(photos by Bruce Biegler)
It’s already mid-September! Where did the regular season go?! Can you believe we’re about to start the Countdown to the Championship?
My last post came just as the team was getting the Mopar Express Lane Dodge ready for the NHRA U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis after testing in St. Louis for two days.
Indy is always awesome event, but very long. It didn’t quite end up the way we had hoped. I’ll get back to that in a minute.
Away from the track there were some bright points. I took part in the 5th annual Eric Medlen Memorial Golf Tournament benefiting the Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent. The cause is awesome, and I got to play with ESPN NHRA anchor Dave Rieff and the whole event was really enjoyable.
On Saturday night, I invited all three Mopar teams (Johnson & Johnson, Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Team JEGS, and Vincent Nobile and the Mountain View Tire team) to an evening at one of my favorite places to visit while in Indy: the famous St. Elmo’s Steak House. There were 30 of us, and we all devoured a line-up of their signature shrimp with the famous (Real hot! Real good!) cocktail sauce, and some really rare prime rib. It was a great meal but it was having us all together that made for a fantastic time.
Me and Pam with Captain Mike Wilson and his wife, Pam
Back at the track, it was great to meet so many fans each day and still get congratulations on last year’s championship. While signing autograph or taking photos with fans, they often see my championship ring and ask if I always wear it, even on runs. My answer is always the same; “You bet I do!” It took a lot of work and years of effort, and I am very proud of our accomplishment. I will take advantage of every minute and every day to wear it as long as I can call myself the Pro Stock World Champion. It also motivates me in this final stretch to go out and do everything I can to try to defend that championship.
I got to be a fan myself during that weekend when I met Captain Mike Wilson and his wife, Pam, from the reality show “The Deadliest Catch.” It’s an awesome show, and to hear him personally recount some of the stories and experiences from aboard the ‘Kiska Sea’ was pretty hair-raising.
Getting back to our performance on track, it was not what we had expected and hoped. Indy was very eye-opening for me as a driver. The Mopar team dug down deep and got it done against Mike Edwards and I screwed it up losing on a holeshot in the second round of eliminations. Makes you realize how important it is during the Countdown to be up and on your game. I get real motivation by screwing up, makes me work very hard. So in that respect, maybe that is the best way to head into the Countdown.
On the bright side, we might have hit on something on that last run that we’ve been fighting for a few races that will hopefully give us some momentum going into the playoffs. I feel like we gained more for the Countdown there, even though the driver didn’t do his job on the track.
The good news is that as of this weekend at Charlotte, it’s a whole new season now. We’re 30 points behind instead of 150. While I wasn’t so happy about the points resetting last season, I am definitely liking it more this year as it helped erase the gap between us.
While I find myself in a different situation this time around chasing Mike (Edwards) and battling my own teammates, I learned some valuable lessons last year that should help; Consistency. Consistency. Consistency! And after consistency, we need have lots of communication within the team to cover all bases and remember to have fun along the way.
Keeping that in mind, before heading to Charlotte, I made a quick stop to see my friends Justin and Gina Humphreys in Maryland to take part in the 12th annual Fore Dood golf outing in honor of his brother who was killed in a motorcycle accident. The family has a foundation that gives to charities in the area in his honor.
But it’s now time to get back to work. The NHRA Countdown to the Championship is officially under way, and it’s going to be a ‘knock down drag out’ fight. Of all the NHRA races coming up, I don’t think I am looking forward to one event over another. Each will be equally very important in my mind. However, this first one is probably has a bit more weight to it because it can easily define and set the tone toward getting good momentum and confidence for the rest of the Countdown.
I’m focused and hungry! It is time for the Express Lane Dodge Avenger to get HEMI mean for the Countdown. Time to go to Charlotte!
The summer sure is speeding by, but it’s been a pretty good one so far.
My last blog entry was posted in July right after our team’s big win at the Mopar Mile-High Nationals in Denver with two more races on the NHRA’s western swing ahead of us.
I love the Western Swing. It’s fun. It’s a family affair. We get to travel together and spend quality time and do fun things. And we did. After winning my fifth career title at Bandimere Speedway the whole team went into Sonoma on a “Mile-High” note.
Of course I was secretly hoping to do what we came one race short of doing last year; sweep the three race western swing with additional wins for the Mopar Express Lane Dodge Avenger at Sonoma and Seattle. It didn’t quite end up the way I had envisioning it, but instead of being a straight sweep for me as a driver, we did it as a TEAM. We made it a HEMI sweep with my pap Roy’s J&J tuned engines winning each of those races; under the hood of my Mopar at Denver and then on board with Vincent Nobile for both his wins.
The best part was really that every one of those three final eliminations rounds involved a Mopar versus Mopar, as I beat V. Gaines in Denver and then it was Vincent versus Jeg Coughlin Jr. for both finals at Sonoma and Seattle.
Sonoma was a pretty good weekend, even if I got beat in the semifinals by Jeg who went on to the finals against Vincent but any time we can have three out of the four Dodges in the semis, it’s a good weekend.
Between Sonoma and Seattle, the team stayed out west. Pam and I took a few days to enjoy ourselves heading to Seattle by way of Glacier National Park. We visited with an old friend of mine, Dave Daughtry, who took us on an eight-hour drive on the “Going-to-the-Sun” road to look at all the glaciers and everything worth seeing in the park. The next day we went white water rafting and I got to learn how to “drive” my own raft. Pam and I did some fishing and relaxing along the way and even saw two Grizzlies and a Black Bear up close. We really enjoyed visiting northern Montana.
Soon we were back on track in Seattle where I got beat by Vincent who went on to win the title. It was a close race and I lost to a teammate that went on to help us sweep the western swing so I am definitely happy for the team. It sure is looking more and more like I definitely hired my own assassins, but I can tell you that I think working as a three car team is making us all stronger and better.
It was also my 400th career national event. I had no idea until I got to the staging lanes for our first run and I saw a sticker saying “Congratulation from Mopar” on the car. That was pretty cool. That’s almost exactly half of all the NHRA events that have ever been held. To be around as long as we have been is wonderful and I still feel as if I were 29 like when I started. I don’t feel like it’s been that long but I guess it has. Time sure flies when you’re doing what you love.
I’m happy with how our western swing went. We made some good progress on the HEMI motors and I feel like we caught Mike Edwards on performance. The hard work starting to pay off and it was nice to have a little time off after a long stretch of seven races in eight week and before heading to Brainerd, Minnesota, for the next event.
Pam and I spent some quality time with friends at our second home on Sanibel Island on Florida’s west coast where we had a strict regimen of rest and relaxation, only broken up by a few rounds of golf, before heading back to work behind the wheel of the Mopar Express Lane Dodge in Brainerd.
Our weekend went “okay.” We got a little behind the eight ball with Jeggy and I lost in the quarterfinals to eventual winner, Edwards, in a really good race where I just simply got ‘whooped’. But it was good to see V. Gaines battling it out to finish runner-up to Edwards for a seventh straight final round appearance by a Mopar-powered car.
And now, here we are at the end of August with just one race left before the NHRA “Countdown to the Championship.” But before we get there, Jeg and I are going to do a little homework and test in St. Louis on Tuesday and Wednesday to get ready for the Countdown.
Wednesday night we’ll head to Indianapolis to set up for the prestigious U.S. Nationals. Of course we’d like to go into the playoffs on a high note with a good weekend, but Indy is special in a lot of ways. I’ve earned No.1 qualifier honors at Indy a few times and that holds its own prestige to brag about, but I have never made it to the finals there. That’ll be our goal. It’s definitely time for the “Big Go.”
The weekend before the Bristol race, back in mid-June, my high school buddies and I flew down to Sanibel Island on my plane, for some golf, some fishing and relaxing at my house down there. I caught about a 150-pound tarpon— it took me 22 minutes to get it in close to the boat. Right at the end my arms were completely worn out and I handed the pole to one of my buddies and told him he had to finish it off. It was right there at the boat, but then about a 500-pound. bull shark up and attacked the tarpon right beside our boat! We cut the line and let the tarpon go — the shark kept coming back to our boat looking for the fish.
The trip was a nice break before Bristol, our home race. You’ve got everybody coming to that race — friends, family, employees. You want to show them all the respect and hospitality you can, because they do it for me all year, allowing me to race. There’s a lot of prep for that event, and then when you get there, a lot of expectation. It’s just a big week. We qualified well at No. 2, but couldn’t get past Greg Anderson in the second round. We’ll just have to wait till next year to once again try to mark a Pro Stock win at Bristol off the to-do list.
Bristol was the first of a string of four consecutive races — I didn’t have time to do much, but I did have time to visit ESPN headquarters at another Bristol, this time in Connecticut. We took the Mopar rig and the Mopar Express Lane Dodge Avenger out to the ESPN compound. That’s a big place, with a lot to see. I met music star Darius Rucker, who was doing a little concert there — it just so happened he was also doing a concert later that week in my hometown. (More on that later).
We headed to the inaugural New Hampshire race after our ESPN stop. We were really impressed with the entire area. The facility did great for their first year, and the New Hampshire fans were just awesome. There were a lot of Mopar fans there, too, in the area. It was crowded, crowded, crowded! We gave them a lot to cheer about — our J&J Racing teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. took the pole and I was once again No. 2. We used two big holeshot wins over Mike Edwards and Shane Gray to earn the third win of the year in our Mopar Dodge. I think I like New Hampshire!
After we won the race I flew back home on Sunday, where I was invited to the after party for the Niswonger Children’s Hospital Golf Classic, held in Johnson City near my home in Greeneville. It was crazy — after just meeting Darius Rucker during our ESPN visit, I got to meet him again four days later, as he was performing in a concert to support the event! I also rubbed elbows with a bunch of other celebs who were in town to support the charity – NFL stars Dan Marino, Emmett Smith and Bruce Smith, and Bruce Pearl, a former coach at my favorite university — Tennessee. It was a big week!
After New Hampshire, the Mopar rig went straight to Chicago — it was on the road for all four events, and didn’t go back to the shop once. It seemed like Jeggy’s Dodge was out front for most of the race at Chicago. I had to race him in the semis, and he went on to win the event. That was a cool deal, getting two wins back-to-back for the J&J Racing team. Norwalk was up next. The Bader family does an awesome job up there. It was a good race for me and Jeggy — I was able to lock down the No. 1 spot, and I should have won the race. I had five hundredths on Mike (Edwards) off the starting line, and then I shook the tires. You win some, you lose some.
But we were coming into our stride during that stretch — I love all those races. After Norwalk I took all my grandsons out to my house on Douglas Lake in Tennessee. We fished, waterskied and I pulled them along on tubes, then my wife Pam came down and joined me on the weekend — all told I spent four days at our house relaxing before the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals.
I left for Denver early last week before the event — we had a media tour on Wednesday, July 17, then a golf tournament, press conference and the Mopar Block Party on Thursday. Thursday was a busy day. At the Block Party in Golden, you just see so many Mopar fans, with their classic cars. I’m telling you — they’re stacked on top of one another. Mopar does an awesome job with that event.
It was nice seeing Gary Scelzi, the Grand Marshal at the Mopar Mile-High Nationals, out at the Block Party. I told him I remember him being only half as ugly as he looked. We compared championship rings — he said that mine looked like his on steroids! All joking aside, it was awesome to visit with Gary — he’s a four-time champ, a great guy and definitely a fan favorite. I hope he makes it out to more races.
Then it was Friday, and time to go racing. For Mopar’s big weekend, which was the 25th anniversary of their sponsorship of the event, we captured our fourth consecutive pole, seventh straight final-round appearance and fifth win in seven years at the Mopar Mile-High Nationals. I would say I love everything about visiting Thunder Mountain — it’s not just one thing. I love the Bandimere family, I love the surface, I love Mopar’s sponsorship, I love the altitude. It just fits us to a tee — we’ve been so successful there I can’t wait to go back. I want to go back right now!
I had a bye run in the Mopar Mile-Highs first round — it’s only the second time in 18 years I’ve had a bye run. The team was actually really smart during that bye run. We had lane choice for the bye run, of course, and we had just watched Mike (Edwards) make his run. We knew since he had made a really good run, there was a chance we might not have lane choice next round. We made the decision to take the right lane for our bye run and get some data from that lane, thinking Mike would take the left lane if he had lane choice against us next round. It proved to be very beneficial, because we did lose lane choice but had data on the right lane, and we went out there and beat Mike the next round. That was big, to take down the points leader, and then we beat Rickie Jones and another Mopar driver, V. Gaines, in the final to close out the win.
My grandson Drew had a special weekend in Denver as well — with my win in Pro Stock and his dad Shawn Gann’s win in Pro Stock Motorcycle, his father and grandpa both won an NHRA National event on the same day. I don’t think there are many kids who can say that! It was cool having him there — he had to hustle to take winner’s circle pictures with both of us.
Coming home from Denver we got invited to watch the Greeneville Astros, a minor league affiliate of MLB’s Houston Astros, just this past Tuesday. They have an awesome facility here for a minor league team, and the owner of the big league Astros comes in quite often from Houston. The team invited Pam and I out — with us not knowing what they had in mind.
They came into the suite before the game and told me, “You need to come with us.” I’m like, “What’s up?” and the guy said I was scheduled to do the national anthem! I said, “Are you crazy??” He led me on for a little before he said, “You better warm that arm up — you’re going to throw out the first pitch.” I did okay — it was close to being a strike.
We’re back to work this weekend at the drag strip. I think the Mopar Express Lane/J&J Racing Dodge Avenger team is starting to come into its own. With the remaining two segments of the Western Swing up next, at Sonoma and Seattle, I’m really not thinking about the sweep. Our team’s approach is to go to every race and go No. 1 and win the race, and it’ll be no different at Sonoma.
When I left off on the previous blog, my Johnson & Johnson Racing team and I were getting ready to test in Topeka. I guess the testing paid off — both my teammate Jeg Coughlin and I advanced to the final at Topeka, with Jeggy taking the win. That’s what testing will get you when you do it well. It was a great weekend; anytime we can run two of our J&J Racing Mopar HEMI engines in the finals, it’s great. Topeka was just one of a number of events at which that has happened this year.
After Topeka, it was time to wind down during the Memorial Day weekend break. Pam and I took her mother down to our second home in Sanibel Island, Fla., where we love to visit as much as we can to kick back, relax and recharge the batteries. We try to head down there each Memorial Day, and we had a blast again, with a number of friends visiting us over the five days we were there. We ate some good seafood and did a little fishing, even hauling in some sharks.
I also recently had a chance to visit with a large gang of die-hard Mopar fans after a Mopar car club in Chattanooga contacted me about dropping in for an event. I flew down last week and signed autographs; I signed just about everything you can think of in about two hours — cars, babies, you name it. They were some true blue Mopar fans.
Getting back to racing, between the Topeka and Englishtown events we didn’t have a chance to test, but I was able to carry that Topeka momentum into New Jersey, driving the Mopar Dodge Avenger to another final-round berth. Englishtown was a very tricky track, with hot track temps and a lot of power. It was so humid and hot there it got up to about 98-degrees one day, with track temps close to 130-degrees or so. It made for very tricky conditions for the motors and for traction on the track. The Mopar Dodge/J&J Racing crew did a really good job, and other than the fact that we couldn’t bring down Mike Edwards in the final round, it was an awesome weekend.
Now we come to a big, important stretch of the season, four consecutive races, starting with our home race at Bristol. We tested there two days last week along with a lot of other Pro Stockers. Jeggy couldn’t attend, so I drove his car as well, and we had really good test sessions that I think will pay dividends. We feel really good about going back to Bristol this weekend. It’ll be a media frenzy for us; we talked with a lot of outlets during testing, and I know we’ll have a bunch of interview requests this week. The local media gives us a ton of exposure as the hometown favorite, and we love it.
Over the weekend, we participated in a very special event — my hometown of Greeneville, Tenn., declared June 8 as Allen Johnson/J&J Race Team Day. The mayor proclaimed it in an official proclamation during a town meeting last week, the city put out brochures, had us on the radio, and I signed autographs at the local City Garage Car Museum, where the Mopar Dodge I drove to the 2012 NHRA Pro Stock championship will be displayed. It’s such a great honor, and my city and hometown fans have shown my team and me an amazing outpouring of support over the years.
That’s part of our motivation this weekend, to win for our home fans at Bristol. We also want to get some satisfaction for our loss last year to Mike Edwards in the Bristol final — the closest race ever in NHRA history. Mike’s margin of victory was .000; it was basically a dead heat. Our goal as a team is also to keep being consistent throughout the year, and going to a final each week isn’t a bad way to do that. The Mopar Dodge Avenger/J&J Racing has team has experienced a lot of milestones and highlights in recent years, but to finally get that Pro Stock win at Bristol would rank up there with our biggest achievements.