WILK'S BRAINERD IS SEMI-SUCCESSFUL In the end, Tim Wilkerson's adventure in the scenic woods of central Minnesota was a "first" for the year. Wilk had advanced as far as the semifinals four times this season, and each time he took his Levi, Ray...
WILK'S BRAINERD IS SEMI-SUCCESSFUL
In the end, Tim Wilkerson's adventure in the scenic woods of central Minnesota was a "first" for the year. Wilk had advanced as far as the semifinals four times this season, and each time he took his Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby Mustang to the final round, eventually winning three of those four races. This time, in the semifinals, he ran into the ultimate underdog who was on a sentimental mission to stun the Brainerd crowd, eventual race winner Bob Bode, and shortly thereafter Wilk had officially earned his first semifinal finish of the year.
To get to that point, Wilk and team had to slog their way through a frustrating and weather-impacted Friday, and then fret over a sunny Saturday effort when the LRS Ford failed to make a full lap under power. To further add to the complications, Sunday dawned with a completely different set of weather parameters, as the first legitimate cool front of the season managed to push the hot and muggy air away overnight, after Saturday's racing was complete. This event went from summer to autumn in one day, and every tuner in the pro pits was rolling the dice a bit when eliminations began. The slew of upsets that followed, in the opening round and beyond, were a solid indicator that some of those dice tosses had come up "snake eyes".
Back on Friday, when the predicted rain materialized and only one session could be completed, Wilk made a solid if not spectacular run on his only pass, and that 4.167 was good enough for the No. 5 spot after one day. Saturday brought with it more of the same humid air, hot temps, and turbulent atmosphere, but both sessions were run without a hitch. Unfortunately, for Wilkerson, both sessions also came complete with tire smoke, and he had fallen to the No 9 spot when the eliminations ladder was officially produced. His first-round opponent would be Jeff Arend, who was neck-deep in his own Countdown drama, trying to catch and pass Tony Pedregon for the final spot in the playoffs. Arend needed T. Ped to falter in round one, and then needed a pair of round wins of his own to stake a claim to the 10th spot in the post-season push.
Tony Pedregon did, indeed, drop his opener (to Robert Hight) so Arend did have a shot to pull off his last-minute rally, but Wilkerson had plenty of points-related motivation of his own. By the time eliminations had begun, Wilk was still in 6th place in the Full Throttle points, but he was but a solitary point ahead of Bob Tasca in 7th, and less than a round ahead of Ashley Force Hood in 8th. One slip, and Arend's dream would still be alive while Wilk's mission of entering the Countdown from the highest possible slot might be a memory. To put it succinctly, there was a bit of drama building by the time the LRS and DHL cars lined up as the final pair in the opening round.
4.152 seconds later, Arend's playoff bid was over in one of the most evenly-matched and achingly-close races of the year. The margin of victory was 2-thousandths of a second, but the uncanny tightness began at the line, where Arend's reaction time was .086 while Wilk's was .087. At the stripe, Wilk took the win with a 4.152 to Arend's 4.155, and coupled with Force Hood's upset loss to Paul Lee, Wilk knew he'd have Lee in round two and that he could not leave Brainerd any lower than 7th in the standings.
"You know, we really like those guys and Jeff's not only a great driver, he's a great person as well, but you have to race them fair and square," Wilkerson said. "I told all of their guys afterward, though, that I wished it hadn't been so close. It had to be a heartbreaker to lose by 2-thousandths, but for us it was a big win because we had our own points battles going on."
In round two, Wilk committed one of his most oddball and unbelievable bobbles at the tree, blinking his eyes just as the amber lights flashed. That blink created a .177 reaction time, and allowed Lee to pull ahead to an early lead. Fortunately, for the LRS team and all of Wilk's Warriors, the LRS Ford made up the difference and Wilk marched on, with a 4.149 for his quickest run of the weekend. When Bob Tasca then lost his second-round race, Wilk was assured of leaving Brainerd no lower than the 6th spot in which he had entered, while Ron Capps' first round ouster opened the door for a move up to 5th. All Wilk had to do was beat the upset-minded Bode in the semifinal.
By that time, though, two other teams had figured "all they had to do was beat Bob Bode" and both had come up short, as Bode took out Cruz Pedregon and Bob Tasca to make it to the semifinal against Wilk. Beating Bob Bode, on this day, ended up being impossible.
Wilk's semifinal loss was a thrilling one, but mostly in ways he'd prefer not to experience. His LRS Shelby launched hard and it was ripping up the track to the 660 timers, when the front tires began to dance off the track surface. Before Wilk could do anything to correct it, his car's front end began a quick upward launch and he was instantly looking at the sky while the car rode on the wheelie bar and made a move for the center line. With no way to steer and no vision of the track, it was all over for Wilk, and Bode moved on to his final round date with Jack Beckman.
"That's another great bunch over there, and as mad as I was that our car did what it did, once the finals were over and Bode and his gang won, I felt a lot better and I was excited for them," Wilkerson said. "If you can't root for a team like that, and if you don't like Bob Bode and his bunch, you need to have your brain examined. They're great folks and great racers. We usually kid them and tell them that they make all of us full-timers look like knuckleheads, because they show up at half the races and make this look easy. It's not easy, and that tells you that those guys are pretty darn good. They earned that win, and they should be nothing but proud of themselves for doing it.
"We were busy as heck during the finals, out in the pits, but let me tell you that there was all sorts of smiling going on, up and down the Funny Car pits, when everyone heard that Bode won. You could hear guys on different teams yelling from trailer to trailer, telling each other the outcome. You don't see that very often, so that tells you a lot about how much everyone respects that team."
Wilkerson was also quick to point out some other special aspects of the annual trip to Brainerd.
"We ate great this weekend, just like last year, because we had another one-race deal with Shorty Shannon, who owns the All-American Motorsports Bar & Grill down on the east side of the Twin Cities. He fed us all weekend, and the food was pretty amazing. We were saying that it would be great to have Shorty along for the whole tour, but the food he cooks is so good we might all weigh 300 pounds. You can't stop eating it. The guys on the team who have been to his place, down there in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, say it's top notch, so we'll have to find a way to get there ourselves.
"Plus, we had a lot of friends and family here. We have four Minnesotans on the team, so the guest list was pretty long, as you might imagine. On top of that, we had an NHL hockey player and his dad with us, and that's a cool deal. Jeff Finger got to know one of our guys when they met on a plane a few years back, and he's a huge NHRA fan. He and his dad soaked every bit of it up for three full days. Now I'll have to keep tabs on the Toronto Maple Leafs, to follow his career, because he's following us every step of the way."
The season now takes its second consecutive two-week hiatus, before reconvening in Indianapolis to begin the Countdown playoffs. Six races from now, we'll crown a Funny Car champion and the 2010 season will forever be etched in the record books.