CHANDLER, Ariz. – Tim Wilkerson believed his team showed its true potential early last year, racing to wins in Phoenix and Charlotte, and even grabbing a share of the Funny Car points lead at the quarter-mark of the 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season.
The rest of the season wasn’t quite as smooth, as Wilkerson finished ninth in points, but the Funny Car veteran is determined to extend last year’s hot start into a full season in 2017. To do that, he’ll need another impressive performance in his 10,000-horsepower Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Shelby Mustang at this weekend’s NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, where Wilkerson is the defending race winner.
“I think the thing I’m most excited about this year is the opportunity to have the new car all year long,” said Wilkerson, who has 20 career Funny Car wins. “That will be something that makes us a little more consistent than we were last year, when we had a couple of those traumas.”
Last year’s strong start was squelched as the team battled inconsistency, car changes, various other maladies, and Wilkerson could never quite replicate that early-season success, earning only one semifinal berth over the final two-thirds of the season.
Determined to not see that happen again, Wilkerson has been impressed with the work his young team has done. The team fell in the first round in Pomona, but qualified sixth in an extremely quick field, running a blistering 3.857 second pass at 322.65 mph. It was the quickest run in Wilkerson’s career, giving him something to build on as the team eyes a second straight win in Phoenix.
“We have a couple of new guys, so to win early would really be a big deal for them,” Wilkerson said. “Some guys go years and years and never win a race, especially on a small team like ours. But to come into the season and have something like that happen would be really good for their psyche.”
There’s no doubt the win at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park had a positive effect on Wilkerson and his squad a year ago. He ousted eight-time event winner and 16-time world champion John Force in the final round with an impressive 3.937 and followed that up two races later with back-to-back final round appearances, taking another win in Charlotte.
Repeating that scenario is ideal but won’t be easy against a loaded Funny Car field led by Pomona winner Matt Hagan, defending world champion Ron Capps, Courtney Force, class newcomer J.R. Todd, who beat Wilkerson in Pomona, and Jack Beckman. But Wilkerson hopes the good vibes from Phoenix last year carry into 2017.
“We’d been running pretty good all day, and the Levi, Ray & Shoup Funny Car had a lot left in it from the round before (heading into the final round),” Wilkerson said. “I thought if we could correct the mistake I made the last round, we might be able to pull it off. John had a blower belt fall off the thing, but we made them work for it. If they were going to win, they were going to have to run pretty darn good. That win gave me a lot of confidence, actually. We had one lucky round when we smoked the tires against Capps, but [other than that] we earned the win.”