INDIANAPOLIS (August 24, 1998) -- After qualifying his Pontiac Firebird Funny Car 12th for final eliminations, the last person anybody expected to see in the final round of eliminations at the 1997 U.S. Nationals was Tim Wilkerson. But sure...
INDIANAPOLIS (August 24, 1998) -- After qualifying his Pontiac Firebird Funny Car 12th for final eliminations, the last person anybody expected to see in the final round of eliminations at the 1997 U.S. Nationals was Tim Wilkerson. But sure enough, there was Wilkerson playing the role of Cinderella, paired off against Whit Bazemore and going after his first career victory at the most prestigious event on the NHRA tour.
In the stifling Hoosier summer heat, Wilkerson defeated Randy Anderson in round one, turning in the best elapsed time of the session running 4.989 seconds, took out Chuck Etchells in round two, and dispatched seven-time Winston champion John Force before his luck finally ran out against Bazemore in the finals.
"The car this year hates good air and good race tracks," said Wilkerson. "We just flat don't have enough runs to know how to race on a good track. My car last year was basically the same way. It was a bad race track automobile. Not to say that IRP is a crummy race track, but it was 90 degrees there on race day. Next to Whit (Bazemore), our Pontiac Firebird was the best car all day, so it's no surprise we went to the finals.
"This year, our car operates the same way. It's not all hopped up, it likes the slick race track, and the clutch isn't on tilt to go 4.80 every time out. We're running consistent and winning rounds, but we fully expected that. It's something this team is capable of doing."
Wilkerson's performance at last year's U.S. Nationals was an early indication of the potential inherent on the JCIT Pontiac Firebird team. The Central Illinois native has accumulated 20 years of hard work and dedication that he hopes will result in his first career national event victory at Indianapolis.
Firmly entrenched in the tightest Funny Car points battle in years, Wilkerson is sixth in the Winston standings with runner-up finishes at Pomona and Richmond, and semi-final visits at Atlanta and Sonoma . He scored his first career No. 1 qualifying effort at St. Louis in June, and has qualified in the top five at 12 of the first 14 races on the tour. His only stumble this year was a DNQ at Seattle that took everybody by surprise and served as a wake-up call as well.
"Everybody in front of me went crooked and I didn't take that into account," said Wilkerson. "It wasn't anybody's fault but mine. I tried to get my teammates to pin me against the trailer and beat me. It was on a four-second pass until it got out of the groove. I just didn't catch it.
"As I come around as a driver, I think you'll see this team do even better. But if we do mess up, nobody chastises anybody. We shake it off and move on. We're having a lot of fun and I think that has contributed to our success."
Indianapolis Raceway Park may not be Wilkerson's local track, but after a brief, three-hour drive over from Springfield, Ill., a visit to the winner's circle may just make him feel right at home. Either way, his plans for 1999 were recently solidified with the John Costanza Institute of Technology picking him up for another year of NHRA competition.
"This team is better than I ever dreamed it would be because they don't make any mistakes," explains Wilkerson. "We have a crew that's been around for a long time and they give me a lot of confidence when I climb into my Firebird.
"When my career is over, I want people to think about Tim Wilkerson as well as John Force, Cruz Pedregon and Don Prudhomme. I'm like everybody else, I want to win the Winston championship, and at the same time, I want to grow along with the sport. A win at Indianapolis would get us pointed in the right direction."