"HOT TRACK" MASTER WILKERSON PICKING UP STEAM IN FUNNY CAR HEADING INTO FAMED WESTERN SWING KENT, Wash. -- When intense summer heat brings dragstrips on the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series to a mild sizzle, many crew chiefs on the circuit...
"HOT TRACK" MASTER WILKERSON PICKING UP STEAM IN FUNNY CAR HEADING INTO FAMED WESTERN SWING
KENT, Wash. -- When intense summer heat brings dragstrips on the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series to a mild sizzle, many crew chiefs on the circuit start scratching their heads, trying to figure ways to make their 7,000-horsepower machines cover the race distance without losing traction.
For Funny Car veteran Tim Wilkerson, one of the only drivers in the category who also serves as his own crew chief, the opposite is true. He starts salivating because he knows his notebook is jammed full of proven tune-up methods should his team encounter such sticky situations.
A quick glance at his racing accomplishments reveals multiple victories during the hot summer months. By racing to victory during oppressive weather conditions at St. Louis, Chicago, Indianapolis and Englishtown, Wilkerson has earned the unofficial title of "Hot Track Master" on the circuit.
He has used his skills to post back-to-back final rounds at the last two stops on the tour, in Bristol, Tenn. and Norwalk, Ohio. At both events, track temperatures soared above 130 degrees. At Bristol he was runner-up to John Force. At Norwalk, Wilkerson returned the favor to the legendary 14-time world champion.
Wilkerson hopes to keep his final round streak going in his Levi, Ray and Shoup Ford Mustang as he sets out to defend his title at the NHRA Northwest Nationals, July 9-11 at Pacific Raceways near Seattle. Antron Brown (Top Fuel) and Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) also are defending winners of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series event that will be televised on ESPN3.com and ESPN2 HD. The race kicks off the Western Swing, which also visits Sonoma, Calif. (July 16-18) and Denver (July 23-25).
"Well, we sure picked a good time to get on a bit of a roll, but really it's about just keeping your focus and making the right calls, having a team that puts it all together right, and then there's something to do with the hot tracks we've been on," Wilkerson said. "We've always been a team that likes the hot tracks, and both Bristol and Norwalk provided plenty of that. It's that old 'Great Equalizer' that brings some of the really fast cars back to us, and we seem to have a good read on how to get the Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang down those tracks."
Wilkerson likes his chances to defend his title. While the Seattle area offers a mild climate most of the year, Pacific Raceways in July can get a little toasty. Early weather forecasts predict high temperatures in the mid-80s for the weekend.
"It's traditionally been a bit of a bumpy track, so you have to be ready for that, and for some reason it seems like it's been scorching hot there for about the last decade, whenever we're in town," Wilkerson said. "You think of Seattle and you think of rain, right? For us, it's been like the desert there, for quite a while."
With the runner-up at Bristol and victory at Norwalk, Wilkerson moved into seventh place in the Funny Car point standings. He's got a little bit of breathing room as only four races remain until the start of the Countdown to 1, NHRA's championship playoffs.
Wilkerson says his strategy remains the same, despite the recent hot streak.
"Don't let up," Wilkerson said. "We picked up seven rounds right at the time when those last three or four spots in the Top 10 were really getting tight, and we were literally one bad day away from falling right to 11th. That's great timing, and we earned every bit of that, so the key now is to just focus on each round and try to avoid any shutouts in the next four races. If we can win round one, we'll be in good shape."
He says the competition is as tight as he can remember in Funny Car. Force, 61, is leading the point standings with four victories in six finals in an amazing comeback tour. Wilkerson says if you spend too much time focusing on Force, the rest of the pack has a lot of bite as well. Talented drivers like Robert Hight, Matt Hagan, Jack Beckman, Ron Capps, Bob Tasca, Del Worsham, Ashley Force Hood and Tony Pedregon anchor the top 10.
"Force is running great, and there's no getting around that, but the truth is everyone out here can beat you," Wilkerson said. "If you want to have a good day on Sunday, like we just did in Norwalk, you're going to have to beat some great drivers who have great cars. Period. The hot tracks help us here in the middle of summer, so we're already looking ahead to try to figure out how we step up once September rolls around and things start to cool off. That will be the key for us. Whether it's Force or his teammates, any of the DSR cars, or anyone else, we'll have to be ready to run with them in the playoffs when the tracks might not be 130 degrees anymore."
In Top Fuel, Larry Dixon has raced to seven victories in the Al-Anabi Racing dragster and holds the series lead over rival and seven-time defending world champ Tony Schumacher. Defending winner Brown, Cory McClenathan, Doug Kalitta and Brandon Bernstein also are among the drivers to watch in the ultra-fast category.
Edwards has been the class of the Pro Stock field this season, picking up where he left off with his 2009 world championship run. He's earned eight victories in his Penhall/Interstate Batteries Pontiac GXP and will need to stay on his toes to contend with top challengers like past Seattle winner Allen Johnson, Norwalk winner Greg Anderson, two-time season winner Jeg Coughlin, and 2006 world champ Jason Line.
* SCHEDULE: Full Throttle Series qualifying sessions are scheduled for 2 and 4:30 p.m. on July 9 and Noon and 3 p.m. on July 10. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, July 11.
* TICKETS: Tickets are available for the NHRA Northwest Nationals. For tickets call Pacific Raceways at (253) 639-5927 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.
* ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of qualifying highlights at 10 p.m. (ET) on Saturday, July 10. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute race preview show, at 11 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, July 11. Also on Sunday, July 11, ESPN3.com will air two hours of eliminations coverage at 7 p.m. (ET) and ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of eliminations coverage beginning at 11:30 p.m. (ET).
* LUCAS OIL SERIES: The NHRA Northwest Nationals also will feature competition in several categories in the NHRA Lucas Oil Series, where the future stars of the NHRA Full Throttle Series are born. Lucas Oil Series qualifying begins at 9:15 a.m. on Friday, July 9 and eliminations begin at 9:15 a.m. on Saturday, July 10 and continue Sunday, July 11.