SWEET LAKE, La. — Troy Savannah Photo — Rising Louisiana dirt track racer Wyatt Wilkerson, 14, is stepping up to crate late model competition for 2022. Wilkerson has always been known for his fearless style of racing. A fair nickname may be “Louisiana Lightning”, paying respect to his home state and how quickly he strikes his opponents on the track, passing them before they even realize what’s happened. He surely could also be called “winner”, because he’s been doing that on the track, on the sports field and in life since age five.
The story began for Wyatt with a trip to Daytona in 2013 to watch the great American stock car race in person, the Daytona 500. On the plain ride back to Gator Country, Wyatt’s father Wendell asked him if he would be interested in racing go karts. Wyatt was just five years of age at that time, had watched racing on TV his entire short life and knew as much about what was happening as his father did. Little did Wendell know that his son would soon be earning checkered flags against drivers older and much more experienced than he was.
The weekend after Daytona, Wendell and Wyatt were off to the local kart track to do some exploring and learn how best to get Wyatt’s racing career started. The track put Wendell in touch with a man named Bobby Campbell, who then introduced them to his son Kameron and Brandon Miller, who had a kart for sale. Wendell bought it, and it was off to a local road course kart track, where the ever-growing legend was born. Miller, a veteran racer, jumped in a kart and went out on the track to show Wyatt, who was in the kart Wendell had just bought, how to do this racing thing.
Within a few laps, five-year-old Wyatt was keeping up with him. Brandon went to pass Wyatt, and Wyatt shoved him off the track into the grass to block the move. It didn’t take long for “baby” to show the world he had led in his booties, and it was time to take him to a race and see how he would do against others his age.
“We took him back to the track for a race with a motor I’d bought from Harbor Freight,” smiled Wendell. “I didn’t know any better. He finished third out of maybe six that were in the race. The following week we went back with a motor I’d bought from a kart motor builder, one that was tuned for racing. Wyatt won without a problem. Lesson learned!”
Next up for Wyatt was a race at a track in Mississippi called State Line. They had a nine-year-old there that was winning in the “Red Plate” (rookie class) every time the Mississippi Kart Tour raced. That is, until he raced five-year-old Wyatt. Wyatt passed him on the last lap and won. That started a streak of wins in the rookie class that carried on awhile until Wendell began asking the promoters of his home track in Acadiana if Wyatt could move up to the “Green Plate” division. Grandpa thought his grandson could learn more if he could race against more experienced drivers. At first, the track didn’t allow it, but eventually they relented.
Wyatt started winning those races as well. He had turned six years old by then. Miller and Campbell kept talking about the O’Reilly National Indoor Kart Championship that was coming up in Batesville, Mississippi on Thanksgiving weekend of that year. Wendell asked about Wyatt going to race. Miller and Campbell told Wendell that the rugged, aggressive indoor dirt-track racing would be too much for the six-year-old.
After looking at the previous year’s field at Batesville and studying the drivers Wyatt had been racing against all season so far, Wendell finally talked them into bringing Wyatt and helping him have his first taste of the world’s largest indoor kart race, known for its unique bronze slot machine replica trophies and national television.
How did Wyatt repay his father for his optimism that his six-year-old son could keep up indoors? By winning a slot machine, naturally! 2013 was the birth of a racing career that is still growing in legend, and a driver who has continued to grow into a rock-solid racer, football player and Christian.
In 2014, Wendell and the team took Wyatt racing locally and across the country to tracks in Tennessee and both North and South Carolina. Wyatt was winning locally and gaining recognition nationally as he started running competitively against the best the southeast had to offer as well. “We were running well, making memories and learning how to do this racing thing together as a group,” Wendell said. “I still had to work at my real job as well, so there wasn’t much time for rest much of those years but it has been more than worth it to see Wyatt grow and have so much success at something he really loves to do.”
Kart racing and winning continued right into 2018, when the team added a 600cc Micro Sprint car to their fleet of things that Wyatt could drive fast in circles. This presented a challenge to the driver, but it was even more of a challenge to the team. There were two divisions for Wyatt to race with the Micro Sprint – restricted and unrestricted. The restricted division (where restrictor plates were put on the engines to limit horsepower and keep speeds down for the inexperienced drivers in that class) was the team’s bane.
“Wyatt was fast no matter whether he was racing with or without the restrictor plate,” explained his grandfather. “But I think we did better without the plate because we always had a hard time tuning motors with restrictor plates. They are much harder to tune properly. As a result of our inability to give Wyatt the best engine at times, he showed better in the unrestricted class against the more experienced drivers, which was probably where his skill set was at as a driver anyhow. We really enjoyed racing the Micro, but it got to where (crew chief) Kameron got a job that took him on the road for weeks at a time, so we just couldn’t go racing with that car as much as we might have wanted to at the time. I had a limited modified car that I’d been racing now and then, and we decided to try Wyatt out in that to see if he was ready for a step to full-size cars. That was right at the end of 2019 going into 2020.”
The youngster, now 13, began driving the modified in rookie classes on dirt tracks in and around his home state of Louisiana. He started winning quickly, and a friend of the family had a newer, faster car that he asked Wyatt to drive. With that car, Wyatt not only was winning the rookie class features, but he was also actually lapping the field – in an 8-lap race! It was then that Kameron, who was back at the helm as crew chief once again, told Wendell it was time for a change.
“Kameron had watched some of the races I had filmed and said he needs to get out of the Rookie class and run the regular Limited Modified Classes,” Wendell said. “So, one Friday he ran the Rookie class on a Friday Night and lapped most of the field twice. Then, on Saturday we decided to let him run regular class. I think there was 18 cars in the field, and we were hoping to finish in the top ten. I believe he finished sixth. The next weekend he ran at another track on Friday and finished fifth out of 18 then another on Saturday and finished third. Shortly after that I had a new car for him, and he began consistently running top five at local tracks.”
2021 was a bit of a roller coaster year for Wyatt and the No. 78 team. He showed great speed everywhere he’s raced, winning many heat races and having several top five runs, but has won just two features due to a rash of bad luck with mechanical failures and a couple of cut tires.
The team has already purchased a dirt track Late Model and plan on running in a hefty schedule of crate late model races in 2022. “One thing I’d like for people to know about how we’ve done things with Wyatt is that we’ve never chosen to chase a track or series championship,” said Wendell. “I believe that it’s more important to race him as much as we can in the best races against the highest level of competition possible, so he learns what it takes to compete at that championship level. That’s not practical when you’re chasing a track or series championship because you have to be at all the races for that track or series to win that championship, which means you pass up opportunities to race higher quality races against better fields. I think Wyatt has benefitted from that decision.”