I made my annual visit to Johnson Space Center with ESPN2 last week, before the first day of qualifying at the NHRA Spring Nationals in Baytown, Texas. This time, Top Fuel driver Dave Grubnic came with me, ESPN2 Producer Dave Dobson, and other crew members from the ESPN team that you see around the track at NHRA Full Throttle Series events.
We checked out different airplanes NASA uses, including an STA (Shuttle Training Aircraft) that I practiced landing while Chris Cunningham and Marc Denner, the crew chief and co-crew chief on my Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Shelby Mustang Funny Car, checked out a data book they found in the back of the plane. Really. Maybe they were trying to get ideas for the race? I think they just can’t get away from crunching numbers.
That first voyage in the STA was a practice run for the shuttle simulator. I’ll tell you more about that later.
This year I was even more excited for the visit than I normally am because all we’ve been talking about lately is my friend Mark Kelly’s upcoming launch in the Shuttle Endeavour. I met Kelly on one of our visits in Houston and we’ve since become good friends. Mark invited me to attend his launch and I can’t wait – but it keeps getting rescheduled. You wouldn’t believe how much planning goes into a visit to a shuttle launch. We have our own “manager” from NASA to help us with the trip. That’s been a huge help. I’ve also gotten advice from ESPN announcer Paul Page, who has had friends in NASA since its Mercury days. He stopped by my Motorcraft/Quick Lane race hauler in Houston to tell me what it’s like to visit a launch.
I hope to get footage for ESPN2 when the launch actually does happen…we’ll keep you posted.
So, back to the shuttle simulator.
I don’t think anyone was surprised when the chance to fly the shuttle simulator became a contest between Dave and I. Hey, professional drag racers are competitive! You may have heard him giving me a hard time about his “excellent” rating on the broadcast for Houston. I do take my hat off to him, but I did a pretty good job too! It’s amazing how much focus it takes to land the shuttle. I sat in the same seat Mark did to prepare for his trips into space. That was one of the coolest parts of the trip – every time I tried something new, I thought about how much time my friend had already put in to do what he does.
Our host at NASA, Jeff Fox, came out to the track with his girlfriend, her daughters and friends of the family. He also brought his father Mike, who is a legend at NASA. Mike brought along patches and stickers for our Motorcraft/Quick Lane crew members. We brought the team together before one of our qualifying runs so Mike could pass them out to everyone. We were honored to have them at the track as our guests.
I’ll be plenty busy until next weekend, when we head to Commerce, Ga., for the NHRA Southern Nationals. I’m going to spend some time with my family this weekend. My kids and I are big into Hockey and I’m taking them to the Bruins game this Saturday night. The Bruins are up 3-0 against the Flyers hopefully they can sweep the series… I’ll show you the pictures later!