Johnson Jr. Returns To The Show In Quality Ride
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Last time Tommy Johnson Jr. was employed fulltime as an NHRA Funny Car driver, Jay Leno had yet to retire the first time as host of “The Tonight Show.”
That was 2008, a lifetime in any form of professional motorsports. But the persistent Johnson has joined Don Schumacher Racing’s juggernaut for 2014 as driver of the Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger R/T with sponsor Terry Chandler. Johnson, who has nine national event victories in 22 career final rounds, is one of 15 drivers to have won events in both Top Fuel and Funny Car. A native of Ottumwa, Iowa, Johnson has logged seven Funny Car wins in 17 finals, and two wins in five Top Fuel finals. He also has nine No. 1 qualifiers.
Despite the layoff, Johnson could be a player out of the box this weekend during the season-opening 54thth annual Circle K Winternationals with DSR. Headquartered in Brownsburg, Ind., DSR has won 219 NHRA national event titles and 11 world championships. DSR’s Funny Car lineup will feature 2012 NHRA world champion Jack Beckman in the Valvoline/MTS Mail for Wounded Warriors Dodge Charger R/T; 2011 world champion Matt Hagan in the Mopar/Rocky Boots Dodge; the NAPA Auto Parts Dodge of Ron Capps and Johnson’s Make-A-Wish machine.
Based in Phoenix, the Make-A-Wish organization grants the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions. Kids say the wishes give them renewed strength to fight their illnesses, and their parents say the experiences help strengthen the entire family. With the help of generous donors and more than 25,000 volunteers, Make-A-Wish grants a wish somewhere in the country every 38 minutes. It has granted more than 240,000 wishes since its inception in 1980, including more than 14,000 in 2013.
Johnson met with the media during a recent teleconference previewing his return for Friday’s first round of qualifications at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif., Round 1 of the 24-event NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule. An edited transcript follows:
QUESTION: Tommy, you’ve been so closely involved with the sport since your last fulltime season in 2008, and were always a fixture at the track. But was there ever worry in your mind that you may not get back to this position of being in a championship-caliber, fulltime ride?
TOMMY JOHNSON JR.: “Yeah, every day. You wonder every day. Especially the first year, OK, it was tough times economy-wise. It’s hard to put a sponsorship package together and get in a car. This second year, OK, it’s getting a little tougher, but it’s been five years since I ran fulltime in 2008 with Kenny Bernstein. So there was definitely some doubt along the way. But my love for the sport and just everybody asking me all the time what would you do if you didn’t drive race cars _ and that isn’t an option. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done, and the will to get back here.
“You get tired of hearing ‘No.’ But if you want to do something bad enough you put your mind to it and you continue to put your head down and work towards that goal, and that’s what I did. I just never gave up. It would have been easy to give up several times along the way. But it’s what I want to do and my desire to do that paid off. But to answer your question, every day I wondered, I don’t know if I’m ever going to get this shot. I did a lot of part-time stuff, but a fulltime ride, I didn’t know if we’d get back there. I stuck around and fought hard and did all the right things. Just stayed there and kept in front of people. When an opportunity came available, it finally happened this year. Don Schumacher was kind enough to give me that chance again.”
Q: Everybody kind of gets some offseason cob webs, but you’re coming back. Do you think it will be much more of an effort or will it just come back to you like riding a bicycle? What do you think will be the biggest hurdles for you as you get into the travel and routine again?
JOHNSON JR.: “There are going to be a lot of things. Just getting back up to speed with a lot of the commitments and all the things that go into a team. It’s funny when people ask, ‘What do you do during the offseason?’ And the offseason is probably some of our busiest times. All the time constraints of trying to be here or trying to be two places at one time. But driving a car is relatively the same. I’ve managed to be able to stay in cars off-and-on throughout those five years. It’s not like I got out of the car and haven’t been in one since, so that’s helped me a lot. Just to keep up to speed and the technology and some of the different things that evolve over the years in driving the cars.
“Things change and little different techniques, so that I’m OK with. But it’s just getting back into the grind of the tour and all the appearance commitments, and then when it’s time to get in the car and concentrate. That is one of the harder things for a driver, I believe, is keeping that focus. Your job is to drive the race car and do a great job and win races, but there is a lot that goes into that as far as appearances and other things. So keeping the focus and getting back there that when the engine starts you’re 100 percent focused on doing the best job you can. I think a couple races we’ll be back in the swing of it. It came back pretty quick in testing. As soon as they dropped the body, I felt like they dropped the body in the ’09 season after the ’08 full year. So it came back naturally.”
Q: Do you feel like a rookie?
JOHNSON JR.: “Sometimes. There are certain things. You feel like you fell back to your rookie day, like been there and done that. It’s brought back a little bit of memory of those days. But for the most part, you feel like a veteran rookie.”
Q: Apart from the car, how much do you think you can contribute to the team now from what you’ve learned in the past?
JOHNSON JR.: “It’s something I’ve always prided myself on is having a really good feel for the race car and what the car is doing. Driving by the seat of your pants as far as feel and sound of the engine and the car. Even in testing, the very first run I made in the car I said, ‘It did this, it did that. It moved here, I felt this.’ So that is a little bit of what I think I can bring. I feel like that will help along the way. I can’t even count how many runs I’ve made in a Nitro car over the years. I think once you gain that experience and get that feel for the car, that is something you don’t ever lose.”
Q: Johnny Gray had four wins for DSR last year; does that put added pressure on you to succeed in 2014?
JOHNSON JR.: “No, I mean, it’s a very good team. Getting back fulltime is one thing, but to get back with an organization like Don Schumacher Racing and to know that you have the cars and the resources and the people there that are capable of winning, it gives you a great opportunity. I think you put pressure on yourself no matter what situation you’re in. But to know that you have the car that is capable of winning races and not only winning races, they’ve won championships here in the past few years. So to go out there and have that shot at a competitive car and have a shot at a championship…definitely the goal as you start the season is to win races, make the Countdown (to the Championship), and to strive for that championship. I don’t know that there’s any more added pressure. But it’s certainly a lot because it is a high-profile team, and that is the goal I was shooting for. I’m going to get all the pressure I asked for.”
Q: You previously worked as a test driver for DSR; do you think that helped you get this fulltime seat?
JOHNSON JR.: “Yeah, it certainly didn’t hurt anything. I worked at Schumacher for two or three years there. I drove for Don. We went to Abu Dhabi and drove the Yas Marina Top Fuel cars over in Abu Dhabi for Don. And I worked in the shop as a purchasing manager and did a lot of different things in the facility _ and also the track specialist job, reading the racetracks for all the crew chiefs. Really getting to know all the crew chiefs and all the personnel at DSR didn’t hurt. Just got to be friends with everybody there. And I did a lot of things along the way that maybe Don didn’t ask me to do but I felt like needed to be done for the team.
“When I went to work for Don two or three years ago, he said, ‘Come to work for me. We’ll work on a deal and get you in the car.’ Maybe it didn’t happen as fast as we wanted it to but it eventually happened, and I’ve got to thank him for the opportunity along with Terry Chandler, Johnny’s sister. She had a lot of say in who got to drive. Got to know her over the last few years as well there working at Don Schumacher Racing when Johnny was driving the car. Just a great lady. Just can’t thank them enough, both of them, for giving me the opportunity.”
Q: Reigning world champion John Force always talks about how much time he spends in the gym now to stay in shape after his injuries, and just stay in shape to compete with the younger guys. Coming back for a full season, have you done anything offseason-wise to get yourself in better shape?
JOHNSON JR.: “Yeah, you know, the older you get, the harder you have to work at it, seems like. But that was one of the things that showed commitment to how bad I wanted to do this over the years. I hadn’t been out there on the tour. You could have easily let yourself go and put on some pounds. But I kept focus on that I wanted to do this and the opportunity may come tomorrow. You don’t know when that opportunity is coming. I kept myself in shape and didn’t gain weight. I’m basically the same way I was when I got out of Bernstein’s car. I ride bicycles in the summertime and I’ve hit the treadmill this winter and been on the treadmill quite a bit.
“Basically, it’s something you do in your life. It’s not something I do to drive the race car. It’s just I want to keep myself in shape. To do that, more than anything, I watch my diet. I really I try to eat well. I try to keep a good diet and a little exercise along the way. Hopefully, some of the genetics are there that it works a little bit on the natural side. But just the desire to be in the car, that’s how bad I wanted to do it. I always made sure if the call came together I was ready to go.”
Q: Pulling into Pomona with the start of the season and new hopes and new dreams, just how cool of an event is Pomona to kickoff the season in Southern California at the birthplace of NHRA Drag Racing?
JOHNSON JR.: “On the tour there are those special races. Of course, Indy and Englishtown has been a neat race because of the history there. But Pomona is the kickoff of the season. For the crews in racing, you’ve got to see where this guy ended up. He used to work there, but now he works there. And what uniform is that guy wearing, and all the new paint schemes.
“We’re going to debut the Make-A-Wish paint scheme, and just a neat charity to be involved with. Terry Chandler is going to fund the team this year and wanted to put a charity on the car and to have Make-A- Wish on our car is such a big deal to have all that happen at Pomona. In 2005 I was able to win the Winternationals, and my dad was there. It’s history. Our sport has a lot of history. To be able to win one of the big ones like the Winternationals, to me, it’s one of the big ones. It’s one that every year you look forward to.
“To kickoff the season with a win and you’re the guy leading the points, there is something special about that every year. It would be different if I had joined the tour maybe midseason and I got a job driving a car. I’ve done that before. I started with Joe Gibbs Racing in the middle of the season. It wasn’t a dramatic entrance; it was just another race on the tour in the middle of summer. But to start the tour back fulltime with Don Schumacher Racing, and driving for Terry Chandler, and debuting Make-A-Wish at the Winternationals _ it doesn’t get any bigger than that to me.”
CIRCLE K NHRA WINTERNATIONALS FACT SHEET
WHAT: 54th annual Circle K NHRA Winternationals, first of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. Drivers in three categories _ Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock _ earn points leading to 2014 world championships.
WHERE: Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Pomona, Calif. Track is located off I-10 at Fairplex Drive. Go north on Fairplex drive.
WHEN: Friday through Sunday, Feb. 9.
FRIDAY, Feb. 7 _ LUCAS OIL SERIES eliminations; MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at 12:30 and 3:30 p.m.
SATURDAY, Feb. 8 _ LUCAS OIL SERIES eliminations; MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at 12:30 and 3:30 p.m.
SUNDAY, Feb. 9 _ Pre-race ceremonies, 10 a.m.; MELLO YELLO SERIES eliminations begin at 11 a.m.
TELEVISION: Saturday, Feb. 8 _ ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise two hours of qualifying coverage at 11 p.m. (EST).
Sunday, Feb. 9 _ ESPN and ESPNHD will televise three hours of eliminations coverage at 8 p.m. (EST).
2013 EVENT WINNERS: Shawn Langdon, Top Fuel; Courtney Force, Funny Car; Vincent Nobile, Pro Stock.
MOST VICTORIES: Bob Glidden, PS – 7; John Force, FC – 6; Greg Anderson, PS- 5; Warren Johnson, PS – 5; “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, TF- 5; Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, TF/FC – 5; Larry Dixon, TF- 4.
Top Fuel _ 3.721-seconds by Shawn Langdon, Feb. ’13; 328.70 mph by Doug Kalitta, Nov. ’13.
Funny Car _ 3.995-seconds by John Force, Nov. ‘13; 320.66 mph by Matt Hagan, Nov. ’13.
Pro Stock _ 6.495-seconds by Jason Line, Nov. ’12; 213.13 mph by Line, Nov. ’12.
Top Fuel _ 3.701-seconds by Antron Brown, Oct. ’12, Reading, Pa.; 332.18 mph by Spencer Massey, April ’12, Concord, N.C.
Funny Car _ 3.986-seconds by Jack Beckman, Oct. ’12, Reading, Pa.; 320.66 mph by Matt Hagan, Nov. ’13, Pomona, Calif.
Pro Stock _ 6.471-seconds by Mike Edwards, April ‘13, Concord, N.C.; 214.35 mph by Line, Oct. ’12, Reading, Pa.
TICKETS: Call (800) 884-NHRA (6472). Tickets also available online at www.NHRATIX.com.No Comment