Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – COMMERCE, GA – After slow starts to each of his past two seasons, veteran Tim Wilkerson had to fight an uphill battle to reach the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship. With a pair of final-round appearances and a No.1 qualifier to open the 2019 season, that doesn’t appear to be a problem for the Funny Car fan favorite this year.
Wilkerson has looked strong at nearly every race in 2019 in his 10,000-horsepower Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Shelby Mustang, currently sitting in seventh place through the first five races. He’s done it with impressive performances in a car that has delivered some of the best runs in the class, taking plenty of momentum into Georgia’s House of Speed, Atlanta Dragway, for the 39th annual Arby’s NHRA Southern Nationals, May 3-5.
“We’ve got our form back again and hopefully it keeps that way,” said Wilkerson, who has 11 straight top 10 finishes. “We’re pretty excited with how we’re running. My guys are doing a good job and it helps my confidence. Now we can just pick at the car a little. Sometimes you get in the groove of just trying to be there and if you have a couple of tragedies with a car, you get in a pickle and you can’t get the thing working. It drives you crazy, but the car is running good now.”
Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), Courtney Force (Funny Car) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1, including finals coverage starting at 6:00 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, May 5. It is the seventh of 24 races during the 2019 NHRA season and Wilkerson will look for his second career victory in Atlanta. He has two final round appearances since 2015, hoping to build on his current momentum.
Wilkerson has qualified third or better, including a No. 1 qualifier in Las Vegas, at the past four races, running as quick as 3.872 with a number of runs at more than 320 mph. The next step is building consistency as he races against a talented Funny Car field that includes points leader Robert Hight, who has three wins in 2019, defending world champ J.R. Todd, and Phoenix winner Matt Hagan, but Wilkerson has been helped by a crew that’s stayed intact from a year ago.
“It’s just unbelievable how much that helps,” Wilkerson said. “The fact that we have the same guys, their confidence is up. They’ve helped make this car pretty fast and it’s a pretty fun thing. We’re testing every Saturday at a race. We’ll throw caution to the wind and test something every Saturday, so that makes that first day of qualifying real important. That sets the tone.”
It’s been a strong tone thus far for Wilkerson, who noted he tested blowers during Saturday qualifying in Houston, and tires, rims and clutch discs at the previous event in Las Vegas. But it’s a process that has worked out well for him, as Wilkerson has performed well during the two Friday qualifying sessions in 2019. He knows the elite performers in Funny Car will continue to push the envelope and, but Wilkerson isn’t content with just showing up. The 20-time event winner is there for winner’s circle celebrations and he’s determined to get there in Atlanta.
“We expect to make round wins every weekend,” Wilkerson said. “I never have any aspirations of anything less than that. Our goal is to go out there, whoop someone’s butt and go home. That shows in how the crew acts and how we operate as a team. That’s our deal and that’s the fun part of this, in my opinion.”
Leah Pritchett grabbed her first career victory at Atlanta Dragway in Top Fuel a year ago, and she races against defending Top Fuel champ Steve Torrence and points leader Doug Kalitta.
The Pro Stock Motorcycle class makes its fourth of 16 appearances in 2019 at the event, with everyone chasing Andrew Hines, who won the season-opening race in Gainesville.
The E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by J&A Service has its fourth of 12 races in the 2019 season. Todd Tutterow and Stevie “Fast” Jackson both have wins this year, while the class also includes popular drivers Erica Enders, Alex Laughlin, defending world champ Mike Janis and three-time champ Rickie Smith. The event also features exciting competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, showcasing the future stars of the sport.
As always, fans can interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.
NHRA fans can take part in the Mello Yello Walking Tour to see the cars and teams hard at work in the pits. Fans can also attend Nitro School to learn more about how the cars operate and reach their thrilling speeds. Atlanta Dragway will host a Mello Yello autograph session and allow fans to meet their favorite drivers as well as the Cruising with Castello Sealmaster Track Walk hosted by NHRA announcer Joe Castello. A can’t-miss experience of any NHRA event is the winner’s circle celebration on Sunday after racing concludes. NHRA fans are invited to congratulate the winners of the event as they celebrate their Arby’s NHRA Southern Nationals victories.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 4:00 and 7:00 p.m. on Friday, May 3 and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, May 4, at 12:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, May 5.
NHRA PRO MOD POINT LEADER STEVIE “FAST” JACKSON SEEKING REDEMPTION AT CHARLOTTE
Considering he has two final rounds appearances, a world record, one victory and the points lead, it couldn’t be a much better start to the 2019 E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by J&A Service season for Stevie “Fast” Jackson.
But heading to zMAX Dragway as part of this weekend’s 10th annual NGK Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, there is redemption on Jackson’s mind. The fan-favorite and Pro Mod standout crashed in the final round of the race a year ago, and returning to the site of that unfortunate incident is clearly on his mind as Jackson heads to Charlotte this weekend.
“That’s a big ole’ dragon I have to go slay,” said Jackson, who has six career wins. “Lining up in that far right lane and taking that thing down through there, I’m not going to lie to you, I’m nervous about it. We’ve never particularly done well in Charlotte. It seems like there’s always something there taking the icing off my cake. I want that race. We’re fast enough to win that race. The driving style you need to win a four-wide (race) favors me. It’s an outside-the-box, grudge race-type mentality. I anticipate doing well there and I’m going there to win that race.”
The race, which is presented by SMP Racing, is the third of 12 events during the 2019 E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series season and will be shown on Fox Sports 1 (FS1) and Fox Sports 2 (FS2). Jose Gonzalez is the defending winner of the event, but Jackson was right with Gonzalez until he got loose on the top end a year ago.
Since then, Jackson has debuted a new supercharger-powered Bahrain 1 Racing Camaro this year, made the quickest run in the history of the class (5.643) in Gainesville and won the most recent event in Houston. It gave him a slim three-point lead against Todd Tutterow, who topped Jackson in the final round at Gainesville, while the duo has opened up an impressive lead over the rest of the talented field. But a quick start is all part of the plan for Jackson, who made his NHRA Pro Mod debut in 2017 and has championship aspirations in 2019.
“My goal is to win 20 rounds (in 2019),” Jackson said. “I think 18 will win a title. If you go two rounds per race, you’re definitely winning a title. That’s our goal and that leaves you room to drop the ball at one or two races. I feel like everyone, including us, is very likely to DNQ one of these races. There will be very few teams to qualify at all 12 races, including us. We DNQ’d twice last year and if you get behind the eight-ball you’re done. (But) I absolutely have a roadmap.”
It’s a tough road to navigate considering the immense talent in the class. The list includes the likes of defending world champion Mike Janis, three-time world champ Rickie Smith, Chad Green, Jeremy Ray and Michael Biehle, with more than 25 standout drivers competing in Charlotte. Add in the unique aspect of four-wide drag racing and it makes for another thrilling weekend for the class. Jackson appreciates the different talents in the class, as well as the different power adders (supercharger, nitrous and turbo) that make for plenty of exciting storylines.
“It’s cool that there are races that kind of favor each combination, but if you don’t get it done with a supercharged car early, you’re going to struggle down the stretch,” Jackson said. “There’s races for each combination that are beneficial for sure. It showcases the tuners, as well as the drivers. The thing I love about NHRA Pro Mod is you’re not going to be dominant for very long. This class is as hard as it gets and it’s exciting. To come out and do as well as we have is amazing. Coming out swinging is an awesome momentum-builder for our team.”
SMP Racing is the presenting sponsor for the E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series race in Charlotte, as the class continues its exciting 2019 campaign. Featuring the world’s fastest doorslammer race cars, the E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by J&A Service offers something for every kind of hot-rodding enthusiast. The class is highlighted by historic muscle cars, like ’67 Mustangs, ’68 Firebirds and ’69 Camaros, as well as a variety of late model American muscle cars.
SMP Racing is Russia’s premier motorsports development program, featuring a variety of racers who compete in some of the largest racing series across the world.
The first of four E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by J&A Service qualifying sessions takes place at 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. on Friday, and the final two rounds of qualifying take place on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. and 3:55 p.m. The first round of Pro Mod eliminations are scheduled for 12:40 p.m. on Sunday.