Events / Motorsports

NHRA’s Wilkerson to Compete in 500th Nitro Funny Car Race in Atlanta

COMMERCE, GA. – The 39th annual Arby’s NHRA Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway will be the seventh race of 24 in the 2019 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. For Springfield, IL-based driver Tim Wilkerson, it will be more than race seven; it will be the 500th nitro Funny Car race of his career.

“I can’t believe it’s been 500 races. That’s a long time,” said Wilkerson, whose first start was in Gainesville in 1996. “We really need to thank [primary sponsor] Dick Levi for that. He’s been the man for 20 years, and I think it’s really cool that this year we celebrate our 500th race in our 20th year with Dick Levi. There aren’t a lot of teams who have had a primary sponsor for 20 years, and we’re beyond grateful to Dick for his support. It really means a lot to us.”

During his tenure, Wilkerson has won 20 events in 23 final rounds. He is widely regarded as a threat in the class and has finished in the top 10 in each of the past 11 seasons, as well as 14 times in his career. His best season to date was in 2008, when he finished No. 2 in the nation.

“In the beginning, I started out like everybody else – just happy to qualify and then win a round or two here or there,” said Wilkerson, who earned his first top 10 finish in 1998 and scored his first win in 1999 in Chicago. “Once we won a race, it was like, wow. We can do this, now we know it’s possible. We stumbled pretty hard a couple of years, but we’re tenacious. We don’t give it up. You just keep going.”

Team Summit driver Wilkerson, the driver, tuner, and team owner of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Mustang Funny Car, is an independent driver and the only single-car team in the category to finish in the top 10 in 2018. He acknowledges that he could not have come this far were it not for the support of each of his associate sponsors and the drag racing community over the past two decades.

“I’ve been so lucky with the tons of friends that got me here,” said Wilkerson. “Tom Meyer [team manager], he worked for nothing for years helping me. Rich Schendel from Quality Repair Service – I could never go racing without Rich. Back in the 2000s, he kept me going and fixed everything that was broke. Guys like that are a big part of my success.

“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it a thousand times, even the big teams helped keep me going, even when we didn’t have enough money and shouldn’t have been out here. Schumacher, Force, and Kalitta all sold me parts at one time or another to keep me going. There are a lot of people to thank for how my car runs. I’m probably 10 percent of why the thing works, in reality. All of the people who worked for me in the past and those who still do, I’m lucky to have them.”

Most of all, though, Wilkerson gives credit to his family. Wife Krista and children Daniel, Kevin, and Rachel have all been instrumental in his career.

“It’s always been critical to have Krista’s cooperation,” he stated adamantly. “This would never have worked without Krista. She puts in a full day of work, too, feeding the guys and making sure everybody is happy. Most importantly, she keeps me from going insane. Her favorite thing to ask me is, ‘What do you think all the unloved, miserable people are doing today?’ Whether I’m throwing things or standing there with a trophy in my hand, she says the same thing. It applies either way.

“We’ve had a lot of fun over the years with the family. Daniel, Kevin, and Rachel and I will sometimes get to talking about all of the things we’ve been able to do. We were very fortunate for those opportunities. They would come with us to races in the summertime, and we’d put them to work, then in between races we’d try to make a vacation out of it. It was really cool, and I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything.”

Daniel has been active as both a Funny Car driver and as a crew chief in recent years. In 2017, he piloted the Summit Racing-themed Funny Car in Dallas and wheeled his way to career best numbers, and this season he is crew chief of the Pronto Auto Parts nitro Funny Car driven by Blake Alexander.

“It’s still really cool when they’re there,” said Wilkerson. “Just the other day I texted Rachel and told her that if I go to one more final and don’t win, she’s going to have to quit her job and come hang out with us at the races. It used to be that every time she’d come to a race, we’d win. She even drove by a race one time on Sunday and we won it.”

As for the future, Wilkerson has no intention of hanging up his driving gloves anytime soon.

“I’d like to see the sport continue to grow,” he said. “We haven’t yet accelerated our potential, and I think that’s because we’re all so short-term focused on keeping ourselves going that we don’t focus on the big picture.

“I’ll keep trying to do my part, and of course I’m going to continue to keep my sponsors happy and keep trying to win. I’d love to see Daniel come out here and do this with me. I think that would be fun. Then we could do the same thing with his wife and the grandbaby that we did with our kids growing up. “I don’t want to say I’m fulfilled in this sport – I come out here to win every weekend – but I’ve done a lot of cool stuff. I’m pretty happy, and I’m pretty lucky.”

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