Q&A with NHRA Ford drivers Bob Tasca III and Tim Wilkerson
• Bob Tasca III, driver of the Motorcraft/Quick Lane Shelby Mustang Funny Car, enters his second season at the Kragen O’Reilly NHRA Winternationals this weekend in Pomona. Tasca talks about the importance of off-season testing, racing in Pomona with sophomore eyes and the return of the Mustang Cobra Jet to competition.
• Tim Wilkerson driver of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Mustang Funny Car finished second in the 2008 NHRA Funny Car championship narrowly missing the title as a single car entry in the age of multi-car teams. In 2009, Wilkerson has formed a technical alliance with Bob Tasca III and Tasca Racing allowing the two single car entries additional access to data and set-up information. As part of the alliance Wilkerson will campaign a Ford Mustang for the 2009 season which kicks off later this week at Pomona, Calif. with the NHRA Winternationals.
Bob Tasca III, driver of the Motorcraft/Quick Lane Shelby Mustang Funny Car, enters his second season at the Kragen O’Reilly NHRA Winternationals this weekend in Pomona. Tasca talks about the importance of off-season testing, racing in Pomona with sophomore eyes and the return of the Mustang Cobra Jet to competition.
Bob Tasca III – MOTORCRAFT/QUICK LANE SHELBY MUSTANG FUNNY CAR – HOW WAS THE PHOENIX TEST SESSION? “Phoenix is traditionally a difficult race track to go down this time of year. For whatever reason, it lends itself to cause tire shake. In our sport, tire shake is a huge challenge for crew chiefs with certain track conditions. It prevents you from going A-to-B and it will cause tire smoke. The car will shake and will end up smoking the tires. Going into Phoenix this year, I have a lot more confidence than I did going into it last year and our results proved pretty strong. When you look at the teams that were there, John Force Racing, the Schumacher camp, Del Worsham and other seasoned teams with a lot of data didn’t go down the race track at all on Friday. We made three full passes, we went a 4.15, and then we did another 4.15 and then a 4.16. We were the only car on Saturday to go down both afternoon sessions in the heat. And we were testing things. One of the things that we take advantage of is to try things that we don’t know will work, so even with some of the different things we were trying, our car went up and down the race track pretty consistently. There was 4.04 run and a 4.07 run, so there were a couple runs that were quicker than our run, but at the end of the day, if you can’t repeat it, you can’t win a race. You’ve got to win four rounds not one. The tune-up we were working on is just to get the car back-to-back with solid runs on a very tricky race track and we accomplished that. I was very happy with the data that we left Phoenix with. It’s going to give us a good springboard for when we come back to that race. What a lot of people don’t realize, most of what we learned in Phoenix won’t be applied at all in Pomona. A lot of people find that pretty surprising but these cars are that sensitive to the race surface and the corrected altitude, a lot of the set-up information is totally different when you go to the next track. That’s the exact case of Phoenix versus Pomona. The Pomona race will be a much more aggressive track. You’ll be able to put a lot more power on it. You’ll be able to go a lot faster than you will under most conditions at the Phoenix track. However, we’re back in Phoenix at the end of February. That’s when that data will really play an important role in how we perform at the Phoenix race. It’s good for the guys; we’ve got a couple of new guys on the team. It gives them an opportunity to get into full speed because you can practice in the shop but when the parts are 1100 degrees and things are smoking and people are flying around, there’s nothing like doing it in full speed. The guys performed flawlessly. Most of the guys came back, but there are three new guys. I was impressed with how the whole team performed. The Palm Beach test was the first time some of these worked together. Watching my crew chief, Chris Cunningham, work with Marc Denner, you can see their passion about racing and sharing so many ideas with one another. And that plays into the overall performance of the team. We left Phoenix way more confident than we did last year. I can’t wait to get to Pomona. This is really big time. Everyone has high expectations and you’re going into arguably one of the most important races of the year to be really set the tone for the season. We have high expectations for Pomona.”
HOW MANY RUNS DID YOU MAKE IN THE OFF-SEASON? “The testing for us started two days after Pomona ended. We left Pomona and went straight to Las Vegas. We made seven runs in Las Vegas. Then we went to Palm Beach where we made seven more runs. Then in Phoenix, we made eight runs. We made 24 runs and we haven’t even been to a national event yet. It just goes to show you how much more prepared we are going into this season versus last year. I don’t think I made 24 test runs all last year. The testing and off-season was such a confidence builder for the whole team. A lot of teams didn’t test and that was there choice. For us, testing is an important part of improving. With NHRA imposing some restrictions, they haven’t banned testing but they did announce restrictions on testing. They are limiting us to four test days in the 2009 season. We wanted to get as many days in as we could before that takes effect. The testing restrictions take effect at the Pomona race. I think we have a real good baseline to get the season kicked-off.”
POMONA IS ONE OF THE BIGGEST RACES OF THE YEAR. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT OPENING THE RACE SEASON AT THAT TRACK? “Pomona has a little different format. You run once on Thursday, once on Friday and twice on Saturday. Where typically, we run twice on Friday, twice on Saturday and then go into Sunday. Pomona is spread out. As a driver and as a team, you want to race. To go out on Thursday and hit the gas one time, then you have to wait until Friday, then you hit the gas one time, then you go into Saturday where you have the back-to-back runs. Our strategy is to get down the race track Thursday. It is very important that you hit the track; you go A-to-B, and not try to set the world on fire. You want to get the car qualified on the first day and get data that you can use on Friday. Then you can be more aggressive on Friday and on Saturday you’ll start to see conditions that you’re going to race on Sunday. For me, going into Pomona, with Tim Wilkerson, arguably the best race car on the circuit last year, to have that team alongside our team and the data that we can start to accumulate is amazing. We don’t have four qualifying runs anymore; we have eight because of the alliance. You can’t stress the importance of that kind of information. We have the same clutch. We have the same chassis. We have the same car body. We have different engine configurations. Chris and Mark are going to try some ideas that they think are going to work. Tim is going to try some things that he thinks will work. At the end of the day, the crew chiefs get together and they talk about what went right, what went wrong and that’s what I most looking forward to about Pomona and this whole season. I’m looking forward to having two triple-A caliber teams working together with two fast race cars to compete for the championship. I really feel that Tasca Racing and Wilkerson Racing together are a whole lot stronger than we are on our own. And that says a lot because Tim almost won the championship last year, on his own, and he has put a lot of value in this relationship. It will be an exciting race. It will be great to just get back together with the all the guys. You are really family with a lot of these teams, drivers, telecasters and everybody there: you’re around them so much. It’s almost an eternity to get back to Pomona. But it is right around the corner now.”
DO YOU HAVE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL JITTERS? “No, I have no jitters. I’m ready to go. Last year, for sure I did as a new driver. In the first year, I was just hoping I could stop the car because Pomona is one of the shortest tracks in the country. And the crew chiefs are telling you, ‘Get the shoots out early,’ and they’re talking about things that they need to talk to you about because you’ve never raced there before. But those are conversations that we don’t have anymore. Now we’re focused on a lot of other things. I think the jitters last year were true. This year the jitters are gone. I’m not worried about stopping it. I’m worried about going fast. We’ll get the car to stop, I’m sure of that. It’s a different type of jitters.”
THE FIRST COBRA JET DEBUTED IN 1968 WITH YOUR GRANDFATHER AS A DRIVER. THE MUSTANG COBRA JET RETURNS TO COMPETITION IN POMONA THIS WEEKEND IN THE SAME PAINT SCHEME HE RACED OVER 40 YEARS AGO. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN TO YOU? “I just think it’s incredible. That was a car that really ignited so much enthusiasm and excitement. What they accomplished is just incredible. My grandfather was really the pioneer of that program. To see it re-created in the 21st century, it is just going to be exciting. We bought one that we’re going to campaign at selected races this year. I think it’s really energized the Ford Racing base. It’s going to be fun to see those four cars go out there and compete. I know my Dad is coming, my uncle is coming and they remember the cars as children when my grandfather raced. They are excited to see the cars run. John [Force] and I ended the season last year racing the Cobra Jet. For the record, I beat him. I haven’t beaten him in a Funny Car yet, but I’ve beaten him in a Cobra Jet. The fans were into it as well. We got a lot of cheers as any other car going down the race track that day. It’s going to be fun to see the Cobra Jets compete. I think they’ll be very competitive. It would be wonderful to see one of those four cars win it. We look forward to taking our Cobra Jet out. I think we’re going to race ours in Charlotte. I’m not sure if I will race it or if my Uncle Carl will race. He’s really excited. He didn’t race, the racing gene must have skipped a generation. My grandfather raced and my Dad and uncles were involved. Then when my grandfather got out of racing and that was it. He was the boss. There was no more racing. As my father and uncles grew up, they didn’t race anymore. My grandfather stopped racing in the early 1970s, or late 1960s. Then I started racing a few years ago. My uncle has an itch to drive the Cobra-Jet. He’s having fun putting a role cage in it. Hopefully, we’ll make a few adjustments to make it go a little faster. He’ll probably end up driving at Charlotte.”
Tim Wilkerson driver of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Mustang Funny Car finished second in the 2008 NHRA Funny Car championship narrowly missing the title as a single car entry in the age of multi-car teams. In 2009, Wilkerson formed a technical alliance with Bob Tasca III and Tasca Racing allowing the two single car entries additional access to data and set-up information. As part of the alliance Wilkerson will campaign a Ford Mustang for the 2009 season which kicks off later this week at Pomona, Calif. with the NHRA Winternationals.
YOU HAVE A TECHNICAL ALLIANCE WITH BOB TASCA. WITH TESTING STIPULATIONS IMPLEMENTED BY NHRA, HOW CRITICAL IS YOUR PARTNERSHIP WITH TASCA RACING? “With some bans on trying to keep costs down and keeping the level playing field with testing slowed down, I think that the more information we can get is going to be even better for all of us. Plus, I have a new three-frame which I didn’t have last year, and Tasca has one of them also, so all that is going to be a positive to our cause by the end of the day.”
HOW HAS TESTING GONE TO THIS POINT? “It’s gone okay. We’ve got some different stuff that I’ve never had. That three-rail car is really weird, so I’m trying to figure out how that thing works and what makes it tick and that kind of thing. It shows a lot of promise. I mean, I’m going to be hard-pressed to say that we can do at the beginning of this year what we did last year, but I think that we’re going to have a good car and I think that the Mustang is going to help us a lot. That body is one that we’ve always wanted, at least I have, so that’s going to be a good thing for the team. And then dealing with Bob is going to be a good thing for us, too. And I think that we could probably rely on Force’s guys, too, a little bit if we can squirrel a little bit of information out of them if we have to.”
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHANGES THIS YEAR, AS OPPOSED TO LAST YEAR? “The three-framed rail chassis is something that I’m a bit more nervous about, because we changed cars midway last year and that kind of threw us into a bit of a loop, not bad, but a little bit. And then after all that was said and done and we got a different tire. There were a lot of changes that went on and we seemed to adapt pretty well to all of them last year, but like I say, I think all of the rest of the teams have caught up, for a lack of better words, in terms of performance, but the weight changes that were made last year and the different tire that we had to run and all of the weird things that happened to us – now I think you’re going to see the competition much more level so we’re really going to have to be on our game. So that’s where I’m hoping that aligned with Bob will help us and plus help him.”
ECONOMIC TIMES ARE HITTING RACING, BUT IT LOOKS LIKE THE FUNNY CAR FIELD WILL BE FULL. CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE FUNNY CAR FIELD HEADING INTO THE YEAR? “Well, I think that last year we had a goal which when I said it I think everybody thought was ridiculous, but I still don’t think that it’s a dumb goal, and that’s to qualify for every race. I mean that’s our main focus first off. You’re sure not racing on Sunday if you’re not qualified, so we’re going to try and qualify for every race first off, and like you say, based on the amount of cars out there, there were 20 good cars out there last year at every race. So, you’re not going to see any team or any specific car that isn’t ready to race on Sunday if they make the field. I don’t care if it’s one through 16, anywhere in that field, you’re going to have a good race. I think we showed that a lot last year. With the economic times being so trying, maybe things would lighten up in Funny Car, but I don’t think that you’re going to see that. I think you’re going to see the best racing that NHRA Drag Racing has ever offered to a fan and we’re going to have the best cars to do it.”
WHAT YOUR OPINION OF THE 1,000-FOOT RULE? “I like the 1,000-foot for the safety aspect of it, giving us another 300 feet to stop. I know we’re kind of treading on our heritage there, but the cars have done nothing but get faster and faster and faster. John [Force] and Ford have spent a lot of time and money renovating that new three-rail car. We need to make sure that the tracks are available for us to do the best we can on them and still be safe, and quite frankly, some of the tracks weren’t. And until they can find a way to make the shut down areas as safe as they can, I think the 1,000-foot is a no-brainer. Not only safety-wise, but financially for all the teams. You know it’s still great side-by-side racing; I don’t think the fans should be concerned. I know there’s a lot of talk about it, but I really think they just need to sit back and enjoy the racing because the racing is even closer than it used to be.”
WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO DO DIFFERENT THIS YEAR SO THAT THIS YOU’RE THE ONE DRINKING THE CHAMPIONSHIP CHAMPAGNE? “Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t think that we have to do anything different. We had a great car all year long; my guys did a terrific job working on it. I think the Mustang, again, will really help our cause and the alliance with the Tasca. And to have some technology that we’ve never seen in our life with being with Ford. So I think that is going to be a first step for us. And the second step, we just need to not screw up in the playoffs. That’s all it was to it. I just had some bad luck there in the playoffs and my predecessor that won the thing really did a better job, so he deserved to win. He got the wins when he needed and he was hot when we were cold. Hopefully, we can just stay consistent like we were this year because I think that was our key last year, we were consistent all year long. We weren’t the fastest guy, but boy, on Sunday if you made a mistake, we were right there beside you showing you what you shouldn’t have done. So hopefully we can just show that consistency again and bring a trophy home.”