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Wilkerson uses used parts from rivals to beat them

MORRISON, Colo. — The parts on Tim Wilkerson’s funny car are wearing thin and in need of replacement.

In years past, this wouldn’t pose a problem. He’d simply venture over to John Force and buy some used clutch discs off the famed funny car driver, or bargain with another team owner for some cylinder heads.

Other team’s salvage was his salvation, a way for him to keep costs low and still compete.

This season, rival competitors are reluctant to sell second-hand parts to Wilkerson.

That’s what happens when you beat the competition with their discarded equipment. Wilkerson turned in a banner season in 2008, winning six events and finishing second in the points standings.

"We made 175 runs last year and lost one motor," said Wilkerson, who serves as the team’s owner, crew chief and driver. "That, to me, is pretty spectacular."

Given the depressed economy — and his penchant to use their "junk" against them — teams are now hesitant to let go of their used parts.

Like him, other teams are pinching pennies.

So Wilkerson is forced to make a tough business decision. Does he splurge for new components or wait until the economy turns around, hoping he can scrounge up some slightly used parts again?

He doesn’t have much time to decide. His car needs parts — quickly.

"Quite frankly, we’re wearing our stuff out," said Wilkerson, who had the second-fastest time (4.178 seconds) after two qualifying runs at Mopar Mile-High Nationals on Friday night. "There’s only so many runs you can get on this stuff."

Force has always been a heavy parts contributor, allowing Wilkerson to raid his warehouse. Force’s team makes its own components in big batches, and when supply runs low, that’s when Wilkerson can take his pick.

"They’d have 50 or 75 (clutch discs) left over and that’s not enough for them to consider it a viable part to run," Wilkerson said. "They want enough to run the same part all year and learn that part. I buy what I call their excess. We figure out how to make it work."

Wilkerson’s approach is something Force is taking a hard look at implementing.

"I want to get back to my roots with my own teams, learn how to run a car on a budget like he does and does so well," Force said. "He’ll buy a lot of my stuff, and kick my butt with the same parts."

Team owner Don Prudhomme has been good to Wilkerson as well, especially last season when the 48-year-old was making his run up the standings. Prudhomme kept Wilkerson swimming in cylinder heads.

"Every time we’d win a race, he’s like, ‘There’s that old junk that nobody could make work,’" Wilkerson said. "They let me buy stuff and pay when I could. They were really good to me."

This season, Wilkerson has caught some bad lights (losing four times by 0.01 seconds) and bad breaks (falling to the eventual event champion four times). He’s seventh in the standings, 215 points behind leader Ashley Force Hood.

Tony Pedregon had the fastest time after two runs in the funny car division Friday, speeding down the Bandimere track in 4.170 seconds following a three-hour delay due to weather. Force Hood narrowly avoided a crash in her second pass, spinning wildly and going up on two wheels, before recovering.

Cory McClenathan had the best run in top fuel, while Allen Johnson turned in the top time in pro stock. Craig Treble leads pro stock motorcycle.

Wilkerson is one of the few in the nitro category who wears all three hats. And while he appreciates being an owner and crew chief, the adrenaline rush comes from being behind the wheel.

"I haven’t lost the desire," said Wilkerson, who lives in Springfield, Ill. "I’m a guy who’ll go up there and not make a mistake and cost myself a race — as long as the car does the right thing."

If that happens, he has only himself to chastise.

"That part of me, being crew chief, gets (mad) more than anything," Wilkerson said. "I think to myself, ‘I should’ve done this different.’ "

With the economy in a downturn, it’s sometimes hard to draw a full field of funny cars at some stops along the NHRA circuit. This weekend at Bandimere, there are just 16 competing, meaning each will make the eliminations on Sunday.

"It does worry me," Wilkerson said. "We’ve lost a few cars because of economics."

Not to mention a used parts market for Wilkerson.

But that probably has nothing to do with the economy.

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