Two weeks till Pomona — I can’t believe the 2014 NHRA Mello Yello season is almost here and we’re gettin’ ready to go west! I’ve been running around like a chicken with its head cut off this pre-season, as usual, trying to get everything with my business squared away before we go racing, and also of course testing and preparing our Mopar Dodge for the year.
We had a great Christmas, spending it with our families — we enjoyed our traditional huge country breakfast (thanks mom) at my parents’ house. During the holidays we were able to visit with Pam’s father, Tony, who is doing a whole lot better and is out of rehab after suffering a massive stroke around Thanksgiving. He’s gained a lot of function back in his legs and in his arms, and with the help of Pam and her mom, who really take care of him, he’s been improving a bunch, so that’s a real blessing and our best Christmas gift.
A week before Christmas my teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. and I were at work, squeezing in some important test sessions at Bradenton, putting 14 runs on each Mopar-powered Dodge. We tested some chassis package setups our crew chief Mark Ingersoll had been working on during the off-season, and gathered some critical info that I think will help us throughout 2014.
A bit after Christmas, Pam and I were able to get in our last bit of R&R before the season at our home in Sanibel Island, Fla. The Humphreys, Walter and Virginia and Justin and Gina and their kids, were able to come along the whole time, and we spent a few days fishing, going out for dinner, cooking out and kicking back with good friends. The weather was awesome, but we headed back home to Tennessee just in time to experience the polar vortex. When we left Sanibel it was 80 degrees, and when we got to our house in Greeneville it was 18 degrees! Needless to say, we put away the shorts and put on the winter coats.
After that break I was home from a few days, and then Jeg and I headed right back down to Bradenton for some more testing, over three days. We recorded some mid-6.40 second numbers and made a bunch of runs during good conditions, which helped us fine-tune our set ups for when the air and weather is good.
Coming up soon, I’m going to be involved with a B.R.A.K.E.S. safe driving event here in Greeneville, just as we did a year or so ago. There will be a classroom talk on January 31 and then on February 1-2 students can participate in four on-course driving sessions at Bristol Motor Speedway. I’m very proud to be able to help bring B.R.A.K.E.S back to Greeneville with donations from our J&J Racing team and my personal business, Greeneville Oil & Petroleum. We expect about 200 students over two days to take part in the sessions at Bristol Motor Speedway. The classroom session will be held at a local auditorium, with about 700 sophomores from six area high schools in attendance. Doug Herbert and his folks will put on a seminar about safe driving for teens, and I’ll say a few words. It’s a great cause that Doug’s involved with, and I’m glad I could play a part in teens from my area learning more about the importance of safe driving.
We’re going to be testing before we head into Pomona. We usually test in Vegas, but it’s always cold. Because it has a new surface and because it’s warmer, we’re going to attempt to test in Phoenix on the Monday and Tuesday before the race, and then head on over to Pomona. Of course, it was great to see Peyton Manning, a Tennessee alumnus, punch his ticket to the Super Bowl. I’ll be pulling for him, and I’m going to make sure we get to Phoenix in time to watch the big game. I’m predicting the Broncos are going to take it to ‘em: 40-28.
I’ve been preparing for Pomona all off-season, working daily on my practice tree and keeping focused on that. I workout daily to keep the body in shape for when it’s time to get behind the wheel, and I also take time to relax a bit and give my mind a break. You know, your performance is a package deal, and the mental aspect is a big part of it, so pre-season relaxation helps.
Of course, there are always changes from year to year, and our team has had a few. We’re going to field a two-car team in 2014, focused on my Mopar Dodge and the JEGS.com Dodge. Jim Yates has moved on, and we wish him well and all the best in the world. He did a great job for us over the last few years, and we’ve parted as friends and on great terms.
I’m itching to get behind the wheel. With Jeg and I, you’ve got back-to-back Pro Stock champs together on the same team, so of course for 2014 I’m very optimistic. The J&J Racing team has that drive and hunger to make it three in a row for the Mopar camp. It’s also a big year for Mopar with the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 426 race HEMI in 2014, so any victories and championships we bring home this year will be icing on their cake.
It’s not going to by easy — I feel like this year will be ultra-competitive with the consolidation of the Cagnazzi and Gray squads, the KB team is always tough, and with Chris McGaha purchasing Mike Edwards’ team, he is going to be a threat. Each race is going to have the slimmest margin of error, but the J&J Racing team has some of the best power out there — Mopar HEMI power — and some of the best decision makers, so we’re looking forward to going head-to-head with them.
It’s 40 degrees outside my home in Greeneville as I write this, which is a lot better than the weather in most of the country. Watching some of the football games this past weekend, you would think it’s mid-winter in most places. This is one of those times of the year when I really appreciate living in Tennessee.
My dad Roy and I will brave the cold, wintry North and head up to Indy for the PRI Show on Friday and visit with some of our vendors and suppliers. It will be a quick trip, because my wife Pam and I have been invited to the Titans vs. Cardinals NFL game on Sunday, thanks to Marathon, the fuel supplier for my company, Greeneville Oil & Petroleum. We’ll be taken on the field before the game, and then watch from a suite, so it should be a blast.
Our Thanksgiving time was cut short because Pam’s father, Tony Bird, suffered a massive stroke a few days before the holiday, so that changed our plans quite a bit and kept us pretty busy, especially Pam. He’s in rehab and some things are starting to come back to him, and he’s learning how to function. He’s making good strides every day, and we hope to have him home soon. Our thoughts, prayers and support are all focused on him right now.
My birthday came over the weekend, and Pam hosted a gathering for me at The Butcher’s Block, a nice restaurant close to home. It’s closed on Sunday but we rented it out and had a band, and about 25 of our friends attended. I got a bunch of clothes as gifts, which is good, considering I’m not much of a shopper. Pam usually uses my birthday and Christmas to stock me up on clothes. And as far as Black Friday, you can believe I wasn’t anywhere near a mall! I do all my Christmas shopping online, so it doesn’t take very long.
We also recently hosted a team luncheon at Lynn’s Diner near our home for the guys from the J&J Racing shop, to thank them for all of their hard work during the year and also as our group holiday gathering. It’s the least we could for all the hours they work in the shop, enabling us to do what we do on the track. The team is already burning the gasoline as we speak, and the Mopar/J&J Racing squads are already in full prep mode: we begin testing next week in Bradenton, Fla., with both my Mopar Express Lane Dodge and teammate Jeg Coughlin’s JEGS.com/Mopar Dodge. I guess you could call it our first official test session for next year. We’ve been R&D’ing since we got back from the NHRA Finals, and I think the guys have gone through a drum of gasoline on the dyno already.
Of course, there will be some changes from season to season. As most people are aware, Vincent Nobile will not be competing under the J&J Racing umbrella in 2014. We all wish Vincent the best, as well as Nick and Irene Mitsos, who are great people and were part of our team going back quite a few years. It’s all part of racing, and we remain on good terms. Having a third car provides a lot of valuable data for all the drivers that are part of a team, and we are actively working to fill that third slot. The last two Pro Stock champs captured the crown with J&J Racing engines — my title in 2012 and Jeg’s this year — and we mean to keep that streak alive in 2014.
Come Christmas time, depending on how good Pam’s father is doing, we’re planning on a little vacation. The day after Christmas we’re going to head to our home in Sanibel, Fla., and stay through the New Year, depending on how everything works out. But as far as Christmas morning, I wouldn’t be anywhere but my mom and dad’s house, where we have a big country breakfast for my family, and Pam’s family joins us as well. My mom makes ham, biscuits and gravy, the works — my gosh, it’s just an unbelievable feast.
With 2013 almost over, as I look back I didn’t think we could top 2012, but I would have to say that we did. With Jeg finishing No. 1 in points and taking the title, and me taking the No. 2 spot, it was just another amazing year. I think we’re going to have a great 2014, with the No. 1 and No. 2 cars trying to hold the spots again. But of course I would like to reverse the order!
This is my final blog of ‘13, so I would like to thank all the readers on NHRA.com, as well as all of the loyal J&J Racing, NHRA and Mopar fans out there who have supported us throughout the years. I hope you all have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year — and don’t forget to focus on the reason for season!
During the Countdown my team and I were almost totally focused on racing, but my wife Pam and I were at least able to take part in two important events with friends and family. We made a trip down to the Big Easy, New Orleans, and were able to help our friend and fellow racer Erica Enders-Stevens celebrate her 30th birthday. It was a fun deal — everybody dressed up in ‘80s type garb, walked around Bourbon Street and had a blast.
Right before Pomona, we made a trip to our second home in Sanibel, Fla., and helped Pam’s mother and father, Betty and Tony Bird, celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. We took them on a yacht outing and did a day’s worth of boating as an anniversary present. I think it was the first time Tony had been to the beach in about 30 years! Some of their friends came down as well, so we had a nice gathering in our home to help commemorate their achievement. Fifty years married is quite the milestone.
After a stop back home in Greeneville, Tenn., we headed out to Pomona and sunny Southern California for the season-ending NHRA Finals. I had a mathematical chance to catch our teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. for the championship; for the last few races of the Countdown I’d been trying to collect all the “little points” in qualifying that I could in order to catch Jeggy. It’s a funny feeling when your teammate is ahead of you. You want to be sure to give him the best equipment so he has the opportunity to seal the deal, but I was also behind him, and in the process of trying to catch him. So it was a different situation, but it was a challenging and fun situation, and our teams rose to that challenge.
We couldn’t quite get the deal sealed and catch Jeggy. We definitely had some close races during the Countdown that would have been huge for us if only a few had swung our way. I think we had three losses in three races that when combined, the margin of victory for all my opponents was less than two thousandths of a second. Jeg and I squared off in a big final round, all-Mopar showdown at Reading that he was able to win by about six inches. We can be teammates and still challenge one another, and have fun while trying to beat each other.
I was able to beat Jeggy at Pomona in the quarterfinals and advance to the final round against Rickie Jones, where I attempted to capture my second straight NHRA Finals Wally. Unfortunately, the driver (me) made a mistake and I took the runner-up spot. Seeing Rickie get the win, his first ever, and his raw emotion over the accomplishment, that was great. He and his dad Rick have always been good friends of ours, and we raced their cars for a longtime. That was a sweet deal for them.
When we didn’t get the “little points” in qualifying at Pomona, I pretty much knew we couldn’t catch Jeg, so our goal was to finish 1-2 in points, and that’s what we did, with Jeg No. 1 and me at No. 2. We achieved our goal, and it was a very satisfying end to the season. Seeing Jeggy celebrate his championship and knowing he’s part of the J&J Racing team, it’s close to the feeling I had last year when I won the championship. To bring that title home again for Mopar, that was the goal for Jeg, I and Vincent Nobile as well during the 2013 season. It didn’t really matter who did it — we wanted to keep the big trophy in the Mopar camp, and we accomplished that. And as a team owner, it really, really feels great. Following Pomona we attended the NHRA banquet, and both teams were able to celebrate and come together to support Jeg.
I see this partnership with Jeg flourishing and just getting better and better, with my Mopar Express Lane Dodge and his JEGS.com Dodge battling it out for wins and titles for the foreseeable future. Of course, I would like to switch up the finish from this year!
Looking back over 2013, my funniest moment was something Jeg also mentioned, when I “punked” him before our final-round race for the win at Gainesville. Jeg had broken a motor in the semis, and Vincent and I had also broken motors during the race. I walked up to him and I was serious as a heart attack and said, “Dude, I don’t know how to tell you this, but we don’t have any more motors.” He didn’t know what to say — his face turned white as a ghost before I let on that I was kidding!
The most emotional moment came at the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals in Denver, where with all the Mopar family from Chrysler Group HQ in attendance we won for the fifth time at Bandimere Speedway, qualified No. 1 and basically ran the table. My proudest moment I would have to say was going to Pomona for the NHRA Winternationals, the first race of the year, as the champion. That was very satisfying for the whole J&J Racing team.
I just completed my eighteenth year of racing, and after all the struggles we endured early on, my dad Roy and I can say we were champions last year, runner-up this year, and J&J/Mopar horsepower has claimed back-to-back titles. It’s just very gratifying to me to see everybody on the team enjoying their jobs, excelling at their jobs. That’s what I like to do, give people opportunities to be successful. Whether it’s my dad, or crew chief Mark Ingersoll, or Jim Yates, or seeing Jeggy join our team and be successful, it’s so gratifying to be at that pinnacle right now.
Racing is done for 2013, but the R&R time will be few and far between as we prep for the 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. Coming up here soon, my dad and I will hit the PRI show to shake hands and keep in contact with our vendors, and Pam and I will probably make a few trips to our home in Sanibel for some beach time. My grandsons are both playing basketball in school, so I’ll see some of their games and just enjoy some family time during the holidays. We’ll be busy in the shop and soon we’ll be testing, because the NHRA Winternationals begins on Feb. 6. It will be here before you know it!
Once the regular season ended after Indy, I took advantage of the down time before Charlotte and the start of the Countdown playoffs to go dove hunting at a local farm near my house in Greeneville. It was the first time I had been dove hunting in 15 years. Tennessee has some great wild game — there were four of us and we bagged 62 doves, and I took 15 birds. I’ve got a special recipe for doves — I soak the meat in saltwater for about half a day, then marinate them in zesty Italian dressing for about four hours, and then wrap a piece of bacon around each piece and put them on the grill. My wife, Pamk and I feasted on a dinner of dove, mashed potatoes and rolls, and it was awesome!
The night before Charlotte we participated in a B.R.A.K.E.S. event to support Doug Herbert’s work to educate teens before they get behind wheel. I’ve been a big supporter of B.R.A.K.E.S. for years, and at the dinner and auction I was presented with the Danielle Lee Kennedy Award for going over and above in support of the organization. It means a lot to be able to support a cause like B.R.A.K.E.S. It’s an amazing group, and to receive an award from them is just humbling. During the auction I challenged audience members to pay for a B.R.A.K.E.S. school session, and if they did I would match their contribution. A great couple offered their support, and we were able to get it done.
We tested at Charlotte for two days to get ready for the first Countdown race. Charlotte is always a great event, but it was just unfortunate that we ran my friend Erica Enders-Stevens in the second round, because I believe we would have beaten anybody else in that round. I didn’t do my job very well, and she stepped up and did hers. That wasn’t how I wanted to start the Countdown, but that motivates you to do better. It was a great testament to our J&J Racing Mopar Hemi engine program that my teammate, Jeg Coughlin Jr., was able to score the win at Charlotte. He’s one of my competitors, too, and he’s going to be tough to beat. For Mopar, having three teams in competition for the Pro Stock championship, counting our J&J teammate Vincent Nobile (and four Mopars when you factor in V. Gaines, who runs his own team), is a good thing. But for me, of course, I want to win it myself.
Next up was Dallas, where we had some success with a win last year. I was pumped up because I wanted to ride the hood of our Dodge Avenger again wearing a cowboy hat and carrying the trophy! You know, we really found some speed and power in the engines at Dallas, and that showed in the last round of qualifying and in the first round of eliminations, where we were low of the round. We had a good package that we took into Sunday, but once again we were matched up with one of the quicker cars of the round, and we just didn’t make as good a run in the second round, where we lost to Jason Line.
But we came out of Dallas with a real optimism that we’re going to have a car to beat the last four races, and I think we’ve found a great a package. With the shakeup in the standings we didn’t lose too much ground, and only fell 10 more points behind the leader. We felt fortunate in that.
The team flew a couple of Hemi engines home to work on after Dallas in preparation for St. Louis. We ain’t quitting; the Mopar Dodge Avenger team is going to dig, dig, dig, and work to defend our 2012 championship. We’ve tested at St. Louis, tested really well there, and I think we hit on something in the engines. I think we’ve got the best package we’ve had. We scored a runner-up finish at St. Louis last year on our road to the title, and I can’t wait to get to the track and show off what we got. I’m fired up as a driver right now, and can’t wait to hit St. Louis this weekend.