ONE YEAR LATER, WILKERSON HOPES TO CELEBRATE IN E-TOWN ENGLISHTOWN, N.J. (June 9, 2009) -- It was a victory Tim Wilkerson will never forget, but also one he never savored. It came on a day, one year ago, when the racing world was still numb,...
ONE YEAR LATER, WILKERSON HOPES TO CELEBRATE IN E-TOWN
ENGLISHTOWN, N.J. (June 9, 2009) -- It was a victory Tim Wilkerson will never forget, but also one he never savored. It came on a day, one year ago, when the racing world was still numb, still reeling, from the loss of Funny Car star Scott Kalitta, who died in a racing accident just one day before, and on that somber Sunday Wilkerson drove his Levi, Ray & Shoup Funny Car to wins over Bob Tasca, Gary Densham, Del Worsham, and Mike Neff. That was, in essence, the easy part. Racing is therapy, and the race track was exactly where Wilkerson and his colleagues needed to be, but celebrating the win was impossible.
One year later, so much has changed but the loss of Kalitta will again be fresh as the NHRA tour returns to Old Bridge Township Raceway park, in Englishtown, for the United Association NHRA SuperNationals. Since Wilkerson's last visit to Raceway Park, his 4.877 winning time in the final round has gone from very fast to pedestrian, as Funny Car racing has shifted to a 1,000-foot finish line. His first-round opponent from one year ago, Tasca, is now his teammate. His second-round opponent, Densham, is currently not racing. His conquest in the semifinals, Worsham, now drives for Alan Johnson. Neff is still at John Force Racing, but Wilkerson himself has now shifted to a Shelby Mustang body on his LRS race car. Through all of the changes and alterations, it's the memory of Scott Kalitta that has never faded.
"Scott was pretty much bigger than life when he was with us, and now he truly is bigger than life," Wilkerson said. "Every time we click through the lights and a 4.10 or a 4.12 pops up on the board, it's for Scott. Until we can find a way to make this deal safe at a quarter-mile again, the new finish line will always be tied to Scott in my mind, because he's the reason we made the change. He died for that finish line, which is tragic, but it's the right thing for us. Whenever I hear someone complain about the thousand foot deal, my first thought is 'Well, you didn't know Scott did you?' because there's no way we should be back to 1,320 right now.
"As racers, we know that life goes on and we have to race even after a loss like that. We don't have to because anyone makes us do it; we have to for our own sanity. It's what we do, and it's the one place we feel at home and in our zone. Last year, after Scott crashed on Saturday and we were all in the staging lanes getting ready, it was all just too quiet. That's a bad thing in this business, because they always want to let everyone know right away when things are okay. We spent a few minutes in sort of a daze, and then just about all at once all the Funny Car teams turned around and went back to their pits. We just knew."
On race day, one year ago, the emotion meter was pegged on the red line as Robert Hight, who would've been Kalitta's first-round opponent, simply idled his car down the track in tribute to his fallen friend. From that point forward, it was racing as usual but without the joy. For Wilkerson, it was a struggle to maintain the edge he needed to win, while still mourning the loss of his colleague. Four rounds later, it was Wilkerson taking the trophy, but only through a surreal fog of sadness.
"Looking back, it's hard to realize what a great day we had," Wilkerson said. "We beat four really good cars, and we ran great every round. We beat Del by a fender, and then held off Zippy (Neff) in the final round by about the same amount. Usually, a win is etched in your mind because of the flood of emotions, all good ones, you get when you hold that trophy. Your team is screaming, everyone's jumping around, and you know you just accomplished something very big. The deal last year, though, was just really hard.
"Now, we're running good again and we know we're in a good spot to finally put four laps together on Sunday. We're already putting good laps together, we just haven't been able to maybe catch a break or have a little racing luck, because someone seems to find a way to beat us by just that fender, but one of these weekends it's going to come together and we'll have that chance to jump around and yell again. This weekend would be the perfect time for that, but all you can do is go out there and do your best. Just wanting to win isn't enough."
Stringing those four good laps together, and illuminating those Raceway Park win lights four times, would be a perfect way to celebrate the life of Scott Kalitta. A year ago, it was impossible to celebrate. Now, despite the reopening of those emotional wounds, the timing is right. Perhaps this is the weekend Tim Wilkerson is destined to dominate. If not, there's no chance he will do anything less than his best, while he holds his head high in honor of Scott.