UPSET-FILLED FIRST ROUND CLAIMS WILK AND OTHERS As legendary public address announcer Bob Frey likes to say, "This is why we don't run them on paper." At the first race in the 2009 NHRA Countdown, only four of the 10 Funny Car Countdown drivers...
UPSET-FILLED FIRST ROUND CLAIMS WILK AND OTHERS
As legendary public address announcer Bob Frey likes to say, "This is why we don't run them on paper." At the first race in the 2009 NHRA Countdown, only four of the 10 Funny Car Countdown drivers were able to win in the first round, and none of them were named Wilkerson. When the clutch dust had settled, it was Ashley Force Hood, Bob Tasca, Jack Beckman, and Robert Hight illuminating win-lights, while Tony Pedregon, Ron Capps, John Force, Del Worsham, Mike Neff, and Tim Wilkerson took it on the chin in a bizarre, yet exciting, opening round. If there was, therefore, a bright side to this loss, it was the almost unimaginable "damage control" that took place in terms of points.
The stunning first-round developments came on the heels of a thrilling pair of qualifying days, for Wilkerson and many of the other teams. Wilk polished off four solid runs of 4.159, 4.119, 4.154, and 4.100 throughout the four sessions, and the Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby was never really in any danger of spinning the tires on any of the runs. The solid string of laps had Wilk in the top half of the field after each session, and the final 4.100 pass was not only strong enough to bump him up into the 5th spot, it was also the second-quickest run of the session, and thereby earned the LRS team two bonus points, under the new qualifying bonus program.
The good performance was also matched by good fortune, as a dismal weather forecast failed to materialize and the only real heavy rain came on Saturday night, after the professional classes had completed their qualifying. Sunday morning dawned overcast as well, but something definitely changed in either the air or the track, because tire smoke began to rear its ugly visage early on.
When Wilkerson lit the stage bulbs to take on Jeff Arend in the opening round, he was doing so as part of the first pair of Funny Cars, but he had already witnessed a couple of big upsets in Top Fuel. Still, everyone on the LRS team had reason to believe the car would, once again, power down the track solidly. They may have had reason, but they didn't have control of the eventual outcome. Surprisingly, the LRS Shelby spun the hoops just short of the 330 mark, and Arend sped away for a solid win.
"It's amazing, but that's racing," Wilkerson said. "It just got out there where the motor usually gets pulled down and the car will settle for you, and this time it just overpowered the track and went right into spin. You can spend your whole life trying to figure out why these cars do what they do, one lap after another, and I don't care what your name is, you'll still never totally figure it out. They ran well and did their job over there, but we messed up and we paid the price.
"At the time, I thought it might really be ugly for us in terms of the Countdown, but we obviously weren't the only ones who missed the call. One by one, other Countdown cars started to go out, and it ended up not nearly as awful as it could've been."
In the end, when Robert Hight went on to win the race and all of the the other Countdown teams were eliminated, Wilkerson ended the day in just about the same points position he was in when he arrived in Charlotte. He entered the race 70 points behind first-place Tony Pedregon, and left it 72 behind. The only real difference was the fact Hight's win catapulted him from the 10th position all the way to the third spot, so Wilkerson now has one additional opponent between himself and the top.
Wilk's day may have been over in terms of real competition, but it was a long way from being over. About an hour after the lap, when the LRS team was preparing to pack up and hit the road, an invite was offered to participate in the historic 4-wide Funny Car exhibition run, and Wilkerson accepted.
"I didn't figure they'd even ask us, because a lot of other big hitters lost in the first round, but they came by and asked me and I said yes," Wilkerson said. "It's not just a fun thing for the fans, and that is important to us, but it's going to generate a lot of press and we'll be able to look at the pictures and see the Levi, Ray & Shoup car out there, four-wide. We went up there to do a big long smoky burnout and try to get it to the other end.
"We were over in the two green lanes, us and Del Worsham, because we had the worst times from round one. Force and Neff got the lanes everyone was running in all day, so I had to have a match-race mentality up there. It spun hard leaving, but you aren't going to quit when you're running something everyone was looking forward to so much, so I grabbed the brake, steered it back and forth with one hand, and got it to the finish line. Let the record show we finished fourth in the first modern 4-wide Funny Car race, but at least we were in it. It was still a drag race to me, but everyone at the starting line and in the stands said it was one of the most amazing things they've ever seen. That's a very good thing."
And it helped ease a bit of the pain inflicted in the first round.