WILK TO BACKERS: "MEET ME IN ST. LOOIE..." ST. LOUIS (April 27, 2010) -- The St. Louis Cardinals have Busch Stadium. The St. Louis Rams call Edward Jones Dome their home. The St. Louis Blues hit the ice at Scottrade Center. Tim Wilkerson,...
WILK TO BACKERS: "MEET ME IN ST. LOOIE..."
ST. LOUIS (April 27, 2010) -- The St. Louis Cardinals have Busch Stadium. The St. Louis Rams call Edward Jones Dome their home. The St. Louis Blues hit the ice at Scottrade Center. Tim Wilkerson, who owns, tunes, and drives the Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby Mustang Funny Car on the NHRA Full Throttle tour, has a home venue in St. Louis as well and it's called Gateway International Raceway, the site of this weekend's AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals.
To be accurate, and in the interest of fair reporting, Wilkerson actually lives in Springfield, Ill., about 100 miles to the north, while Gateway International is actually located in Madison, Ill., just a few miles to the east of St. Louis and the Gateway Arch. In addition, barely any St. Louis residents would dare refer to their city as "St. Looie" but those details do little to muddy the instant connection the LRS driver has with the Gateway City, and with this track. For him, his Springfield-based sponsor, and the core of his huge fan base, this is "home" and there's no getting around that.
"Springfield is about a hundred miles from St. Louis, and about two hundred from Chicago, but in terms of the connection the difference seems like a lot more than just twice as many miles," Wilkerson said. "For us, and for Levi, Ray & Shoup, it's real obvious that St. Louis is our home race, and they come out in droves to support us here. As of right now, we're expecting way more than 1,000 LRS guests this weekend, and that's not even counting the rest of our Illinois and midwestern fans. There's no shortage of support for us, that's for sure.
"Our Wilk Warriors group is always out in force, with a big spot in the grandstand and a big sign on the fence down there, and then there's all the family and friends who make it down, too. If you're looking for the hotspot in the pro pits, just walk by our place. Dick Levi will come down on Saturday, and he's bringing Tim Davlin, the mayor of Springfield with him. It's quite a deal, I can tell you that, and it gives us no end of energy to know all these people are there to cheer us on and enjoy the race."
Wilkerson has taken his LRS car, and the hopes and dreams of his mass of backers, to the final round in St. Louis twice, winning the race in 2008 and finishing as runner-up in 2005. A Wally is a Wally, and a win is a win, but certain events rank a little higher on the totem pole and certain trophies get a slightly better spot on the shelf. The St. Louis event is one of those elite races, for Wilkerson.
"I try my best not to let stuff like that get in my head and have any sort of impact on how I'm racing, but it's pretty impossible to ignore how big and important this race is. It means a little more to me, to the crew, and to the crowd of people who come down to St. Louis to cheer for us, so you can't pretend it's just another race, no matter what you do. We'll still approach how we tune the car and how we race it the same way we always do, but it would be really unfair to not spend a lot of time with all these people. They care too much and they come too far, and they need to know we all appreciate the support."
If he were to pay them back with another win within sight of the Gateway Arch, Wilkerson would solidify his spot in the current crop of Countdown teams. The Top 10 in the Funny Car class is finally starting to take shape, now that the season is six races old, and teams are finally beginning to take that first serious peek at the standings, to see where they sit in terms of grabbing one of those precious 10 playoff positions. Wilkerson enters this weekend's race in the No. 7 spot, on the strength of a 7-5 record and one race victory (Gainesville) to this point in the 2010 season.
The key math, when extrapolating today's data to make a comparison with what might be at the end of the regular season (after the Brainerd race in mid-August) is to see how far behind you are from those ahead of you and how far ahead you are in comparison with those nipping at your heels. John Force, who has been certifiably scalding hot all year, is doing his best to make the top spot a foregone conclusion, as he leads with a whopping 553 points. That's a full 120 points better than Matt Hagan in 2nd place, and 218 more than Wilk's total of 335. Currently, Wilkerson is only 31 points out of 6th (Jack Beckman), 39 points out of 5th (Tony Pedregon), 44 points out of 4th (Ron Capps), and 60 points out of 3rd (Ashley Force Hood). With each round being worth 20 points, one big win could vault him well up the list.
Looking in the rearview, the spread is even tighter. Wilk is only 14 points ahead of Del Worsham in 8th, 20 points up on Robert Hight in 9th, and a mere 31 points in front of Bob Tasca in 10th. One bobble, and down you can go. There does exist a tenuous and more-than-likely temporary safety net after the 10th spot, however, as Jeff Arend is currently 81 points behind Wilkerson, in the 11th position.
"This really is about the time of year you start counting the points a bit more seriously, and with the Countdown we have to always be looking up and down, to see where we can get and who's gaining on us," Wilkerson said. "I've been through the downside of the Countdown, if you want to call it that, when we had such a great regular season in '08 but then lost the championship. But, this is what it's designed to do. If Force keeps running like he is, he could be a mile ahead by August. This way, nine more of us have a shot at the big trophy, just like playoff teams do in other sports. There's no doubt this keeps the interest level up, I'm sure of that.
"For us, I really don't care what spot we end up in, as long as it's 10th or better. I'd like to move up, that's for sure, but all we're going to do now is concentrate on winning rounds, one at a time. After Brainerd, we'll add them all up and see how we did. There's not much more we can do other than just try to win rounds."
Winning a few of them this weekend, or perhaps even four, would be the icing on one big Gateway City cake for Wilk, LRS, and the Wilk Warriors.