Tasca To Miss Launch But Ready For His Own

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By Susan Wade

National Hot Rod Association racer Bob Tasca III had hoped to be able to bring a special-edition pewter “Wally” trophy with him to Florida this week.

“Maybe we can get a Wally in space,” he had said before this past weekend’s VisitMyrtlebeach.com 4-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway at Concord, N.C. But it’s a moot point, after Jack Beckman edged Tasca by .017 of a second Sunday to win the race.

The Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Mustang Funny Car driver was to be a special guest of family friend and Space Shuttle commander Mark Kelly at Tuesday’s launch of the space shuttle Endeavour at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral.

With NASA postponing the STS-134 mission launch for 10 days — tentatively to Friday, April 29 — it appears Tasca won’t get the chance to take his son to view the Endeavour blastoff. It will be the next-to-last Space Shuttle mission in the NASA program’s 30-year history.

He’ll be racing in the O’Reilly Spring Nationals at Royal Purple Raceway at Baytown, Texas — just a few miles from the Mission Control room at Houston’s Johnson Space Center.

NASA made the move to avoid a scheduling conflict with a Russian supply rocket, which is set to launch April 27 and arrive at the International Space Station (ISS) April 29. The ISS has no room for both spacecraft to be docked there at the same time. Endeavour was set to fly April 19 with a planned April 21 landing and a 14-day mission. So it would have been there when the Russian spacecraft arrived with supplies.

Scott Kelly, Mark Kelly’s identical twin brother who just returned March 16 from a five-month stay aboard the International Space Station, was scheduled to attend the Houston NHRA event and hang out with the Tasca family.

It’s all a bit of a disappointment for Tasca, who had hoped to show eight-year-old son Bob IV the technological spectacle at Cape Canaveral. However, finishing as runner-up to Beckman by a whisker after severe weather and mechanical hurdles definitely was not a disappointment.

“I made no secret that this was a must-win race for us. We needed to go some rounds to get back in the top 10,” Tasca, who’s No. 8 in the standings, said. “If you’re not in the top 10 and you’ve been struggling like we have, you’re looking for a turning point. You’re looking to build some momentum. And truthfully, we struggled through qualifying. This Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Mustang’s got all the right parts, but at the end of the day you’ve got to turn the knobs, and there’s a lot that goes into getting one of these race cars up and down that race track.

“Hats off to Chris Cunningham and Marc Denner and the guys,” he said. “We had a big explosion Saturday night, threw the rods out, and there were a lot of hurt feelings in this camp Saturday night.

“That which doesn’t break you, makes you stronger. Chris and Marc got together, and they found something wrong with the car. They felt pretty confident that it was going to fix it. From the outside looking in, I thought they were crazy,” Tasca said. “But they weren’t crazy. They were borderline geniuses to run one of these race cars and clearly changed our car completely.”

With a newfound jolt of enthusiasm — something Tasca never really lacked — he’s eager to get to Houston to see if the car’s performance can bring him a first victory of 2011. The next time he gets together with Mark and Scott Kelly, he just might have a Wally to show them.

Tasca and Mark Kelly have that bond that only men who dare to push that technical envelope can have. They’re pals in pioneering, brothers in bravery.

It might sound strange, but for all his intellect and all his eloquence, Tasca said he simply can’t describe how it feels to launch his 7,000-horsepower race car. He has no words worthy of the sensation of hurtling 1,000 feet in less than four seconds at nearly 310 mph.

“Sometimes I feel stupid because I can’t even explain to somebody what it feels like. I’ve used different analogies,” he said, including “pulling the trigger of a gun and riding the bullet.”

That seems inadequate, Tasca said: “It’s a unique skills set, a unique opportunity, what we do behind the wheel.”

Kelly understands. He and Tasca have forged a friendship through the past three years.

Kelly, too, has been tested recently, slogging through situations tougher than a nasty storm or broken engine. He has been thrust into the public spotlight recently less for his astronaut status than for being the strong, supportive husband of U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords, of Arizona, who is recovering from a gunshot wound to the head in a January assassination attempt that left six others dead in Tucson.

Because of Kelly’s and Giffords’ non-traditional roles and often-long-distance marriage, Tasca never has met Giffords. Tasca met and has visited with Kelly and his identical twin Scott (commander of International Space Station Expedition 26) at the Johnson Space Center. Kelly visited the Tasca family at Newport, R.I., last summer with his teenage daughters, Claudia and Claire, from a previous marriage.

But Tasca said he was hoping one day to meet her, too.

“I’ve never met Gabby. He has spoken of her many times. They have a kind of unorthodox relationship. The times that we were together in Houston, she was in Washington. And when he was in Rhode Island, she was in Arizona,” Tasca said.

Learning that Giffords plans to watch her husband blast into space, Tasca said, “That will be wonderful. She’s amazing. She’s had tremendous progress, considering her [ordeal]. My God, I can’t even imagine . . . ”

Kelly extended his invitation to Tasca “before the terrible tragedy there in Arizona,” Tasca said. “Mark is a friend of the family.”

Tasca said he plans to stop at NASA’s facilities at Houston before the Baytown race, stop No. 5 on the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series tour.

“I’ve been to NASA three years in a row. I’m going to go back again this year,” Tasca said, anticipating the O’Reilly Spring Nationals. Among his friends there is longtime NASA engineer Jeff Fox, a flight-test specialist who built his own ’67 Mustang GT500 clone a couple of years ago.

Tasca said knowing the Kelly brothers, the only sibling tandem to travel in space, “has been a great relationship. They’re big-time fans of NHRA drag racing.”

The Rhode Island / Massachusetts Ford dealer just might have to watch out for Mark Kelly’s younger daughter, Claire, 13. “I think she wants my job!” Tasca said. “Each year at the track I get her in my race car, and every year she’s getting more and more comfortable in there. Mark, we’ve had him to the starting line — he was Grand Marshal at Houston last year — and blown away by what our sport is.”

Scott Kelly was the one who prevented Tasca from “crash-landing” the Space Shuttle on NASA’s flight simulator.

“When I was at NASA, I sat in the Shuttle simulator,” Tasca said. “In fact, Scott Kelly saved me. I would have landed it, but it would have never flown again, I don’t think. He got behind that joystick. They have the opportunity to really practice and practice and practice in a similar environment.”

That, he said, is a big difference in the ways astronauts and drag racers approach their jobs. Both provide a rush — the Space Shuttle accelerates from zero to 17,000 mph in 8.5 minutes, slow perhaps by NHRA standards, but cruises at about 17,600 mph when orbiting the Earth. Astronauts don’t have the luxury of making test runs, and NHRA nitro-class drivers have limited opportunity to make test passes down a dragstrip. But both have the responsibility of commandeering highly complicated machines that are capable of ungodly mayhem yet jaw-dropping, powerful performances.
“In the first 50 runs, the car is so fast and it’s so far ahead of you that I really feel it takes 50 runs before you really even know where you are,” Tasca said, reflecting on his career move to the nitro version of his Top Alcohol Funny Car. “Believe me, I’m still one of the inexperienced in the field, but from the standpoint of having over three years in now, I have much more confidence. I’m much more aware of what the motor sounds like and what the race car is doing going down the racetrack.”

Learning it seems nearly impossible at first, especially without the benefit of at least some sense of what to expect, some description of that gut-rattling run that wads up a driver’s insides in an eye blink and jolts to a parachute-aided halt. But as Tasca wrestles sometimes with his 125-inch wheelbase, 2300-plus-pound car that gulps almost 15 gallons of nitromethane per burnout and run, and costs about $3 million to operate each year, imagine Kelly’s duties.

The Shuttle pilot will throttle up 4.5 million pounds of weight at liftoff. Kelly will have to finesse and control the 122-feet-long Endeavour orbiter, with its 78-foot wingspan and payload that can weigh as much as 59,000 pounds. He’s riding a $2.1 billion phenomenon with two solid rocket boosters that carry a million pounds of propellant, three main engines full of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, and two orbital thrusters, each of which delivers 2.7 tons of thrust.

“The difference is they have about 10,000 times in the simulator,” Tasca said. “That’s one thing which I think is unique about our sport — you can’t simulate it. You ask Tony Schumacher or John Force, ‘What does it feel like?’ and they can’t explain it, either.”
He said no one has developed a drag-racing simulator because “you really can’t. See, that’s the thing. I have reaction-time simulators that we use, but to actually pilot the car down the track — how can you simulate the acceleration rate? You just — it’s not something — I wouldn’t even know how you do it.”

NASA is the perfect example of the “If you can dream it, you can do it” mentality. But, Tasca said, that notion doesn’t apply to drag racing, not when it comes to simulators. He said NASA can build a simulator because “they’re NASA. I think their simulator is probably worth more than our whole sport. At the end of the day, I guess with money you can do anything. But for practical reasons, there’s no way to simulate what we do.”

If it is possible, he said, “then you’ve got to find someone to finance it.”

With his recent trip to Bristol, Tenn., to promote the NHRA’s Full Throttle Drag Racing Series to the NASCAR crowd at the Jeff Byrd 500 Sprint Car Series event, Tasca was reminded how wildly different is Funny Car is from simply a stock car.

“You can drive one of those cars slow, but our fuel cars, you can dive them only one way and that’s wide-open throttle. There’s no half-throttle in the car,” he said. “The cars are designed to be wide-open. It’s not like you can go out and try to run slow in a fuel car. It’s going to run as fast as it can run.”

Tasca said he “was fascinated with NASA the first time I went. Just love listening to the stories of Mark — he’s been in space multiple times. He had a lot of neat stories and is certainly looking forward to this last Shuttle mission, which will be a night launch.”

As if by some cosmic connection, Tasca’s drag-racing career always will have a Space Shuttle tangent. The day he earned his first Funny Car victory — in 2009, at the Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla. — the Space Shuttle Discovery launched.

“I’ll never forget it,” he said, recalling that twilight celebration in the winners circle at Gainesville Raceway. “I have pictures of the Shuttle going over the racetrack. Obviously it was in the distance. But you could see the fireball as the Shuttle was rocketing to space when I was in the winners circle at the Gainesville race. It was awesome.”

Somehow — even if Tasca might not be able to explain it or now, even witness it firsthand — their destinies were meant to intersect

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