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NHRA: Wilkerson Emerging as Top Contender in Funny Car

11 June 1998

HEBRON, Ohio -- While John Force, Cruz Pedregon, Ron Capps and Chuck Etchells have been stealing the majority of headlines in the first half of the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series season, another driver is quickly emerging as a top contender for the Winston championship.

Tim Wilkerson, 37, from Springfield, Ill., who made a major statement last year as runner-up to Whit Bazemore at the prestigious U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, has put together a strong season so far, highlighted by runner-up finishes at Pomona's Winternationals and Virginia's Pennzoil Nationals. The driver of the JCIT Pontiac Firebird is fifth in the Winston standings, 173 points out of first.

His primary mission at the 34th annual Pontiac Excitement Nationals presented by Summit Racing, June 11-14 at National Trail Raceway will be to make an appearance in the Winner's Circle. The $1.6 million race is the 10th of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

And Wilkerson feels very confident about his chances. He feels his gradual rise in the Funny Car ranks has surprised many of his competitors.

"There's some people who didn't expect us to be doing this well so early in this team's existence," Wilkerson said. "I never bought into that line of thought. I really thought our team was capable of fifth or higher, and here we are. We've had a couple of bad breaks and made a couple of mistakes. But everyone has to realize that this team doesn't have 10,000 runs in its archives to refer to."

Still, the absence of a trusty old tuning notebook hasn't hampered the team. With each passing race they learn something new and become even more of a threat to win.

"Even though we haven't won yet, just the fact that we're running consistent and winning rounds means everything," Wilkerson said. "I fully expected that we would do that. I don't want to sound cocky or arrogant, but I knew this team was very capable. As long as we keep the consistency level up, the victories are going to come. There's a lot of money and talent in this program, and when you examine it closely, it shouldn't surprise anyone that we're doing as well as we are.

"But if we do screw up, nobody chastises us for it," Wilkerson added. "I think that has also contributed to our success. We shake it off and move on. We have a lot of fun out here."

Wilkerson's season includes 11 round victories and career best elapsed time (4.912 seconds) and speed (310.13 mph) efforts. For as good as he's been to start, he feels like the team might even be better as the tour heads into the hot and muggy months of summer.

"I don't know what it is, but this car hates good air and good racetrack conditions," Wilkerson said. "We just flat don't have enough runs to know how to race on a track that has great conditions. That's all there is to it. Last year my car was the same way. It was a lot better when we got into the heat of summer when the tracks tended to be a little slippery. I don't think we're going to struggle here in the middle of the season. Hopefully we can gain some points and make a move on John and Cruz."

*Making a name: Wilkerson, who says he's the quintessential motor head, has been involved in racing since 1978. He's come a long way from bracket racing at Mid State Raceway in Havana, Ill., and now he considers himself one of the lucky few to get to live out his dream.

"I want to make this my career," he said. "I want people to think about Tim Wilkerson as well they do about John Force or Don Prudhomme. I'm like everybody else, I want to win the Winston championship and at the same time, grow with the sport. I think NHRA Winston Drag Racing is starting to take off the way NASCAR did in the early1980s and I want to be part of it."