Kyle Busch, who would become NASCAR’s 2015 champion, had a tough slog of it that August Sunday in 2009. He wrestled a poor-handling car around historic Nashville Fairgrounds short track to a 21st place finish in the Budweiser 150.
A 13-year-old kid named Chase Elliott, in his debut season in late-model racing, fared a little better. Elliott, son of NASCAR legend Bill Elliott and now a rising star in the sport, finished eighth.
In 16th was a boyish driver from Huntsville, a construction manager barely off the Auburn campus, a guy who raced all over the Southeast in a variety of cars since he was nine years old. A guy named Ricky Wilkinson.
“Racing was my dream in my younger days,” he says.
Wilkinson is dreaming bigger now. And all of us can be caught up in the dreams.
The teamwork of City construction
The City of Huntsville is dreaming big. An unparalleled aquatics center opened last summer. Two near-empty high school buildings are being transformed into valuable community assets. There is $153 million in City of Huntsville construction projects on the books.
Behind the wheel for this is 32-year-old Ricky Wilkinson.
The challenge is daunting, but we’ve got a great team.”
He is the interim General Services Director for the City of Huntsville. A former project manager in the department, he steps into the role left by Jeff Easter, who retired Jan. 31.
On the day of a big send-off for Easter, Wilkinson told the staff, “It’s a testament to his ability what we’re able to do moving forward. He accomplished a lot. He made a legacy, and everything we accomplish is part of his legacy, too.”
It is very much a “we” thing. The challenge is daunting, but “we’ve got a great team,” Wilkinson says. “Not to be cliché but they know what they’re doing. They know how to operate.”
General Services includes fleet and facilities management, construction and maintenance of City structures and properties, custodial services and the purchase and maintenance of vehicles. That includes some 1,700 vehicles in the fleet and some 150 buildings and structures.
“There’s a lot to take in, a lot that goes into this operation,” Wilkinson says. His challenge is “getting up to speed on everything because there’s so much going on.”
Though he has been on the administration side of things since last summer, he is intimately familiar with the project side of things. He was the lead on the construction of the Huntsville Aquatics Center, a $22.5 million showcase. A huge task – but then again, three months out of college he was project manager for a 60,000-square foot office building construction.
“Throughout my career, there are a lot of projects I’m proud of, but quite frankly it’s the team on every project,” Wilkinson says, like that winning driver who hops from his car and immediately lauds the crew “back in the shop.” “I basically didn’t do anything on the Aquatics Center. I invested a lot of time and made sure those guys had decisions on what they needed.”
An eye on Huntsville’s evolution
The only nod to his racing interest in his office is a small photo of Wilkinson and his son, Lucas, 6, posing at Talladega Superspeedway. Ricky and wife Kimberly, a Realtor, also have a nine-year-old daughter, Maddie.
Wilkinson was Maddie’s age when he began racing Quarter Midget cars at the track off Johnson Road. As he grew, so did the size of cars, up to the Super Late Model class, competing at Huntsville Speedway and many others as he matriculated through Blossomwood Elementary, Huntsville Middle School and Huntsville High.
Once the kids came along, the racing career took a back seat, though he still owns a pair of race cars; there are no plans to rev the engines in the near future.
Following his graduation from Auburn, Wilkinson worked at Consolidated Construction for four years, then had his own building company before joining the City of Huntsville.
He recognizes that his youth – and his youthful appearance – cause some raised eyebrows, “but I’d like to think those who work with me understand the work ethic I have and the ability. One thing that’s pleased me has been the support from the other younger people (in leadership roles) within the City.”
As a native, he’s constantly reminded of Huntsville’s evolution. It’s not just the new construction that’s evident on a daily basis but “the hidden treasures” to which his job has afforded him access.
It’s an evolution in which he has played a major role, and will continue to do so.
“Where I get most of my gratification is to step back and see what you’ve helped accomplish,” he continues. “I’m from Huntsville. I’m happy to see the progress we’re making. I feel like I’m giving back to the community that gave to me.”