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Keeping Pace

Chicago native reaching new heights as NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series heads to Route 66 Raceway

Tim WIlkerson scored an NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series final round victory in Atlanta this season. (Photo courtesy of NHRA)
Tim WIlkerson scored an NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series final round victory in Atlanta this season. (Photo courtesy of NHRA)

Courtesy: NHRA Media Relations

JOLIET, Ill. — In a quest for a Funny Car world championship, Tim Wilkerson knows he has to have every base covered.


In that regard, the longtime NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series veteran has made significant progress in one important area. Always known for his ability to get down the track in warm weather, Wilkerson has made impressive improvements in relation to performance in ideal night conditions.


That balance has already led to one victory and career-best times, and will be a key factor going forward, including at the upcoming Route 66 NHRA Nationals at Route 66 Raceway, July 9-12.


“We're probably in the best place we've ever been for balancing the fast sessions with the hot ones,” Wilkerson said. “We've been known as a ‘hot weather team’ for a long time, and for a lot of years I had a hard time keeping up with the big teams when it came to going really fast in great conditions. We've run our first laps in the three-second zone this year, and we've qualified right up there with the multi-car teams at just about every race. I think we finally have both sides of that equation a little bit figured out now.”


Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car), Vincent Nobile (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana Jr. (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the event that will again be televised nationally on ESPN2, including live coverage of final eliminations. It is the 13th of 24 races during the 2015 Mello Yello Series season as teams make a final push before the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.


For Wilkerson, who currently sits in 10th place in the points standings, it marks a key point in the season. Then again, every race in the loaded Funny Car class is a big one. Wilkerson, who has 18 career wins, has put together a number of strong moments in 2015 as he looks to finish in the top 10 for the eighth straight year, including a victory in Atlanta that was his first since 2011.


Wilkerson also posted his first career three-second run this season in Topeka, but with the class as tight as ever he knows he must continue to push forward. Wilkerson is currently just six points outside of eighth and only 22 points from seventh.  


“All I can worry about is my own performance because you can't play defense in this sport,” Wilkerson said. “It's more like bowling or golf than like football because all you can do is put your best numbers up and then see if it's good enough to win. You can't control the ladder, either. Sometimes you get those head-to-head match-ups with cars you're battling for position with, and sometimes you never race them and have to hope that someone else helps you out. So much of this sport is completely out of your control, so you have to just focus on what you can do and then see how it shakes out.”


That makes the Route 66 NHRA Nationals important for the Illinois native, but Wilkerson insists he’ll take the same mindset into that race as he does with every event.


“Every race of the season is pivotal, and every run at every race is important,” Wilkerson said. “You can't think about it in terms of the group of races. You really do have to take it day-by-day, and just focus on the next run. We're focused on being consistent and being able to take whatever the track will give us. The first qualifying session at every race is really important, because that one kind of sets the tone for the rest of the weekend. If you make a solid consistent run in Q1, you have a leg up on it and that's when you have the confidence to get after it a little for any night runs.”


Any extra cushion is necessary going against a talented Funny Car group led by Hagan, the defending Funny Car world champ and current points leader after winning the most recent race in Bristol. Hagan has won three straight years in Chicago while Wilkerson’s other chief challengers include Ron Capps, Del Worsham, a three-time Chicago winner, Tommy Johnson Jr., Tony Pedregon, a four-time event winner, Alexis DeJoria, John Force, Courtney Force, Robert Hight, Cruz Pedregon and Jack Beckman. 


But Wilkerson will look forward to the challenge at the state-of-the-art motorsports facility located just south of downtown Chicago and less than 175 miles away from his front porch.


“Route 66 has a lot of history with me and my son Daniel,” said Wilkerson, who has one career Chicago win. “It's just a few hours up the road from our hometown of Springfield and we've raced there a ton ever since they built it. Daniel got his Nitro Funny Car license there, during a test-session day, and it really feels like a home track for us. When they built it, it was just overwhelming how big and massive those grandstands are. I always say it's the one track on the Mello Yello tour where, if you're out in the pits and you look over at the grandstands, you could mistake them for a college football stadium.”


In Top Fuel, Brown powered to the win one year ago and the Top Fuel points leader is looking for his third overall win in Chicago and first in Top Fuel. Defending world champion Tony Schumacher leads active Top Fuel drivers with four career victories at this event, including in 2013, while other pre-race favorites include Larry Dixon, who has three wins at the track, 2014 runner-up Doug Kalitta, 2009 winner Spencer Massey, three-time season winner Richie Crampton, Englishtown runner-up Brittany Force, Atlanta runner-up Leah Pritchett, Steve Torrence, Clay Millican and J.R. Todd.


In Pro Stock, Nobile raced to his sole victory of the 2014 season at Chicago. Reigning Pro Stock champ and current points leader Erica Enders won at Bristol for her fourth victory of the season. The Summit Racing Equipment team of Greg Anderson and Jason Line are hot on her heels, while other Pro Stock drivers expected to compete for the win include Allen Johnson, Phoenix winner Rodger Brogdon, V. Gaines, Shane Gray, Chris McGaha, Larry Morgan and category newcomer Drew Skillman.


In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Hector Arana Jr. raced to his first final round appearance and victory of the season last year at Chicago. Eddie Krawiec sits first in Pro Stock Motorcycle points standings and has raced to three runner-up finishes this season. Behind Krawiec sits his Vance and Hines Harley-Davidson teammate, Andrew Hines, the defending world champ and a two-time event winner. Others hoping to raise the Wally trophy on Sunday include Englishtown winner Jerry Savoie, Hector Arana Sr., Jim Underdahl, Matt Smith and his wife Angie Smith.


The race also will feature thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, including the exciting JEGS All-Stars event on Saturday where the best NHRA sportsman racers from each of NHRA's seven divisions battle for bonus money and bragging rights.


As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity in motorsports gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.


Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying begins Friday, July 10, with sessions at 4:30 and 7:15 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, July 11, at 4:15 and 7:15 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, July 12.

Keeping Pace

Motorsports correspondent Doug Pace keeps up with motorsports news and notes from around the region.