Jake Swanson and his Team AZ crew in victory lane at Knoxville Raceway. (Ray Hague photo)

Eric Wilkins: The Whiz Kid

As Eric Wilkins surveyed his new rural Indiana home, he could only smile when he considered the twists and turns he had taken.

The pace of life here was vastly different than in greater Phoenix and for the moment he was loving every minute of it. Sure, maintaining 15 acres of land could be a chore, but it was a task he was happy to take on. 

Decades ago, Hall of Fame announcer Windy McDonald watched with awe as a teenage sensation wrestled a midget around the imposing Manzanita Speedway. McDonald simply referred to Wilkins as “the youngster.” By the time he rolled into victory lane in just his seventh race during the 1986 season, his new nickname was “The Whiz Kid.” 

While Wilkins’ family was interested in racing, he was the first to compete.

His mother Cheryl grew up in Tempe, Ariz., in proximity to the home of Arizona open wheel legend Jerry “Termite” McClung. By the time she entered high school she was in the company of Ron and Billy Shuman and Lealand McSpadden. 

Wilkins’ grandfather, Stan Lively, piqued his interest in the sport. 

“He is the one who got me hooked,” Wilkins said. “He took me to the races every weekend.” 

Lively and Wilkins’ father decided it was time to get the boy a quarter-midget and he was practicing and racing by the age of 10. 

Near the end of the quarter-midget days, he was befriended by midget owner Al Wright, who gave Wilkins a chance to hot lap his car. He saw enough and offered the young gun a chance to prove his worth. Wilkins never looked back. 

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Eric Wilkins in action during the 2005 4-Crown Nationals at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway. (John Mahoney photo)

The basic résumé states that Wilkins won 83 feature races and two midget and four sprint car titles over a remarkable career. What is missing in a mere recounting of stats is just how versatile of a driver he was. He scored wins in midgets and in 360 and 410 powered sprint cars with and without a wing. 

Wilkins matched wits with and beat a list of recognized stars from his home state and beyond. All told, he won with a slew of top-flight sanctioning bodies, including USAC.

If there was a dark time, it came in 2005 when a tumble in a midget at Eldora Speedway resulted in a trip to Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio. The broken collarbone and fingers were bad enough, but there was also a head injury. The dizziness persisted for about 10 months and memory loss lingered a bit longer. It was time to do the right thing. 

“My kids were 7 and 9 at the time, so I decided that it was time to watch them grow up a bit and not focus on me and my driving,” Wilkins said.

He had nothing to prove, which was underscored in 2018 when he was elected to the Arizona Motorsports Hall of Fame. 

While he had steady work as a general foreman for an electrical contractor, he stayed close to the sport. 

At the time of his injury, he was racing for Michael Burkhart. It was a close relationship and he stepped in when he could to help his former owner’s team. Then a funny thing happened. The very day he was elected to the Hall of Fame, Burkhart asked him to hot lap a car. It went well. Then just a few weeks later he was asked to do the same thing again at Casa Grande, Ariz. 

“It is a pretty fast place,” Wilkins said. “But after I took it around a few laps it was like ‘alright, let’s do this.’” 

Wilkins was back and best of all, he wasn’t just a field filler. 

“Michael Burkhart helped me get back into driving again,” Wilkins said. “He really wanted me to come back to non-winged racing because that is his forte. I probably should have done that in hindsight but with the wing even though we were going faster, I felt the drivers were more cautious. I wasn’t on a death run. I just wanted to go racing again. It was fun. We won a few winged shows  and it resolved a few things for me.” 

After a 14-year layoff, he visited victory lane in successive weekends nabbing his first career ASCS Southwest Region win in the process. He got to the top step of the podium in 2020 and 2021 as well.  However, his primary racing goal was to help Burkhart, who took a radical step with Team AZ and USAC regular Jake Swanson. 

After a fourth-place run at the Terre Haute Action Track in 2020, Swanson huddled with his team and suggested to Burkhart that perhaps the best plan of action was simply to move his operation to Indiana. “They didn’t even laugh, in fact they said, ‘Yeah, we really should.’” 

It was a bold choice.

Swanson topped the prestigious Western World Championship at Arizona’s Cocopah Speedway late in the 2022 season and it sparked a serious conversation between Wilkins and Burkhart. 

“Michael told me they were trying to get more help in Indiana,” Wilkins said. “What they really needed were people that he could trust and who were dependable.” 

Wilkins knew most, but not all the pieces were in place for Swanson and Burkhart to field an elite operation. 

Wilkins had always harbored a desire to relocate to Indiana and race all the famed bullrings in the area. That he fell short of his dream was a matter of timing. Now he was in a position where he could take his life in a different direction. 

“At first, we talked about me going to Indiana, getting a motorhome and just staying there in the summer,” Wilkins said. “Then we realized we didn’t mind staying in a motorhome, but we didn’t want to live in one. It just snowballed from there. I began to wonder if we could move back there and live in a place where it is green in the summer and not so hot.”  

That’s just what he did.

This season was a breakout year for Swanson. Going into Indiana Sprint Week, he had notched five victories and was atop the standings. He knew the tightly packed series of races might be the ultimate litmus test. 

“We knew Sprint Week would be the tipping point if there was one and sure enough it was,” Swanson said. “It showed the cracks we need to focus on. In the end, it will make us stronger, so it was both good and bad. We needed it but it just sucked.”

Building a team is hard. It is even harder when you have uprooted an organization and moved halfway across the country. Wilkins calls Burkhart who moved to Indiana early “the nucleus of the team” but understood that stability was needed in the shop and on the road.

Swanson is thrilled to have Wilkins on board. “Eric is a great addition,” he said. “Going forward we will have people here all the time. Before we were flying guys in from Arizona. They didn’t know the program so things didn’t go as smoothly as we would have liked. When you don’t have the same people consistently things get messy.” 

Wilkins isn’t trying to change things or get in the way. 

“They know what to do,” he said. “It has taking so long to get to this level because it is so tough. There are a lot of good guys out there. So many guys come to Indiana with the same aspirations, and same knowledge. I will be happy if I can make our team better. I have won championships, maybe not at this level, but I have that mentality.” 

He knows the potential is there. “We are a tight group,” he said. “We all want the same things.”

“The Whiz Kid” made it to Indiana. No longer packing his helmet bag, his role now is to help Team AZ develop the infrastructure needed to get to the very top. He’s grounded in a whole new way. When he is away from the track his wife, Windy, has a surefire way to keep his ego in check. 

“She says I’m a landscape technician now,” he noted with a laugh, “because it takes me two days to mow all of our land.”