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KENT -- Tim Wilkerson’s hot weather tune-up salvaged the day for Ford Racing Sunday after a weather change altered the performance parameters and the tragic death of driver Mark Niver suspended racing for more than two hours at the 23rd annual NHRA Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways.
Niver, 60, a veteran sportsman racer from Phoenix, suffered fatal injuries when an apparent malfunction of the braking parachutes sent his Top Alcohol Dragster into the catch net at Pacific Raceways at 271.79 miles per hour after he had defeated Shawn Cowie in the semifinals.
In taking his Levi, Ray and Shoup Ford Mustang to the final round for the third straight Full Throttle race and to victory for the second consecutive event, Wilkerson moved around Bob Tasca III and Ashley Force Hood and into fifth place in the Funny Car driver standings with just three races remaining before the start of the Countdown to 1 playoffs.
This time, he beat veteran Ron Capps in the final round with a time of 4.221 seconds at 292.39 miles per hour. Capps again failed to earn a breakthrough first 2010 victory, second across the finish line in 4.246 seconds in the NAPA Dodge.
“It’s good to be the only Ford left at the end of the day,” Wilkerson said, “[but] it’s a lot better to be racing John [Force] in the finals [as he did in the two previous events] because you know there is going to be a Ford in the winner’s circle.
“I was really happy with our car,” Wilkerson said after repeating as Northwest Nationals champ. “It just did a good job. There was a lot of drama today. There was a lot of time between rounds. I was really out of focus and [was] very fortunate to get to the winners circle, to tell you the truth.”
“I am a lot better, believe it or not, when I don’t get to sit around and think about it. I did so much thinking today between third and fourth round that my head was just spinning. I just wasn’t on it like I needed to be. Luckily for me the car was performing good and everybody else had the same problem I did. Everyone’s lights [reaction times] weren’t very good. You get to the end of the day here and there is more sunlight shining on the Tree it is kind of hard to cut a good light here.”
Despite his success on hot racetracks, Wilkerson pooh-poohed his growing reputation as a warm weather guru.
“None of that crap means anything to me,” he said. “I’m just a guy that goes up there and goes racing. If I get to win the round, then so be it. If I can’t, then so be it. I made some nice runs today.
“I am just way happier for my guys than anything. For me, it’s just another day at the drags. I would drive a JFR car or a Schumacher car if I didn’t have my own to drive. I just enjoy racing. When you get a chance to beat bigger teams, I tell you what you just go home with your chest stuck out a little bit more.”
“We talked about it right before we started the car. Right before they told us to start the car, I got on the radio and said, ‘You know you guys kicked everybody’s ass the last three weeks, you deserve to win again today. We are going to give it our best.’ We got lucky there.”
Nevertheless, while Wilkerson kept the blue oval brand at the forefront, it was largely a throwaway weekend for the remainder of the Ford contingent including points leader John Force, who exited in round one, and No. 1 qualifier Robert Top Gun Hight, who was ousted a round later.
In fact, on a day when the track temperature played havoc with strategies, varying from a weekend low of 87 degrees in round one to 119 degrees in the semifinals, Wilkerson’s was the only Mustang to survive beyond the second round.
Tasca, the No. 7 qualifier in the Quick Lane/Motorcraft Ford, was the first to fall. He was followed in the same round by Force, who was victimized by a clutch problem, crossed the centerline and was disqualified against Jack Beckman.
“I knew it had a clutch problem before I ran,” Force said of his Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang. “I was just going to go up there and do the best I could. I put the top bulb out on Beckman [trying to affect his concentration]. I was trying everything.
“We took off and I didn’t see him,” acknowledged the 14-time champion. “I didn’t know he was having problems so, when I smoked the tires [lost traction], I got back [on the throttle]. Bottom line, I crossed the centerline.”
Despite his early elimination in a race he had won seven times previously, Force remains comfortably in the points lead and on Sunday became the first Funny Car driver to lock up of starting spot in the playoffs.
“I’m glad to be in the Countdown,” said the 130-time tour winner. “Someone asked me if I was going to take it easy now [and] I told them, ‘no way.’ I am going to try and get as many points as possible. We want to have that top spot going into Indy [and the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, first race in the Countdown to 1]. That is what we are going to fight for. We want all the points we can get.”
Although he was the No. 1 qualifier for the sixth time this year, Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock just didn’t have an answer for the changing conditions and fell to Beckman in the second round after his Auto Club of Southern California Ford lost traction near the mid-point in the course.
“That was a tough loss,” Hight said, “[but] we qualified well and Jimmy has a real good handle on this Auto Club Ford Mustang. We are still in good shape for the Countdown. I am glad there are only three days until we start racing again. I can’t wait to get to Sonoma, I’ll tell you that.
We got some qualifying bonus points this race and we qualified No. 1. We won the first round. Those are all positives [even though we] want to win every round. We’ll be ready for Sonoma.”
Force Hood’s day began with a promising first round victory ahead of veteran Gary Densham but ended just one round later against veteran Ron Capps. The 27-year-old daughter of the 14-time champ probably deserved better—but such has been the case all season.
One of the two first Funny Cars out for the first round, her Castrol GTX Ford logged its best performance of the weekend, stopping the 1,000 foot timers in 4.128 seconds at 301.60 mph to turn back Densham’s Chevrolet.
Although that was the second quickest time of the round, it didn’t even get the reigning Mac Tools U.S. Nationals champion the choice of lanes for round two. That’s because her second round opponent, Ron Capps, unloaded quick time of the entire event at 4.098 seconds.
Unfortunately, the lane choice option proved decisive in round two where Capps earned a narrow 4.177-to-4.218 victory, which provided a springboard to his first final round since the season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.