Wilkerson Tuning Up For Western Swing

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, July 8 2010

Tim Wilkerson is taking his Funny Car and heading west. (File photo courtesy of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Only seven professional drivers have swept the National Hot Rod Association’s famed Western Swing during its 21-year history, and Tim Wilkerson is not one of them.

It’s a situation that Wilkerson, unofficial “Hot Track Master” of the Funny Car ranks, plans to remedy beginning with the NHRA Northwest Nationals Friday through Sunday at Pacific Raceways near Seattle.  Driver of the Levi, Ray and Shoup Ford Mustang, Wilkerson is the defending event champion in Funny Car and winner of the most recent national event at Norwalk, Ohio.

Antron Brown (Top Fuel) and Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) also are defending event champions of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series event that will be carried on ESPN3.com and ESPN2 HD. The race kicks off the annual Western Swing, which also visits Sonoma, Calif. (July 16-18) and Morrison, Colo., (July 23-25).

Brown joined the elite list of Western Swing “sweepers” last summer. The others pulling off the feat are Joe Amato (Top Fuel), 1991; John Force (Funny Car), 1994; Cory McClenathan (Top Fuel), 1997; Larry Dixon (Top Fuel), 2003; Greg Anderson (Pro Stock), 2004 and Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), 2008.

Force, the current Funny Car point-leader and 14-time world champion, holds the most class victories at all three Western Swing venues. Force has seven wins at Pacific Raceways in Kent, Wash., and is the only active Funny Car driver to have more than one at the track; seven wins at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., and five wins at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colo., near Denver.

As noted, Force also is the only Funny Car driver to have swept the Western Swing. But Wilkerson, who also serves as his own crew chief, will roll into qualifying Friday with a notebook jammed full of proven tune-ups for summertime-slick racetracks.

Wilkerson has posted back-to-back final-round appearances in the last two stops on-tour _ zMax Dragway in Bristol, Tenn., and Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park in Norwalk. During both events, track temperatures soared above 130 degrees. At Bristol, Wilkerson was runnerup to Brut Force, driver of the Castrol GTX High-Mileage Mustang. At Norwalk, Wilkerson prevailed over his Ford Racing rival.

“Well, we sure picked a good time to get on a bit of a roll,” Wilkerson said. “But really, it’s about just keeping your focus and making the right calls, having a team that puts it all together right, and then there’s something to do with the hot tracks we’ve been on.  We’ve always been a team that likes the hot tracks, and both Bristol and Norwalk provided plenty of that. It’s that old ‘great equalizer’ that brings some of the really fast cars back to us, and we seem to have a good read on how to get the Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang down those tracks.”

Wilkerson particularly likes his chances of defending at Pacific Raceways. While the area offers a mild climate most of the year, Seattle can get toasty in July. But early weather forecasts predict high temperatures in the mid-80s for the weekend.

“It’s traditionally been a bit of a bumpy track, so you have to be ready for that, and for some reason it seems like it’s been scorching hot there for about the last decade whenever we’re in town,” Wilkerson said.  “You think of Seattle and you think of rain, right? For us, it’s been like the desert there, for quite a while.”

With his runnerup result at Bristol and victory at Norwalk, Wilkerson moved into seventh place in the Funny Car point standings. He still enjoys a bit of breathing room as only four races remain until the start of the Countdown to 1, NHRA’s championship playoffs. Wilkerson, who qualified for the postseason for the second time in 2009, said despite his recent run of success his strategy remains unchanged.

“Don’t let up,” said Wilkerson, a 49-year-old resident of Springfield, Ill. “We picked up seven rounds right at the time when those last three or four spots in the Top 10 were really getting tight, and we were literally one bad day away from falling right to 11th (and out of the playoff picture). That’s great timing, and we earned every bit of that, so the key now is to just focus on each round and try to avoid any shutouts in the next four races. If we can win Round One, we’ll be in good shape.”

Wilkerson said the competition is as tight as he can remember in Funny Car. Force, 61, is back atop the standings via four victories in six finals in what has evolved into an unofficial comeback tour.

“Force is running great, and there’s no getting around that. But the truth is everyone out here can beat you,” Wilkerson said. “If you want to have a good day on Sunday, like we just did in Norwalk, you’re going to have to beat some great drivers who have great cars. Period.

“The hot tracks help us here in the middle of summer, so we’re already looking ahead to try to figure out how we step up once September rolls around and things start to cool off. That will be the key for us.  Whether it’s Force or his (John Force Racing) teammates, any of the DSR (Don Schumacher Racing) cars, or anyone else, we’ll have to be ready to run with them in the playoffs when the tracks might not be 130 degrees anymore.”

In Top Fuel, Larry Dixon has blasted to seven victories in the Al-Anabi Racing Dragster to lead rival and seven-time defending world champ Tony Schumacher and the U.S. Army Dragster.

Edwards, meanwhile, remains the benchmark of the Pro Stock field, picking up where he left off from his 2009 world championship run. Edwards has eight wins in his Penhall/Interstate Batteries Pontiac GXP while building a comfortable lead over Allen Johnson, driver of the Mopar/J&J Racing Dodge Avenger.

Two rounds of professional qualifying scheduled for Friday and Saturday will set the 16-car fields. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of qualifying highlights at 10 p.m. (ET) on Saturday. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute race preview show, at 11 a.m. (ET) on Sunday. Additionally on Sunday, ESPN3.com will air two hours of eliminations coverage at 7 p.m. (ET) and ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of eliminations coverage beginning at 11:30 p.m. (ET).

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, July 8 2010