If there were a list of villains in NHRA Mello Yello drag racing, it would be a very short one.

Nitro fans are lovers, not haters.

And no nitro pilot is more adored than Tim Wilkerson and his Levi, Ray & Shoup Funny Car who is greeted at each Mello Yello race with fans wearing “Got Wilk?” T-shirts.

“People like those shirts,” he laughed of the spin on the dairy industry’s “Got Milk?” promotion from years back. “I think they’re cute.”

The appeal of Wilkerson has nothing to do with him being a lovable loser because he’s not a loser, that’s for sure.

He successfully has battled against the corporate powers in the Mello Yello nitro pits as one of a few independent teams.

He’s a competitor and a survivor against “big three” multi-car teams owned by Don Schumacher (four in Funny Car, three in Top Fuel), John Force (three and one) and Connie Kalitta (two and two).

“More than anything people like rooting for the underdog,” said Wilkerson, 57, who will enter his 22nd year of professional racing this season.

“Even John Force, Don Schumacher, and Connie Kalitta would agree it’s not fun for fans just to watch their cars race each other all the time. Guys like me and Cruz (Pedregon) need to win races too. We’re competitive enough to be a thorn in their sides.”

His 16-24 record in elimination rounds last year was one of his five least productive seasons since he started to compete full time in 2003. Of his 24 losses in eliminations in 2017, 21 were to teams in the “big three.”

“I’m not real happy with myself from last year,” said Wilkerson, who tunes his car with Richard Hartman. “I’ve dedicated myself to being better this year. We just have to be a more consistent car. I was a lot better car in ’16 than ’17. I’m going to fix it.”

Despite being disappointed with his team’s performance, he finished last year ranked eighth in Mello Yello points after qualifying for the Countdown to the Championship playoff for the 10th straight year.

But he was able to advance to only two final rounds (Atlanta and Sonoma, California) and did not win a Wally Trophy for only the sixth season since 1999, leaving his career total at 20 in 39 finals. In 2017, he earned one No. 1 qualifying position (Bristol, Tenn.) for the 19th of his career.

The 2018 Mello Yello season kicks off with testing Thursday through Sunday at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park near Phoenix. It will give Tim Wilkerson Racing the opportunity for new crew members to adjust before the season opens with the Winternationals the following week at Pomona, California.

“We lost a couple of crew members, but that’s always part of it,” he said. “When you’re one of the ‘big three’ and have 75 or more crew guys on the payroll losing a couple isn’t a big deal. But when you’re a small team with just six full-timers, losing two is a bad deal.”

In addition to Hartman, he said Mike Gonzalez and Brandon Burgess will return and will fly to races from different cities.

For the second straight year, Pro Modified racer Chad Green will be in his seat for the first two days of testing. He earned his nitro Funny Car license in the car a year ago during the test.

“Chad will drive the car Thursday and Friday to get more seat time and let our new crew guys get adjusted before I take over on Saturday and Sunday. Chad has a Pro Mod and plans to run all the Mello Yello races. Who knows, one day we might have a two-car team or something neat like that.”

Green joined a loyal base of sponsors when a logo was added a year ago to the Shelby Mustang to promote his Bond-Coat Inc. (BondCoat.com) that he founded 45 years ago in Odessa, Texas, for the oilfield service industry providing external casing and tubing coatings for corrosion prevention.

Also back is Curry's Transportation Services, a family-owned multi-service trucking company based in Muscatine, Iowa.

His primary sponsor will be Levi, Ray & Shoup, a worldwide leader in information technology solutions (LRS.com), for the 20th season. Summit Racing Equipment is back as a major associate.

“I probably wouldn’t be doing this without the help of Dick Levi and Levi, Ray & Shoup,” Wilkerson said. “He’s been a great supporter and friend.”

Wilkerson is a versatile entrepreneur based in Springfield, Illinois, about 200 miles west of Indianapolis. He owns Capital City Machine Shop (CapitalCityMachineShop.com) that specializes in diesel engine repairs. His 92-year-old father, Roy, worked for 40 years as a machinist at Allis-Chalmers, a manufacturer of machinery for various industries, but that isn’t what inspired him to open a machine shop.

“I have a civil engineering degree but got into the machine shop business because I knew there would soon be a need in our area for that to support the automotive repair business.

“That’s what we’ve keyed on the last five years,” he said of Capital Machine that he opened 22 years ago.

“The last five or 10 years the need (for a machine shop) has fallen off because most newer engines are modular and don’t need a lot of machining repair like they used to. That’s why we began focusing on commercial diesel repair. Those jobs need to get fixed right away, or those trucks aren’t making money.”

Capital Machine’s three full-time machinists also work on about 20 engines each year for various race teams in the region and all repairs to TWR’s nitro cylinder heads and blocks.

He also owns a NAPA AutoCare Center next door as well as a small real estate business in which he was closing on the purchase of a residential duplex before heading to Arizona for the annual NHRA preseason test session.

Son Dan, 30, has driven a Funny Car for TWR but no races are the 2018 schedule this year as the younger Wilkerson, who has a master’s degree in accounting is studying to become a Certified Public Accountant. He works for the firm that hired him as an apprentice when in high school.

He has qualified for all 11 events he has entered since his debut at Topeka, Kansas, in 2009. He advanced to the quarterfinals last October in the LRS/Summit Racing Shelby Mustang in his only race of the year.

“He’s done a great job every time he’s with us,” his dad said. “He’s working hard now to get his CPA. We don’t have anything for him right now, but that could change. I’m just so proud of him.”

He might start printing some “Got More Wilk?” t-shirts.