NHRA: Wilkerson Hopes First Victory Comes at U.S. Nationals
27 August 1998CLERMONT, Ind. -- In professional golf, the PGA Tour keeps a list of best players having yet to win a major tournament. If the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series carried such a list for each pro category from race to race, Tim Wilkerson's name would appear at the top of the Funny Car order.
No question, Wilkerson is way overdue.
The Springfield, Ill. driver has piloted his John Costanza Institute of Technology Pontiac Firebird to an impressive season so far, recording two runner-up finishes and two semi-final appearances. However, a national event victory has eluded him.
Wilkerson hopes a return to the site of his first career final round, the 44th U.S. Nationals, Sept. 2-7 at Indianapolis Raceway Park, will give him the momentum he needs to break into the Winner's Circle for the first time.
The $2.4 million race, drag racing's most prestigious event, is the 16th of 22 events in the $30- million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.
Not only does Wilkerson feel like his Firebird loves the conditions that Indy presents, but onlooking family and friends provides a nice gallery and even more incentive to win.
"I think Indy is our kind of racetrack," said Wilkerson, who lost to Whit Bazemore in the final last season. "This car never really has excelled on the seriously good, sticky race tracks. Indy is always just a little slick on the starting line and this car seems to like that in a track. We had a lot of success there in our alcohol days. We ruled that place at the division level. We won almost every race they had there for three or four years. We kinda look at it as our home track."
IRP is only a little over two hours away from Wilkerson's home.
"I always have a lot of friends and family there," Wilkerson said. "My wife (Christa) goes to that race too, and I always seem to do better when she's around. I guess she just helps put me at ease. Any wife that puts up with this racing stuff has to be dedicated. I met here when I was 15 and when we were 18 we went to the drag strip together for the first time and we had a ball. Ever since then we've been racing and she's been very understanding."
While performing in front of friends and family could make some drivers tense, Wilkerson says he's having too much fun to worry about pressure.
"This is not a pressure-packed deal over here," he said. "We take care of John Costanza's customers and anything that comes out in the way of performance, that's an added bonus. With that in mind, that keeps the pressure off me, the crew chief and the team. We go into each race thinking it will be our race and we're going to run the fastest we can every run. You can see by our past performance this season that we're a top five car every weekend. One of these days, maybe at Indy, everything is going to come together and the competition won't know what hit 'em and we'll get that first win."
Despite his winless record this season, Wilkerson sits sixth in the Winston standings and still has a legitimate chance of winning his first championship. He trails leader Ron Capps by 262 points. He says he enjoys being in the middle of the battle.
"The points situation this year is history in the making," Wilkerson said. "I mean, how many years has it been since we went to Indy and John Force wasn't leading? (The Castrol Team) has to be nervous and I think they tend to make mistakes when they're nervous and that's what we like and that's what we need to see. You have to take your hat off to Roland Leong and Ron Capps, they're doing a great job. They go up and down the racetrack and they're not always the fastest, but they're right there. That's what it takes."
Wilkerson also has a pretty good idea of what it's going to take to get his first victory. Patience, above all.
"John Force is a perfect example of a guy with tenacity and guts in this sport," Wilkerson said. "You see the way he used to race -- with no money, upside down and on fire. That would force most people to quit. He shows right there that with some perseverance that your success will eventually come. We're not giving up. We're going to fight the fight until we can win out here. You're going to see this car stepping up every round. If we face an opponent that takes us lightly and they don't run a good race, then the purple car will put 'em out."