Just one month ago, veteran Funny Car pilot Tim Wilkerson was riding high atop the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series standings with two wins, three finals and one of finest starts of his career.
Now, following a rather strange incident at the NHRA Kansas Nationals at Heartland Park Topeka, he is left with a broken car, a bruised ego and a ton of questions about just what went wrong.
Wilkerson entered the eighth of 24 events on the 2016 NHRA calendar this past weekend in Kansas third in the championship standings, with a brand new chassis and Ford Mustang body ready for competition. But during his semifinal round matchup against Jack Beckman, Wilkerson suffered a freak accident that saw his car immediately lose traction at the hit and slap the right-side retaining wall before spinning around and darting across the track into the opposing wall, erupting in a brief fireball upon impact.
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While Wilkerson was uninjured in the wild ride, his immediate thoughts went to exactly what could have caused such a bizarre incident.
“I was really disappointed with myself, but by the time I got my attention off the tree and onto the racetrack, that thing was already sliding. The back of the tires didn’t even make it to the starting line,” Wilkerson said. “I was hoping that the rear end spun a hub or something, but that was not it. We’re still looking at the videos and just trying to figure out why it would do that right on the starting line.
“We really haven’t come to a permanent conclusion. Right now it’s all hearsay.”
Wilkerson qualified third earlier in the weekend with a career-best 3.869-second lap at 333.74 mph and ran strong on race day in wins over John Hale and Del Worsham but, in the semifinal round, the car lost traction before he ever had a chance to recover. In multiple viewings of the mishap, Wilkerson and his Levi, Ray & Shoup Funny Car team have found little in the way of a cause for the accident, but hope extensive testing will shed at least some light on just what went wrong.
“We just don’t know at this point. The car in front of us smoked the tires immediately and a lot of smoke came out of it. I have watched the video from the race and when I did my burnout, the car actually drifted in the burnout and the car never does that,” Wilkerson said. “You watch the car when it leaves the starting line from the back and it’s got the left tire smoking and the right tire is doing nothing; like it’s in something that it shouldn’t be in. Who knows, at this point it’s all guessing. I had two or three other team members tell me they went to the starting line to look and they didn’t see anything. I have no clue what went on there.
“We don’t know if we maybe had a nozzle line on our car that was leaking. The fact that the tire had no traction at all at that point, we’re even looking into seeing if something was wrong with the tire. There was nothing that we could see anywhere on the car when we got back that was broken. So at this point, we just don’t know.”
Among the possible causes, Wilkerson has ruled out a broken oil line, while Strange Engineering, the rear-end and axle manufacturer for Wilkerson’s Funny Car, has ruled out those components as a possible cause of the crash.
While the mystery continues, Wilkerson said he has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from the other race teams wishing to lend a helping hand to the popular driver.
“Every big team on the circuit has tried to come to my rescue, which is very, very nice,” Wilkerson said. “(John) Force said anything I need he would help. Kalitta’s guys came over and offered anything we needed. It was very nice of everyone.”
With the next race only one week away, Wilkerson, who remains third in the Funny Car standings, is optimistic that the team will regroup and be ready to go when the NHRA travels to the northeast for the NHRA New England Nationals at New England Dragway.
“We took the new car over to Murph’s this week, set it up on the jig, and still need to front-half it before it will be ready to go,” Wilkerson said. “In the meantime, we’re borrowing the car that I won Phoenix in from Brian Stewart.
“There shouldn’t be too much difference. The other car worked so dang good, it’s really a shame, but that’s racing. We’ll hopefully keep winning some rounds and keep this going. We won a race with that car this year, so it’s not undoable.”
Larry Crum is a Senior Writer for CompetitionPlus.com, a leading independent online drag racing magazine, since 1999. For the latest in dragster news worldwide, visit www.competitionplus.com or follow on Twitter @competitionplus