FIRST-ROUND OUSTER NOT WHAT WILK WAS AFTER
It's a cruel sport, this drag racing. The clocks don't care if you're making progress, they are immune to momentum, and they ignore your best intentions. Their only mission is to declare a winner based on who gets to the stripe first, and on this sunny Sunday in Gainesville it was Jeff Arend fishtailing across the finish line for the win light after a wild and wacky pedaling job against Tim Wilkerson. Day over.
As the No. 8 and 9 qualifiers, one might have anticipated that Wilk vs. Arend would be the closest race of the day, but they were also the final pair to venture down the Gainesville Raceway surface in the opening round and both of their cars spun the tires on a track that was heating up rapidly after a cool morning. That heat, combined with the bright sun, created conditions quite a bit looser than most team were looking for.
For Wilk, it was a two-day qualifying effort in the Jekyll and Hyde style, with the Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby Mustang going 0-for-2 on Friday and 2-for-2 on Saturday, although it was not a case of intentionally leaving the best for last. On Friday, the LRS Ford made two aborted runs and it appeared to be nowhere near a successful set-up. After many hours of dissection and analysis, Wilk and his team finally found the culprit in the car's electrical and ignition systems, and prospects for running better on Saturday improved dramatically. Those prospects became reality when Wilk put a pair of solid runs together in Q3 and Q4, running 4.165 on the early pass and 4.131 on the late one, to land 9th on the ladder.
That upward trend gave the driver and his crew a great deal of confidence heading into Sunday's eliminations, but the rapidly changing track conditions made a dramatic side-by-side race pretty much improbable. Such is the curse of having to take the final pairing, a fate that often attaches itself to the 8th and 9th cars on the grid. From the time the team arrived at the track at the crack of dawn until the national anthem was sung, the air temperature rose nearly 30 degrees, and from the time the first Top Fuel cars ran until the Funny Car session began, the track temp jumped up 12 degrees. It was hotter still when Arend and Wilkerson wrapped up the session.
"You know what, the weather is part of the challenge of drag racing," Wilkerson said. "We knew the track was getting hotter by the minute, but we still thought it would go down there. Instead, it went about 60 feet. I got off and back on once, but it was also clearly eating itself up and not going anywhere, so that was it. Jeff did a good job handling a wild ride, and I had pretty good view of it as he fishtailed all over the place with the smoke pouring off like it was 1968. Our only chance was him crossing the center line, but he kept it off the stripe until he got across the finish line and we got what we deserved.
"It's too bad because we made some huge strides on Saturday. Once we found the problems, I felt like we had our race car back and it really did just what I wanted it to do on those two Saturday laps. Unfortunately, Friday put us in a huge hole and two really good laps on Saturday were still only good enough to get us up to ninth. If we would've had a better start to this deal, we might have been able to inch our way up a little higher on the ladder, and then who knows what would've happened. I would've loved to have gone out there as the first pair, but we didn't have a choice in the matter because as eight and nine you get whatever is left."
With seven out of the eight Funny Car winners coming out of the left lane, Wilk was asked if lane choice was a make-or-break deal. He pointed to the one winner who did run on the right side, Robert Hight, for the answer.
"Hight ran 4.07 right in front of us, in the right lane. There was plenty of lane out there, but we just had the tune-up wrong to handle what there was. We needed to get it off the line without spinning the tires and we couldn't do that. The good news is we still feel we have a better handle on the race car, and we just need to keep making laps to really nail it down. We're going to stay here and test on Monday, making as many laps as we can, and hopefully we'll make up some of the ground we lost before we found the problems. I think it will help us a lot down the road."
That road, down which Wilk is going, allows the team two weeks off before the NHRA Full Throttle tour reconvenes on the other side of America on April 1, in Las Vegas.