HARD-RUNNING WILK STILL IN STEALTH MODE HOUSTON (April 6, 2010) -- Head south out of Houston Raceway Park, home of this weekend's O'Reilly Auto Parts Springnationals, and in about 25 miles you will arrive at NASA's Johnson Space Center, the...
HARD-RUNNING WILK STILL IN STEALTH MODE
HOUSTON (April 6, 2010) -- Head south out of Houston Raceway Park, home of this weekend's O'Reilly Auto Parts Springnationals, and in about 25 miles you will arrive at NASA's Johnson Space Center, the home of Mission Control and the location for many of the most high-tech gadgets and gizmos ever invented. While NASA is able to keep track of nearly everything in outer space, from the International Space Station to various floating wrenches and other "space junk" left orbiting the Earth, the agency's best scientists might not be able to spot Levi, Ray & Shoup Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson, who continues to fly in "stealth mode" on the NHRA Full Throttle Funny Car scene.
Perhaps it's the sun-like brilliance currently being cast by John Force, who sits atop the standings with two race wins and a runner-up finish in the season's first four races and who, quite obviously, represents the top story line in the sport right now. With so much attention focused on Force and his terrific start, just about all other Funny Car drivers are lost in the shadows or blinded by the light. Maybe it's the after-effect created by the most recent race on the tour, the 4-Wide Nationals in Charlotte, where Force might have won the trophy but the event itself was the main attraction and the overwhelmingly dominant point of conversation. Realistically, it's probably just Wilkerson's calm demeanor and low-key approach that allow him to fly under the radar and out of sight, still pressing forward and at the top of his game while rarely playing the part of "favorite" in pre-race prognostications.
Wilkerson's early-March win in Gainesville, his 5-3 overall record, and his 7th-place spot in the points are all solid indicators, but even those bits of data do not add up to the full story. Those looking only at the bottom line see a solid car and a solid driver, but those scratching just a bit below the surface might find something that has the rest of the Funny Car class a little worried. The same Tim Wilkerson who dominated the class in 2008 appears to be back in the building.
The fact he went 0-2 to start the year, still driving his '09 car, but has gone 5-1 since he brought out a reworked version of his ridiculously successful '08 chassis, with a new 2010 Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby Mustang body on top of it, has probably set off alarm bells in many camps. In the two races since the switch, it's not just that Wilkerson has lost only one round while winning five, because the most important bit of data lies in that solitary moment of defeat, when he actually outran all three other cars while racing four-wide. A loss is a loss, but Wilkerson posted his quickest lap of the year (4.061) while absorbing this one, after Ron Capps and Force got away from the line first and their matching 4.064s got them to the stripe first and second. Wilkerson's day was over, but his race car was strong.
"Maybe we'll go down as some sort of footnote or the answer to a trivia question with that second-round loss in Charlotte, but it is what it is," Wilkerson said. "If holeshots weren't part of the sport the drivers wouldn't have much of a role at all, so that human element is good and we win as many of those as we lose. I just happened to get beat by two great drivers in one round, that's all. What I really cared about was how the car ran. The scoreboard said I lost, and the statistics say I lost, but the car ran great. I can work with that.
"And really, as long as the car keeps running like this, it's actually okay to be a little invisible out there. I guarantee you we're not invisible to the other crew chiefs, because they see the numbers and study them just like we do, but right now Force is getting all the attention and that's fine. The one time I want all the attention is after the last race of the season. Someone else can have it all, right up until then, but the main goal is to be the one Funny Car driver who gives a speech at the banquet."
That sort of "head down" mentality has always been one of Wilkerson's hallmarks, and it's that same work ethic and down-to-earth demeanor that has endeared him to the fans, many of whom claim status as Wilk's Warriors. The biggest benefit from Wilkerson's approach, though, is the clear-minded decision making it allows him to consistently implement. Never one to get caught up in the moment, Wilkerson approaches each lap down the race track with the same analytical mindset, and that calm focus allows him to get the most out of his car.
"I always say that we just race the track, not the other car, and if you can keep the emotions out of it and just look at each lap as a simple assignment, I think you're better off," he said. "It's just a race track, and we have a car we need to get to the other end as quickly as possible. It doesn't matter who's in the other lane. If we do our best, and run as well as we can, we'll get our share of win lights. If we run our best and lose, there's nothing we can do about it. I think that's why we do seem to lose a lot of very close races, because we're running well enough to make them that way rather than messing up and losing by a ton. When we're running well like this, we're staying very focused on the things we can control and we're filtering out the things we can't."
Tim Wilkerson's mission this weekend is the same as his mission for the season. He'll let others do the spectacular stuff, he'll gladly bypass the drama, and he'll stay in stealth mode as long as he can. By the time he's visible, he hopes to be leaving the competition behind him.