SAME STORY, DIFFERENT RACE FOR WILK Although we could save some time, and perhaps some effort, if Team Wilkerson were to simply recycle last weekend's Post-Event Report by replacing the name Ron Capps with that of Mike Neff, we will...
SAME STORY, DIFFERENT RACE FOR WILK
Although we could save some time, and perhaps some effort, if Team Wilkerson were to simply recycle last weekend's Post-Event Report by replacing the name Ron Capps with that of Mike Neff, we will still endeavor to explain how Tim Wilkerson, driver of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby Mustang, was once again saddled with the cruelest of outcomes in yet another side-by-side race in the opening round. This time, it was Neff taking the win light despite the fact Wilkerson ran well enough, and reacted quickly enough at the tree, to technically defeat every other driver in the first round except the one he was racing. Wilk went down to defeat with a stellar 4.264, coming up just short to Neff's 4.242, in a side-by-side race that was so close and so even it looked like a slot-car race at full scale. The margin of victory was 27 thousandths of a second.
The technicality lies in the fact Tony Pedregon had, earlier in the round, raced with no opponent in the other lane and therefore took a leisurely approach to the tree. It's more than likely Pedregon's 4.221 e.t. would have been accompanied by something far better than his .145 light had there been another Funny Car ready to race him, but Justin Schriefer was unable to answer the bell. Shelby Mustang teammate Bob Tasca also outran Wilk's number, with the sterling 4.261 he used to defeat Ron Capps, but Wilk's .067 light (which was about two-hundredths quicker than his average on the year) would've given him the win in that one, and in every other match-up.
The similarities between this weekend and the previous one, in Brainerd, extended to both qualifying and the weather, as persistent rain made the first two days of racing a mess and a challenge, while Wilkerson ended up in the bottom half of the field on less than the scheduled number of runs. At least here in Reading he was able to put a good lap on the board on Saturday, making the 8th-quickest run during the only session completed on Day 2, to move up to the 11th spot. From there, he'd have to run Neff in the opening round.
"This whole weekend was just a real mess, from start to finish," Wilkerson said. "The rain was everywhere, and even when it wasn't raining the water was seeping up through the track, so we felt pretty lucky to even get one session per day in. It wouldn't have taken much more for this whole race to be postponed, and that's never a good thing, for the racers or the fans, so we were all pretty happy to get it in, even the way we had to do it.
"We did get that good lap under our belt on Saturday, so Sunday here wasn't nearly as much of a shot in the dark as Brainerd was last week. We had a pretty good idea what we could run, and what the track would take, and we pretty much nailed it right on the button. I don't think anyone figured the whole second half of the track would be as tough as it was, but the traction down there was pretty hard to maintain with the moisture seeping up, and we had to tip-toe once we got past the 660 mark. We got it right, we put the number on the board we thought would win, the driver did his job okay too, and we lost. It was like hitting your tee shot to within a foot of the cup, then waving to the crowd as they all yell 'You da man!' while you tip your hat. And then the other guy steps up and sinks a hole-in-one to beat you and all you are is another bum out here. There's nothing you can do but shake his hand."
Getting to that handshake was an effort, as pesky showers and thunderstorms greeted the racers like a familiar maitre d' at Chez Maple Grove. It may seem as if it always rains in Reading when the NHRA arrives, although that certainly can't be true, but it would be no exaggeration to say every racer on-site was not at all surprised when the wet stuff welcomed their arrival.
Each day of pro qualifying featured only one session, and both were almost magically squeezed-in under conditions that would no doubt have thwarted any track-prep group on the planet other than the NHRA Safety Safari, who once again proved their place at the top of the motorsports world with their work. On Friday evening, when that day's lone session was run, there was ample reason to be concerned that even one more session could be completed before race day, but Wilk had no choice but to shut his car off early after it bent an exhaust valve. That run left him near the bottom of the list (he would have qualified 15th had no Saturday session been run) so making a good solid pass on Saturday was key. The Friday run also counted as Wilk's first official lap in competition here at Maple Grove, and that fact earned him more than just the customary 10 Full Throttle points that are awarded for making a qualifying run. The 10 points also clinched his playoff spot in the Countdown.
Although the rain abated for most of the day on Saturday, the saturated ground was causing moisture to percolate up through the asphalt throughout the afternoon, and the first Saturday session (scheduled for midday) was not contested until about 5:00. That left no time for the second and final attempt, but Wilk's strong 4.193 moved him up into the 11th spot, which correspondingly drew the match-up with Neff, the man who shot the hole-in-one.
"It is what it is, and we can't do anything about it," Wilkerson said. "We put ourselves in a pretty strong position with Seattle and Sonoma, and we've run great in the first round at these last two races, but that just goes to show you how tough it is out here and how hard it is to win these things. In effect, we ran as well here and in Brainerd as we did in Seattle and Sonoma, but the inches went the other way here.
"We're in the Countdown now, and we still have a chance to move up a little when we get to Indy in a couple of weeks, so that's the mission. We'll go home, get the car ready for 'The Big Go' over there in Indy, and put every ounce of everything we've got into winning some rounds there. Everyone ramps up their game for Indy, but we'll be there with all the barrels loaded and ready to go."
And hopefully, Wilk will be able to enjoy the fruits of his fine first-round labors at the Mac Tools US Nationals, with no more holes-in-one and no more inches going the other way.