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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‘It’s gnarly, bro’: IndyCar drivers face new challenge on streets of downtown Detroit

IndyCar Detroit downtown
James Black/Penske Entertainment
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DETROIT – It was the 1968 motion picture, “Winning” when actress Joanne Woodward asked Paul Newman if he were going to Milwaukee in the days after he won the Indianapolis 500 as driver Frank Capua.

“Everybody goes to Milwaukee after Indianapolis,” Newman responded near the end of the film.

Milwaukee was a mainstay as the race on the weekend after the Indianapolis 500 for decades, but since 2012, the first race after the Indy 500 has been Detroit at Belle Isle Park.

This year, there is a twist.

Instead of IndyCar racing at the Belle Isle State Park, it’s the streets of downtown Detroit on a race course that is quite reminiscent of the old Formula One and CART race course that was used from 1982 to 1991.

Formula One competed in the United States Grand Prix from 1982 to 1988. Beginning in 1989, CART took over the famed street race through 1991. In 1992, the race was moved to Belle Isle, where it was held through last year (with a 2009-2011 hiatus after the Great Recession).

The Penske Corp. is the promoter of this race, and they did a lot of good at Belle Isle, including saving the Scott Fountain, modernizing the Belle Isle Casino, and basically cleaning up the park for Detroit citizens to enjoy.

The race, however, had outgrown the venue. Roger Penske had big ideas to create an even bigger event and moving it back to downtown Detroit benefitted race sponsor Chevrolet. The footprint of the race course goes around General Motors world headquarters in the GM Renaissance Center – the centerpiece building of Detroit’s modernized skyline.

INDYCAR IN DETROITEntry list, schedule, TV info for this weekend

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Motor City is about to roar with the sound of Chevrolet and Honda engines this weekend as the NTT IndyCar Series is the featured race on the nine-turn, 1.7-mile temporary street course.

It’s perhaps the most unique street course on the IndyCar schedule because of the bumps on the streets and the only split pit lane in the series.

The pit lanes has stalls on opposing sides and four lanes across an unusual rectangular pit area (but still only one entry and exit).

Combine that, with the bumps and the NTT IndyCar Series drivers look forward to a wild ride in Motor City.

“It’s gnarly, bro,” Arrow McLaren driver Pato O’Ward said before posting the fastest time in Friday’s first practice. “It will be very interesting because the closest thing that I can see it being like is Toronto-like surfaces with more of a Long Beach-esque layout.

“There’s less room for error than Long Beach. There’s no curbs. You’ve got walls. I think very unique to this place.

PRACTICE RESULTS: Speeds from the first session

“Then it’s a bit of Nashville built into it. The braking zones look really very bumpy. Certain pavements don’t look bumpy but with how the asphalt and concrete is laid out, there’s undulation with it. So, you can imagine the cars are going to be smashing on every single undulation because we’re going to go through those sections fairly fast, and obviously the cars are pretty low. I don’t know.

“It looks fun, man. It’s definitely going to be a challenge. It’s going to be learning through every single session, not just for drivers and teams but for race control. For everyone.

“Everybody has to go into it knowing not every call is going to be smooth. It’s a tall task to ask from such a demanding racetrack. I think it’ll ask a lot from the race cars as well.”

The track is bumpy, but O’Ward indicated he would be surprised if it is bumper than Nashville. By comparison to Toronto, driving at slow speed is quite smooth, but fast speed is very bumpy.

“This is a mix of Nashville high-speed characteristics and Toronto slow speed in significant areas,” O’Ward said. “I think it’ll be a mix of a lot of street courses we go to, and the layout looks like more space than Nashville, which is really tight from Turn 4 to 8. It looks to be a bit more spacious as a whole track, but it’ll get tight in multiple areas.”

The concept of having four-wide pit stops is something that excites the 24-year-old driver from Monterey, Mexico.

“I think it’s innovation, bro,” O’Ward said. “If it works out, we’ll look like heroes.

“If it doesn’t, we tried.”

Because of the four lanes on pit road, there is a blend line the drivers will have to adhere to. Otherwise, it would be chaos leaving the pits compared to a normal two-lane pit road.

“If it wasn’t there, there’d be guys fighting for real estate where there’s one car that fits, and there’d be cars crashing in pit lane,” O’Ward said. “I get why they did that. It’s the same for everybody. I don’t think there’s a lot of room to play with. That’s the problem.

“But it looks freaking gnarly for sure. Oh my God, that’s going to be crazy.”

Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing believes the best passing areas will be on the long straights because of the bumps in the turns. That is where much of the action will be in terms of gaining or losing a position in the race.

“It will also be really easy to defend in my opinion,” Palou said. “Being a 180-degree corner, you just have to go on the inside and that’s it. There’s going to be passes for sure but its’ going to be risky.

“Turn 1, if someone dives in, you end up in the wall. They’re not going to be able to pass you on the exit, so maybe with the straight being so long you can actually pass before you end up on the braking zone.”

Palou’s teammate, Marcus Ericsson, was at the Honda simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana, before coming to Detroit and said he was shocked by the amount of bumps on the simulator.

Race promoter Bud Denker, the President of Penske Corporation, and Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix President Michael Montri, sent the track crews onto the streets with grinders to smooth out the bumps on the race course several weeks ago.

“They’ve done a decent amount of work, and even doing the track walk, it looked a lot better than what we expected,” Ericsson said. “I don’t think it’ll be too bad. I hope not. That’ll be something to take into account.

“I think the track layout doesn’t look like the most fun. Maybe not the most challenging. But I love these types of tracks with rules everywhere. It’s a big challenge, and you have to build up to it. That’s the types of tracks that I love to drive. It’s a very much Marcus Ericsson type of track. I like it.”

Scott Dixon, who was second fastest in the opening session, has competed on many new street circuits throughout his legendary racing career. The six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion for Chip Ganassi Racing likes the track layout, even with the unusual pit lane.

I don’t think that’s going to be something that catches on where every track becomes a double barrel,” Dixon said. “It’s new and interesting.

“As far as pit exit, I think Toronto exit is worse with how the wall sticks out. I think in both lanes, you’ve got enough lead time to make it and most guys will make a good decision.”

It wasn’t until shortly after 3 p.m. ET on Friday that the IndyCar drivers began the extended 90-minute practice session to try out the race course for the first time in real life.

As expected, there were several sketchy moments, but no major crashes during the first session despite 19 local yellow flags for incidents and two red flags.

Rookie Agustin Canapino had to cut his practice short after some damage to his No. 78 Dallara-Chevrolet, but he was among many who emerged mostly unscathed from scrapes with the wall.

“It was honestly less carnage than I expected,” said Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood, who was third fastest in the practice after coming off his first career IndyCar victory in the most recent street race at Long Beach in April. “I think a lot of people went off in the runoffs, but no one actually hit the wall (too hard), which actually surprised me. Hats off to them for keeping it clean, including myself.

“It was quite a bit less grip than I think everyone expected. Maybe a little bit more bumpy down into Turn 3 than everyone expected. But overall they did a good job between the two manufacturers. I’m sure everyone had pretty much the same we were able to base everything off of. We felt pretty close to maximum right away.”

Most of the preparation for this event was done either on the General Motors Simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina, or the Honda Performance Development simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana.

“Now, we have simulators that can scan the track, so we have done plenty of laps already,” Power told NBC Sports. “They have ground and resurfaced a lot of the track, so it should be smoother.

“But nothing beats real-world experience. It’s going to be a learning experience in the first session.”

As a Team Penske driver, Power and his teammates were consulted about the progress and layout of the Detroit street course. They were shown what was possible with the streets that were available.

“We gave some input back after we were on the similar what might be ground and things like that,” Power said.

Racing on the streets of Belle Isle was a fairly pleasant experience for the fans and corporate sponsor that compete in the race.

But the vibe at the new location gives this a “big event” feel.

“The atmosphere is a lot better,” Power said. “The location, the accessibility for the fans, the crowd that will be here, it’s much easier. I think it will be a much better event.

“It feels like a Long Beach, only in a much bigger city. That is what street course racing is all about.”

Because the track promoter is also the team owner, Power and teammates Scott McLaughlin and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden will have a very busy weekend on the track, and with sponsor and personal appearances.

“That’s what pays the bills and allows us to do this,” Power said.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500