Tommy Johnson Jr. returns to Funny Car competition behind the wheel of the Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger R/T, with sponsor Terry Chandler and the backing of Don Schumacher Racing. Johnson, who has nine national event victories in his career and who is one of 15 drivers to have won events in both Top Fuel and Funny Car, took part in a recent NHRA teleconference to talk about his new ride and the season ahead.
Q; You've been so closely involved with the sport since your last full-time season in 2008, and you were always a constant fixture at the track. But was there ever a worry in your mind that you may not get back to this position being in a championship caliber, full-time ride?
Johnson: Yeah, every day. You wonder every day. Especially the first year, OK, it was tough times economy wise. It's hard to put a sponsorship package together and get in a car. This second year, OK, it's getting a little tougher, but it's been five years since I ran full time in 2008 with Kenny Bernstein, so there was definitely some doubt along the way. But my love for the sport and just everybody asking me all the time, "What would you do if you didn't drive race cars?" And that isn't an option. It's the only thing I've ever done, and the will to get back here, you get tired of hearing no. But if you want to do something bad enough, you put your mind to it, and you continue to put your head down and work towards that goal, and that's what I did. I just never gave up. It would have been easy to give up several times along the way, but it's what I want to do, and my desire to do that paid off and the persistence. But to answer your question, every day I wondered, "I don't know if I'm ever going to get this shot." I did a lot of part-time stuff, but a full-time ride, I didn't know if we'd get back there. But I stuck around and fought hard and did all the right things. I just stayed there and kept in front of people and kept in the forepart of their mind. When an opportunity came available, it finally happened this year. Don Schumacher was kind enough to give me that chance again.
Q. Everybody kind of gets some off-season cobwebs, but you're coming back. When do you feel like you'll find it will be easier for you? Do you think it will be much more of an effort or it will just come back to you like riding a bicycle? What do you think will be the biggest hurdles for you as you get into the travel and routine again?
Johnson: There are going to be a lot of things. Just already 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. 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. 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 OK 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 percent 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.
Q. Do you feel like a rookie?
Johnson: Sometimes. There are certain things. You feel like you fell back to your rookie day, like been there and done that. It's brought back a little bit of memory of those days, but for the most part, you feel like a veteran rookie.
Q. Apart from the car, how much do you think you can contribute to the team now from what you've learned in the past?
Johnson: It's something I've always prided myself on is having a really good feel for the race car and what the car is doing. Driving by the seat of your pants as far as feel and sound of the engine and the car. Even in testing, the very first run I made in the car I said, "It did this; it did that. It moved here; I felt this." So that is a little bit of what I think I can bring. I feel like that will help along the way. I can't even count how many runs I've made in a nitro car over the years. I think once you gain that experience and get that feel for the car, that is something you don't ever lose.
Q. Johnny Gray had four wins last year; does that put more added pressure on you to succeed this year?
Johnson: No, I mean, it's a very good team. Getting back full time is one thing, but to get back with an organization like Don Schumacher Racing and to know that you have the cars and the resources and the people there that are capable of winning, it gives you a great opportunity. I think you put pressure on yourself no matter what situation you're in. But to know that you have the car that is capable of winning races, and not only winning races, they've won championships here in the past few years. So to go out there and have that shot at a competitive car and have a shot at a championship, definitely the goal as you start the season is to win races, make the Countdown, and to strive for that championship. I don't know that there's anymore added pressure, but it's certainly a lot because it is a high-profile team, and that is the goal that I was shooting for. I'm going to get all the pressure I asked for.
Q. Do you think when you were previously a test driver for them that helped you get this full-time seat for the season?
Johnson: Yeah, it certainly didn't hurt anything. I worked at Schumacher for two or three years there. I drove for Don. We went to Abu Dhabi and drove in the Yas Marina Top Fuel cars over in Abu Dhabi. 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. That, coupled with when I went to work for Don two or three years ago, he said, "Come to work for me. We'll work on a deal and get you in the car." Maybe it didn't happen as fast as we wanted it to, but it eventually happened, and I've got to thank him for the opportunity along with Terry Chandler, Johnny's sister. She had a lot of say in who got to drive. I got to know her over the last few years as well there working at Don Schumacher Racing when Johnny was driving the car. Just a great lady. I just can't thank them enough, both of them, for giving me the opportunity.
Q. John Force always talks about how much time he spends in the gym now to stay in shape after his injuries and to compete with the younger guys. Coming back for a full season, have you done anything off-season wise to get yourself in better shape?
Johnson: Yeah, you know, the older you get, the harder you have to work at it, it seems like. But that was one of the things that showed commitment to how bad I wanted to do this over the years. I hadn't been out there on the tour, but you could have easily let yourself go and put on some pounds. But I kept focused on that I wanted to do this, and the opportunity may come tomorrow. You don't know when that opportunity is coming. I kept myself in shape and didn't gain weight. I'm basically the same way I was when I got out of Bernstein's car. I ride bicycles in the summertime, and I've hit the treadmill this winter and been on the treadmill quite a bit. Basically, it's something you do in your life. It's not something I do to drive the race car. It's just I want to keep myself in shape and do some things. To do that, more than anything, I watch my diet. I really I try to eat well. I try to keep a good diet and a little exercise along the way. Hopefully some of the genetics are there that it works a little bit on the natural side.
But just the desire to be in the car and that's how bad I wanted to do it. I always made sure if the call came together, I was ready to go.
Q. Pulling into Pomona with the start of the season and new hopes and new dreams, just how cool of an event is Pomona to kick off the start of the season here in Southern California back at the birthplace of NHRA Drag Racing?
Johnson: On the tour, there are those special races. Of course, Indy and Englishtown has been a neat race because of the history there, but Pomona is the kickoff of the season. For the crews in racing, you've got to see where this guy ended up; he used to work there, but now he works there. and what uniform is that guy wearing? And all the new paint schemes. Like at Pomona, we're going to debut the Make-A-Wish paint scheme, and it's 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 the 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. It's one that's on the tour that every year you look forward to. To kick off the season with a win and you're the guy leading the points, there is something special about that every year. It would be different if I had joined the tour maybe mid-season, and I got a job driving a car. I've done that before. I started with Joe Gibbs Racing in the middle of the season. It wasn't a dramatic interest; it was just another race on the tour in the middle of summer. But to start the tour back full time with Don Schumacher Racing, driving for Terry Chandler, and debuting Make-A-Wish at the Winternationals, it doesn't get any bigger than that to me.
For tickets for the Circle K NHRA Winternationals, call 800-884-NHRA (6472) or log on to NHRATix.com.