Words by Susan Wade - Photos by Ron Lewis, Linda Brock, and James Drew- 5/8/08
el Worsham called fellow NHRA Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson and his Levi, Ray & Shoup Chevy Impala crew "a team that's so hot you can't touch them. He's on a total roll right now, and it almost looks like they're playing in another league, they're going so fast."
That's just the kind of talk that makes Wilkerson apprehensive, maybe more so than, say, last season, when he said his car showed "signs of greatness" but for one reason or another he couldn’t put it in the winners circle.
With his May 4 victory in the O'Reilly Midwest Nationals near St. Louis, Wilkerson became the class's first two-time winner. He won from the No. 1 position for the first time in his 13-year professional career, and he led the category with four top-qualifier performances in seven events. In the first qualifying session at St. Louis, he ran a 4.744-second pass that was the quickest of the season in seven completed events. Moreover, he leads the Funny Car standings for the first time in his career.
The team capped its triumphant weekend at Wilkerson's home track -- where he began as a bracket racer when the start and finish lines were flip-flopped -- by earning its third Full Throttle Pit Crew Challenge Award of the season.
At least for a few minutes in the glow of the Gateway International Raceway spotlight -- in front of boss Dick Levi, a large LRS contingent, and a loyal band of supporters dubbed "Wilk's Warriors" -- he allowed his emotions to be "out of control."
Nevertheless, his "hope for the best but plan for the worst" outlook has him cautious. He always has tried to anticipate the pitfalls, whether it's arrogance, complacency, rules changes, or improved competition.
"We just don't want to get cocky and we don't want to get lazy," the hard-working privateer from Springfield, Illinois, said. "The car is really responding, and everything I ask it to do, it does. As long as I don't get off track or get greedy, I think it's going to be OK. I think it's just been a carry-over from last year.
He's taking no chances, though.
"I got the guys together just the other day and told them we've still got a lot of pitches left to be thrown at us, so we've got to keep our eye on the ball. There's still a long way to go. Like everybody else, once you win a round of racing you feel good, and once you win two you feel pretty good, but, boy, after you win a race you think, 'I can get used to this.' So we're going to knuckle down and try and keep our head on straight."
They'll need that level-headedness and attention to detail as they break in a new Murf McKinney chassis in July at Denver, per sanctioning-body requirement. The team plans to test after the Joliet race and perhaps at Norwalk.
"We really need to get that thing dialed in," he said. "Hopefully when we start with the new car around Denver, that won't put a damper on my performance. The last couple of years we just lost our hand on what was going on with these cars, and it's really hard to get it back."
He knows just how difficult it is to make a 16-car line-up these days. He said the thought of it had him "tuning all night in my sleep" before St. Louis qualifying. Further evidence are seven DNQs in each of the past two seasons, with seven more than in the previous five years combined.
"I'm really, really surprised to be able to tell you at this point of the year that we'd be doing this well," Wilkerson said. "I've never been in the points lead of anything in my life."