Despite racing on a modest budget, Bob Gilbertson is a serious player in Funny Car
Wikipedia describes persistence as the act of
refusing to give up. Bob Gilbertson's career in NHRA POWERade Series drag racing
fits the description to a tee. Twice, due to business concerns, he stepped away
from drag racing only to come back for more. Eventually, his determination paid
off and Gilbertson is living out his dream of competing in the sport he loves
But it's not easy. Gilbertson is competing with modest means in a sport that demands multi-million dollar budgets. "Competing against those big teams is tough," said Gilbertson, who has competed full-time since 1999. "You look down the list, and how many single car teams are competing from week to week? It's really just me and Tim Wilkerson.
"But this is what I like to do. I have the problem of that I can't make a living doing it, like some of the teams out here. I really don't focus a 100 percent doing this, which a lot of guys do. I have a business I run. I can change down the road, and when I do I can devote 100 percent of my time to racing. It's whole different game then. But right now, I don't make a living by racing."
Still, the nitro coupe veteran has done well, considering the circumstances. He has one win in five final rounds and advanced to seven semifinals in six seasons.
Gilbertson's NHRA career actually goes back to the 1970s,
when he drove a Top Alcohol Funny Car and finished second in Division 6. He
stepped away from the sport only to return briefly in the '80s, competing mostly
in IHRA events. He then took the steps to go full-time in the
By that time, he was able to form Terminator Motorsports after enjoying a very successful business life with his two companies - Truck Equipment Manufacturing Company and Trick Tank Inc., the world's only aluminum portable air tank builder.
"Those years I was absent, which were in the early '90s, I could have raced those years," Gilbertson admits. "But I'm the kind of guy who wants to compete. I don't want to come out just to come out and have substandard equipment. I don't want to just run three or four races (a year) and not qualify and oil the track...I could have done it that way. But I didn't want to race that way.
"I have no regrets. I just sat back and read National Dragster and smiled and looked at my bank account. Then when I started paying the IRS a lot of money, I thought it was time to go back to racing (in '97). I started thinking about it then."
Gilbertson competed in 16 events in '99 and advanced to
one semifinal. He has run full-time since 2000. That same year he also scored
his only national event victory. He did it in surprising fashion, winning from
the No. 16 position. He defeated some of the sport's more high-profile
competitors. Those included 13-time champion John Force and Jerry Toliver, who
was in the midst of making a championship run that season."I was kind of
like J.R. Todd," said Gilbertson, making reference to this year's leading
candidate for NHRA Rookie of the Year after winning twice in Top Fuel. "You come
out relatively new and win a race. It's tough to do. It was a big deal; a big
moment for me."Paul Smith was my crew chief back then, and he had a
consistent tune-up. We ran 5.0s all day and it worked and we won the race. It
was kind of an odd situation, winning the race from (the No. 16 position).
That's pretty tough."Gilbertson also most pulled the trick at Houston
again this year. He qualified 15th, then beat Force Racing entries Eric Medlen
and Robert Hight en route to the finals, where he lost to Don Schumacher
Racing's Ron Capps. "We almost did it again," Gilbertson said. "But the chips
weren't lined up right. Ron Capps did everything to let us win, we just couldn't
It's been the highlight of what hasn't been the best of seasons for Gilbertson. On race day, he's a very respectable 9-12 during eliminations. But the problem has been getting there. Gilbertson has failed to qualify in five of the first 18 events. That has practically wiped out the success that has seen him advance to one final round (Houston and make the semifinals twice (Pomona and Denver).
"We've had our ups and downs," Gilbertson said. "We've DNQ’d at five races. If we didn't, we would be in the top 10. It's like at school, and you have two A’s and two F's. When we qualify the car, our win record is pretty good.
"Our biggest problem is just getting in the show. When we do that, we're pretty good. But in this class, you have 17-18 cars that are pretty good, so every race there are going to be two pretty good cars that are not qualified. And you never know who it's going to be from race to race."
But it hasn't been that cut and dry for Gilbertson, who can't really pinpoint his team's problems.
"Sometimes we have bad decisions on how to tune the car," Gilbertson said. "But sometimes it's the driver (Gilbertson) getting out the grove and sometimes it's a guy (on the crew) who forgots to tighten something up.
"I think I can say the first couple of races we didn't qualify, Gainesville being one, was because of the new tire (required by Goodyear and NHRA). It has (thrown us a curveball). You can take two of those DNQs and say it was the tire, but the other three - it's between the driver and the crew chief. There's nothing you really can put your hand on."
But he also knows they can do better.
"We're going to turn it up to see if we can get in the top 10," Gilbertson said. "To do that would feel like when we won our first race." He also joked about what it would feel like, saying "It would feel like, 'Wow, that 10 million dollars I spent was worth it.'"
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