CHALLENGING WEEKEND ENDS EARLY FOR WILK
Tim Wilkerson rolled into Auto Club Raceway earlier in the week, knowing full well that his start to the 2011 season would be a bit of an uphill climb. With many of his high-powered opponents having "run the wheels off" their cars in preseason testing, Wilk entered the Kragen O'Reilly Winternationals with only a few launches on his preseason resume', but he was still confident in his organization's ability to not only get qualified but also win rounds. He and his Levi, Ray & Shoup crew provided the first part of that challenge, getting into the field in the No. 14 spot, but his race day ended early when Mike Neff posted a 4.14 while Wilk smoked the hoops hard at the 600-foot mark, during the first round.
Getting to that position, on what was a gloriously sunny Sunday, took grit, determination, patience, and a few extra layers of clothes. Cool (often cold) temperatures blanketed the Pomona area throughout the event, and precipitation plagued the proceedings for two straight days, washing out Friday and threatening to do the same on Saturday before both scheduled runs were completed on a blustery and chilly late afternoon. Back on Thursday, in what now seems like ancient history, Wilk drove A to B on his 2011 debut lap, showing no sign of rustiness after a long off-season. His 4.211 was good enough for the 11th spot.
The LRS team stayed docked in the 11th slot throughout a washed-out Friday, then came to the track on Saturday facing dire weather forecasts that universally predicted day-long rain. Instead, the clouds dropped ice cubes instead of water, as hail pummeled the track for 15 minutes during the mid-morning before the weather moved away and racing was surprisingly able to take place. Wilk again went A to B during Saturday's first lap, posting a 4.168 that temporarily moved him up the ladder a few notches. Within minutes, though, a series of other teams bumped the LRS car down, right back into the 11th spot in which it had started the day. On his final pass, Wilk was "hauling the goods" and clearly on his way to a solid effort in the high 4.0s, when the blower belt failed and his car lost power. The final net result was a 14th spot on the grid and a date with Mike Neff in round one.
"I was pretty happy with the first run, way back on Thursday, but we knew we had to step up a bit," Wilkerson said. "Originally, the weather forecast had us in pretty good shape for Friday and just in a horrible spot for Saturday, when it was supposed to rain cats and dogs. When we lost Friday due to the rain, you had to wonder if we might not be coming back here in a few weeks, because it didn't look good for us to do much more racing. Then we come out on Saturday, and it all looked better than it was supposed to before the hail came pounding down on everyone. I was wondering what was coming next.
"The first run on Saturday was okay, but we were still hassling with clutch wear issues and we went out for the last one trying to run a 4.07 or something in that neighborhood. It ran about 600 feet before we chucked the belt, and it was dead on a 4.07 until then. The only good news was that I thought we had something for Neff and his bunch after that. If we could make it go to the end with the belt still on, we might just sneak up and stun those guys."
Sunday ended up being the one day the forecasters got right. Sunny skies welcomed the racers and the large Pomona crowd as they arrived at this historic facility, and the sun shone brightly all day. Cool temps were an issue, for the cars and the people, but the blue skies were enough to make it all seem ultimately comfortable. Wilk and Neff were set to go as the fourth pair in round one, kicking off eliminations for the first time in 2011 but, for Wilk, it all ended just a bit over four seconds later.
"Sometimes we get a deal where it can be a bit of a one-lane track for a while, and my guess is that's what we had there," Wilkerson said later. "It wasn't a one-lane track because of anything permanent, but sometimes the track goes through a period where one lane goes away at a certain spot and then it comes back around later after they work on it some more. Truth was, a whole bunch of us smoked the tires in pretty much the exact same spot over there on the left.
"It left okay, we got the clutch wear worked out pretty well, and it was pretty much a carbon copy of that same 4.07 I was trying to run on the last qualifying run. This time, though, instead of throwing the belt off we just drove straight into to spin at around 600 feet and that was the end of it. The motor zings pretty hard when you blow them off that fast and that far down the track, so we ended up breaking a whole bunch of stuff and adding to our miseries a bit. Tough way to start the season, but we've been to this dance before and we know we'll get it going quickly enough."
In a departure from recent history, the NHRA Full Throttle tour will now head to Gainesville in two weeks, and as the defending Gatornationals Funny Car champion, Wilk obviously does know how to "get well" in central Florida.
"We'll go to Florida and aim to do it again," he said. "First step, though, is to get in the show. It's tough out here with so many fast cars in the class, trying to rip our throats out. We need to get in the field first, then we'll just do all we can to win that first round on Sunday. You can't win four until you win the first one, I know that. Does it hurt us a little that we can't really test as much as some of these big-buck teams? Yes, it probably does, but this is what we have to work with and we stay within our means. This is just how we have to race it, and we might be a little out of practice, but I'm kind of sure we don't lose our brains over the off-season. We might look like knuckleheads sometimes, but we're not. We came out here and picked it right back up pretty well, so I'm confident we'll be where we need to be right away."
One down, 21 to go.