In a matter of back-to-back races veteran driver Tim Wilkerson experienced just how fine a line there is between success and disappointment in the loaded NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Funny Car class.
Wilkerson went to his second final of the year in Sonoma, seemingly building strong momentum in his 10,000-horsepower Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Shelby Mustang. But Wilkerson suffered a hard-luck, first-round loss a week later in Seattle to finish the Western Swing. It wasn’t an ideal ending to the rigorous stretch, but heading to this weekend’s Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway, Wilkerson is well aware of the competition level in the class.
"I think the biggest thing is that these cars are all so fast now, and they're like a bunch of bracket cars out there,” said Wilkerson, who is currently eighth in Funny Car points. “I have to stay on my game and pay attention, and my guys have to stay focused. It's a challenge, but I'm excited to get to Brainerd. I've never had a lot of bad luck there, and it seems like we usually do well at Brainerd.”
Brittany Force (Top Fuel), Del Worsham (Funny Car), Drew Skillman (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1, including live final eliminations coverage starting at 2:00 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, Aug. 20. It is the 17th of 24 races in 2017, making it the penultimate race of the regular season before the NHRA’s six-race Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship begins.
A good weekend in Brainerd would clinch a 10th straight playoff berth and 10th straight top 10 finish for Wilkerson, and that’s precisely what he’s aiming for this weekend. His car has shown plenty of potential against a loaded field topped by reigning world champion Ron Capps, and Wilkerson believes the team has left the early exit in Seattle in their rearview mirror.
"When we left Seattle, we said we were going to go to bed, get up the next morning, and leave that all behind us,” said Wilkerson, who has 20 career wins. “That's just what we did. We went to the Night Under Fire event at the Bader family's Summit Motorsports Park last weekend, and that was a blast, like always. They put on a great show, and it's a real neat deal – plus, it gave us the opportunity to get some ideas for a few things down the road with our program.”
Wilkerson will also have to contend with the likes of three-time 2017 winner Matt Hagan, red-hot Robert Hight, who won in Seattle, and Sonoma winner J.R. Todd, but he’ll have an extra driver in his corner in Brainerd. Wilkerson’s son, Daniel, will be working with driver Brian Stewart, giving the team added info for a key race. That extra data could be pivotal as Wilkerson is also seeking his first victory since early in the 2016 season.
"That will be fun,” Wilkerson said. “I always learn a little something when we have two cars, so hopefully that will help us a little bit there, too. I think it'll be a good weekend for us. We'll be teaming up again with our Circle K friends from the Twin Cities, and we're grateful for their support and to have them there with us. That Circle K logo looks pretty cool on the hood of our Levi, Ray & Shoup Funny Car, and it would sure make us all happy to go rounds with it on Sunday."
Force will look to defend her Top Fuel crown in Brainerd against the likes of points leader and back-to-back world champ Antron Brown, and six-time 2017 winner Steve Torrence.
Skillman has been red-hot in Pro Stock, winning three of the past four races. He’s chasing points leader Bo Butner and teammate, rookie Tanner Gray, who each have three wins as well.
Hines won for the third time in Brainerd in Pro Stock Motorcycle, but is after his first win in 2017. LE Tonglet has dominated in that regard, posting five victories this season.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 2:45 and 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 18 and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Aug. 19, at 12:45 and 3:45 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 20.
To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, call 218-824-RACE (7223) or 866-444-4455. Tickets also are available online at www.brainerdraceway.com. Kids 12 and under are free in general admission areas with a paid adult. To honor the Salute to First Responders, military and first responders can save 20 percent on general admission tickets at the gate.