What a Western Swing it has been for Tim Wilkerson. He entered the Denver race looking for improvement and any sort of improvement, stuck outside the Full Throttle Top 10 and hoping to find a way in. There on the mountain, he earned a fortuitous chance to race the No. 10 driver, Johnny Gray, in round one and when he crossed the finish line first he had sneaked ahead of Gray, into the Top 10, but only by a hair (19 points).
In Sonoma, he powered his way to the final round by winning three races the hard way, always running just well enough to take the stripe, and his points total began to build. In the final round, he made a stellar lap that came up just short, but the way his Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby Mustang was running, and the way his LRS team was finding ways to win rounds, gave him and his crew some much needed confidence and a serious morale boost. He also strengthened his grip on 10th place, leaving Wine Country 52 points up on Gray.
Finally, at the third stop on the Swing, in Seattle, he put it all together and simply did it the right way. He qualified No. 1, he won four straight rounds, and after just getting by a very game Brian Thiel in the opening round, he trailered three superstars by simply blowing away the competition. In round two it was Tony Pedregon, in the semifinal it was Robert Hight, and in the final round it was Jack Beckman. All big wins, all big points, and all won by the driver who was clearly the class of the field on this day in the Great Northwest.
And now, Wilk finds himself no longer on the outside looking in, and no longer clinging to a precarious spot in 10th place. Instead, Wilk leaves here solidly in 9th, with a 46 point lead on Bob Tasca, and his gap over Gray in 11th has ballooned to 141. In addition, he can now look up the list and clearly see 8th, as he leaves Seattle only 18 points behind Jeff Arend. What a difference a Western Swing makes.
“That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it,” Wilkerson said. “Two races ago we were hoping to somehow get by Johnny Gray and get a toe-hold on 10th place, but when that was over we still had such a tiny little lead you could sneeze hard and lose it. We go on to Sonoma and Seattle, and the whole world has changed. It’s hard to believe. We can’t let up now, though. We have to keep charging and keep going after every point out there, to clinch our spot and give ourselves the best possible chance in the playoffs.”
Wilkerson’s day began with a nerve-wracking race against Thiel, who qualified 16th but has been turning heads as a newcomer to the tour. Knowing there are no walk-overs in the Funny Car class, Wilk tried to coax a solid but unspectacular tune-up out of his LRS Ford, figuring Thiel was sure to go A-to-B and likely to run a mid 4.20. Thiel did just that, running a solid 4.25, and Wilk edged him out by running a 4.213. It was the last truly close race of the day for the popular driver from Illinois.
In round two, without lane choice, Wilk lagged a bit behind Tony Pedregon at the hit, but made it up almost immediately before tearing away to a big 4.166, which tied Matt Hagan for low of the round.
In the semifinal, Wilk and Hight were neck and neck off the line, but Wilk powered to a stunning 4.145 in the heat of the afternoon, powering away to take the win with air to spare and again posting low e.t. for the round.
In the final, the LRS Ford stunned them again, putting a flawless 4.146 on the board as Beckman smoked the tires. From the No. 1 position, Wilkerson had simply dispatched some of the best Funny Cars in the world by making flawless runs in very tough conditions, and for the third consecutive year he made his way to the Winner’s Circle in Seattle.
“Three years in a row here just tells you we have a pretty good idea how to run on this track, and in this air,” Wilkerson said. “We got on a little bit of a roll, and it just seemed to come to us, really. I just got to the point where I felt we could keep putting that sort of tune-up in it, and it would make it, even on a track that was giving a lot of people fits. If they could outrun us, they could have it, but we kept outrunning them instead.”
Wilkerson was emotional after the win, which comes a full year after his last trophy. The victory was much needed, the performance very welcome, and the points practically priceless, but the boost to his team and the support of the Seattle fans were what meant the most to him.
“These fans went absolutely nuts for us, and I about got choked up going up on that stage with the trophy,” he said. “Seriously, that meant so much to me, and this track has been so good to us. But this also meant the world to my guys, and that’s a very important thing. We had such a miserable start to the season, and then when we started running better we still couldn’t find a way to win. We just kept running the wrong guys. You do that for a few months, and the guys start to put there heads down and get very frustrated.
“In Sonoma, they really got a boost and it was visible. Here, they were all so energized and so focused, the car was put together right every time, in every way. To see the looks on their faces was just great. The energy in our pit was on max all day. I’m just so happy for these guys, and they earned every bit of it. I’m thrilled for Dick Levi, everyone at LRS, my wife Krista, my kids, and all the people who mean so much to us. John Fink couldn’t be here, and we missed having him in the Winner’s Circle, too. But let me tell you, this means the world to my guys. This was a huge win, and they got a lot of frustration completely erased here. They’re the best.”
On this day, on this track, it was actually Tim Wilkerson who was the best.