Tim Wilkerson Chicago Preview

TIM WILKERSON JCIT Racing Pontiac Firebird (May 21, 1998)—It may only be a short two hour drive from Tim Wilkerson’s home and business to Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, but by the time this 37-year-old Springfield native arrives with team and...

TIM WILKERSON JCIT Racing Pontiac Firebird

(May 21, 1998)—It may only be a short two hour drive from Tim Wilkerson’s home and business to Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, but by the time this 37-year-old Springfield native arrives with team and transporter, his drag racing career will already have traveled light years from its beginnings at local drag strips in central Illinois.

This year, Wilkerson’s JCIT Pontiac Firebird appears to be on its way to its best season ever, climbing to fifth in the Winston standings with two runner-up finishes at Pomona and Richmond, and a semi-final outing at Atlanta. Wilkerson’s Firebird has been very strong and consistent in qualifying as well, posting six top-five qualifying efforts in the first eight races.

Last year, Wilkerson’s performance at the US Nationals was a harbinger of things to come when he was runner up to Whit Bazemore. It was an accumulation of two decades of hard work that he hopes will culminate in his first national event victory sometime in 1998 and a run at the Winston championship. Question: How long have you been interested in motorsports, specifically, NHRA drag racing?

Wilkerson: I was the quintessential motor head, would be the best way to put it. I worked for a gentleman that owned race cars and after that, I was hooked. We started out with street cars, like about everybody else, did that for awhile, and when I turned 18 in 1978, I started bracket racing. We went to Mid State Raceway in Havana, Ill., and then we raced at Coles County Raceway in Charleston. We raced in St. Louis a lot, and up around Rockford at Byron Raceway. I did that for about 10 years, and then got a little bit more serious about the sport when I decided to go Comp Eliminator racing. I bought a 1989 Jerry Haas built car, shook the car down with a Super Comp motor that we had, ran it for six or eight races that way, and actually won a Division Super Comp race. We did OK with that, but what I really wanted to do was run Comp. Just as we were ready to make the transition, a friend of mine, Earl Datweiller who owns T & E Enterprises, convinced me that I didn’t want to be a Comp Eliminator racer.

His company is one of the premier race trailer manufacturer’s in the country. Earl had done it for a long time, spent a lot of money and really didn’t see any progress. He knew that my ambition was to be a professional drag racer, so he convinced me that I would be better off in an Alcohol car. We went that route, bought a car off of Tommy Johnson, ran that car for a year, bought three new cars in the next three years, and ended up doing real well. NAPA showed a little bit of interest in sponsoring a Nitro Funny Car, so we bought KC Spurlock’s car. I could see the writing on the wall then. The only way we were going to do well is if we devoted our entire lives to it. I have a good friend, Fred Mandoline who was Alcohol Funny Car champion back in 1983. He told me a long time ago that there is no way you can be a professional drag racer and do everything else at the same time. You have to decide that this is what you want to do, and then go do it. I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal, but now I’m finding that you have to fully dedicate yourself to this business if you want to be successful and do it right.

Question: Are you finding a conflict between drag racing and trying to run your business in Springfield?

Wilkerson: Sure, there’s a big conflict. But I’ve been blessed with a lot of good help at my service stations. That makes it much easier. And also the fact that this year, I’m just the Funny Car driver of the team and not the owner. John Costanza told me that too. He said that he never knew how hard drag racing could be before he jumped in with both feet.

Question: How did you get involved in the gasoline retail business?

Wilkerson: I’ve lived in central Illinois and Springfield all of my life. After graduating from Southeast High School, I attended the University of Illinois for a year and then studied Civil Engineering at Lincoln Land College. I had a job as an engineer and there was a need for a lot of people down in Texas in the late 1970s because of the highway construction boom going on. We decided not to move to Texas, so I stayed here, worked in a service station two days a week, and full time at a local engineering firm. The local rep came by the station one day, and I overheard him talking to my boss that they were going to close the station down the street because they couldn’t find anybody to run it. I told him that I’d run the station for him, but since I was only 20 years old, he looked at me like I was crazy. Two months later, when he couldn’t find anybody else, he came back and asked me if I was serious. So we borrowed money from about five different relatives, and the oil company itself. Four years later, I had three more stations and the rest is history.

Question: What is the history behind the John Costanza Institute of Technology?

Wilkerson: They’re located in Denver and they’re a world leader in manufacturing, education and software. John Costanza originated a concept called "Demand Flow Technology" and it’s one of the most revolutionary concepts in manufacturing this century. It’s based on a mathematic set of tools designed to bring speed and response to corporations in a highly competitive environment. Some of the customers include General Electric, General Motors, American Standard, Rockwell and John Deere. It’s a pretty nice list of clients. He owns all three of the race transporters, and his involvement takes a lot of pressure off of me.

Question: After eight national events, how would you evaluate your season heading into Chicago?

Wilkerson: I think I’d give it a B-plus. There’s some people who didn’t expect us to be doing this well so early. I never bought into that line of thought. I really thought the JCIT Pontiac Firebird would be at least fifth, where we are, or a little higher. We’ve had a couple of bad breaks, we’ve made a couple of mistakes, but you have to realize that this team doesn’t have 10,000 runs in its archives to refer to. We have what I know, what Terry Manzer knows, and what Skippy (Gary Kennedy) knows. We have their knowledge, but until last year, Gary had never even worked on a Funny Car. The things that we learned last year have really benefited us this year in the way we run the car. Terry brought to the team a tremendous knowledge of Nitro racing more than anything else. He is very meticulous, methodical, and he just doesn’t go off on tangents. That’s good for this kind of team because I’ll make crazy moves. The car will run two or three times one way and I’ll change it. Terry won’t do that. 'He’s very patient.

When he changes it, he wants to see what it’s going to do. He’s a nice balance between Gary and I, the cool head that keeps us from going too far one way. We need that. We knock heads and everything seems to come out right. Plus, we have a sensational crew that’s been around for a long time like John Stewart and Kevin Butterfield. John’s probably been working on cars for 20 years and Kevin worked on Force’s car when they won all of those championships. Those guys bring a sense of ease to the whole team, and they give me a lot of confidence when I climb into the car because they know what they’re doing. We also have some guys who came up through the Alcohol ranks including myself, Mark Miller, who was with Cory East and worked last year with Doug Herbert, John DePhillips, who was with Tony Bartone, Rob Emmett who raced Top Fuel cars overseas, and Mike Stallings, who owns Wheels Vintique, does the clutch work and worked on the car last year. This team is better than I ever dreamed it would be because they don’t make any mistakes, and I can just step away and worry about driving. But I do enjoy working on the car and they appreciate a driver that knows where the nuts and bolts go on this machine. I do help between rounds when we’re pressed for time. As a team, it’s a great combination.

Question: What have the highlights been this year for the JCIT Pontiac Firebird?

Wilkerson: The fact that we’re running consistent and winning rounds. I fully expected that we would do that. I don’t want to sound cocky or arrogant, but this is what we are fully capable of doing. There’s a lot of money and talent in this program, and when you examine this team closely, it shouldn’t surprise anybody when we do as well as we do. As I come around as a driver, I think you’ll see the team do even better. But if we do screw up, nobody chastises anybody. We shake it off and move on. We’re having a lot of fun and I think that has contributed to our success. We don’t have strict performance standards applied to us. John (Costanza) knows that if you have a good group of folks, you don’t have to threaten them to get them to perform. We’re a marketing and hospitality tool for his company, and whether we end up first or second, or whatever, is a secondary concern. So you can imagine how much easier that makes it on everybody. We have the will to run over every one, and we have the ability, so it’s only a matter of time. It’s no surprise to me that we’re fifth right now.

Question: What’s the winning strategy going to be with the summer schedule coming up?

Wilkerson: This car hates good air and good race tracks. We just flat don’t have enough runs to know how to race on a good track. That’s all there is to it. My car last year was basically the same way. It was a bad race track automobile. Not to say IRP is a crummy race track, but it was 90 degrees there. And next to Whit, we were the best car at the US Nationals, so it’s no surprise we went to the finals. This Firebird is the same way. It’s not all hopped up, it likes the slick race track, and the clutch isn’t on tilt trying to go 4.80 every time out. Like at Englishtown last week, we tried to go 4.80. Well, obviously we didn’t know how. We threw the clutch out of the thing before it made it to the end. But now, it’s another piece of information we can stick in our archives. The next time we have a good race track with super air and need to go 4.80, you had better be able to go 4.80 beside us or you’re going to go home. We know how to run and we’re not going to struggle here in the middle of the season, but I hope we can gain some points, and make a move on John (Force) and Cruz (Pedregon).

Question:  How excited are you about going to Chicago for the first time?  

Wilkerson: Since it’s so close to my home, I expect that we’re going to have a lot of fans turn out for this event. The fan support I’ve received in the last four or five races has been tremendous. It makes me feel pretty good about racing. There are a lot of people here in central Illinois who are pulling for us and who plan on turning out for the Route 66 Nationals. I’m going to have my family with me, a lot of friends, and it’s a race I’m looking forward to. It’s going to be an interesting next three races with Chicago, the Pontiac Excitement Nationals in Columbus, and then St. Louis, which is actually closer than Chicago. I’m hoping the old car and myself don’t let us down. I think we’ll do real well.

Question: When do you plan on debuting your new 1998 Pontiac Firebird body?

Wilkerson: We planned on bringing it out in Englishtown and we just didn’t get it done. We’re planning on having it ready for Chicago and hopefully the aerodynamics of the 98 Firebird will help us in the middle of the race track, where in Chicago, that spot is probably going to be giving everyone fits. It’s going to be brand new.

Question: How long would you like to continue racing?

Wilkerson: I would really like to make this my career. I have plenty of things in place for my service stations to either operate on their own, or be sold to the guys who work for me. I have two guys who have stuck by me for almost 20 years, ever since I got started. I’ve promised them that if anything comes of this racing career, they are the ones who will be taking over. The last two years, the race business has really taken off for me. I want people to think about Tim Wilkerson as well as John Force, Cruz Pedregon and Don Prudhomme. I’m like everybody else. I want to win the Winston championship, and at the same time, I want to grow along with the sport. I think NHRA drag racing is starting to take off the way NASCAR did in the 1980s and I want to be a part of that. My only concern is that we need to keep the cars out there racing and you can’t do that without sponsors. You have to have $1 million to $1.5 million a year to really be competitive and without the sponsors and the corporate backing, you can’t do that.

Question: Do you want to see the cars slowed down?

Wilkerson: No, I think that’s ridiculous. I can’t believe it’s even being contemplated. I can understand the philosophy behind it because there are people getting hurt, and if people are getting hurt, then yes, let’s do it. But I don’t believe that the side-by-side racing will increase by slowing the cars down. I wish we could leave them alone and figure out a way we could just let people race. Another factor to consider is cost. A lot of teams can’t afford to throw away all of their old parts and buy completely new stuff. It doesn’t matter if it’s blowers, or crankshafts, or however we slow it down, there’s no way it’s going to be cheap. For the little guys, who don’t have the big budgets, they can’t afford a big financial hit. And even the teams who have the large programs, we’re all running on limited resources where any additional expenses incurred will create an adverse impact.

Question: Do you foresee escalating costs as a problem?

Wilkerson: I don’t see the sport getting much more expensive as long as they say no more bigger blowers, no more bigger fuel pumps, and no more bigger anything else. If we can keep the cost of parts constant then the cost to race in this series should remain relatively static. That will give us more time to work on what we have to create a more consistent race car. Also, that will give us more time to help promote and market the sport and our sponsors. Because after all, when it gets right down to it, the fact of the matter is that we are in the entertainment business and we should never lose sight of that.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Doug Herbert , Whit Bazemore , John Force , Mark Miller , Tommy Johnson , Don Prudhomme , Tim Wilkerson , Jerry Haas