St. Louis: Round seven preview

FUNNY CAR DEFENDING WINNER WILKERSON RETURNS TO GATEWAY INTERNATIONAL RACEWAY ON DIFFERENT MISSION MADISON, Ill. -- The missions are entirely different, however for NHRA Funny Car star Tim Wilkerson, the potential payoff is just ...


MADISON, Ill. -- The missions are entirely different, however for NHRA Funny Car star Tim Wilkerson, the potential payoff is just as important.

One year ago Wilkerson came to his home track -- Gateway International Raceway -- looking for a win and hunting down the No. 1 points position in the Full Throttle Series Funny Car standings. This year, the Springfield, Ill. racer is still hunting for a win, however, this time around he's trying to navigate his way into the top 10 in the ultra-competitive Funny Car class in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series.

Last year he was successful with both goals at GIR. He won the race and he moved into the points lead for the first time in his career. He used that race win as momentum to go on a summer winning spree that flipped the category upside down. He narrowly missed winning his first world championship title in the season-ending playoffs.

Riding the wave from his second place points finish from 2008, Wilkerson's once independent race operation took on a makeover during the offseason. He decided to partner with Bob Tasca and switched from Chevy Impalas to Ford Shelby Mustangs.

His experiment is still in the initial phase, and while he's not had the on-track results that he would like in the first six races of the season, he is at the point now in the transition where he's starting to see the bright light at the end of the tunnel.

And that light couldn't come at a better time.

Wilkerson would like nothing more than to successfully defend his victory from a year ago at the 13th annual O'Reilly NHRA Midwest Nationals, May 1-3 at the state-of-the-art motorsports facility located on the bank of the Mississippi River just east of downtown St. Louis.

Rod Fuller (Top Fuel), Kurt Johnson (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) join Wilkerson as defending winners in their respective categories at the seventh of 24 events in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series. The race will be televised on ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD.

At Atlanta, Wilkerson outran teammate Tasca and points leader Ron Capps before losing a close semifinal match to eventual winner Jack Beckman. The veteran driver saw some things at that event that let him know that his team is about to dial in its Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Shelby Mustang.

"We're definitely making progress and Atlanta showed that, I think," Wilkerson said. "We basically made five great laps in a row, and our first-round race on Sunday was our best of the weekend. We also brought out a brand new chassis in Atlanta, as if we haven't been starting from scratch in just about every area all year, anyway. I think some people thought I'd lost my mind when we finished second last year, but came out for 2009 with all new stuff. They'd ask me 'Why don't you just keep running what you had?' but if you don't keep moving forward, you're going to get left behind. With the new chassis and the Shelby Mustang, we're definitely moving forward."

Long considered a hot-weather tune-up master, Wilkerson enjoys racing in the heat of the summer and specializes in winning at tracks in the Midwest. Last year he won six races and was runner-up at Topeka and most of those wins came from May through August. He expects to have many family and friends cheering him on at GIR, including a massive amount of guests from sponsor Levi Ray & Shoup.

"I guess just about every driver has what they'd consider to be their home track, where all their family and friends come out to see them," Wilkerson said. "But for us it's twice as much, because Gateway International is Levi, Ray & Shoup's home race too, so we're not lacking for having people rooting for us. The last count I heard, LRS has purchased over 1,000 tickets for the race, so the track people ought to love me and Dick Levi! It's always an exciting deal to race at Gateway, and winning there was just off the charts, so I don't know how to top that. Hopefully, we'll just keep running well and good things will happen to us. Mostly, I just want to make sure all of our guests have something good to cheer for."

He says the key to running well there all comes down to track temperature.

"Talk about a track that's totally dependent on the weather," he explained. "It's not nearly as tricky as it was all those years we were going there at the end of June and frying eggs on the asphalt. Heck, they actually hosed the whole track down to cool it off one year, and I've never seen that before. Now, it can be anywhere from 50 to 80 in St. Louis in early May, so you just have to be ready for anything. If it's cool, everyone will fly and you have to get after it."

And this year he'll get after it with a little more support in his corner. No longer the privateer, he now shares tuning information and data from each run with Tasca's Motorcraft Quick Lane Shelby Ford Mustang team.

"Just having the resources and the extra knowledge around is big," Wilkerson said. "Chris Cunningham and Marc Denner are smart guys, and even though we came into this year tuning our cars from different angles, we've all been sharing our data to see where the common ground is, or to see where one team might have an answer to a problem area for the other. Bob Tasca is a really great asset to us, and to the whole sport, too. He's high energy and he's always thinking about how to make things better, for both of our teams. From a marketing standpoint, we couldn't be doing all the new things we've got going now without Bob because he's allowed us to basically merge our pits together for our corporate guests. So far, the whole thing has been a big plus, but I think both teams will get even more out of it as the season progresses."

While Wilkerson continues to work hard toward finding the race-winning mojo that he enjoyed last season, points leader Capps will be trying to keep it going in his NAPA Dodge Charger. The California driver has won three races this season and says he and crew chief Ed "The Ace" McCulloch and the rest of their NAPA crew are trying to "rip their hearts out" on every run. He's had great success at Gateway over the years, winning here three times, his most recent in 2007. Beckman's Atlanta victory propelled him five spots in the points order to second place. Ashley Force Hood, who won in Houston in her Castrol GTX Ford Mustang, was the No. 1 qualifier and runner-up in Atlanta and will be a contender at GIR. Others to watch include rookie Matt Hagan, who was runner-up in Las Vegas, Gatornationals winner Tasca, and two-time GIR winner John Force.

In Top Fuel, points leader Schumacher is setting the pace once again this season with two victories in his U.S. Army dragster, but a host of drivers are jockeying for position in the Full Throttle Series Countdown to the Championship Top 10. Antron Brown, Morgan Lucas, Larry Dixon and Doug Kalitta have all posted victories this season, while Cory McClenathan, Brandon Bernstein and rookie Spencer Massey have made final round appearances. Of that group of drivers, Kalitta has the best record at GIR, posting three wins here from 2001-'04.

In Pro Stock, 2006 GIR winner Mike Edwards has the momentum based on his Atlanta victory in his ART Pontiac GXP. However, four-time world champ Jeg Coughlin is leading the series standings early on in his Chevy Cobalt with two victories in four final round appearances. Coughlin won at St. Louis in 2002. Jason Line has never won the O'Reilly NHRA Midwest Nationals, however he does have two wins this season and is in second place in the points order. Three-time and defending GIR winner Kurt Johnson and '04 Midwest Nationals winner Greg Anderson are in the top 10 in points with some strong runs, but are still looking for their first season wins.

The top two points holders in Pro Stock Motorcycle -- Matt Smith and Hines -- have yet to win a race this season, but they are the last two winners of this event. The three winners this season include journeyman Hector Arana, veteran Craig Treble and defending series champ Eddie Krawiec, who claimed his first career Wally in Atlanta aboard his Screamin' Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson. The big surprise this season in the two-wheel category is rookie Doug Horne, whose lighting quick reflexes at the starting line have earned the Buell rider from Maryland back-to-back runner-up finishes and the title of major contender among a talented crop of NHRA rookies who are vying for the 2009 Auto Club Road to the Future Award.

SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on Friday, May 1, and 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 2. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, May 3.

TICKETS: Tickets are available for the O'Reilly NHRA Midwest Nationals by calling Gateway International Raceway at (866) 35-SPEED (7-7333) or via

ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of qualifying coverage at 6 p.m. (ET) on Saturday May 2. On Sunday, May 3, ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will feature NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute pre-race show, at 11 a.m. (ET), and three hours of eliminations coverage at 7 p.m. (ET).

LUCAS OIL SERIES: The Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals also will feature competition in four categories in the NHRA Lucas Oil Series, where the future stars of the NHRA Full Throttle Series earn their racing stripes. Lucas Oil Series qualifying begins at 9 a.m. on May 1. Lucas Oil Series eliminations begin at 8:30 a.m. on May 2.

-credit: nhra

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Series NHRA
Drivers Antron Brown , Jeg Coughlin , Larry Dixon , Kurt Johnson , Ron Capps , John Force , Doug Kalitta , Greg Anderson , Craig Treble , Tim Wilkerson , Jack Beckman , Ashley Force , Brandon Bernstein , Morgan Lucas , Jason Line , Andrew Hines , Matthew Smith , Rod Fuller , Matt Hagan , Mike Edwards , Spencer Massey