Drag racing is a unique endeavor in the sports universe. At the highest professional levels, it's clearly a team game but it is contested one-on-one, driver against driver. It's based on incredibly muscular power, yet finesse is often the key to victory as tuners look to carefully approach traction's ragged edge without actually stepping over it. It's also a game involving more than a little bit of luck, as wins or losses often occur when circumstances would seem to dictate the opposite outcome. It's nearly enough to make a competitor crazy, but it's that maddening challenge that keeps the most dedicated racers coming back for more, even if that "more" is often just another dose of bashing one's head against a wall.
Tim Wilkerson is not one to needlessly slam his cranium into anything approaching a cinder block, but the vagaries and mysteries of NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing are sharply etched into his psyche, and the popular Levi, Ray & Shoup driver/tuner is known to regularly utter his pet phrase "I love drag racing" when the going gets tough. The line might drip with sarcasm, but it has its own basis in truth, as well.
"Oh yeah, whenever things go wacky or luck goes against us, especially when we do everything right, the old 'I love drag racing' line is easy to say," Wilkerson said. "But the truth is, if we didn't all really love it, we wouldn't be out here. It's too hard, too demanding, and way too expensive to be doing this if you don't love it. There are days, though, when you shake your head and say that line with a little more sarcasm than usual."
As Wilk prepares for this weekend's Lucas Oil Nationals in scenic Brainerd, Minn., he can't help but look back at the most recent race, in Seattle, with a bit of that sarcastic wit. In baseball parlance he hit nothing but line drives but somehow made outs, while others blooped broken-bat flares into the outfield for run-scoring hits. Had his weekend been on the golf course, he'd have shot well under par and made all the putts, only to watch one other competitor approach perfection in order to edge him by a stroke. In the real world, on the drag strip at Pacific Raceways, he outran everyone in the class, except the guy who beat him. I love drag racing, indeed.
Coming into Brainerd, Wilk's playoff hopes are hanging by a proverbial thread, and with only two races left to make the Countdown field he's up against the need to pretty much run the table in order to earn a spot. Still, whether he makes the Countdown or not, Wilk will be approaching every remaining 2012 race as the most important event of the year. His professionalism and dedication would not allow him to compete in any other fashion.
"We're 77 points out of 10th place, which is four rounds of racing with eight rounds left before the playoffs," Wilk said. "The hard part might be making up four rounds in two races, but there almost has to be some luck involved with it because you can't control who you're going to race in eliminations. If the guys you're chasing win rounds too, you can have a great day on Sunday and not accomplish much. So, you go out and try to hit some more line drives and you hope they don't get caught.
"It's also not just us trying to get in right now, and that's another challenge. Matt Hagan has gotten hot at the right time, so now he's in 11th place and we're behind him by a round. All you can do is strap in and do your best, so we'll approach every lap in Brainerd and Indy the same way and if we come out of Indy not in the playoffs our job will be to spoil the party for the teams that are. We'll be aiming to win every round and every race, for the rest of the year. It's the only way we know how to do this."
Despite the fact his outstanding effort only earned him a round two finish at Seattle, Wilk came away from that event with plenty of reasons for optimism, and he's eager to put his LRS Shelby Mustang back on the track in central Minnesota when qualifying begins at Brainerd International Raceway on Friday. Even with the disheartening loss in Seattle's quarterfinal round, the race was clearly one of Wilk's best on the season.
"It really was big step forward for us, despite the outcome," he said. "On Saturday and Sunday, two really hot days that had an awful lot of great teams scratching their heads trying to figure it out, we made four great laps. You'd like to think that running that good would automatically earn you the rounds, but that's drag racing. We've been working awfully hard all year, and I think we finally have the car like we want it, so maybe we can still do some good out here.
"We love Brainerd, we love the area, and we love the fans, so it's always a lot of fun. Winning is fun too, so maybe we can string together some more good laps and make the most of it."
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