WILKERSON'S OWN "GATEWAY" BECKONS ST. LOUIS (April 27, 2009) -- When the Gateway Arch was built in St. Louis during the early 1960s, as part of the massive Jefferson National Expansion Memorial on the city's riverfront, local residents ...
WILKERSON'S OWN "GATEWAY" BECKONS
ST. LOUIS (April 27, 2009) -- When the Gateway Arch was built in St. Louis during the early 1960s, as part of the massive Jefferson National Expansion Memorial on the city's riverfront, local residents often discussed a pair of humorous concepts. The first topic of conversation was a "what if?" More specifically, what if the construction crew got to the top and the two sides didn't meet? Secondly, many facetiously wondered if East St. Louis might not build a giant croquet ball on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, to act as the counterpart to Missouri's enormous wicket.
In October of 1965, of course, the two sides of the Arch matched up perfectly when they were joined and, at least as of this date in history, no giant croquet ball has appeared on the east side of the river. The Gateway Arch, meanwhile, has gone on to become one of the most recognizable monuments in the world, and has inspired many to "think big" and reach for their dreams, because without such aspirations the 630-foot stainless steel landmark could never have been built.
Tim Wilkerson sees the Arch and, like millions of others on an annual basis, is both inspired and impressed. But, the Levi, Ray & Shoup Funny Car driver is also motivated, not just by large dreams and feats of engineering, but by his own regional connection and history. Born and raised just 100 miles to the north, Wilkerson has spent a great deal of time in the shadow of the Arch, racing on the same patch of Madison, Ill. land that once featured an eighth-mile drag strip running north to south. These days, after a complete renovation in 1996, Gateway International Raceway is a premier "major league" track, which now runs south to north, and is home to this weekend's O'Reilly Midwest Nationals. For Wilkerson, it's a chance to race at home, in front of the people who mean the most to him.
"I've been coming down here for a long time, and for the first few years it wasn't all that pretty but we weren't looking for pretty," Wilkerson said. "When I first started racing, we were just looking for real race tracks anywhere close to our home in Springfield (Ill.) because we loved to race but my dad taught me to only do it on the track, never on the street. We hit every piece of concrete and asphalt we could find, and St. Louis International, which is what it was called in the old days before they turned it around and fixed it up, was a regular stop for us.
"St. Louis is also the closest big city to home, so there's a connection to Springfield that will always be there for a lot of reasons. You can hear a lot of the St. Louis radio stations from home, and even in back in the days of Route 66, before it was all interstate, it wasn't that bad of a drive to get down there. Once they tore down the old track and built Gateway International, I was real excited because I had just gotten my nitro Funny Car license and was ready to step up from the Top Alcohol car we had been running. That was like a great present, for me. I got my license, and the new track in St. Louis opened up the next year."
Although Wilkerson's early pro career featured many of the standard "fits and starts" a lot of new owner/drivers must live through in order to finally achieve success, he always took aim at the St. Louis race for obvious reasons, and never doubted he could win the event. By the time Levi, Ray & Shoup came aboard as the team's primary sponsor, in 2000, Wilkerson was putting together the sort of resume' that would be worthy of any event championship, but his heart was set on the Gateway trophy.
"Every race win is humbling, and a big thrill, no matter where you do it or how it happens. You can win one of these things in the middle of the night, against a guy who red-lights and with nobody in the stands, and it will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, believe me. Winning Indy is a big goal for anyone who ever raced, and winning the race that's at your home track is real important, too. Put it this way, my whole career was based on doing things like winning Indy, but my heart was set on winning St. Louis."
Wilkerson almost lived the dream in 2005, on a mid-summer night when his emotions were jumbled and the motivation was clear. Having lost his mother just a day before eliminations, which were then run at night in late June, Wilkerson followed his late mother's instructions and raced his car in her honor, and in doing so he found himself in the final round against Ron Capps, attempting a storybook finish. Sadly, racing is racing and it didn't happen, but three years later Wilkerson atoned for that near-miss.
Last year, in front of a throng of family, friends, and Levi, Ray & Shoup colleagues, Wilkerson plowed through all four rounds of competition to finally grab the golden Wally within sight of the silver Gateway Arch. It was clearly one of the biggest wins of his career, just as he had envisioned, and it sent him on his way to a thrilling 2nd-place finish in the points, only one season removed from a 15th place finish in '07.
"We were lucky enough to win Indy a few years before, back in '03, so we had that one in our pocket and had a lot of time to think about winning St. Louis," Wilkerson said. "We came so close in '05, trying to win it for my mom, but we came up short. Then, for a lot of reasons, we ended up having two back-to-back horrible seasons, where we couldn't win the coin toss to see who'd buy lunch, much less a race. By last year, things were coming around and we were running so well, I felt like we could win on any given week.
"No matter how good the car is running, though, you still wonder if you'll ever win another one. These races are hard to win, let me tell you that, and you just never know. We got on a roll and put four really good laps on the board, though, and it all happened the right way. You'd never turn down a win, no matter how you get it, but to go out there and run 4.82 for three laps in a row, and then come back and win the final by a hundredth of a second, well it's hard to figure that it can get any better than that, especially when you do it at Gateway. That was a really big day, and I'd be honored to do it again, as many times as possible!"
There's little reason to think Wilkerson can't do it again, other than the sheer magnitude of the accomplishment as he referenced above. His Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby Mustang is running well and is coming off its best performance of the year, having advanced to the semi-finals in Atlanta on a string of consecutive solid laps. The same group of Wilk Warrior fans will be in attendance, rooting him on. Roughly 1,000 LRS employees and clients will also be on-site, pulling for their main man to seal the deal.
The 2009 St. Louis event could, yet again, be Wilkerson's own Gateway to greatness, but only time and win lights will tell. If he does succeed, who knows... Perhaps he'll look into that giant croquet ball for the east side of the river.