Brainerd: Pontiac Racing preview

BRAINERD, Minn., August 13, 2001 - After foregoing competition for the entire month of July, Levi Ray & Shoup Pontiac driver Tim Wilkerson will climb back into his Firebird Funny Car at the 20th annual Colonel's Truck Accessories NHRA Nationals at...

BRAINERD, Minn., August 13, 2001 - After foregoing competition for the entire month of July, Levi Ray & Shoup Pontiac driver Tim Wilkerson will climb back into his Firebird Funny Car at the 20th annual Colonel's Truck Accessories NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway on August 16 - 19.

Wilkerson, who serves as driver, crew chief and team manager for his nitro-powered Funny Car program, made the decision at the beginning of the season to race an abbreviated 15-race schedule. At those venues where he's rolled his Pontiac into the staging beams, the 40-year-old Springfield, Ill., native has been a challenger not to be taken lightly.

"I make 99 percent of the tuning calls," said Wilkerson. "That way I have no one to blame but myself. The only time it becomes a burden is on Saturday night and we're not qualified. But besides that, I love doing it. I don't need to be a car owner, but I like it because I'm not dependent on anybody else to supply me with a ride. Therefore, I sort of control my own destiny.

"Fred (Mandoline) helps me as a consultant and is invaluable in assisting me work through the tuning process. He's so smart and very mechanical. Every once in awhile he'll ask me why I'm doing something, but to this day he hasn't said, 'no I shouldn't do that.' If the call I make doesn't work then he'll express his opinion of what we should do next.

"I also still run my business so I have that to work at too as opposed to others where racing is all they do. I think you have to have something to do, you can't just sit at home and do nothing."

In 10 races this year Wilkerson has done much more than just sit. He's qualified at eight events and a season-high third at the Mac Tools Thunder Valley Nationals in Bristol, Tenn. He's advanced to the semifinals on two different occasions, and ran a career-best e.t. of 4.829 seconds and top speed of 318.77 mph at Topeka.

"To be honest, I'm really disappointed that we haven't won already," said Wilkerson. "We let Topeka get away from us, and we really let Chicago get away from us because our Firebird was as fast as anyone there. But we lost the blower belt against Epler. I'm very proud of my team though. We work hard and a lot of these guys have stuck by me for a long, long time - since my Federal Mogul days. To get as much done as we do, and to be as competitive as we are is a real indicator on how much effort everyone puts into this car.

"Obviously the other crew chiefs are a step ahead of me at finding problems with their racecars, but when they race as much as they do they should be better. We're optimistic though about the last half of the season. The new body will be ready at Brainerd and we'll be ready."

The quintessential grassroots racer, Wilkerson began competing at local tracks throughout the Midwest over 20 years ago. From 1990-95 he competed in Federal Mogul Funny Car and won Division 3 championships in '94 and '95. Wilkerson made the move to the nitro ranks in '96 and reached his first professional final round at the '97 U.S. Nationals. He finished seventh in the Winston standings in '98 after racing in finals at Pomona and Richmond and then won his first national event at the '99 FRAM Nationals at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill. Wilkerson debuted his own team at the U.S. Nationals that same year and after nearly two years of seasoning, the program has matured into a legitimate contender at every event. "We kind of got behind in Columbus this year with the hot weather," said Wilkerson. "We were really down on power compared to everyone else. Now we've got our motor program turned around to where we have as much power as everybody else. Believe me, it's a detriment sometimes. It's real hard to tune these cars down to go slow - it's easy to make them go fast. But I haven't utilized the body as much as I should. With the new body I will. That's my goal, to make sure that I utilize this Firebird body to its full extent.

"We were hesitant to change the tune-up because we were running the older style four-disc clutch and had older cylinder heads on the car, and I didn't really want to change my whole combination. The new car has more downforce and more drag, and now we'll have to figure out how to work through that."

In addition to his weekend duties as a Funny Car racer, Wilkerson is also a successful Springfield business owner and entrepreneur.

"The business is coming along pretty good," said Wilkerson. "I built a new facility and sold all my gas stations. I still own the buildings and grounds of two of them and I lease those. I bought a piece of property recently, about an acre and a half, and built a 14,000 square-foot building. I've got a 3,500 square-foot machine shop, a 3,500 square-foot racecar shop and a 6,000 square-foot area where we work on cars. We've already outgrown our racecar shop and I'm thinking about adding on for next year. I don't know about anyone else but we're doing just fine."

The 20th annual Colonel's Truck Accessories NHRA Nationals on August 16 - 19 at Brainerd International Raceway is the 17th race on the 24-event Winston championship tour. Qualifying highlights cans be seen on ESPN on Saturday, August 18, beginning at 8 p.m. Eastern. Final-round coverage will be telecast on ESPN2 on Sunday, August 19, starting at 5 p.m.

-GM Racing

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Series NHRA
Drivers Tim Wilkerson