NHRA nitro driver Tommy Johnson Jr. is one of 15 drivers to have event wins in both Top Fuel and Funny Car. This season, after being without a full-time ride since 2008, Johnson Jr. returns to the Funny Car class in Don Schumacher Racing’s Make-a-Wish Dodge, with sponsor Terry Chandler, sister of the ride’s former driver, Johnny Gray. Johnson Jr. classifies himself as a “veteran rookie.”
“We're not even to the racetrack yet, and just getting back up to speed with a lot of the commitments and all the things that go into a team,” said Johnson Jr. of getting back in the swing of the schedule. “It's funny when people ask what do you do during the off season? And the off season is probably some of our busiest times. We're working nonstop to get ready for this season, and that is the biggest role lately. 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,” he continued in an NHRA teleconference. “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. Different things change and little different techniques, so that I'm okay 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% focused on doing the best job you can. So 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.”
Johnson Jr. has spent many of his “off years” working for DSR, as a test driver and in the shop, which he believes helped him get into the spot he’s in to start the 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season.
“I worked at Schumacher for two or three years there,” said Johnson Jr. “I drove for Don. We went to Abu Dhabi and drove in 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 betterment of the team.”
The season kicks off this weekend, February 6th through 9th, with the Circle K NHRA Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona in California – the birthplace of the NHRA, and a fitting opener according to Johnson Jr.
“Pomona is the kickoff of the season…at Pomona, 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 and to see everybody's cars get unveiled. In 2005 I was able to win Pomona 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 Winternationals, to me, it's one of the big ones…To start the Tour back full time 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.”
Get ready for the 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season at www.nhra.com.
Quotes in this piece provided by the NHRA.
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