"JOHN BOY" HOPES TO GET BACK TO THE BIG TRACKS by Jeremy Troiano
Wilkinson Using NASCAR Elite Division To Get Back Into Bigger Cars
Hueytown, Alabama may be just a little dot on a map to most people, but to the racing community, it is birthplace for some of the best drivers ever to grace the stock car world. If you are an aspiring racecar driver from Hueytown, you have a lot to live up to. After all, brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison, Neil Bonnett and Bobby's son Davey helped make the small town famous in all facets of racing.
They say racecar drivers start early and go fast in Hueytown and John "Boy" Wilkinson III is no exception. For him it all started in the "big time" when he was only 16 years old at Talladega Superspeedway in the seat of an ARCA car.
"Racing at Talladega was scary as hell as a 16-year-old," said Wilkinson. "By yourself, it is like driving on the interstate. When you get cars around you and the car starts dancing around, you get nervous. But we were running 10 to 12 mph off of the leader, so it was rare that we would get big packs of car. It wasn't like a Cup race or anything, but it was a neat experience."
And it was just the first experience that the now 26-year-old would find on his way up and down the stock car racing ladder.
"I ran ARCA off and on from 1993 to 1997. I ran Daytona three or four times and that was a lot of fun. I have run Atlanta, Michigan, Pocono and Texas World Speedway. I loved racing on those big track in those big cars.
"We have done a lot of racing, but a lot of stuff we had wasn't good equipment. We had a lot of second-hand things. We had some stuff that Clifford Allison had when he passed that Bobby let us use. We needed the experience, but it just wasn't the right stuff to be competitive with other people. We had a good time and we learned a lot too, but we spent a lot of money doing it though."
So like most racers, the money slowly ran out and Wilkinson had to begin looking in different directions to keep his racing bug satisfied. He turned to Late Model and Super Late Model competition to help get him back to the "big time" running 180 mph at Talladega Superspeedway.
But Wilkinson soon found himself as one of the best in the area in late model competition. Soon enough, he was feared throughout the Deep South, but he still wanted to prove himself as one of the best in the country at one of the toughest events in the country.
So he took to Five Flags Speedway for the annual Snowball Derby. While he hasn't yet won the race, Wilkinson has become a regular threat for the victory at the half-mile any time he races there.
"The Derby is so much fun. It is the last hurrah of the racing year. The camaraderie is just amazing. If you run good there, you feel like you have beat the best in the world sometimes."
With success in the true southern states, Wilkinson was proving that he was one of the best and he has championships to prove it. In 2002, Wilkinson beat some of the top touring Super Late Model drivers in the South by capturing the Southern All Stars Super Late Model Championship.
But Wilkinson knew if he ever wanted to get back to the big track, he needed to capture more attention in the NASCAR realm. So, 2003 brings a totally new direction for Wilkinson and his Murphy Motorsports team. He has now racing in the Elite Division Southeast Series, chasing both the season championship and Rookie of the Year title.
"We just wanted to step up and get affiliated with the NASCAR stuff. We are looking to try and run a full season of this and maybe even get a (Craftsman) Truck and run a few races with that next year. We hope to get a truck full-time eventually and move on to the next level. That is what this sport is about and that is what I have dreamed about since that race at Talladega."
Wilkinson (59) became a threat in Super Late Modles, including in events like the Snowball Derby.
And only three races into the 2003 season, Wilkinson finds himself leading the rookie standings and tied for second in the overall standings. He finished 7th at Nashville Superspeedway and a career-best fifth at South Boston Speedway (VA).
But the transition from the SAS Super Late Model to the SES car hasn't been as easy as Wilkinson and others might have thought.
"It hurt us some coming from the Southern All Stars to this," explained Wilkinson. "Last year, we could run on soaked tires
Wilkinson's #59 NASCAR Southeast Series car has a similar look to his other cars, but doesn't drive quite the same.
with a lot of horsepower and get them sideways and get back on the gas. These things here, you have to finesse them more. The set-ups are totally different. There is a daylight / darkness difference in it. We are just getting into it now and feel like we can get even better."
But Wilkinson's drive to get back to the big tracks in the big cars won't keep him away from the Derby; he plans on making more Southern All-Stars starts. He has already competed in a couple of SAS shows and a couple of the Snowball Challenge races at Five Flags.
"I wanted to get back into that stuff bad, but I don't want to go back and not be in the right stuff. Right now, we are looking at an ARCA ride with a top team, but they are looking for $50,000 to rent a car for one race. It is hard to find a sponsor for that. It doesn't seem feasible, but if we can find the right sponsor, not to pick up the whole bill, but just some of it, we would try to do the other half of it."
Wilkinson hopes to make that return to the ARCA series, maybe in October at Talladega.
"We are looking to do something for the ARCA race in Talladega in October. I haven't been there since 1997. That is really the kind of car I want to be back in. As far as seat time goes, we are looking to do what we can afford to do."
And what they can afford to do know is make a name for himself in the Southeast Series, trying to beat the likes of Jeff Fultz, Billy Bigley Jr. and David Reutimann. If he can do that, there is no doubt that he will be back where he wants to be in the near future.