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.
The last few weeks have had quite the mix of emotions and activities and it feels like I’ve been busier off-track than I have been on-track with our Mopar Express Lane Dodge, even though we find ourselves close to the end of five straight weeks of NHRA events. You can thank our fair share of rain delays and postponements for that, I guess.
Away from the track since the beginning of May, I’ve had a few black-tie events to dress up for, including two very prestigious galas. I was really honored and excited to accept awards from both the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame and Junior Achievement. A big part of what made both of those events so special was that I had so many members of my family there with me to share it with, including my daughters, my grandsons, and a lot of my employees. Even Mopar’s head honcho, President and CEO Pietro Gorlier, and Mopar’s head of marketing, Tricia Hecker, attended both events, and that meant a lot.
I attended the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame evening with my mom and dad, Revonda and Roy, and my wife Pam and her parents, Tony and Betty. It was an incredible event and it was huge for our Johnson & Johnson Racing team to be able receive “Team of the Year” recognition for our 2012 NHRA Pro Stock Championship. It was such an honor to get an award like that, and to be mentioned in the same breath as golfer Brandt Snedeker, who won 2012 FedEx Cup and was honored as one of the “Male Professional Athletes of the Year”. Pam and I even met country music artist Vince Gill (pictured), who was a recipient of the 2012 Lifetime Achievement award. It was really a great night.
Junior Achievement was a different kind of recognition because it included the business community and was more about the contributions I have been lucky enough to be able to make to my community away from the track. Before I was called up on stage, they presented a video of my life that had so many great highlights. It included my mentor in business, Fred Myers, and the influence my dad and mom have had in my life and everything they’ve done for me. While it is tremendous to be the recipient of an award from Junior Achievement, I couldn’t have done half the things I was recognized for without the great employees I have at the race team and my businesses at my oil company, the gym and dealerships and my family.
In fact, the first thing I said when I got on stage was that while this is was an individual award, I wasn’t going to accept it for an individual, but I would accept it on behalf of all those people that helped me be successful enough to be able to do all the things that got me there.
To be so blessed that I am able to go out into the communities, help kids, contribute in a meaningful way and continue to do things of that nature, is only possible because of the great people around me. I try to come from the heart with everything I do in both racing and business and I feel like I’m returning some of what I have been blessed with by doing those things and giving back whenever I can. It was a really wonderful evening and it was truly special to be able to share it with my family.
There were two other very special events to celebrate as well in the last two weeks. We had a small gathering of friends at General Morgan Inn in Greeneville to celebrate a very special and amazing lady in my life; it was Pam’s birthday. And then after the Atlanta race, Richie and Erica Enders-Stevens came back home with us to for another party with friends at Link Hill Country Club to celebrate 12 years of marriage to my friend and my strength, my incredible wife Pam whom I love very much and could do none of this without her.
Getting back to racing after Charlotte, neither Houston nor Atlanta was really memorable for us, as rain affected all those events. They were very long weekends. When it rained, they were long days to sit around and wait and wait and wait. It kind of wears you down. This stretch of five straight weeks has been pretty tough on everyone. With all the delays and rain and everything going on away from the track in the last little while, maybe my focus kind of was off a little bit. We’re shooting to bounce back in Topeka and doing everything we can to get back to fine form.
My teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. and I both tested our Mopar HEMI-powered Dodge Avengers in Tulsa prior to the Kansas Nationals in Topeka this weekend. We’re working on getting more consistent and getting a better combination for our Mopars. I think we’ve gained a little on Mike (Edwards) in the past few weeks, cutting his advantage a bit at a time. He’s been quickest qualifier every weekend but Atlanta, when Jeg got it. He’s the front runner right now but I think we cut the deficit in half on what he was leading on everybody since the start of the year. Hopefully, we’ll leave Topeka having cut into it a little more both on the track and in the points. Stay tuned.