Though she’s only 34, Tisha Wilson has the knowledge, experiences, and discipline rarely found in the millennial age group. Thanks to parents who met through drag racing, Wilson has only ever known a lifestyle that is closely tied to the sport. Under the guidance of mentors like Todd Tutterow, Virgil Hartman, and Frank Cervelli, she learned the ins and outs of driving, working on, and tuning race cars of all kinds. Through her own determination, she developed a work ethic and mindset that has since rewarded her with race wins and a world championship.
Wilson’s story began when she was old enough to race Jr. Dragsters with her older brother, Tony. On top of racing at local tracks like Mooresville Dragway, the family would also venture outside their native North Carolina to races in Kentucky and Indiana. Many times, Tisha and Tony would get dropped off at school on Monday mornings in the truck and trailer on the way back from races. Later, that truck and trailer is what they learned to drive in under their parents’ supervision.
As the Wilsons got older, Tisha started to take more of an interest in the mechanical side of the operation. Tony moved up into Top Sportsman, then Piedmont Dragway’s Big Dog Shootout series, and eventually Pro Mod. Along the way, Tisha served as his crew chief.
“Between the two of us, I was always the one that was taking stuff apart and putting it back together and helping my dad build Jr. motors and putting my brother’s race cars together,” Wilson says. “So I learned how to tune my brother’s Big Dog car with the help of Todd Tutterow. He really was a good babysitter through our teen years. My mom and dad worked full-time jobs, but they would allow us to go to Piedmont for Big Dog, and Todd taught my brother and I both how to read the Racepak, how to read the racetrack, how to tune with the old [MSD] 7531 gold boxes, doing maps and gear retards and stuff like that.”
When Tisha and Tony were in their early teens, they had summer jobs working with Joel Collins and Burwell Kendrick at the WIX Top Dragster Driving School held at Mooresville. They would suit up customers, take care of the cars and equipment, and whatever else needed to be done to earn money towards their racing program.
Through that program, Tisha got involved with Bruce Litton’s WIX-sponsored Top Fuel team that included teenaged driver Josh Starcher, who Wilson had raced against in Jr. Dragsters. Herself still a young teenager, Wilson started doing the clutch on Starcher’s Top Fuel car tuned by Richard Hartman. That led to working on Rhonda Hartman-Smith’s Top Fuel dragster, and later Virgil Hartman’s three-car Nostalgia Funny Car operation. There, she also got the opportunity to pursue her license, an experience that ended in dramatic fashion.
“We went down to Atlanta for the licensing runs, and at about a thousand feet, the car I was driving grenaded,” Wilson says. “We never really figured out what happened, but a big ball of fire blew the body off of it. All kinds of cool stuff. Burnt the tear ducts in my eyes. Oh, it was cool.
“So, I got to experience a nostalgia nitro Funny Car, which was an experience of a lifetime, really,” she continues. “It was cool because I just didn’t bring some money and go jump in. I actually built it. I’m talking like built it all the way down to the damn decals on the car, and then had to drive the motorhome and the trailer to the racetrack.”
At age 20, Wilson won the NHRA Virginia Nationals in Super Comp in just her third national event driving a car set up by Frank Cervelli and the late Kyle Seipel. After about a year and a half of Super Comp racing, she pressed pause on her own racing career. She’d help with her brother’s Pro Mod car when her “real job” allowed, but that was about it.
Fast forward to 2022, where Wilson started the PDRA season with a win in Top Dragster at GALOT Motorsports Park. Earlier in the weekend, she dealt with mechanical gremlins as she sorted out her newly supercharged combo. Between working out a new combination and facing proven winner Rikki Molnar in the first round, Wilson believes her first round of the season was perhaps the toughest.
“Helping my brother through the last couple of years, I’ve always kind of paid attention to the [Top Dragster] class because I knew that’s probably where I’d end up,” Wilson says. “Rikki’s one of the toughest in the class, so that was probably my most nervous round of all year. I have a lot of respect there for her and what she’s been able to do.”
More meaningful moments continued throughout the season. She runnered up in the Super 64 Shootout at the PDRA ProStars race driving Duane Allen’s ProCharged dragster. Another runner-up finish followed in Top Dragster at the Northern Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway.
In the opening round of eliminations at the PDRA Brian Olson Memorial World Finals, Wilson sat strapped into her car towards the back of the staging lanes. One by one, her championship challengers lost. When Nick Meloni lost on a double breakout in the pair ahead of her, she was declared the 2022 PDRA Top Dragster world champion. She went on to win that round over Allen, who went red in the same car Wilson drove earlier that summer.
“That was probably the hardest part all year long, just refocusing in that couple of seconds right there,” Wilson says. “Just being able to refocus and go out there and win first round was big, so it’s been cool. It was a lot of mountains. A lot of lows. A lot of highs. But stressful. Glad it’s over.”
Going into 2023, Wilson isn’t dead-set on defending her championship. She’s more focused on enjoying time with family and friends at the races. At the forefront of that plan is an expanded schedule for her son, Wyatt, who isn’t old enough to compete in the PDRA Jr. Dragster classes yet but runs a pretty consistent local schedule.
“Even at 6, that was probably the highlight of 2022 – not the championship, but watching him kind of fall in love with the driving part of it, and the competitiveness that it takes as a youngster,” Wilson says. “Getting to teach him and spend time with him and watching him learn the agony of defeat…it’s been funny, but it’s been fun. I’ve probably enjoyed that the most in 2022.”
Along with inspiring her son to be a better racer, Wilson also wishes to inspire young girls coming up in the sport to be independent and develop a diverse set of skills.
“There’s really no one female that I know of at my age that’s kind of worn all the hats, that can do it all,” says Wilson, a senior project manager for a medical software company. “Someone who can go put their car together, drive their stuff to the racetrack, and take care of their own stuff. And I’m talking change transmissions, troubleshoot, read the Racepak, tune it, whatever. The whole nine yards.
“So that’s my goal from a legacy standpoint,” Wilson continues, “is to really show that it’s possible; that it can be done if you pay enough attention.”