WILKERSON AIMS BIG, TO MAKE HIS MARK IN CHICAGO CHICAGO (June 3, 2009) -- His name was Mark Benson but he was known as Big Mark to most of his friends; a group that included just about every person the man ever met. One of those friends, for...
WILKERSON AIMS BIG, TO MAKE HIS MARK IN CHICAGO
CHICAGO (June 3, 2009) -- His name was Mark Benson but he was known as Big Mark to most of his friends; a group that included just about every person the man ever met. One of those friends, for more than 20 years, was Tim Wilkerson, who will say goodbye to Big Mark one final time on Thursday, before heading north immediately for the United Association Route 66 Nationals, at Route 66 Raceway near Chicago. Big Mark passed away on June 2, after dealing with years of health issues that might have taken away his quality of life, but never put a dent in his spirit or his love of drag racing. Mark Benson was a true founding member of the Wilk Warriors, a former crew member for both Tim and Daniel Wilkerson, and a loyal friend to all he knew.
Wilkerson, the owner/driver of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby Mustang Funny Car, can take solace in knowing exactly how Big Mark insisted he approach this weekend, and every other weekend in his career. He specifically told the popular LRS driver to never allow his pain to have an impact on the most important thing: Racing.
"He never wanted anything but the chance to help us and support us, and he absolutely never wanted anyone to fuss over him or change anything we do because of his health issues," Wilkerson said. "By the time we got back from Topeka on Monday, it was obvious that he was slipping away, and he knew it too. I went over to see him, and my son Daniel got over there too, and we talked for good long while. As soon as Chicago came up, he got a little up on the tire and pretty serious, almost mad at me. There was no way he wanted his situation to cause any change in what we're doing, or how we're going about doing it. The best way we can show our respect for the man is to follow those orders. We'll have services for him on Wednesday and Thursday, and then we'll head up to Joliet right after that and get to work. We have to, because he'd have a fit if we didn't."
Getting to work and honoring his longtime friend and associate will be the main points on this weekend's agenda. Doing well, perhaps even winning the race, is the goal. To do that, Wilkerson and his LRS team need only follow the path they've been taking for much of this 2009 Full Throttle season, paying special attention to the dividends they've been reaping over the past four races. Since bowing out in the first round at Las Vegas, and slipping in the points to 12th place in the process, Wilkerson has put together a record of 7-4 in Atlanta, St. Louis, Bristol, and Topeka, on the strength of three semifinal finishes and one quarterfinal in that quartet of events. The cumulative result is a current 6th-place spot on the points sheet, and that improvement in just four races is not lost on Wilkerson.
"To go from 12th to 6th in just four races tells you two things," he said. "It tells you a lot of us were bunched pretty tightly together from about 6th down to 12th or 13th, so you could leapfrog over quite a few people if you won some rounds. It also tells you that the teams right at the top have been winning the lion's share of the rounds, because that's the sort of thing that bunches everyone else up further down the list. Between (Ron) Capps, Del (Worsham), Tony (Pedregon), and Ashley Force, they've won just about everything here lately. When a small group is winning that many rounds, there aren't many left for the rest of us, so to be able to get to three semis in the last four races did a world of good for us.
"Now, the goal is to get past the semifinals. We've been to four of them so far, and we're 0-4 there. Some of the guys were talking this weekend, saying we're so close to getting to the final but we're just missing by inches in the semifinals, they just hope we don't have to pay our dues as a runner-up three or four times before we win one of these things. I love winning, and when we put this LRS Ford in the Winner's Circle it means the world to Dick Levi and his company, but points are key too. Give me a few more semifinals, a couple of runner-up deals, and I won't complain. That would put us right up in the top half of the playoff group, and if we need to get hot in September and October to make our mark, that's just fine. We tried it the other way last year, and it didn't work out for us."
If the weather forecasters are to be trusted (never a safe proposition), Wilk may have to shift his mindset from "hot weather tune-up" back to "mine shaft conditions" in a flash. After perspiring through the hottest weekend of the year in Topeka, where track temps soared over 120 degrees, the forecast for Chicago calls for highs only reaching the mid-70s on Friday and Saturday. By Sunday, conditions may yet change again if the 80-degree call is accurate.
"Route 66 is where the big numbers go up on the board if it's cool, especially if it's overcast," Wilkerson said. "Sounds like we're going to have to be ready to rock during qualifying, and if we want to be in the top half we'll have to step on it pretty hard. If it heats up on Sunday, and the humidity goes up, it will be a tuner's race for the set-up, and maybe a driver's race if it gets a little loose out there. I guess I'll have to tell myself to be ready, talking tuner to driver, and we'll see what we can do.
"It's always great to do well in Illinois, for all the LRS people and the Warriors who make the trip up I-55. It would be even better to do it this weekend, for Mark. But, I learned a long time ago that the race track doesn't care what's going on in your life or where your emotions are, and the guys in the other lane can't let it bother them either. There's no script out here, and there never will be. You have to earn it, so we're going to go about our business and try to keep earning these round wins. That's all we can do."
Wilk will aim to do his best. He'll hope to make his mark. A Big Mark.