Tim Wilkerson’s dash for the biggest trophy in NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing in 2018 captured imaginations because it came out of nowhere. That was the conventional wisdom, anyway. As is often the case, conventional wisdom leaned more on convention than it did on wisdom.
Talk of budgets and payroll won’t teach anyone anything new about Wilkerson as he seeks his first Wally since the spring Charlotte event in 2016. He can claim a couple of close calls, but that rarely satiates that appetite of any competitive racer and the do-it-all driver of the Illinois-based race team is no exception.
What can be said is Wilkerson found a groove with his around the middle of the 2018 season. He adjusted well to the track prep that debuted a third of the way through the campaign and that paid dividends. That didn’t change anything about his process, which, at least on paper, appears to differ from the rest of the category.
“Starting around Seattle we had a pretty good car and I carried that into the start of this year,” said Wilkerson. “I just started to get more aggressive with the car around the end of last year and I think I carried that all the way through this year, which is something I didn’t do in Richmond last week.”
The numbers back him up. Wilkerson runs a very quick car that doesn’t always match his competitors when it comes to consistency. He averages a 3.981-second elapsed time, more than three-hundredths quicker than the class average, but only gets down the track about 55 percent of the time. That’s a trade he’s willing to make in part because he knows when to make those calls.
“I can hit ‘em when I need to,” said Wilkerson. “The way you know if somebody is good at this is if they go to Bristol, Denver, Gainesville and Pomona and qualify within a hundredth at all of them. It’s keeping within that window. I can run well when it’s good out, too. Heat can be an equalizer, but we all have to back our stuff down – it’s just that the really fast cars have to back down even more.”
To that end, Wilkerson uses Saturday qualifying as a test session after trying to get a read on the track on Friday. That’s a strategy he finds effective, but at times runs counter to what everyone else is doing. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, though. There are multiple ways to win a drag race and Wilkerson is finding out how different components work on his Funny Car, which is sporting the same 40th anniversary scheme (and new Ford Mustang body) he debuted in Virginia.
“We’re testing new blowers, things like that, because it might give us an edge,” said Wilkerson.
It’s fair to say that it might not, too. But Wilkerson feels the risk of trying something wild on Saturday night is worth it. And frankly, NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing would be less interesting without that sort of gambling.