Drivers Start Your Engines
NHRA to NASCAR – two Illinois professional drivers share their stories of success
By: Catrina McCulley Wagner
For the 2009 season, Wilkerson is driving a 7,000 horsepower nitro funny car with a Ford Mustang body.
Krista and Tim Wilkerson celebrate a victory with the rest of Team Wilkerson
Justin and Ashley Allgaier celebrated their third wedding anniversary in March. “We’ve seen big changes in our short three years, and hopefully the future will hold even more,” Justin Allgaier says
|Justin Allgaier after winning the ARCA RE/Max Championship in 2008.
The buzz of a million spectators, adorned from head to toe with their favorite driver’s memorabilia, resonates through the speedway. As they eagerly find their seats, a low rumble shakes the bench beneath them and the sweet smell of fuel wafts through the air. The racers rev up their engines, exciting fans into a frenzy of anticipation.
Whether you like the zero to 300-miles-per-hour (mph) blast of the National Hot Rod Association’s (NHRA) dragsters, or the four-hour, 200-mph thrill ride of National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), there is one common entity all professional race car drivers and their fans share – a need for speed.
NHRA Driver Tim Wilkerson
At the early age of 17, Tim Wilkerson’s blood turned to fuel. Born and raised in Springfield, Wilkerson spent most of his weekends on the drag strip in Havana racing his bracket car.
“I initially was just a motor head, a kid that loved cars,” says Wilkerson. “But once it got into my blood, it was pretty hard to get rid of. We were always taught that you don’t do it on the street, you do it on the strip, so that’s what we did.”
Racing didn’t pay the bills, though, so Wilkerson pursued his degree in engineering while working at a local gas station. “The owner of the gas station came by one day, trying to talk my boss into buying the station because he was moving. My boss wasn’t interested, but I was,” recalls Wilkerson.
The gas station owner didn’t take the 20-year-old Wilkerson seriously, at first.
“It took about six months to convince him, but I finally did, and I went into business for myself. Five years later, I had three gas stations in Springfield,” Wilkerson says, adding: “I have since sold two of my businesses and have gotten out of the gasoline industry. We presently run a vehicle service center in Springfield.”
A second significant event that occurred when Wilkerson was 20, was marrying his high school sweetheart, Krista.
“She’s my biggest supporter,” Wilkerson says. “She takes care of all the guys and makes sure everyone is happy. I couldn’t do it without her.”
“He’s been racing since we met. It’s been great for us. Racing has kept things interesting,” Krista Wilkerson says.
In 1989, and at the age of 29,Wilkerson took his racing career to the next level and built an alcohol funny car to race for the NHRA. But the racing business is expensive, and without sponsors to support a driver, it’s almost out of reach for most. “We had a couple of small sponsors, but we knew we needed to be in a class that was televised more in order to elevate the level of our program,” says Wilkerson.
In 1995, Team Wilkerson decided to build a nitro funny car to get more exposure and to, hopefully, catch the eye of a big sponsor. “It wasn’t too hard getting into the circuit,” Wilkerson recalls. “But being competitive and doing good enough to achieve the recognition, notoriety and sponsorship, now that’s another story.”
And he did get good enough, eventually catching the attention of Levi, Ray & Shoup, Inc. (LRS), a global company who provides innovative information technology solutions to companies around the world. LRS is headquartered in Springfield and has been a great partner for Team Wilkerson.
“Sponsorship is really important because at the beginning, it’s completely self-funded. When you get good enough to catch the eye of a sponsor, they help cover your expenses. Then what we hope for is that the sponsor sees a return on their investment based on our television time,” Wilkerson explains.
This hobby, turned business, is more than Wilkerson could have dreamed. He says driving a nitro funny car is like nothing else in the world. “The 7,000-horsepower acceleration of that car, the smell of the nitro fuel that shakes the ground and shakes you, it’s hard to beat,” he says.
Wilkerson recalls very vividly the day he got his license to drive his nitro funny car. “It was in 1995. We went to Dallas and when we were finished, my wife said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘Well, there’s probably something cooler than that car, but I don’t know what it is.’”
“It was like he’d won the lottery,” Krista Wilkerson remembers. “I knew at that moment what we’d be doing for the rest of our lives,” she says with a laugh.
Wilkerson is widely regarded as one of drag racing’s genuine “nice guys.” And it’s often said, “nice guys finish last.” But this “nice guy” has proven that old adage wrong. Wilkerson has continued to break record after record through the years, but it was in 2008 when he really pulled out all the stops.
“Tim didn’t just avoid finishing in the cellar last year, like ‘nice guys’ are supposed to do, he actually came within one day of winning the NHRA Funny Car Championship and earned an even greater amount of respect and admiration from fans and racers alike,” says Bob Wilber, Team Manager for Wilkerson Racing.
Wilkerson’s second place finish in the funny car rankings was the outcome of a sequence of career-best performances through the 2008 season, including six race victories and four, first-place qualifying spots.
“He led the points standings for most of the season and nearly grabbed the big prize, but through all of the pressure and challenges, nothing changed about him. Tim is a dedicated family man, who owns, tunes and drives his own car. His driving and tuning abilities are easy to see on the stat sheet, and very well known by his peers, but it’s his integrity, honesty and leadership that make him what he is, and frankly he’s an inspirational guy, who carries this team pretty much on his shoulders,” Wilber says.
“I’ve been so fortunate to have so many good people around me to make everything work so well,” says Wilkerson. “And that starts at home. My wife makes this so good. Our kids, Daniel (20), Kevin (19) and Rachel (17) travel to see me any chance they get. And I think that’s why we do so well, because I have that support going for me. I was lucky enough to find all the right people to be able to do this with. That’s an accomplishment in itself. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I know that a great team is very important.”
Heading into the 2009 season, Wilkerson says his goals were to try to qualify for every race. “I know that sounds a little superficial,” he says. “But in 2007, I missed seven of the races because we didn’t qualify. Last year, we qualified for every single race and that made a big difference. As long as we qualify, we have a chance.”
To view the 2009 race schedule, visit: www.nhra.com/schedules/default.aspx.
NASCAR Nationwide Driver Justin Allgaier
Riverton native, Justin Allgaier’s race car beginnings came at the tender age of 5, behind the wheel of a quarter midget roadster. His parents, Mike and Dorothy Allgaier, own Hoosier Tire Midwest, so Allgaier has been around the high-speed racers all of his life.
“In the summers, when my dad was out on business, my mom would bring me to watch the quarter midget races,” remembers Allgaier. “I fell in love with it. When you’re 5, and you see those cars going around with kids your own age racing … it was pretty cool,” Allgaier says.
By 12 years old, Allgaier, who had earned the nickname “Little Gator” for his size and assertiveness behind the wheel, was a five-time quarter midget champion with more than 100 wins to his name.
From there, he graduated through the motor sports ranks, collecting trophies and praise on his way up. “I raced midget cars, micro-sprints and bandoleros until I was 16. We were racing four to five nights a week and traveling to North Carolina, Indianapolis and all over Illinois and Missouri,” Allgaier remembers. “It was a lot of traveling, but my dream was to make this my career someday,” he says.
Then at 16 years old, Allgaier got the opportunity to drive three starts in an Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) RE/MAX Series car for a family friend. The ARCA RE/MAX Series is a minor, but professional, league of stock car racing, only two steps down from the top-level NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and one step down from that series’ minor league, the NASCAR Nationwide Series. During those three starts, and racing against legend Ken Schrader, Allgaier finished in 11th place.
“I really loved the ARCA Series. It was different than what I was used to, but I got the hang of things pretty fast,” Allgaier says about switching from a lightweight sprint car to a heavier stock car. “But I could only run a handful of races every year because you had to be 18 to run on any racetracks that were more than a mile long. But when I turned 19, I began racing ARCA full time.”
Early in 2006, and before Allgaier’s career advanced to the next level, he married his high school sweetheart, Ashley. “She’s been great through all of this. She helps a lot,” Allgaier says.
“During his ARCA RE/MAX racing days, I made all travel arrangements, paid all the bills, did ordering and kept the office organized,” says Ashley Allgaier. “And on race days, I made sure all the team was taken care of and that everyone had their radios and food. And during the race, I sat on top of the pit box taking lap times and counting cautions,” she says.
“You have to really love racing to choose this life. Ashley is by my side at every race, so I think she’s ready for it,” Justin Allgaier says. “It’s a big change, and I’m glad she’s there beside me.”
Justin Allgaier continued racing in the ARCA RE/MAX series until he was 22. And along the way, he set some amazing records. In 2005, he won the Pork Pole Award for setting a record in Springfield as the fastest qualifier, shattering the previous track record set 10 years prior. In 2006, he made history again at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield by earning his first ARCA victory and becoming the first Springfield area resident to win in the 72-year history of championship auto racing at the fairgrounds. In 2007, he won two features in a midget car and placed third in the Chili Bowl behind Tony Stewart and JJ Yeley. He also finished that year with 23 ARCA races that ended with him fourth in the championship standings, racking up one win, four top-five finishes and 11, top-10 finishes.
“I’ve been so proud watching him win and make history,” says Ashley Allgaier. “It’s all been very exciting. Every year has been more exciting than the last,” she says.
In 2008, at the age of 22, Justin Allgaier turned the corner on his racing career. “I raced 21 ARCA races and I won six of them. The last win was in Toledo, Ohio and we wound up winning the championship,” says Justin Allgaier. “That kind of catapulted my career. A lot of people were talking about us. There was a buzz going around that maybe I should be racing in the next series up,” he says.
“Justin got a phone call from the guys at Penske Racing and they wanted to meet with him, so he and his dad flew to Detroit to talk,” says Ashley Allgaier.
“Before we knew it, we were signing with Penske Racing to drive in their NASCAR Nationwide Series,” recalls Justin Allgaier.
Soon after he signed, Penske teamed up with Verizon Wireless to sponsor the number 12 Dodge Charger Justin would be driving in the 2009 series. “There’s not many companies that can rival that brand, and I’m with a great team, so I’m definitely excited about this year,” Justin Allgaier says.
“We’d had our eye on Justin for some time,” says Tim Cindric, President of Penske Racing. “Penske Racing was fortunate to be in a position to bring him on board,” he says.
“We’ve worked very hard to get Justin in a position to get to that next level,” says Mike Allgaier, Justin’s dad. “Not just me; there were a lot of people who worked very hard on our crew over the years.
“As a father, beyond getting a chance to do this with a first-class operation, he’s remained a very good person, which is every bit as important to me as his career is,” Mike Allgaier says.
Justin and Ashley moved to North Carolina to be closer to the Penske race shop. “It’s so different from Riverton, Ill.,” says Justin Allgaier. “I thought traffic jams were four or five cars in a row, but they’re definitely more major here. It kind of makes it tough when you drive for a living,” he laughs.
“This is Justin’s dream and I couldn’t be happier for him,” says Ashley Allgaier.
You can catch Justin and the NASCAR Nationwide Series televised on Saturdays. For a full schedule of races, visit: www.nationwide.com/series/series-info-schedule.jsp.