We had a busy off-season, so it’s been quite a while since my last blog. I’ll try to catch you all up on what’s been happening in my world. My wife Pam and I spent New Year’s Eve with a few other couples at our winter home in Sanibel, Fla., and had a great time. There was a lot to celebrate and reflect on from 2012 — especially our NHRA Pro Stock championship.
Since our first-ever overall title, it’s been great to hear and see the support from fans and the press. As I’ve mentioned before in past blogs, my hometown of Greeneville, Tenn., has really embraced our Mopar/J&J Racing team and our championship, with parades, awards — just a huge outpouring from our hometown, and also NHRA fans in general. The media has also really embraced us and kept us busy, and the way they look to us to represent Pro Stock and the NHRA is something different, and something that the team and I really enjoy.
On a personal note, one major honor that I received recently was a nomination for the Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame. I’m going to be inducted on May 9th, and I’m really flattered by it. The honor is for individuals who have helped young folks achieve their dreams, and it recognizes the help I’ve given local schools here in Greeneville, including many appearances at elementary schools and helping our local high school build a special vehicle as part of the students’ curriculum. I like to give back and reach out to kids both through my racing and my business, Greeneville Oil & Petroleum. I’m probably a unique inductee — not really a straight suit-and-tie person. It’s an honor I’m really excited about.
Shortly after the start of the year, we were already back at it, testing at Bradenton in early January. We took all three Dodge Avenger race cars — mine, Jeg Coughlin’s and Vincent Nobile’s — to test for the first time. It was a bit of a madhouse, with all three of us trying to jell and get used to the routines of each other. We tried to figure out what we lacked and what we needed, and it really went well during our three days out there.
Our new partnership with Jeg and his JEGS.com team has been amazing. He’s a class act, and his entire organization is a class act. They really work hard and do whatever it takes. We give Jeg, as well as Vincent, the same equipment and engines that we use. Jeg’s a great driver, and I think he’s enjoying our relationship.
One big bonus: we do get to eat a lot better under our new partnership. Jeg has had a chef at the track for a while, but he was at the point of whether it was worth it or not just for his crew. He approached me in the off-season and asked if we wanted to participate, and I was all for it. It’s put a halt to the fast food lunches the team and I used to settle for — we had steak at a recent race under the new arrangement. Very tasty!
After our Bradenton test in January, the guys on the Mopar Dodge Avenger/J&J Racing team went back to the shop and worked on the engines, just busting their butts to get everything fresh and ready to go out west for the NHRA Winternationals. Jeg and I stopped out in Vegas on the way to Pomona and tested for a couple of days, and put in our race engines for the last few hits.
It was awesome receiving my championship ring at Pomona, in a presentation on stage with all the 2012 champions. It’s definitely something I love wearing. The team got their rings a little later, when I brought them to a test session right before the NHRA Gatornationals. You better believe they were happy! They love ’em, and rightfully so, because they did so much to earn them.
We didn’t start out like we wanted at the Winternationals, only advancing to the quarterfinals. Some things we found during testing just didn’t work under race conditions. We kinda got behind the eight ball after that, and had to be conservative. At the Phoenix event we did a little better, but the second round just bit us again. We were one of the fastest two cars in the first round, but in the second round the setup didn’t work.
We tested again at Bradenton a few days before the Gatornationals, and I think we have got a combination perfected. We made our best start of the season at the Gators, taking the No. 2 spot with a 6.481 run. We also had some fun off the track; we did the Harlem Shake in a little video for the NHRA, and I held a live gator. I’ve seen the videos on YouTube of the Harlem Shake, people just getting crazy and letting loose a bit. The NHRA version included the fans and it was a blast — but I don’t think I’ll be going on “Dancing with the Stars” anytime soon!
I did my job as a driver to reach the final round at Gainesville, with a .007 reaction time to defeat my good friend Erica Enders in the second round, and a .020 mark to take a holeshot win over Jason Line in the semi’s. The final was what we planned, tested and work for all season — me and Jeg lined up in both lanes, an all-Mopar final. I said before Gainesville, if we met in a race, we would just go head-to-head, no-holds-barred, and that’s how it was.
I came out on the winning end against Jeg to score my 17th career win and my first ever at the Gatornationals, which is one of those iconic races on our schedule, one I’ve wanted to win for so long. We also moved to third in the points standings. Our goal for each race is to qualify No. 1 and win the race, and in that regard it played right into our hands. I think we’re one of the premier teams in Pro Stock now, and I think anyone would tell you that. We’ve got a crew that makes great decisions based on scientific methods and data, and we keep improving those decision-making tools. We’ll be right there again (for the championship).
It was also a huge win for the partnership Jeg and I formed. Along with Vincent, who we also supply with Mopar Hemi engines, teams from the J&J Racing camp own the Nos. 2-4 points in the standings. I’ve said all along, everybody asks me why I hired my two assassins, two of the best drivers in the class. I said that they make me better. Last year, at the last six races, I ran Vincent every race and beat him in all six. I beat him because he challenges me and makes me better. That makes me better as a driver overall. Same thing with Jeggie – I knew that I would have to do my ultimate best to beat him. I hope we can all go head-to-head a bunch.
It’s been busy since our championship weekend in Pomona back in early November. Seems like we’ve been going to one party after another. My wife Pam and I spent a day and night with our Pro Stock friends, the Humphries clan, and they had us a big party up there, and invited their whole family over. Virginia, Walter, Justin and Gina had a big get-together at Justin and Gina’s house in Frederick, Md. Following that, the Chamber of Commerce in my hometown of Greeneville, Tenn., had a big function last week, and invited all the businesses that are part of the organization to come out and help honor our championship run. I think half of Greeneville was there! That was huge deal, with a huge turnout.
Then last Sunday I was Grand Marshal for a local Greeneville parade, and earlier this week Dad and I were presented with an honor by the town of Greeneville at a city meeting. So the J&J Racing team has definitely been getting some local recognition. The reaction from my hometown has been amazing. The entire region — the county of Greene, the city of Greeneville, all the people who live here — has really embraced our team and our championship season. It’s been a dream come true.
I also managed to get some hunting in with a bunch of friends. It used to be an annual excursion, but I hadn’t been able to join the boys in recent years. This year I was able to reunite with the gang, and we went deer hunting in the mountains near my home in Tennessee, and had a great time. The boys gave me a plaque with photos honoring our recent championship, and it made up for the fact that we got skunked — no one bagged a thing! Oh well —maybe next year.
Of course, it’s also time to go back to work. I’m already feeling the pressure to continue our success next year. I’m the type of person, I’m not going to dwell on what we’ve accomplished; I’m more worried now about what we’re expected to accomplish moving forward. We have to get to work and make sure we maintain that championship level of performance. That being said, the championship trophy now sits in my office — and I only look at it about ten times a day!
With our recently announced deal with Jeg Coughlin Jr. and his team, we are starting to get that set up. Jeg’s car and crew were at our shop last week and have been there this week, and we’re getting everything fitted in Jeg’s car. We’re actually going testing in Bradenton next week for two days.
It’s an exciting deal. Jeggy is a class act, and his whole organization is a class act. We’re awful big on the family aspect of racing, as he is. We’re going to try to set this thing up as a two-car, open-pit area type atmosphere. It’s not just us two, of course, as Vincent Nobile will also run with Mopar/J&J Racing HEMI power. Hopefully, we’ll have three Mopar cars in the top-five every run down the track, duking it out for wins and the 2013 championship.
Holiday-wise, we visited family on Thanksgiving. We were able to split up the family parties so we didn’t have to eat three times in one day! We spent Thanksgiving Day with my daughters and Pam’s family, and then on Saturday we went to my mom and dad’s and hung with my side of the family. It’s great — there’s always a lot of turkey, and you gain about five pounds.
We’re squeezing in a wedding between the holidays — Pam and I are actually in Houston today to help our friends get hitched, Richie Stevens and Erica Enders. Pam and I are both standing up in the wedding, and we’re honored to help them celebrate their big day. We have a festive house to return to — my mom gave a bunch of pictures of us at the track, even pictures from when Dad and I used to race in the Sportsman class, to the lady who helps us on our Christmas decorations for our home. She gave our Christmas tree a nice “Mopar” blue theme, and trimmed it with the photos, Mopar hats and copies of Mopar Magazine. Very cool! We’ll be staying home in Greeneville for a country Christmas, and we’ll soak in the remainder of what’s been a magical year for us. We have been truly blessed in 2012!
Seventeen years is a pretty long time. That’s how long we’ve been racing a Mopar-powered Pro Stock car and after all of the blood, sweat and tears we are finally able to say we are NHRA Pro Stock World Champions. That has a pretty nice ring to it, doesn’t it? It’s been such a long and extended battle and to finally reach this pinnacle is beyond words. I can’t really even describe it, but I’ll try.
We always thought we could do this and this year we learned how to win, and that was the main ingredient we had been missing. It’s magical when you learn how to win and I guess you could call it a dream season. It feels awesome. To do this with my dad and this entire team is such an amazing feeling.
Heading into Pomona, I was more nervous than I think I have ever been going into an event. I knew that all we needed to do was just qualify for the race and we would clinch the championship, but I kept thinking of every scenario possible that might pop up. When qualifying was complete on Saturday at Pomona and our Mopar Dodge Avenger was in the show, we knew that we were officially the champions. But this team is so competitive and so focused that we really wanted to win to put an exclamation point on the season. By winning the last race of the season you give yourself some momentum going into the off-season and the following season, and we were able to do that at Pomona. That was the first win for us at Pomona and that’s a place I’ve had on my “bucket list” of tracks that I wanted to win at for quite a while.
The racing was actually the easy and relaxing part, as next came the banquet and having to make “The Speech.” It was a day full of nerves leading up to that. There were a lot of butterflies in my stomach and emotions from everybody. It was a fun day, but it was also a very, very stressful day. It ended up being a very touching evening at the banquet, as I had dad up on stage with me. I also got to introduce our entire crew and family members, as well as many of the partners of this team. It was very touching for me and something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.
Everyone on the team is on cloud nine right now. To see all of your hard work all year turn into a championship is pretty special. The crew is very proud of that and I am extremely proud of them. They worked their tails off day in and day out, whether we were at the track, at the shop or testing. To be honest, the crew is already thinking about next season and what we can do to be even stronger than we were this year. That’s the type of dedication it takes to be successful in a class as competitive as Pro Stock.
We approached this season in a totally different way than we ever have in the past. We had an analytical and scientific-type approach to how we did things. We made better decisions and that really paid off. I stressed consistency all year, and we really had that after the first couple of races. We made a few mistakes early in the season and went testing and figured out how to not make those mistakes again. It was a total team approach in decision making and that way of thinking really paid dividends.
I really couldn’t have asked for a much better season. The racer and competitor in me says we should have probably won a couple more races, but to set career highs in wins (7), No. 1 Qualifiers (10) and round wins (55) was pretty amazing.
Earlier this week, our friends at Bristol Dragway, Wes and Lori, had a luncheon to celebrate the title with us. They did an awesome job with it. Bristol is such a great partner around the area and have done a lot for us over the years and we’ve done a lot for them as well. They had television and radio stations and newspapers out there and we did a lot of interviews with the media. The spread they had for everyone to eat was great and everyone enjoyed that. They also presented me with a couple of plaques and a really nice picture to commemorate the championship. It was so kind of them to host that event and do all of that for us.
Even though the season is over, we are busy as ever. This weekend our backup car will be on display up in Baltimore at a Chrysler Group LLC Fleet event. I’ll be there on Saturday signing autographs and greeting folks. When I get back from that, it will be Thanksgiving week and we’ll spend some good, quality time with our family.
I’m also working on something big to reward the team for all of their hard work. Then before we know it, it will be time to go and test. Not too much R&R for the team or me, and that’s a good problem to have, being in demand and busy. That means we did something right this season.
It’s been a great ride this year and the perfect way to help wrap up the Mopar 75th anniversary celebration. It’s definitely an honor to have Mopar on the side of our race car and I thank them from the bottom or my heart for all that they do for our J&J Racing team. Thanks to all of the fans as well for their continued encouragement and support.
Now that we have one title, our goal is to get another. We’re already working hard toward that goal and look forward to defending this year’s title in 2013. Pomona will be here before we know it.
When you are battling for a championship and are the points leader, you really don’t want to see any downtime, especially when you have momentum like we have. But we had a little break after the NHRA event at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa., before Las Vegas and also have a weekend off now before we head to Pomona next week.
My wife Pam and I spent some time the weekend after Reading at our vacation spot in Sanibel, Fla. We had our friends Erica Enders and Richie Stevens come down and join us. We hung out at the beach and also visited Key West. It was a great time as always at Sanibel and great to spend time with Erica and Richie. They are dear friends to us.
After that, I went back home to Greeneville and took in a few of my grandsons’ football games and played a few rounds of golf. I always have to make it to a few football games of some sort during the fall. The break was nice and really helped clear my mind, but I was ready to get right back at it and continue our fight to bring home our first-ever NHRA Pro Stock championship. We took our Dodge Avenger testing for a few days in Las Vegas, about a week before the actual race, to make sure we were prepared.
Prior to the race in Las Vegas we got to have a little fun. During the NHRA Press Conference Erica Enders and I rode the Big Shot ride at the Stratosphere and that was quite a rush. When we are in Las Vegas, I always have to make it over to Lawry’s as well and have some prime rib. We got to meet a lot of fans as always in Las Vegas, and it’s such a great atmosphere out there.
Come race time, the testing the weekend before definitely paid off. Anytime you can test at a track you’re getting ready to race at, that just pays dividends for the team and the crew chief. In qualifying for Vegas we had the quickest car in three of four rounds, earning us a bunch of crucial bonus points and also the No. 2 spot on the starting grid. Every point we get now is a step toward the championship, and those 11 markers were 11 more big steps to the title. To start off Sunday eliminations at Vegas, we took the win over a fellow Mopar Dodge driver, Deric Kramer, to set up yet another Mopar vs. Mopar battle, this time with Jeg Coughlin Jr. It’s always a tough battle with Jeggie and we were able to come out on the winning end.
In the final round it was me and my teammate Vincent Nobile, in another all-Mopar match-up. Vincent did me a huge favor in the semifinals by taking out Jason Line, who is second in the points and our closest competitor. Jason lost to Vincent on a red-light foul, and I’m sure the fact that Vince is quick off the starting line helped that to happen. It was the second Vegas race this year with Vincent and me in the final, and just as we did in the spring race, our Mopar Dodge Avenger took the win.
There’s a bunch of facts and stats behind the victory: it’s our sixth win of the season, 15th of my career, and 35th final round appearance ever. But the biggest stat is the 126-point lead in the standings we will take to the season-finale in Pomona. All we really have to do is qualify, and the Mopar/J&J Racing team can celebrate our first Pro Stock championship.
After the race in Las Vegas, I stayed a few extra days and attended the SEMA show where I got to see a lot of the new and exciting products that Mopar has in the pipeline. I also was able to spend some good, quality time with the Mopar executives and many of the other people who are instrumental to the success of our race team.
We’ve preached consistency all year and we’ll continue that heading into Pomona. My crew is doing an awesome job, and to have a cushion in the points lead is great, but I want to go to the final race and close it out with a win. For my dad and me, it will be a dream come true to celebrate that championship. We’ve done it all from our little race shop in Greeneville, along with a bunch of help from Mopar. To work side-by-side with my dad for 17 years, and to be so close to accomplishing a championship with him is something special. Pomona here we come!