NHRA: Tim Wilkerson is all aboard for Funny Car championship bid

(Photos courtesy NHRA)
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JOLIET, Illinois – In a sense, Tim Wilkerson is drag racing version’s of The Little Engine That Could.

Only Wilkerson’s engine is packed with about 10,000 horsepower.

And now, in his 21st season of racing a Funny Car in NHRA competition, the Springfield, Illinois native is having the time of his life.

Although he’s had a very loyal sponsor for the past 15 years – Levi, Ray & Shoup – the Springfield, Illinois native doesn’t have a huge team, admittedly doesn’t have the kind of budget that other teams like John Force has, and is known as a dedicated racer who gets the most out of what he has.

For example: When Wilkerson won at Phoenix earlier this year, he was piloting a Funny Car that was built – and had been in use – since 2009.

“It had over 600 runs on it,” Wilkerson said Thursday during a media preview of this weekend’s K&N Route 66 NHRA Nationals at Route 66 Raceway in suburban Chicago.

NHRA Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson
NHRA Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson

It was that old car and that first win of 2016 that began a significant transformation for Wilkerson and his fortune this season. He ordered a new car from renowned builder Murf McKinney and had barely broken in the new ride when he won his second race of the season at Charlotte.

As a result, Wilkerson found himself atop the Funny Car point standings for several weeks.

The Little Engine That Could did – and in a big way.

“It’s been a great year, no doubt about it,” Wilkerson said.

Perseverance has been one of the key traits that have marked Wilkerson’s 21 years in Funny Car racing. He also relishes being a drag racing version of David vs. Goliath on a 1,000-foot battlefield.

He isn’t afraid to go head-to-head with the sport’s biggest names, and as he’s proven numerous times, not only holds his own but also can beat anyone at any given time.

“We try to work through it,” Wilkerson said of being one of the smaller teams on the national event circuit. “We buy a lot of our parts from DSR (Don Schumacher Racing). That’s been John’s (Force) nemesis over the years.

“He’ll (Force) tell you, ‘Damn it, Wilkerson, you buy all that stuff and you’re kicking my ass with it,’ but that’s what happens. His junk is our gold, there’s no doubt about it.

“They’re so used to having everything they have. Austin Coil (Force’s longtime former crew chief) used to tell John, ‘the reason Wilkerson does so well with what he has is because that’s all he has. He doesn’t have the availability like we do to experiment and try things and get off-base and get off-track. He works with the little pile of stuff he has and that’s a benefit to him.’”

To that, Wilkerson proudly responded, “And (Coil) is absolutely right.”

However, Wilkerson has struggled of late. He crashed at Topeka in May, then suffered an engine explosion at Bristol a few weeks later and has subsequently dropped from first to seventh place in the standings, 243 points behind series leader Ron Capps.

“Hopefully, we’re done with all those issues,” Wilkerson said. “Once we crashed (at Topeka), we were thrashing to survive more than anything.

“It was such a devastating blow to the team and we had to throw things together quickly. And then to have another mishap at Bristol, it’s been tough.”

After having last weekend off – he went fishing with his sons and his 91-year-old father – Wilkerson is hoping good luck returns to shine upon him and his team this weekend.

The venue is perfect for him: Route 66 Raceway is his home track and he’s also a former past winner there (defeated John Force in 1999).

The NHRA begins the second half of the season this weekend, not to mention has just six more races for drivers to qualify for the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoff that begins after the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend.

Given the success he’s had this season, and despite the recent run of bad luck, Wilkerson is bound and determined to win the Funny Car championship. He came close in 2008, losing in the final race of the season to Cruz Pedregon.

Now he’s ready to go for it all and what he’s done thus far in 2016 has provided plenty of conviction that, yes, he can finally earn that elusive title.

Once again, it’s that Little Engine That Could confidence.

“I don’t want to be a back-half car,” Wilkerson said. “We’re technologically challenged and crew man challenged – we have probably at least three men less than every crew out here – and we’re a little bit economically challenged.

“But we don’t come here to get beat. John (Force) knows that and the first thing he’ll tell you is ‘it’s ridiculous how well you do with what you have.’

“But we come here with one vision: to win every dang race. I’m very cognizant of our chances to win a championship. We think we have a chance. And what a cherry it would be on top of the cake to beat these guys.”

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NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
McLaren Racing
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As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Formula E team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”

 

James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship car from Mercedes-EQ. – McLaren Racing

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – McLaren Racing

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”