WILK RETURNS TO GAINESVILLE TO DEFEND GATORS CROWN
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (March 7, 2011) -- Defending champion. Whether it's chess, tiddlywinks, or Funny Car racing, that two-word description certainly has a nice ring to it, and it also perfectly describes Levi, Ray & Shoup driver Tim Wilkerson this week, as the NHRA tour heads to the Tire Kingdom Gatornationals. One year ago, Wilk and his Shelby Mustang arrived in Gainesville with nary a round win in the bank, having lost in the first stanza at both Pomona and Phoenix, but by the end of the day on Sunday his record had improved just a bit, edging up to 4-2 after a rousing victory.
This year, Wilk once again comes to Gainesville winless on the season, but a change in the NHRA Full Throttle schedule makes his record only half as bad. With the Phoenix race now moved to October, the Tire Kingdom Gatornationals have been shifted into the second slot on the circuit, so Wilkerson and his LRS team are entering this weekend with a mark of 0-1 on the new season. The script is therefore familiar, but the story line will be approached from a different angle in 2011.
"See, we're only half as dumb as we were a year ago," Wilkerson said, in jest. "Seriously though, we came to Gainesville making complete wholesale changes last year, and looking back on it now it was kind of a storybook deal. We basically hit the reset button after Phoenix, and showed up at the Gatornationals with a new car and our first new 2010 Shelby Ford body, so it was a lot like starting over. We were actually joking before the race that it would be a great way to christen the whole new set-up if we just went out there and won the whole thing, and then we went right out there and did that.
"This year, we'll have all the same stuff on the track as we had in Pomona, where our result really wasn't as bad as it looked. With the limited preseason testing we did, we were finding our way out there a bit, and even though we lost to Mike Neff in the first round, we learned a ton and got ourselves back to where I want to be. I think we'll have a better handle on it from the get-go in Gainesville."
Another reason why this weekend's race is likely to be far different than the season-opener in Pomona has to do with the weather prognosticators, who are currently painting a far different picture than they did in Southern California. Out there, rain, hail, and blustery cold conditions were a consistent challenge for tuners, drivers, and fans in Pomona, but the current forecast for Gainesville calls for plenty of sunshine and warm Florida temps, ranging from the mid to upper 70s.
"Here's hoping they get this one right, for once, because the forecast for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday is about perfect right now," Wilkerson said. "I checked on-line, and the little image for each day is a big bright sun, without a cloud to be seen. If that's really the case, it will be a great weekend for everyone, especially the fans who pack those enormous grandstands every day. Gainesville is one of those tracks where you can't help but be aware of how many people are there, because there's just masses of fans everywhere you look.
"If we do get that good weather, it will also heat the track up a little and our car tends to run better on a warmer track. In Pomona, the track was barely 70 degrees in the middle of the afternoon on Saturday, and our clutch set-up isn't really designed for conditions that tight. Give me a little heat, and we'll go down there a lot better, just like last year."
In 2010, traction issues where a common theme throughout race day in Gainesville, but Wilk powered his LRS Ford right down the historic track on four consecutive runs, posting 4.18, 4.09, 4.14, and 4.09 to take the win. The final round match-up, against Ford teammate Bob Tasca, was the only one that was close. It should also be noted that the semifinal was the only round in which Wilkerson had lane choice, when he picked his lane over Tony Pedregon. In the other three rounds, Wilk had no say in the selection. That ability to outrun his opponents despite having no ability to select a lane made the win even more impressive.
"A lot of that has to do with the track, not the choice," Wilkerson said. "The Gainesville track has always been good, and it held up pretty well all day on Sunday. It didn't really matter much to me where we were, because we were just intent on getting it to the other end under power. If someone was going to beat us, they were going to have to earn it by outrunning us, and no one could do that all day. I hope we can do the same thing this year."
Defending champion. The only thing that might sound better would be "repeat winner" at the end of a sunny Sunday in Florida.