NHRA: With two wins and tied for Funny Car lead, Tim Wilkerson has his swagger back

(Photos courtesy NHRA)
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Even though he’s been drag racing for the better part of his life, you might say Tim Wilkerson is making up for lost time.

Prior to last season, the Springfield, Illinois native had not won an NHRA Funny Car national event since 2011. Then, when he got to Atlanta Dragway last spring, Wilkerson ended his long winless streak.

But that was only the start.

Thus far this season, the 55-year-old Wilkerson already has two wins in the first six races of the 24-race national event schedule.

Equally as impressive is Wilkerson, who now has 21 career wins in NHRA competition (20 in Funny Car), is now tied with Courtney Force for the Funny Car points lead.

2016_Tim_Wilkerson
Tim Wilkerson

And now Wilkerson finds himself right back where he started things last year: Atlanta Dragway in Commerce, Georgia, for this weekend’s Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals.

“It’s been a good start, no doubt,” Wilkerson said about his season in an NHRA media release. “I’m excited to do as well as we’ve been doing and I think we’ve shown a lot of potential.

“We’ve got a good car and we’ve created those opportunities. We want to beat somebody that’s tough to beat and I think we’ve proven that so far this year, and having a good car has really helped our cause.”

Wilkerson’s wins this season have come at Phoenix and Charlotte, and he just barely missed a third triumph in the most recent race at Houston. After qualifying No. 1, he roared through eliminations before just barely losing to Courtney Force in the final round.

“We did some crazy, bizarre things (in Houston) and the car seemed to respond,” Wilkerson said. “But we got beat in Houston and I was not happy about that.”

Still, Wilkerson managed to accumulate enough points to tie Courtney Force for the lead in the point standings.

“It’s a long year and it really is a marathon and not a sprint,” Wilkerson said. ‘You can be a hero today and a zero next week. But we’ve got a car that we believe can win its share of rounds this year and that’s a good feeling to have.”

Or, as Wilkerson added, “We’ve got our swagger back a little.”

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Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds