Tim Wilkerson wins for the little guys
KENT, Wash. -- A big-money, big-time operation won Sunday at the Northwest Nationals. So did the small, one-car, watch-your-budget team.
Clearly, there's more than one way to win at the top levels of NHRA drag racing.
Tim Wilkerson, an owner/driver who tunes his own car, beat the Funny Car super-teams Sunday of John Force Racing and Don Schumacher Racing to win for the third consecutive year at the Seattle event.
Del Worsham, who won for the sixth time this season in Top Fuel by beating Tony Schumacher in the final, has been in Wilkerson's shoes.
For most of Worsham's career, he raced for his family-owned Funny Car team. Now Worsham is on the other side of the things, racing for the Al-Anabi team, where no expense is spared. And Worsham is making the most of it.
"This is [the] most wins I've ever had in a season and we're only halfway through," Worsham said at Pacific Raceways.
Well, a little more than halfway (14 of 22 events are in the books), but we get the point. Worsham is living the high life in his first Top Fuel season in 16 years.
Worsham has been the points leader all season and likely will start the Countdown playoff as the top seed next month at Charlotte, N.C. Two events remain -- Brainerd, Minn., and the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis -- before the Countdown begins.
Wilkerson took a major step toward making the Funny Car Countdown by defeating Jack Beckman in the final Sunday. Wilkerson blazed down the track in 4.146 seconds at 300.53 mph in his Ford flopper.
He entered this event on the bubble in 10th, but his first victory of 2011 moves him closer to securing a playoff spot. Wilkerson moved up to ninth, but he's now 141 points ahead of 11th-place Johnny Gray.
This was Wilkerson's first win since his victory here one year ago.
"This is going to be a big ego boost for my guys," Wilkerson said. "When you are the owner, crew chief and driver of a team, you spend a lot of time being a psychologist, especially when you go a year without winning a race.
"Your guys get some glum faces. You give them a hug and tell them to keep their chin up. This is good for morale, and you can't beat morale when you go into the playoffs."
It's still a tall order for Wilkerson to beat the Funny Car Goliaths of Schumacher and Force when the championship is on the line.
Don Schumacher fields four Funny Cars with drivers Matt Hagan, Ron Capps, Beckman and Gray. Force has three of the best cars in the class with Mike Neff and Robert Hight (Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the points standings) and Force, himself, the 15-time champ.
Drivers for those two operations claim six of the top seven spots in the standings. Wilkerson had to beat one driver from each of the super-teams in the final two rounds Sunday -- defeating Hight in the semifinal before stopping Beckman.
"It makes you feel good when you're a so-called little guy, and I am, but can run with the Schumacher and Force guys," Wilkerson said. "That's a tribute to my team."
Wilkerson isn't worrying about having the money to buy his next piston, but the 50-year-old racer isn't in the same situation as the two elite teams.
"It's definitely different," Wilkerson said. "Instead of having 20 blocks and 20 sets of cylinder heads, we have eight blocks and eight sets of heads. But we all use the same amount at the starting line."
At age 41, Worsham remembers those days, all those years in Funny Car when he was trying to beat the Force juggernaut. Now Worsham is part of the two-team dominance in Top Fuel after Al-Anabi boss Alan Johnson switched him over from a Funny Car to the dragster this season.
This is going to be a big ego boost for my guys. When you are the owner, crew chief and driver of a team, you spend a lot of time being a psychologist, especially when you go a year without winning a race.” -- Tim Wilkerson
Worsham's teammate, Larry Dixon, won the Top Fuel title last year. Don Schumacher Racing has three championship contenders in Top Fuel with Antron Brown, Spencer Massey and his son, Tony Schumacher, the seven-time champion.
Worsham's pass of 3.981 seconds at 316.38 mph was enough to edge Schumacher in the final by nine-thousands of a second.
"What you guys saw today is what I've gotten to live the last six months," Worsham said. "It's been unreal. To watch these guys work out there is amazing. They always give me a car that can win."
That task is a little easier when the team owner is a sheik from Qatar (His Highness Khalid Al-Thani), who gives the team everything it needs to be successful.
"It's pretty amazing," Worsham said. "This team has all the resources they need to race. But it's a lot more than just the resources. It's the people, the preparation and the attention to detail. These guys are very detailed-oriented and it shows. They are very good at what they do."
Of course, you can hire the best of the best when the funds are available to pay them what they deserve. That includes Johnson, who was Schumacher's crew chief before agreeing to run the Al-Anabi team in 2009.
Wilkerson doesn't have an army of workers like the super-teams, but he's happy with his group and knows they can compete.
"We've wondered a lot of times what money would do for our operation, large money," he said. "But the NHRA does a really good job of keeping some parity based on rules so things don't get out of control."
Sometimes the little guy still can outrun the big boys -- which works for Wilkerson.
And for Worsham? After years walking in Wilkerson's shoes, he's glad to finally be a big boy on a super-team.
In the NHRA, it can work either way.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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