russell once again expressed concern as to the route the GPS had selected, but as she (the GPS girl) had done us no wrong up until now, we decided to go with her which was the right decision. After all she is constantly supervised by Polly who sits right beside her on the dashboard. Our accommodation in Memphis was at the Peabody Hotel which is listed on the Historical Hotel register of America. Revered as one of the best in the US, you would be unlikely to be able to enjoy this on any tour, let alone a speedway tour from Australia. Thanks Karen, we loved it.
First order was to get Luke looked at which we did and I am pleased to report he is getting better, but still not without a lot of pain and discomfort. Unfortunately he would miss our appointment with Elvis at Graceland the next day and at the equally famous Sun Studios, however he did make an appearance in the lobby for the famous Peabody Duck parade at 5 o’clock. If you are not aware of the duck ceremony it has been a part of the hotel’s tradition since the 1930’s and is worth a look at how it happens. Being guests we had the privilege of a Lobby Lounge position!! Take a peking duck at this …. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T97pv97V7Kc
When we arrived into Memphis on Tuesday it was classic car night where the street is closed off, classics are parked and the party begins. This happens again on Wednesday nights with bikes, but can I say times ten over with more than 400 in attendance, along with all the colourful characters who you would expect to see at such an event and then some.
However we can’t be as late as last night, as we have a big mother of a 830 km drive tomorrow for our third Ultimate 4 event of “Smackdown”. Before we went to bed we did hear there were no less than seven tornados which had passed through Kokomo today and guess where we were headed in the morning?
Days 17 – 19
Thursday August 25th to Saturday August 27th
Before leaving Memphis, Luke had to attend a medical clinic for what we thought was a heat rash; however the news was not as good as we would have liked when it was diagnosed as an abscess. Hence he was loaded up with antibiotics and told to get it checked further if it did not improve.
The drive to Kokomo is a long one of over 500 miles, or around nine hours with stops. Quite tiring for all, especially the driver so it was quite fortunate Luke felt OK to share it with me. We had had contact from Karen, our ever alert Travel Agent that things were not good, as parts of Kokomo had taken a direct hit from at least two tornadoes. Our rooms at the hotel which would be our home for the next four nights were secure, but there was no power or computers for check in.
We arrived late afternoon to turmoil in the hotel with a lobby full of would be guests insisting on getting into their rooms, but with no computer to allocate them. The manager was delighted when I advised her she had about five hours to sort us out, as we were off to Night one of “Smackdown” which was quite amazing really, considering only 24 hours before it was hit by six inches of rain. But they had pre-warning it was coming and sealed the track and most of it just ran off.
This is a unique event as it is visited each year by so many Aussies, although our first greeting was from our favourite American Stubb, who had saved us a prime parking spot and were immediately introduced to a whole team of his friends who would save us this spot for all three nights. Then our second favourite American Andrew Quinn joined us, along with a non-stop parade of friends from Australia. “Wayne the Train”, “Speedy” and many others who we see each week at Parramatta speedway back home.
As always the racing was as good as the company. We had a great night, which became even better when we returned to our hotel to find that all the turmoil had subsided and our rooms were ready so we could get some very much needed sleep.
Friday was intended to be much quieter, with only a nice lunch and more “Smackdown”. Wrong!! Luke’s pain was increasing …… and it was raining. We did get lunch in, however Luke really was not well enough to go racing, so the rest of us headed off under clearing skies. Along the way the devastation of the tornadoes was everywhere with dozens of houses completely destroyed and trees literally torn out of the ground.
On arrival at the track we were greeted with tall tales but true about the party we left behind last night. We were so engrossed in the many conversations we hardly noticed the small drops of rain that started falling, but as it got increasingly heavier it was apparent it was going to be a long night. After being huddled together in the Ford for an hour or so, it was suggested we go bowling, given that at best, any racing would at best be at least a couple of hours away.
We arrived to find the alley was closed as most of the town still did not have power. The rain had increased to the extent that it did not seem possible to get it in tonight, but having given my number to one of our US friends, he said he would call from the track and keep us updated. The 9.30pm call came to say “they are wheel packing”. The 10 o’clock call advised of further heavy rain again. At 11.00pm it was “they are on the track now, but the rain has just started again”. We were all still gun shy from our previous rain experiences at Bulls Gap and Bristol, so by unanimous vote it was “let’s open the esky and have a drink”. We were in bed by 1.00am when the racing did actually start.
The next day was to be much better weather wise as the sun was out and the forecast good. However the same could not be said for Luke as his abscess had grown enormously and eventually burst, hence the severest of pain and a trip to the hospital where he was expressed through Emergency and admitted for surgery that night.
We did manage to still get to the track on time and see one of those great races that you now come to expect from this event with some of the most spectacular three wide wheel banging that Kokomo produces time and time again. Sunday was to be a rain date, but it wasn’t required, so we had some activities planned but first it was a visit to Luke in the hospital and a meeting with the doctor.
The Doc thought that he would be OK to be discharged tomorrow as long as one of our group (me) could re-dress his wound twice a day until he got back home to Hamilton in Victoria, where his Mum could take over. I assured the doctor I could, however I would need to have a practical lesson at 7.30am in the morning under his watchful eye to prove it. We then left Luke in the comfort of the hospital and the never ending attention of the nursing staff who had never even met an Australian before, so that alone ensured he would be looked after like a new born baby.
Days 20 – 25
Sunday August 28th to Friday September 2nd
After the 7.30am visit to Luke in hospital to complete my medical training, we secured an assurance from the doctor that he would be good to go the following day, assuming he continued his current rate of improvement from all that wonderful stuff those many suspended bags were pumping into his arm.
Just down the road from our Hotel is the Chrysler assembly plant where an excellent car show is on at this time each year. A couple of hours enjoyment were spent here, followed by lunch and a visit to the Grissom Air Force Museum 20 miles out of town, where many complete aircraft are on display in a superb rural setting.
Another visit to the hospital the next morning confirmed that Luke would be fit to travel, but it would be later in the day at their time, not ours. Not such a big deal as today was set aside to travel back to Indianapolis at any time really. It’s just an hour and a bit south and the Courtyard Marriott will be our home for the next eight nights. So how do you fill in a day when you are waiting for a call to pick up the patient? Wal-Mart is the answer, along with lunch before the call finally came around 4.00pm. Two hours later we were checking in at Indy with two very large extra bags of medication and bandages.
Just as a footnote to the above, we know it’s every traveller’s worst nightmare to be sick or injured whilst in the USA, so please let me just say that whilst traumatic for the patient and extremely stressful for the carer, the consideration Luke received was first class. The hospital in Kokomo was exceptional in every way from expressing him through ER to surgery, to providing a private room with unlimited care and attention from a bevy of doctors and nurses. The latter just wanted to hang around the bed simply to hear him talk, thus one young nurse (who is an accomplished barrel rider of the horse variety) is now a new Facebook friend. The cost we assume will be ridiculous, but it was a problem that disappeared once I contacted the Travel Insurance Company. $200.00 excess was paid and the final bill was sent to them direct.
As good an outcome as could be expected from a very unfortunate incident.
The first two days in Indy are traditionally left for R&R as the pace and other things had taken their toll, but not to be deterred and with some of the most enthusiastic shoppers I have encountered a request was made to find an Outlet Centre. Done. A drive down to Edinburgh 45 miles away managed to fill in the better part of the day. Including the often encountered purchase of extra suitcases by some. In addition we have managed to get in some visits to a couple of extra shoe outlets where Mark did manage to find, after three years of searching at home, the Nike shoes of his dreams in fluoro lime. But they only had one shoe. We have since been back a couple of times, but they have failed to pair them up, much to his disappointment.
“Harry we have a problem”, said Luke at 2.00am a couple of mornings ago. Thinking the worst and that he was in pain again, I sprang out of bed but fortunately it wasn’t to do with him. It was just a simple matter of the toilet overflowing!! When my feet hit the floor I estimated the depth to be about one inch, so a move to another room would be in order after the plunger and an enthusiastic night manager failed to stem the flow. We were back in bed in a dry room by three. A minor hiccup really, in comparison to the Delta and Hospital dramas.
TGIF and we’re back to racing. Indeed, back at Kokomo. Finally Luke will get to see some action because he missed all three nights of Smackdown. But first we would visit an open day out at Brownsburg, home to most of the high profile race teams. However we would find that Don Schumacher’s shop was the only one open, so after a couple of enjoyable hours, which included a display of some great cars from all eras, we decided to have lunch at the Pitstop BBQ and Grill and then depart for the track about four.
On arrival we were greeted by Andrew Quinn who informed us there were 48 non winged 410 sprintcars there for the postponed “Brian Clauson celebration of life” night. All of those from Smackdown and then some.
Again the racing was beyond good and I can see why the converted in this part of the world will no longer watch those with wings. I am not there yet, but I do understand it. Kevin Thomas Jnr can sure drive and won again last night, after also picking up the 10 grand a few nights earlier at Smackdown.
Days 26 – 28
Saturday September 3rd to Monday September 5th
Saturday was to be fairly relaxed with the only real commitment being Lincoln Park Speedway, some 45 miles away that night. Although we had yet to crack the 100°F mark, the heat was such that we figured there would be no need to leave until around 4.00pm so a few domestics and lunch was the go before departing. With memories of a midnight finish here last year and a longish trip home the previous night, a double header tomorrow with the drags and a return to Kokomo, it was decided we would be out of there by 11, come what may.
An extremely picturesque parking spot in the shade overlooking the track was selected for the compulsory pre-race drinks during which it became apparent we would potentially be in for a late night with six divisions, all with high car counts, ready to rumble. Fortunately it was the sprintcars that were first to go with their heats for the “King of the Non-Wings” title. For lovers of big fields and plenty of variety, then this could be your utopia. Considering when you factor in six divisions, all with heats a B & A main feature (and a non-feature for those who did not make the regular feature) there is no way to this event would finish before 2.00am. Although the locals do tell of seeing the sun rise on more than one occasion.
Well there were incidents a plenty, including a visit to hospital for one driver, so after an extended fireworks display and the (first) sprintcar feature finishing around 11.30pm, we decided not to stay for the non-feature, or anything else that would make the night any later, and headed home. What we saw was good and we were happy with that.
Sunday had an early start for our first of the final two days of the NHRA Drag Nationals. On arrival at Lucas Oil Raceway and a check of the day’s events it was discovered that a 4.00pm departure for Kokomo that night would result in missing the Top Fuel and Funny Car qualifying and Shoot out at five. So a decision had to be made and it was to stay there with an anticipated finish of around 7.00pm and then visit Hooters for GST to shout dinner for the group on the way home. This would mean our traditional farewell dinner would be a night early, but with an even longer and hotter day to follow the next day, it did make sense. So we parked downtown where we had a great meal, heaps of fun and got to sample the busy atmosphere of this nightlife area.
And so to Monday, the last of our many tour days together. With an early start of 9.00am planned Bob & Pat decided the predicted heat may be a little too much and would not go, much to our disappointment. But life on tour is all about what you want to do so I promised to get at least $45 for their two tickets to cover the bottle of “Jack & Honey” he put on the bar in the foyer last night … and was duly destroyed.
The $45 was secured and I assume the seats were not on sold as we had two empty seats next to us the whole day. There is no way to describe this event, other than to say you just have to experience it. It has nothing to do with being a drag race fan (which I’m not); it has everything to do to do with thunder, excitement and being somewhere you have never been before, but will probably want to be again. So much noise, so much colour and excitement, you can’t help but get caught up in it. For the record, both the finals for the first time in Top Fuel & Funny Car were won by the “holeshot”. This means that victory went to the driver who ran a slower elapsed time, but won the race due to a faster reaction time at the start. Often this can equate to a thousandth of a second. Tony Schumacher won the most coveted Top Fuel event, which we thought was great because he let us visit on open day.
On the way home there was just one more banner to add to the ever growing collection of two of the group and when Luke suggested to Russell that he might like to buy a bottle for farewell drinks as others had done previously, he was quick to respond at the Liquor store opposite. With the liquor store banner and Russ’ bourbon on board, we left for home where we again did justice to the 1.75 litres, along with a pleasant final meal at the appropriately named Bourbon Street Distillery across the road.
To say we had a great tour would be fair, with the exception of Luke’s misfortune. The arrival delay, although inconvenient at the time was early in the tour and hence quickly forgotten. The racing in all categories can only be described as exceptional, with almost every major division going down to the wire. We were lucky with only minimal rain delays given the time we were there and the amount of races we attended.
It is not always easy for a group to bond when you are travelling over a long distance for a month and often with strangers in the first instance, but as in previous tours I can confidently say those strangers are now all friends and part of our ever growing GST family. So another big thank you to all of our guests who travelled on this tour and a especially for all the understanding and support at a time when one of our own experienced difficulty.