Thank you for your replies!
Yes, I need to remind myself often that it's going to take a really long time; even thought I want it done quick. I made a police light bar that probably only took about 80 hours total, but took me a year and a half to find the 80 hours so I know what you mean.
I found this (and a couple other) articles that talk about benchmarks between the different programming languages.
I have not read the whole thing, skimmed and looked at the graphs, but pretty promising in C and perl. Although the guy that heads up wiringpi said the perl wrapper is not very fast so that worries me. I wrote a while(1) loop in perl to do facial detection on an ip camera stream and that did work pretty quickly.
I'm planning on going with the 2nd suggestion.. I'll have the while(1) loop running taking care of main robot functions, then I'll have either background processes called by that on the pi or even call other processes on the linux server upstairs to do anything cpu intensive so the robot can be it's own thing.
I think I'll start by experimenting in perl and using tickmarks or system calls to the command line gpio interface to see if that's quick enough. If not I'll use python as my contingency plan.