STRONG SEMI-FINAL FINISH FOR WILKERSON Under normal circumstances, a Funny Car driver who completes his last lap of the weekend after 6:00 p.m. on Sunday is probably celebrating an outstandingly great day. At Atlanta Dragway, though, after two...
STRONG SEMI-FINAL FINISH FOR WILKERSON
Under normal circumstances, a Funny Car driver who completes his last lap of the weekend after 6:00 p.m. on Sunday is probably celebrating an outstandingly great day. At Atlanta Dragway, though, after two stellar days of near-perfect weather, Sunday was plagued by incessant light rain, most of which could barely earn the moniker "drizzle," but it was enough to stretch the final day of the event out to marathon lengths. And, even though Tim Wilkerson and his Levi, Ray & Shoup team did extremely well by putting their fast Shelby Mustang into the semi-finals, there was still one round of racing left to complete by the time Wilk and his team put the LRS Ford away after 6:00 on Sunday. It was the team's second semi-final finish of the season, and it improved their overall round record to 6-5.
This rainy Sunday was preceded by the aforemetioned pair of near-perfect afternoons, and throughout those two days of qualifying Wilkerson found the handle on his LRS machine. With new "pipe" underneath him (Wilkerson debuted a new chassis at this event) the popular owner/driver/tuner put three straight solid runs on the board before Sunday dawned, running 4.137, 4.151, and 4.120 after having smoked the tires on his first pass. Those results were a sign of things to come, because they were not just consistent, they were consistently quick, and the final effort was good enough to land him in the No. 6 spot on the board. The trio of fine laps left Wilk confident about his Sunday chances.
"You can't ask much more from the car than for it to react to the changes and do what you want it to do," Wilkerson said. "If the car is being a brat, you can be the smartest crew chief in the universe and still not get it down there under power, but if the car is behaving and you're not too much of a dummy, you can make some nice laps and win some rounds. I was pretty sure, when we went to bed on Saturday night, that we had a car that could win rounds on Sunday. Ashley Force Hood had a car that could win on any day, so I wasn't sure we could win the whole thing if we ran into her in the final, but I would've been very disappointed to lose early here."
With conversations consistently centered on weather websites, radar images, and hour-by-hour forecasts dominating the Sunday morning pit area social scene, it was obviously going to be a day in which cloud watching would be as common as anything. The rain drops did as advertised, staying away for the first round of Funny Car racing, and Wilkerson took advantage of the dry conditions by beating this teammate, Bob Tasca, with yet another fine run. The 4.107 was 6-hundredths quicker than Tasca's pace, giving Wilk the win light, while it was also the LRS team's quickest pass of the weekend.
"You hate running Bob in the first round, but we're all professionals here so we just went at it like pros," Wilkerson said. "They gave it their best shot to spank me, and I did the same, and the LRS Shelby was the one that got their first. As soon as both teams got back to our pit area, their guys were right over here to help my guys, and you like to see that sort of thing.
"We absolutely went up there to keep getting better and maybe run a lower number than we qualified with, but I'm willing to tell you that the 4.10 was a pretty nice lap. It was second-best of the round, and if you don't count Ashley Force's run (a sterling 4.078) because she's obviously got a car from outer space right now, it was even better. We felt good going into round two, but we had face the points leader there."
That points leader would be Ron Capps, he of the three race victories in the first five races, but Wilkerson has had plenty of experience battling it out with the biggest of big hitters. What he's not accustomed to is waiting multiple hours to get back on the race track, but the frustrating precipitation returned as soon as the Funny Car first round was over, and it was nearing 4:00 by the time the teams pulled into the lanes again, to race the second round. After all that time watching individual mini-raindrops fall, it only took 4.121 seconds for Wilkerson to prevail and pick up a "W" against Capps, who had entered the round with a lifetime mark of 18-8 against the LRS driver.
"That was big, just to get by the points leader and keep rolling," Wilkerson said. "By that time, we'd strung five really nice laps together and things felt good. We weren't bombing them out of the park like Ashley was, but we were running well enough to beat some very good cars, and getting the semi-finals just felt like it should. We earned our way there, and we felt good about it. I'm a little sick of running my buddy Jack Beckman, though."
Wilkerson's final reference regarded an uncanny knack for lining up against the personable Beckman in 2009. In just 11 rounds of competition so far this season, Wilk has faced Fast Jack four times already. This time, the record evened at 2-2.
At the hit of the throttle, it was Wilkerson away first with a fine .077 light, but before the 330-foot mark the LRS Shelby Mustang, sporting a series of decals honoring this weekend's 45th anniversary of the introduction of Ford's celebrated and historic "pony car, encountered tire spin. Like few can, Wilkerson pedaled the car instantly and expertly, and his quick slap allowed the LRS Ford to hook up and take off again. Unfortunately, Beckman had no such issues in the other lane, and his 4.150 was well more than enough to end Wilkerson's rainy day.
"I really don't know yet, why it did that," Wilkerson said. "We didn't change a thing on it, and it had made five straight great runs, but it chose that one to hop up a little, maybe go a little quicker, and get out ahead of the timing curve. It surprised me, but that's racing and we lost. We were trying to run another lap in the 4.11 range, and the track was good enough for it, but it just didn't make it this time.
"Next up is St. Louis, and that's obviously our biggest race of the year, with about a thousand LRS people, friends, and clients all making the trip down from Springfield. There are lots of ways to head into St. Louis, but the best way is with a car that's really competitive, and that's what we have right now. We'll be ready."
And hopefully, if Tim Wilkerson and his team are pulling back into their pit area after 6:00 p.m. on Sunday in St. Louis, they'll be doing so in the more standard way, wearing "event winner" hats and carrying a golden trophy.