CONCORD, N.C. — National Hot Rod Ass’n 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 penultimate 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 miles per hour.
“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.”