It is an area on the map collectively known as Central Illinois, but its outside recognition and self-image are often lost in the swirl of two bigger attractions, which orbit to the north and south like a pair of large planets with enormous gravitational pulls.
Just up the road that used to be Route 66 is Chicago. To the many millions of residents of the Windy City, places such as Springfield, Decatur, and Bloomington are simply viewed as an amorphous blob known as "downstate." To the south lies St. Louis, the Gateway to the West, which features a 630-foot-tall inverted catenary curve of stainless steel on its riverfront, making it one of the most recognizable skylines in the country. To St. Louisans, the less glamorous but more efficient I-55 corridor (which replaced Route 66 decades ago) is simply the long straight road to Chicago, and the towns along its length are only pit stops along the way.
With the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs dominating the regional sports landscape for much of each year, Central Illinois is the buffer zone, and only the biggest sports news can crowd the baseball reports from the newspaper page or the collective sports psyche. The rivalry in these smaller Illinois cities and towns can be intense, to the point of dividing towns, neighborhoods, and even individual houses into factions of blue and red, but it's this very rivalry that acts as the glue that keeps the connection between the two major cities so uniquely strong -- so strong that the vast area between often gets overlooked.
That's not to say there aren't other sports or different pursuits that interest Central Illinois residents, but from March to October, baseball is king while the fans of the Cardinals and Cubs follow the 162-game marathon. Drag racing has long been, at best, a peripheral and minor sport in the area, although, at the grassroots level, participation is traditionally as strong as in many parts of the country. Sportsman racing surely does create fans of the Professional ranks, and those hard-core followers revel in their ability to travel just a couple hours north or south to see NHRA Full Throttle national events in Chicago and Madison, but even with that solid grassroots support, you still would have been hard-pressed to find much lunch-counter banter about Funny Cars or Top Fuel dragsters in the central part of the Land of Lincoln. You would have been hard-pressed, that is, until a certain Mr. Wilkerson made his mark on the NHRA landscape.
The local Springfield paper, The State Journal-Register, keeps Tim Wilkerson fans up to date on a regular basis.
After building steadily for years, slowly but surely spreading the gospel of drag racing to a previously unaware populace, Tim Wilkerson's fame exploded in geometric fashion in 2008, during his thrilling run for the world championship, and the result has been a point of honor in his hometown of Springfield and the surrounding areas. Tim Wilkerson is now clearly "the pride of Springfield," and NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing has risen from the obscurity of the agate page to front-page headline status in many parts of Central Illinois.
"I'm Springfield born and raised, and you're right about the baseball thing in this part of the world," Wilkerson said as he prepared for the O'Reilly NHRA Midwest Nationals presented by Castrol, set for May 1-3 just down I-55 at Gateway Int'l Raceway in Madison outside of St. Louis. "When you get into this part of the state, kind of between St. Louis and Chicago, the rivalry gets intense, and whole towns can be 50-50 when it comes to Cardinals or Cubs fans. I'm a big sports fan too, but I guess I was a little different and I got more into cars when I was growing up, and pretty soon my favorite thing to do was make my cars go fast and race them on the track.
"We'd go up the road to Havana, which is only about an hour from home, or maybe over to Charleston or down to the old Gateway before they rebuilt it, and we raced as much as we could. We moved up, and started doing pretty well with my Top Alcohol Funny Car, and then in 1995, we took the big jump, and I got in the nitro car. Right then, I guess I knew that racing was never going to be the same for me. If we were going to go to the big leagues, we wanted to do it right, and over the years, we've been lucky enough for it all to work out pretty nicely. Slowly but surely, more and more people around Springfield started to hear about what we were doing, and the word kind of spread that the local guy was out there on the road battling the big guys on TV. Those people who have been behind us since the start are about the best fans any racer could have, and they did a good job spreading the word."
One of those longtime backers is Mark Benson, who dates back to Wilkerson's amateur days and has long been one of the self-proclaimed Wilky Warriors in support of their local hero. Benson has watched the interest grow, both in terms of Wilkerson's career and the sport in general, but even he was not prepared for what happened in 2008.
Wilkerson's ever-growing fan base includes the Wilky Warriors, who got a taste of the Gateway winner's circle in 2008.
"It really makes me proud to hear Paul Page and Mike Dunn use Tim's name on ESPN2 in the same sentence with John Force's name when they talk about the most popular drivers in the sport," Benson said. "That really says a lot, and it means a lot to all of us who got behind him so many years ago. Back then, there were just a few of us Wilky Warriors rooting for the underdog, and you never heard anyone on the local radio or TV or in the paper talking much about drag racing. Now, our local stations and newspaper cover Tim like he's our local sports franchise, and I guess that's what he is. From the mayor to the guys on the street here, this is Wilkerson territory now, not just Cardinals and Cubs."
Wilkerson's connection to his hometown extends beyond his own upbringing and career. His longtime primary sponsor, Levi, Ray & Shoup, is a Springfield-based software and consulting company, and the two seem to have found a formula for creating a classic mutually beneficial relationship. LRS provides the resources for Wilkerson to compete at the highest level, and the race team gives the company major-league exposure and a unique ability to entertain clients. And all the while, they share a home base in the middle of Illinois.
"I guess it might be about the best sort of sponsor a racer could have, with both of us being right here in Springfield," Wilkerson said. "If I want to meet with Dick Levi or the LRS marketing people, I don't have to fly halfway across the country. I just get in my car and drive across town. And, over the years, we're pretty proud of how we've given the company a higher profile, and they've found ways to take the NHRA experience and really make it work for their business. It's not uncommon for us to have 200 LRS guests or customers with us in our pitside hospitality area on a given day, and when we get to St. Louis, the total guest list for the weekend is up to about 1,000 people. That's pretty cool, and it's very much appreciated on our end.
"You know, I met Dick Levi when I started working on a few of the classic cars he owns at my service center in Springfield. At the time, I was out there trying to make it on the NHRA tour, but I never considered asking Dick to get involved as a sponsor. He finally asked me why I never brought it up, and the answer was because I valued him as a customer and didn't want to overstep my bounds. He said we should talk about it, which we did not long after that, and now here we are as a big part of the overall LRS marketing effort. It's worked out great for everyone, including sports fans in Springfield, who really have a local team to cheer for now."
The cheering, of course, was loudest in 2008, when Wilkerson fought to stay in the points lead and had a strong shot at the world championship. The crescendo hasn't abated in 2009, though, as Wilkerson's spot on the Central Illinois sports radar screen has been firmly established, and legions of fans have joined the Warriors to back their hometown hero.
Hal Pilger, motorsports writer at The State Journal-Register newspaper in Springfield, has followed and reported on Wilkerson's career since the early pre-Funny Car days, and he's struck by the impact being made by the local star.
"Having known and written about Tim Wilkerson well before he began his impressive 13-year NHRA Funny Car career, I'm well-aware of what kind of drag racing talent and outstanding individual he is," Pilger said. "Perhaps just as impressive is the fact Tim has made thousands of people in Central Illinois avid fans of a sport they once barely knew existed."
It is unlikely that Wilkerson will ever unseat the Cardinals or Cubs as the main focus for Central Illinois sports fans. Nor will he make anyone forget about the Rams and Blues to the south, the Bears and Blackhawks to the north, or the Fighting Illini to the east. But he has, beyond any doubt, brought NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing onto the scene in a region where it had previously perched only on the edges of the collective sports consciousness.
That very accomplishment may live on as Wilkerson's legacy. Well after he hangs up the helmet and passes the family Funny Car on to son Daniel, and perhaps then even well into Daniel's Pro career, the place of NHRA Drag Racing in the Central Illinois sports landscape will have forever been altered by the guy from Springfield who brought pride and excitement to thousands of sports fans who previously thought only of Cardinals and Cubs.