Hight, Wilkerson - Ford interview 2010-02-08

This Week in Ford Racing February 8, 2010 Robert Hight, 2009 NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car Champion, will start the defense of his title this weekend as the 2010 season kicks off in Pomona, Calif., during the 50th Annual NHRA Winternationals....

This Week in Ford Racing
February 8, 2010

Robert Hight, 2009 NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car Champion, will start the defense of his title this weekend as the 2010 season kicks off in Pomona, Calif., during the 50th Annual NHRA Winternationals. Tim Wilkerson, driver/owner of the Levi Ray and Shoup Ford Shelby Mustang Funny Car, joined Hight for a Ford Racing pre-season teleconference today.

ROBERT HIGHT -Auto Club Ford Mustang Funny Car

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON DEFENDING THE CHAMPIONSHIP AND LOOKING AT THAT NO. 1 ON YOUR MUSTANG? "Well it's still kind of surreal. The way we won it last year, just coming from nowhere and getting on fire, which is the way you have to win a championship these days. Tim (Wilkerson) knows first hand that the year before he had the best car all year long, and when it came down to the Countdown, Cruz Pedregon did. This is the format we race under, but in all honesty, I would like to have a lot better year this year leading up to the Countdown. We didn't win a race, then finally got into the Countdown in Indy, but we were just horrible. That's our goal for this year... to just have a better team, have a better race car throughout the season. I'm actually looking forward to it. Last year, in 2009, I didn't even pull the chutes in testing and we went to Pomona and I ended up qualifying number one there. But that was kind of a highlight in the beginning, having that number one qualifier. After that, it turned really bad. This year, testing went fairly well. We were on a tricky track, but when it went, it was good. We're going to have a real decent shot at it this year with our new 2010 Mustang body that we are debuting this year, with [Bob] Tasca, [Tim] Wilkerson and all of John Force's team. I'm looking forward to it. Everyone always says that defending it is always harder than getting the first one, but we're just going to have to wait and see how that plays out."

ARE ALL THE FORCE CARS GOING TO BE USING THE FORD ENGINE? "Yes we are. Our machine shop has done a good job, and we've done a lot of them. We are going to be switching back and forth with my car, and Ashley's [Force Hood], but for the most part John [Force] is 100% on the Ford BOSS 500. Ashley and I will be on most of the runs, will have the 500 in. We're looking forward to that. I don't know if there is a performance advantage, but I do believe it's a lot stronger piece. It should be more consistent. John Medlen did a great job in designing this thing, along with Ford's help. It should be just a more durable piece."

HAVE YOU MOVED BACK TO THE INDY SHOP OR ARE YOU STAYING OUT WEST FOR THE FIRST FEW RACES? "Well the first two races are back-to-back, so we're going to hit those and then it will be back to Indy. We will be working out of the Indy shop for Gainesville and Charlotte, and the upcoming ones after that. All winter, this year, all of our Ford Mustangs were based out of Indianapolis."

HAVE YOU DONE ANYTHING PERSONALLY DURING THE OFF SEASON AS FAR AS WORKING OUT HARDER, OR SPENDING MORE TIME IN THE SHOP TO PREPARE FOR THE DEFENSE OF YOUR TITLE? "No, as you know these race cars require a lot of work, so basically no, I haven't done anything extra, just a lot of days at the shop. There seems like there's always something that can be done to these race cars. I've spent a little time back in Indy. Having won the championship, I've had to do a lot more media things, which is exciting, and I'm still learning it. I got to go to Homestead for the last NASCAR race and watch the Ford drivers, and that was exciting. Actually, now that I've been to a NASCAR race, it's a lot more fun to follow the sport. Saturday night, I was watching that Budweiser event, really rooting on [Greg] Biffle. He was right there at the end. I wanted those guys to do well because I got to meet him while we were there, and he's just a nice gentleman. Just kind of normal things for us, just getting ready for the season, and I'm glad it's finally here. It's only been two and a half months, but it seems like a lot longer than that when you're really anxious to get back at it and love racing."

THERE'S A LOT OF TALK ABOUT YOU AND ASHLEY FOR THE 2010 CHAMPIONSHIP. BUT WHAT ABOUT JOHN? "His car really started good there last year, and at the end of the year, in Pomona, he had a real good race car. We've had some changes, and we cut back a team, but I think he's made his team stronger with Mike Neff and Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly all working together. I honestly believe that with John Medlen over helping Jimmy [Prock], that my team is going to be tough. As far as predictions, it's hard to make, there's a lot more Funny Cars, good Funny Cars in the field, than there are spots in the Countdown. It's going to be tough to win any race out there if you don't have your act together. I honestly believe that John is going to have a better shot this year. I think his car is going to run good. He's definitely excited and he's been telling me all winter that he's going to come after us and he's going to knock us off, and it's good to hear him talk like that because he has been kind of bummed out, having to drop a team, and the economy the way it is. This morning he called me and he was really pumped up and excited and he said it's race week, it's finally here. Trust me, John Force is ready to go. It's his 25th anniversary with Castrol and he's definitely looking forward to getting back in the winner's circle."

LOOKING BACK ON ALL OF YOUR STRUGGLES GETTING INTO THE COUNTDOWN, WHAT DO YOU THINK WAS YOUR MAIN PROBLEM? "I think it was just us getting lost, and our performance through most of the season last year shows how hard it is to run one of these race cars. We were trying some new things, along with the new testing rules, we found ourselves out there sticking with things that we normally would have worked out, or put aside during testing. We didn't have that luxury, so we stuck with things and kept trying while we were out there trying to qualify, trying to win races, it just wasn't going anywhere. Finally, we said uncle at just the right time, which we could have started a little sooner, but it all worked at the right time and we got our act together. We just went back to basics and sometimes that's what you have to do, you can out-trick yourself. I look back at going to Pomona last year, we had all of those new things on my car out there. The conditions were so good that it didn't matter. We were number one qualifier, and when the conditions are good and the track's great, it seems like most anything will work. Then you get into the summer when it's tougher, it's hotter, and tracks are slippery. Then it really brings the best out in these teams, and really finesses them to get these 8,000 horsepower cars down the race track, and we weren't doing that. We didn't change much this year. We've got the new 2010 Mustang body, which I think, hopefully, will give us a little advantage in the aerodynamics department, and kind of sticking to basics and refining where we left off last year. I think if we can do that, I think we can be a car to be reckoned with, but there is still a lot of good cars out there and its not going to be easy to get into the Countdown, or win any race."

WITH REDUCING THE TEAMS FROM FOUR TO THREE, HOW DOES IT IMPACT YOU? DOES IT HELP YOU OUT? "I think that it's kind of to be determined. It wasn't like we were spread thin. John had plenty of people in place to run four cars successfully and I think we did do that. I think, in all honesty, I think it's going to be like I said earlier. John Medlen is going to be helping out Jimmy Prock a little bit, and that's only going to make us stronger. John's car has struggled the last few years, and having Neff over there is going to help him. Maybe this is just what we need. Maybe we'll have three better teams, but it's hard for John. He really likes having his teams and having four Ford Mustangs out there. I guess it's going to be kind of a learning thing as we go from race to race."

***

TIM WILKERSON - driver/owner, Levi Ray and Shoup Shelby Mustang Funny Car -

A YEAR AGO AT THIS TIME YOU AND THE TEAM WENT THROUGH A LOT OF CHANGES. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT HOW THIS YEAR IS DIFFERENT? "I think that back to normal, like you said, the changes that we went through, leaving General Motors and coming to Ford Motor Company, the bodies threw me for a little bit of a loop there. They seemed to be much more aerodynamic with a little bit less downforce. I was smoking the tires a lot. I had just a little bit of learning to do there. We also went through a little bit heavier chassis, which is the same chassis that all the Force team, and Tasca run, that also threw me for a bit of a loop. But as the year went on we got a little better, and actually got into the Countdown, in the middle of the pack, and did okay the last few races. We talked about that at Vegas, with Robert there, losing to Robert in the semis in Vegas was a pivotal point. If we could have beat him there, we could have been in Robert's shoes and he could have been in our's very easily, because it was very tight going into those last two or three races and they really just did a phenomenal job. I could tell you the rest of us aren't looking forward to Robert getting off to a good start either, except with Ford Motor Company, and I'm in the boat with that one too. I'm happy to have him as a Ford teammate, but boy, when those guys are good, they're hard to handle."

DO YOU KNOW HOW MANY RACES YOUR SON DANIEL WILL BE RUNNING THIS YEAR? "Well, we have some good preliminary talks going on right now for a five or six race deal and that's all I can tell you at the moment. We have no aspirations. This is his last year of college, and he's going to graduate in May, so we're really trying to get something set-up for after that happens. If it's to be, it will happen, and if not, you never know. You might see him drive my car from time to time, if we have enough cars to make two cars. We're trying to work out a deal to get him into the Countdown, so maybe he can help some of us beat some of the other cars and kind of play a blocker role."

WHAT SCHOOL IS HE GOING TO AND WHAT'S HIS MAJOR? "He's an accounting major."

WELL THAT'S PERFECT FOR DRAG RACING ISN'T IT? "I told him there's always going to be money to count. He's going to the University of Illinois."

YOU TESTED THE NHRA SPEC ENGINE IN PHOENIX. WHERE IS THAT PROGRAM AT AND WHAT ARE YOUR IMPRESSIONS OF THAT WHOLE PROGRAM? "At this point we're still in a test mode with that engine. I really think it's going to run okay. When you make decisions to do things like this, I don't know if I'm probably the best guy to be doing that kind of thing, based on my years of experience. We've got good processes, Dan Olsen and I, and I've even talked with some of Force's guys, about their opinions on how this engine should work, and shouldn't work. We have some background with alcohol racing that made us think that this engine would probably be okay, and it really showed some good signs in Phoenix of running okay. The problem that we had, is that we made so many changes to it, with blower overdrive, and fuel pump size, and simply displacement size that it really narrowed up my window, or shortened up my window of screw up. It broke a rocker arm on one qualifier, and it melted the head right off of it. Dan Olsen was a little bit concerned about that, and I said if my car would have broken into the rocker arm it would have taken a half a second and I drove it to three seconds, and the head would have looked the same way. We're still a little in the testing stages on that thing, but like Robert said, the Phoenix track was really a hard place to do this at, because the track was so tricky. You really had to hit it hard to make it go, and I think I had the thing overtuned so it really just narrowed my window too much. We really did learn what we wanted to do though. The thing ran fine, it's just, I think we were trying to change it so much, that we're going to go back and I think maybe just widen our parameters to make it little more friendly. You'll see me run it a few more times this year, match racing, and with NHRA, we're going to try to run it during Gainesville testing too, but I don't know if we're going to get it done in time to do that again. You were talking about off-season, and we spend so much time working on these cars that it sounds so simple to say, just put a small motor together and go run the thing, and to do that correctly. We rifled two or three cams through the thing, and we were checking blower problems that you think you might end up with, and we shortened up the inlets on the blowers. We were doing a lot of stupid things to make the thing run right and all of that takes a tremendous amount of time. We were here everyday except for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I worked all day New Year's. Like Robert said, you win these races, you win them at the shop, you don't win them at the race track. These cars are 99% preparation and I think that's one of the reasons we do so well, because we don't have any other vices. I don't get to go sledding, or skiing like these other drivers got to do during the wintertime, although that did look like fun to me. When you're here to win the championship that's what we concentrate on."

IT SOUNDS LIKE THAT PROGRAM IS AT LEAST A YEAR AWAY. "There's no doubt about that. It's all just a test right now, just an exercise. I told one reporter, I said when I was a little kid I used to go hang out with somebody and my dad would say you need to go hang out with this guy, and I would say dad, that guy is really dumb and I don't want to hang out with him, and I refer to this engine program in the same way. This just might be what you don't want to do, not what you do want to do, which is okay. We're still learning. We may learn that this is the dumbest thing we ever thought of, and we're going to know that when we get done with that."

YOU TALKED ABOUT TESTING THAT NEW ENGINE OUT AT GAINESVILLE. DO YOU GET EXTRA TEST DAYS FOR THAT? DO YOU THINK TESTING LIMITATIONS ARE GOING TO REMAIN THE SAME? "They implemented the same test program that they had last year, and as we're testing that motor we are not test against that. That's an agreement we came to that if we were running that test motor, they were not going to charge me for testing. I can tell you I have not learned a lot about my race car when I'm running that thing. It is interesting the way that it operates and the different power curves that it has. You shorten the stroke up three quarters of an inch and that nitro motor knows it, I can tell you that. To answer your question, no we will not be charged."

WHAT IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP LIKE WITH BOB TASCA? "Bob and I went through our first year last year, and things pretty much clicked along like we thought they were. It wasn't my intention to go in there change everything that Chris Cunningham did. There are different ways to run race cars and get to the same result. I think that Chris and I had a good relationship all year long, and we learned from each other and that's what this alliance was about. Bob brought Ford Motor Company to my team, and I think I might have brought a little consistency to his team. Those guys do a terrific job over there and we're just trying to find our spot with each other, more and more every race. When we were doing well, they were helping us, and when they were doing well we were over there helping them. I think it really worked out good for a two-car alliance and I'm really looking forward to doing bigger and better things. We have more of the same parts this year. Last year he had different parts in the way of blocks and cylinder heads and things. To make that change over was multi-hundreds of thousands of dollars to be spent and we just decided that those hard parts are not that smart, they're just parts and we'll go adapt and get closer to each other in the 2010 season and that's our goal to be a little closer to each other in the hard parts area and hopefully we can make some decisions and each team will be able to benefit from the decisions one car makes."

THE ENGINES ARE BUILT IN-HOUSE, CORRECT? "Yes, and Bob is working on his own Ford Motor program too with the Cobra engine. John has the BOSS 500 motor, and Robert reported earlier that they are going to be using that. That is a nice piece and Bob realizes that, and I think that he's going try and develop his own engine program through Ford Motor Company. It's going to be pretty interesting and hopefully it all works out for our teams also."

WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE THE REAL KEY FACTORS IN DETERMINING THE CHAMPIONSHIP THIS YEAR? "I think the level of competition in these cars has never been greater. At the end of Brainerd, you're going to have some pretty unhappy people who are outside the Countdown. Our goal first is just to make it to that point. In my opinion, the way our points are structured, I guess it's 17 races now, are nothing but a qualifying position to get to the Countdown, so we are going to everything we can do to make our cars consistent enough so that we're not getting beat early. That's the only thing to get you out of that deal. You see it all the time, that cars that are really good cars, that end up not qualifying during a race, or end up getting beat the first round two or three races in a row. I think we just need to position ourselves so that we're not in that boat. That we're one of the strongest cars on race day that we can be, and I think that's just going to take some hard work, some consistency, and some good decision making, and hopefully we have that pocketed, but I'm not sure. There's a lot of Schumacher cars and a lot of independent cars that are going to try and knock Robert and the rest of us Fords from going out there and doing a good job. Hopefully we can go out there and we can get our Shelby Mustangs into the second and third rounds during most weekends. I think if we do that, you're going to win your share of races anyway. I'm really not concerned about winning races all the time, I'm concerned about winning rounds if you want to know the truth, until we get to the Countdown."

-source: ford racing

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About this article
Series NHRA
Drivers John Force , Cruz Pedregon , Tim Wilkerson , Robert Hight , Austin Coil , John Medlen , Mike Neff