CHICAGO (May 30, 2000) - Tim Wilkerson is headed back to Chicago ready to capitalize on the high-performance momentum discovered at the just completed Castrol Nationals in Dallas, Tex. Wilkerson piloted his Sioux City Kenworth Pontiac Firebird to...
CHICAGO (May 30, 2000) - Tim Wilkerson is headed back to Chicago ready to capitalize on the high-performance momentum discovered at the just completed Castrol Nationals in Dallas, Tex. Wilkerson piloted his Sioux City Kenworth Pontiac Firebird to a career-best elapsed time of 4.877 seconds during qualifying at the Texas Motorplex, and now the 39-year-old Springfield, Ill., business owner returns to the Prestone Route 66 Nationals as defending champion, proprietor of his own team and looking to repeat the storybook performance than enabled him to claim his first career victory on his home turf.
The 3rd annual Prestone Nationals at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill., is the 10th race on the 23-event NHRA Winston championship tour. Qualifying highlights can be seen on ESPN2 on Saturday, June 3, beginning at 8 p.m. Eastern. Same-day television coverage of final eliminations can be seen on Sunday, June 4, beginning at 5 p.m. Eastern.
What did it mean to you to win your first race in Chicago last year?
"I guess the biggest thrill really is to know that you can race against the best out there and that's John Force. So as soon as we proved that to ourselves, I think the team even jelled better together after that race. But that was my biggest thrill beating John in the finals the way we did. It made for a very exciting ending there."
When you look back at some of the guys you had with that program, that was pretty close to being an all-star team of drag racing.
"Oh there's no doubt about that. You see how that team has gone to the Toliver team now, and they're doing very well there. In fact, John Stewart has really taken over the crew chief job and Terry (Manzer) is more the team manager. They just do a great job together - you can see that. We're still good friends and still good buddies. You know I wish there had been a way where I could afford to hire those guys, but of course I couldn't. We just try and get done what we can do, and so far we've done all right for ourselves."
What have you been doing since your last race to get ready for the upcoming schedule?
"Well, we've changed our fuel system and our fuel pump design trying to figure out a way to make this thing a little happier. I had a bunch of problems in Atlanta; I couldn't get the car to go down the track without hurting itself. Hopefully with what we've done since Atlanta we've got a remedy for that problem, but we're still not completely sure yet."
What's your game plan now going to be for the rest of the season as far as where do you plan to race?
"We're going to race in Chicago, Columbus, St. Louis, and Denver. Then we're going to sit out Sonoma and Seattle. We're going to Brainerd, then Indy, but we're planning to sit out Reading, and then we're going to go Memphis, Topeka, Dallas, Houston and Pomona."
That's still a pretty good schedule. "Yeah, in fact at the press conference in Chicago I'll probably be announcing a new associate sponsor that by the end of the year will be the major sponsor of the car."
How has the year progressed for you to this point?
"I think if I would've just left the car alone we could've qualified at both Houston and Atlanta. But I decided that we wanted to change the program and make it so we could run with the rest of the guys out there. Now I'm back on another learning curve. So by doing that we're starting to struggle a little. But you know we came out at Gainesville and qualified well, and then we had a clutch malfunction in the first round. We then went to Las Vegas where the track was a little marginal and really looked like we knew what we were doing. So I don't know that we can keep doing that, but it seems like the better the track the more we struggle because of a lack of power. I've kind of changed the program to see if we can step the power level up and we'll see -- hopefully we van get this Sioux City Kenworth Pontiac Firebird to come around."
With that in mind we're approaching the time of year when you seem to do well.
"Right, and that's what I am hoping for too. You know we may struggle in the nighttime qualifying sessions, but during the day when its 90 degrees outside this Firebird should run very well."
Do you think you have a pretty good learning curve for Route 66 Raceway?
"I think so. You know, that track's not known for being great when its really, really hot outside, so hopefully that's something we can run into and use to our advantage. Like I said after Las Vegas, it's hard to make those cars go slow. I seem to excel at it, but it's hard to make them go slow when they want to go fast, so I know why the rest of those guys struggle. But that's kind of what we're working on."
Sometimes a five-flat at a place like Chicago or Columbus is going to be good enough to win a race.
"Oh there's no doubt about that. Of course a five-flat at Houston was good enough to win the race. So I don't know if we need to be able to go as fast as I think we do, but we need to be able to do it every once in awhile in qualifying just so they know we can. We need to be able to qualify strong and then throw out a 4.92 or a 4.93 just to show the rest of the pack that we know how to do that. We're sure as heck not going up there with our tail between our legs. If you're not ready for us we'll take you out."
What are some of the things that are necessary to make a good race team?
"Good chemistry is one of them. The better chemistry you have and the less distractions, the easier things happen. I think that's why you are seeing my old teammates (Manzer, Stewart) doing so well with the new car they are tuning for Epler. You can see now that when those guys have nothing to do but make sure that the Funny Car runs fast, they really do an outstanding job. Plus the chemistry is there because they have been together for so long. I really think the least amount of distraction you can have, the better off things are because then you can focus on what you're supposed to be doing. That way, the motor guy can worry about the cylinder heads, the clutch guy can worry about the clutch, the driver can worry about driving and the tuner can worry about tuning."
What do you want to accomplish this year?
"I think our main goal is to keep our name out there so that people know we're serious about drag racing, serious about making it our career, serious about winning races and that we're capable of all of the above. We're a professional drag racing team with a program any sponsor can be proud to be associated with. I think that is what we're trying to accomplish - to show corporate America that we have the right attitude and visibility for a major sponsor to look at us. That's why I got involved with this new sponsor. He's been watching us for a couple of years. He called me, and we talked about it a little bit and you know he said he wanted to be involved. That really made me feel like maybe we were going in the right direction."
It sounds like good news coming out of Springfield.
"Yeah, its not too bad. It's not enough money to make any of us rich, but its enough money that we can go racing. Hopefully, in the long run, we can hire some more good people and then you'll see us do even better.