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Wilkerson Cool With Being Test Mule

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, February 16 2010
The NHRA is conducting tests aimed at reducing horsepower and that might bring back quarter-mile runs. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

The NHRA is conducting tests aimed at reducing horsepower in its nitro cars. The hope is that might bring back quarter-mile runs. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA)

Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson spent part of his offseason testing the National Hot Rod Association’s spec engine, a session that admittedly proved more miss-than-hit.

Wilkerson’s January test at Firebird International Raceway in Chandler, Ariz., was a followup to a similar session conducted by two-time NHRA Funny Car champion Cruz Pedregon at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in late October.

Both tests were part of the NHRA’s Competition and Technical Departments’ continuing initiative to find a combination designed to reduce horsepower in the nitromethane Funny Car and Top Fuel categories. Theoretically, such a reduction would open the door for a return to traditional quarter-mile racing in those classes, which currently compete at 1,000-feet.

“It’s all just a test right now, just an exercise,” said Wilkerson, owner/driver of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby Mustang. “This just might be what you don’t want to do – not what you do want to do – which is OK. We’re still learning. We may learn that this is the dumbest thing we ever thought of, and we’re going to know that when we get done with it.”

Without mentioning either elapsed time or mile-per-hour numbers, Wilkerson suggested the engine combo he tested would be suitable for competition. “I don’t know if I’m probably the best guy to be doing that kind of thing, based on my years of experience,” said Wilkerson, who again is partnering with Bob Tasca III on a two-car Ford effort for the 2010 Full Throttle Drag Racing Series season.

“We’ve got good processes, Dan Olson and I,” said Wilkerson, referring to the NHRA’s director of Top Fuel and Funny Car racing. “I’ve even talked with some of (John) Force’s guys about their opinions on how this engine should work, and shouldn’t work. We have some background with Alcohol racing that made us think that this engine would probably be OK, and it really showed some good signs in Phoenix of running OK.

“The problem is that we made so many changes to it – with blower overdrive, and fuel pump size, and simply displacement size – that it really narrowed up my window, or shortened up my window of  ’screw-up.’

“It broke a rocker arm on one qualifier, and it melted the head right off of it. Dan Olson was a little bit concerned about that. But the Phoenix track was really a hard place to do this at, because the track was so tricky. You really had to hit it hard to make it go, and I think I had the thing over-tuned so it really just narrowed my window too much.

“We really did learn what we wanted to do though.  The thing ran fine, it’s just, I think we were trying to change it so much that we’re going to go back and I think maybe just widen our parameters to make it a little more friendly. You’ll see me run it a few more times this year, match-racing, and with NHRA. We’re going to try to run it during Gainesville (Fla., Raceway) testing too, but I don’t know if we’re going to get it done in time to do that again.”

Wilkerson,  who qualified 11th for the season-opening 50th Kragen O’Reilly NHRA Winternationals, suffered a first-round loss Sunday to Ashley Force Hood and her Castrol GTX Mustang at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif. Next up is the 26th annual NHRA Arizona Nationals at Firebird from Friday through Sunday.  Ron Capps (Funny Car), Antron Brown (Top Fuel) and Jeg Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock) are defending champions of the season’s second event, which will be televised on ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD.

Wilkerson said that any changes to the current Funny Car engine package are at least one year away. The combination tested on Pedregon’s Toyota Solara last year included a single magneto, one less clutch disc and a smaller fuel pump.  Currently, nitromethane race vehicles employ two magnetos in their engine setups.  Pedregon, Funny Car champion in 1992 and 2008, described the tests as “encouraging.”

Earlier in 2009, Wilkerson tested a combination that included decreased engine displacement, use of a smaller capacity fuel pump, decrease in percentage overdrive in the blower, a change to the rear-end gear ratios and use of 90 percent nitro. NHRA officials said last year this is strictly a testing and research project with an open-ended completion date.  Once any decision is finalized, NHRA would give affected competitors ample time to adjust.

Wilkerson won six races and placed a career-best second in points in 2008 before joining with Tasca last season. The move produced two wins for Wilkerson, who closed the season with a runnerup result in Richmond, Va., and semifinal finishes in Las Vegas and Pomona, Calif.

“Talking about offseason, we spend so much time working on these cars that it sounds so simple to say, ‘Just put a small (test) motor together and go run the thing,’ and to do that correctly,” Wilkerson said. “We rifled two or three cams through the thing, and we were checking blower problems that you think you might end up with, and we shortened up the inlets on the blowers. We were doing a lot of stupid things to make the thing run right and all of that takes a tremendous amount of time.

“We were here (at the shop) every day except for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I worked all day New Year’s. You win these races, you win them at the shop, you don’t win them at the racetrack. These cars are 99 percent preparation and I think that’s one of the reasons we do so well, because we don’t have any other vices. When you’re here to win the championship that’s what we concentrate on.”

Wilkerson said NHRA is not charging its spec engine tests against his LRS team’s sanctioned allotment. Effective Feb. 11, professional nitro testing is limited to four, one-day test sessions through Nov. 14, 2010 – a total that applies to not only the driver but also to his crew chief and team.

“I can tell you I have not learned a lot about my race car when I’m running that thing,”  Wilkerson said of the spec engine. “It is interesting the way that it operates and the different power curves that it has. You shorten the stroke up three-quarters-of-an-inch and that nitro motor knows it, I can tell you that.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, February 16 2010
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