As the owner, driver, and tuner of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby Ford Mustang, Tim Wilkerson has his hands full with a full range of responsibility, but from Day One, that hasn’t been an issue. The happy husband and proud father of three has stood out as a driven character who thrives under pressure. Dare it be said, it almost seems that the man utilizes stress as a form of fuel.
If that observation holds truth, Wilkerson should be topped off and fired up for a rocket launch. Regular-season races are dwindling (seven remain), the Countdown to the Championship is almost within earshot, and Wilkerson is the No. 12 guy in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series Funny Car standings, 57 markers outside of 10th.
The battle is well under way for the driver who has finished in the top 10 in each of the last four seasons and has held court at year’s end in that exclusive group seven times in his Professional career. Arrows are aimed at him from behind and ahead, but the most pressing opponents are Don Schumacher Racing’s Matt Hagan – the reigning Funny Car world champ who is lodged between Wilkerson – and Kalitta Motorsports driver Jeff Arend (10th) and rookie driver Alexis DeJoria, who took a step forward at the recent Ford NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals presented by Tri-Cities Area Ford Dealers in Bristol with her first final-round appearance. She trails Wilkerson by four points.
The class is as tough as ever, and although Wilkerson admits that he has perhaps been a bit too aggressive at times in search of low digits, he believes that his Mustang is on the right path and that the proper plan of attack is the methodical one-run-at-a-time ditty that has proven successful.
“We’ve been making some pretty good runs,” said Wilkerson. “I’m optimistic that [the car] is actually performing better and better and better; we have just had the worst race luck that I’ve ever seen in my life. Our biggest challenge has been being able to take advantage of a situation when it’s presented to us.”
Wilkerson’s list of bummer moments has included that dreaded tire smoke, driver error, or just plain being in the wrong place – aka less favorable lane – at the wrong time. Additionally, blindsiding malfunctions have killed momentum and threatened to rattle morale; a problematic pneumatic switch wreaked havoc after the burnout in the first round in Las Vegas, and something within the fuel system failed in the first round in Englishtown, negating a season-best qualifying effort.
The first part of the season was an obstacle course that gave the typically jovial driver a rather serious face, but, historically speaking, it must be noted that the sun comes out in the summer months for Wilkerson, who waves off any comic-book-like intentions revolving around lying low then emerging from the shadows to thwart the competition with unexpected blows: Bam! Pow! Vronk! Whammo!
“I wish it was that cool,” said the Springfield, Ill.-based Ford campaigner who has stepped up in performance and points in the heat in each of the past three seasons. “I think it’s just that this time of year, power is not the king – and maybe a little bit of savvy is. Traditionally, my cars have had good power that was available most of the time, and when we got to where the tracks were a little [trickier], I seemed to harness it a little better. But boy, anymore I don’t know. The rest of those cars are really running good in those conditions, and NHRA is doing such a good job with preparing the tracks. There really haven’t been any that were so-so, even with hot weather. This is going to be tough.
“I don’t know that I’m overly confident, but I will say that I’m optimistic. I really think that we have a good chance of winning some rounds, but when you get yourself into this kind of position, now you’re really dependent on things falling in the right place every time you go racing. If it does, we need to be there to take advantage of it.”
The Wilkerson family will bring another twist of flavor to the field when Wilkerson’s son Daniel returns to Funny Car competition at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk the weekend following the Fourth of July holiday. The younger Wilk, who most recently competed at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals in Atlanta, qualified sixth in Norwalk last year and picked up the first round-win of his career in eliminations.
“Boy, that was fun, and we have all our junk in a pile for this year. We’re real excited for both Daniel and Summit,” said Wilkerson. “Daniel has had some pretty cool achievements already. Last year at Indy was probably one of the best times we’ve had: He was outside the show, and we went 4.09 to get him in there. He was the fastest qualified Ford at the U.S. Nationals.
“That was a pretty great day for us, and since then, I’ve been kind of weaning him along to do his own deal. My guys spend a lot of time preparing the parts for the car and getting everything together, but once we get to the track, we have competent help, and we don’t have to spend a lot of time over there unless something really goes upside down. In Atlanta this year, they did really well. They serviced the car, got it up there on their own, and it wasn’t a bit of a problem. Hopefully, we can get him in the show in Norwalk and maybe do some good – I think we could both do some good.”
Daniel will have the same setup in the car that Wilkerson had so much success with in similar conditions in 2008 and 2009, his two best seasons to date.
In addition to Wilkerson’s noted ability to heat up in the heat, he has history at the site of the next event on the schedule, the O’Reilly Auto Parts Route 66 NHRA Nationals at Route 66 Raceway near Chicago; it is the place where he won his first nitro Funny Car title in a 1999 tire-smoking affair with legendary John Force.
“We ran well in Chicago last year, and we usually run well there every year,” said Wilkerson. “I’d sure like to think that we could go some rounds there. We always go to every racetrack and focus on how fast we can get down the lane that we’re provided with the circumstances that we’re provided, but it would be a real good place to start our comeback.”