WILK AIMS TO OVERCOME THE PERILS OF PAULINE TOPEKA, Kan. (May 18, 2010) -- Yes, the race track that is home to this weekend's O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Summer Nationals is formally known as Heartland Park Topeka, and it does lay claim to a legal...
WILK AIMS TO OVERCOME THE PERILS OF PAULINE
TOPEKA, Kan. (May 18, 2010) -- Yes, the race track that is home to this weekend's O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Summer Nationals is formally known as Heartland Park Topeka, and it does lay claim to a legal Topeka mailing address. But, any racer or fan who has regularly visited the sprawling multi-purpose facility on the southern edge of the capital city of Kansas knows the "wide spot in the road" that makes up the unincorporated village of Pauline. Featuring a couple of small restaurants (including the always-popular Pat's Pig BBQ), a gas station, and an old grain silo for a skyline, Pauline sits just north of the race track and casts its down-home midwestern charm on the area, in a microcosmic way even Topeka cannot imitate.
For Tim Wilkerson and his Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby Mustang Funny Car team, the multiple missions this week will be to qualify well, master the Heartland Park track on what is projected to be a warm and sunny weekend, win rounds, and hopefully take home the Wally at a track the LRS team has never conquered. In a nod to the 1930s "cliffhanger" movie series, the team will have to overcome "The Perils of Pauline" in order to take home the win. It should also be noted that Pat's Pig is considered a benefit, not a peril.
"Heartland Park a great place to race, and for a midwestern guy like me it's a favorite stop, just because of the atmosphere and places like Pauline," Wilkerson said. "We race all over the country, but there are a few places on the tour that just hit home for you and make you feel very comfortable. Topeka is definitely one of those. You better not blink when you pass through Pauline or you'll miss it, but if you stop in there, maybe for some barbeque, you'll meet some great people who love racing. I think they're pretty darn proud that they're the closest businesses to Heartland Park.
"At the track, you get the same feeling from all the staff and volunteers. To be honest, we can get overlooked and a bit lost on the radar screen when we race in huge metropolitan areas. The race fans know we're there, and a lot of fans like to travel to places like Pomona, Las Vegas, St. Louis, or Charlotte when we race there, but the casual local sports fan might not hear enough about us to get excited, because the TV and newspapers also have to cover their basketball, baseball, or other pro teams. It's kind of hard to compete with the Lakers, Angels, and Dodgers, if you know what I mean. When we come to Topeka, though, I think every resident in the city knows we're there, and they roll out the red carpet. It's a big deal for them, and that makes it a big deal for us."
A big deal for Wilkerson would be to continue his current five-race streak in terms of winning in the first round of competition, while simultaneously breaking that string by advancing beyond the second round. Having gone 1-1 at five straight races since his stirring win at the Gatornationals back in March, Wilk has maintained a solid position in the Full Throttle Top 10, but he hasn't been able to move up the chart. He currently sits 9th in the points, only 27 points ahead of Del Worsham, but his consistency throughout the last six races has allowed him to open up a 123-point edge on Jeff Arend, who currently sits 11th as the closest driver "on the outside" in terms of the Countdown to the Championship.
For Wilkerson, over the years, the true peril at Heartland Park has been the final round. He's advanced that far twice, in 2002 and 2008, but has never managed to come out on top. This would surely be a good weekend to erase that bit of trivia.
"We've run anywhere from pretty bad to very good in Topeka, over all these years we've been racing there, and if you get to two final rounds in the last eight tries I guess you're doing something right," Wilkerson said. "Every day you're on the race track is a new one, though, and none of that stuff carries over. It won't be any easier to get to the final in Topeka because we've been there before, and it won't be any harder to win because we never have. Every race is different.
"Heck, looking back over all the races in Topeka, we've about broiled to death, about been blown away like in The Wizard of Oz, and almost froze a couple of times. You never know what the conditions are going to be like, but you can expect them to change. I mean, you're out in the middle of Kansas, so the weather is always going to have something to say about how the track is going to play, and you just have to be on top of your game to adjust. If it was easy, people wouldn't get such a kick out of watching us try to do what we do, whether we outsmart the track or it gets the better of us."
In Topeka, many thousands of race fans get a kick out of every facet of NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing. The O'Reilly Summer Nationals are easily the area's biggest annual sporting event, and the race is a magnet for race fans from all over the midwest. More than a few will, at some point during the weekend, walk through the door at Pat's Pig in Pauline to sample the local cuisine, while one racer named Wilkerson will be hoping to make a final stop, late in the day on Sunday, at the Heartland Park Winner's Circle.