At the conclusion of the final race of Johnny Gray's career as a full-time Funny Car driver, his dedicated team came together to offer their reflections on a monumental season that included a perfect record of four wins in four final rounds and back-to-back wins in Atlanta and Topeka. They also shared what it was like to work with the man who drove the nitro-breathing Pitch Energy Dodge in 2013 in tribute to his father, the late John R. Gray.
Crew Chief Rob Wendland
"Johnny has been more than just a driver for us; he's been a mentor to me. The first part of the season, my mission wasn't for Johnny – it was to do well for his dad in his 'Last Go Around.' But then it changed, and as the year went on, we all really wanted to make it great for Johnny. It was difficult that it didn't end how we wanted it to, but we can still look back and recognize the good things that happened and how special it was.
"For me, Topeka was the highpoint. We had won Atlanta the race before, and the fact that Topeka was my home track and I was dedicating the race to the memory of a friend who had passed away made it even more special.
"Johnny is a man who holds a lot of his emotions in, so sometimes you're guessing what he's thinking. I learned that 'it is what it is' means the outcome should have been better, and 'it's all good' means you can't change what happened, so we'll just have to swallow it and move on. I learned a lot working with Johnny Gray, and I'm grateful for the experience."
Rip Reynolds, Assistant Crew Chief
"This year was such a joy, to be able to do something for somebody I had never met for a group of people like Johnny and Terry Gray and Terry Chandler who are so cool. There were so many great moments. We did really well, and then we did bad, but the most special part for me was how everybody stayed together no matter what happened. Sure, there were doubts and questions at times, but everybody continued to do their job and that's what makes it special. Most everybody here has been in the sport long enough to know there are ups and downs, and if you keep your head above water you will figure everything out.
"Johnny is a wealth of knowledge. He's so well rounded in all of his mechanical abilities and his driving skills, and I learned a lot from him. But the best thing about working with Johnny was his friendship. His friendship has meant the most."
"This year was amazing. We won four races and they all came in such a bunch, but it was also amazing to see the team go through so many different things. In Charlotte we didn't qualify, but we bonded together and decided we were going to go test and do all of these things, and then we came back out and kept chipping away at it. Everyone kept working, right up until the very end, and I think that showed what kind of a team this is and how we are all willing to work together to take it to the next level. When the Countdown came, we struggled – but we still kept at it. Sometimes, persistence and dedication mean more than winning. You just have to keep at it and never give up.
"The best part of the year for me was winning Norwalk. My hometown track was Columbus, and my dad used to come to Norwalk all the time – so there were a lot of family members there. I lost my dad in February, so winning Norwalk was extra special. I was also really excited about Atlanta and Topeka back-to-back; that's something that really doesn't happen very often.
"Working with Johnny was an opportunity to learn more than just drag racing. It was important for me because I learned a lot about life, business, how to work with people, how to deal with them accordingly, and what you demand out of people. Learning from Johnny was a great, great achievement for me personally."
"This year has been great, and the best part about it was that we were able to get four wins. I'd have to say that Norwalk stood out above all the others for me because my family was there, and it was great to be able to share that with them. To be able to give Johnny four wins this year really meant a lot to us and to me personally. We all would like to have given him a championship, but it wasn't meant to be. We all really wanted to end the year with a win in Pomona, too, and we were disappointed it didn't work out.
"It was a great experience to work with Johnny because he never complains about anything. The only thing he does is come around and give you praise and tell you, 'good job.' I have to say that this past year, with Johnny as a driver, has been the best so far of my 13 years in drag racing."
"It was a good year that started out great. After four wins, we really didn't think anybody could stop us, and that was the most I've ever had in one season in 19 years of racing. I had three when I worked with Gary Scelzi, but winning four was really awesome.
"We also had the opportunity to be part of some really cool programs this year with Alex's Lemonade Stand and the Darrell Gwynn Foundation. My job is with the heads, bolting the car together, and making sure I don't make any mistakes. I try not to let anything effect me, but it does – you see those kids going through those challenges and you just go, wow. Why does it have to be like that? It was really neat to be able to bring awareness to these causes, and if you are able to help even one kid, then it's all worth it.
"I've worked with a lot of teams over the years, and Johnny is right up there as the most personable team owner. He's down to earth and always upbeat. Instead of telling us how bad we sucked if we didn't do well, Johnny would come around and tell us, 'We'll get 'em next time. It isn't the end of the world.' The Grays are just genuine people next door, that's what they are."
"Any of the years I got to work with Johnny were awesome. He's probably one of the most amazing people I've ever met, and knowing it was his last year and that it was a tribute to his dad was really cool. It meant a lot.
"The best part of the year for me was winning Norwalk, and that whole stretch of the year leading up to it was great – but winning Norwalk was my No. 1. Winning four races was more than I'd ever won with a team before, and I know that's true for a lot of us so that made it really cool. We had a lot of confidence, but stuff happens and things come to an end. It was a great year, though.
"Johnny is hilarious and probably the most down to earth guy I've ever met. It was really good working with him."
"There were a lot of ups and downs this year, and we all wanted the championship for Johnny. We came up short at the end of the season, but it's been good working with him. Johnny is a great guy and a great driver. He's a busy guy, but he's very caring and takes care of us if we need anything. He's always there to help you out, and we sure tried to do the same for him and always give him a good, safe racecar. It was good to work with him, and this is a great crew to work with. Those back-to-back wins were cool; it was the first time that had happened in my career. This whole year was one that I won't ever forget."
"This year was a big learning experience for me. I've worked in racing and on cars my whole life, but I've never done drag racing. Turning a wrench is turning a wrench, but it's really a whole different world as far as the workload and life experience. You really get to know the people that you work with because you're with them more than with even your own family or closest friends. This year with Johnny and the team has been my biggest learning experience in racing.
"No matter what, I'm going to give 100% with everything I do, but we had so many special things going on this year that it really made me want to push harder and do more. I wanted to help Johnny achieve winning more races and winning the championship. Even if it's the littlest thing, like keeping the car and the picture of his Dad on the side as clean as I possibly could, it was important for me to do my best because this was really a special year.
"Johnny is very down to earth, and he isn't like any other driver out there in motorsports. He may have a lot, but he's had to work very hard to get it. You can tell in his attitude and the way that he carries himself and gives to others. He's just an outstanding human being."
"This was a very good year. I was new to the team, and I came in with high expectations because it's a DSR team. Those expectations were met and exceeded. It's been an all around great experience, but the highlight for me was winning back-to-back races. There was no doubt in my mind that we had a great team, especially after we won our first race. I had a lot of confidence in our team, but you still think after that first win that maybe it was a little bit of luck. When we won the second race of the year and then went back-to-back, that really solidified what an awesome team I get to be part of.
"Johnny is a down to earth guy, and he's really cool to work with. He's always coming around and patting us on the back and encouraging us. He always has our back, and you can tell that he cares about us."
Terry Chandler, Johnny's Sister and Co-Sponsor in 2013
"The highlight of the year for me was watching my brother win four races. It was past exciting; it was like, 'Here we come! Daddy's with us, we're all together, and we're gettin' this show on the road!' You might say it was more than emotional for me. This has been my brother's life and his breath since he was a little boy, and to get to see him win these races was really, really big.
"That car with our Daddy's hat and boots painted on it, and my brother and I doing this for our Daddy, has been the biggest blessing I have ever had in my life. Daddy was there with us. I felt him there a million times. I will miss my brother being out here, but it was a very special year."
The Pitch Energy team celebrating our third win of the season
The Pitch Energy team is on the way to Englishtown for the ninth race of the season, and man, I can tell you that we are all feeling pretty good about the recent course of events. The trick will be to keep it going. Doubling up with back-to-back wins in Atlanta and Topeka was just a real neat deal for me and the guys. Shoot, this whole team – right down to my wife Terry and sister Terry Chandler – well, we're all just having a great time. Sitting at the top of the points all by ourselves is an awesome place to be, but the truth is we don't want to be overly confident or get too comfortable. These Funny Cars are each an animal of their own, and ours was a little unhappy there for a little while. We don't forget that. In drag racing, you have to take advantage of the good times and enjoy them while they're around.
I have a lot of confidence in this group of guys I have around me, and confidence is real important if you're going to have any measure of success in this sport. The way I drive these things, I get in and I have all these thoughts about everything in the world going through my head: don't do this, don't do that, pay attention, concentrate. But when they start the motor, I don't ever think again until I get to the end of the track. If you do, you're history. If you don't just let it happen, you're going to be late or you're going to make a mistake, so the best thing I can do is get my brain out of the way and let my body drive the car.
With my wife Terry and sister Terry Chandler after winning in Atlanta. We were hiding out from the rain under the tower!
Had my picture taken by Lewis Bloom with the silver Wally on Friday in Topeka, then we won it on Sunday.
We were a little bit snake bit for a while, but we weren't in the least bit depressed about it. We were just ready to get it fixed and then go rounds. My guys have now been able to give me a racecar that's so great, and I have so much faith in it that I can't seem to screw it up. Rob, Rip, Ryan and the guys definitely turned that thing around in Atlanta, and they kept it going in Topeka. I'm real proud to be driving the Pitch Energy Dodge this season.
Every race seems to have something real special about it, and in Gainesville when we won, we were part of Don Schumacher Racing's 200th win. We were then and always will be win No. 199 for Don, and that's a pretty cool deal. Had we not won Funny Car there, our buddy Antron wouldn't have been win 200. We seem to win a lot with Antron, and sharing the winner's circle with him is always great. That was the best, though. What an honor.
The win in Atlanta had the potential to be even more awesome because my son Shane was in the Pro Stock final and we were going to the Funny Car final. When I heard he had a .001-second reaction time, I thought, boy he's gonna win this thing and we're going be celebrating big tonight. Well, he came real close but just missed it. It was still a neat deal, and Terry and I are both real proud of him.
On Friday in Topeka I had my picture taken by Lewis Bloom for some ESPN spots, and it was a lot of fun because he had the silver Wally that the winner of the event was going to get. He got some great shots, and after I got back to the trailer I said to my crew chief Rob, hey, I want one of those silver Wallys. I have a pewter one and a gold one, I think that would round out the collection pretty nice. Rob said, "Let's do it." And we did. We won the silver Wally that commemorates the 25th annual running of the NHRA Kansas Nationals.
It's great to be winning races, and it's hard to believe that we already have three this season, but one thing that we haven't been real good at lately is making sure we get two good runs in on Friday. That's important, because if you're able to do that, well then you have the room to test a little bit on Saturday. We do have some things we want to try out, and depending on how we run on Friday in Englishtown and what the weather looks like on Saturday, we may make some subtle changes and try a couple of things. Even when you have a great racecar, you still have to continuously test throughout the year, and we kind of put ourselves behind the eight ball a little bit the last couple of races. Even though we won 'em, we didn't make the good runs on Friday. That's something we're working on.
I'm not sure we even want to talk about what the weather was like for the last few races, but really, it's part of the story of this season. Rain and short qualifying sessions and hurry up and wait type of days are hard on everybody, and when Atlanta was delayed a week we all kind of took some time to do a few things that would keep us happy. It's always a disappointment when you can't finish the race on the weekend you show up for it. It's very expensive for the teams and for NHRA, and it's a big letdown for the fans. For us, it's a lot like getting ready for a date when you're in high school. You're all ready for the adrenaline rush, what's maybe gonna happen, and then…. NOTHING. Hopefully, all of that is behind us, and we'll have an easier time of it the rest of the year. You can't control the weather, and you do the best you can. It's just part of it.
The Pitch Energy team is real excited about a few things we have coming up. At this point in time we have the Alex's Lemonade Stand car, in conjunction with the Darrell Gwynn Foundation, scheduled to run at Denver, Indy, Dallas and Reading. We were hoping to run it on the West Coast, but it's easy for us to sit around and pop off about what we'd like to do. But then we have to back up and talk to the team about logistics and hauling the different bodies around and everything else. We switched it up a little bit and were able to decide on these races, and we're real excited. We're going to give away a wheelchair at each race with the Darrell Gwynn Foundation, and we're going to try to raise awareness and funds for another group of people that we just love, Alex's Lemonade Stand.
We will do hospital visits, and I think we're going to visit the Craig institute in Denver. That place has a special meaning for my sister and myself because when our mother became paralyzed, we took her to Craig for therapy and to learn how to get around in a wheelchair. It's been a long time since I've been to Craig Institute. I was hoping I'd never go back, but this will be under different circumstances, and I'm actually really looking forward to it. Maybe I can pay back just a little bit of what they did for my mom. Stay tuned for more details about all of this. I know we're going to have a real good time with it, and it's going to be very special to be able to do this in our final year of full-time competition.
So far, a lot of things are going according to plan. We planned on going to Topeka and doubling up. We didn't think we had any reason not to feel that we could do that with the racecar we left Atlanta with, and sure enough, we got it done. Now we're on the way to Englishtown, and we are just so excited because last year we won there. I think the worst we ran all weekend was a 4.11, and we had a whole bunch of 4.0s. We qualified well, we won the race, and hopefully my crew chief Rob Wendland still has the same tune-up that we had there last year.
Let's see if maybe we can get a three-peat in Englishtown. That'd sure be great, wouldn't it? Hey, thanks for reading this far guys. Appreciate ya!
The Pitch Energy team in the winner's circle in Gainesville.
With Antron Brown and Don Schumacher, celebrating 200 wins for Don Schumacher Racing.
With my sister, Terry Chandler, and our dad on the quarter panel in the winner's circle for the first time all together.
We're on the way to Vegas right now after that win in Gainesville, and I'd have to say that we're feeling pretty good about this team and the Pitch Energy Dodge. Being that this is my last year racing, I really wanted to win the Gatornationals. I was pretty disappointed last year because we went to the final round and had a good racecar, and we really should have won it. But we were able to get it done this year, and everyone knows that the Gatornationals are just such a prestigious, historic race with so many great, great fans. It was a great day.
Terry and I were driving back from Gainesville and she got to looking around on the iPad and she said, "Wow, you aren't going to believe this, but it moved us all the way up. We're tied for first." That was a pleasant surprise because we knew we had to have moved up, but we didn't realize how far up we really did get. We're tied with my DSR teammate Ron Capps for the points lead, and this is the first time in my career I've been that far up in a nitro Funny Car. I've been second, but this is the first time I've been first.
It was a confidence builder for my team, realizing we were sharing the points lead with Capps, but it's not anything to get too excited about at this point in the season such a long ways from starting the Countdown. The real excitement is more about the fact that now we're in the Traxxas Nitro Shootout and we'll have a chance to run for that later this year, I've got another Wally to put on my shelf, and we've got the pictures and memories with all the people who support us – this team, family, friends – that will last a lifetime.
A lot of folks worry about peaking too soon, but shoot, at my age you have to peak any time you can. The Countdown is still a long ways away, and I really don't feel like we've peaked yet. Every time we, as a team, look at the car or sit down and critique my driving, we can see things to improve on. My crew chiefs Rob and Rip keep seeing things they can improve on to make the car better, and as a driver, I see things I can do a little bit better. We've got plenty on our plate to improve on, and that's what this is all about. Going out there and getting better and better so that we can be really ready for the Countdown to the Championship at the end of the year.
One of the most special things about Gainesville was being part of Don Schumacher getting this 200th win. We got the 199th win, and our buddy Antron Brown got the 200th just a few minutes later in Top Fuel. Don has been absolutely great to me. It's an awesome feeling for Antron and I both, but it's also an awesome feeling for everybody back down the line who contributed to this, starting with Don winning his first. Just to be a part of it, to be part of his organization is really unbelievable.
The Pitch Energy Dodge ran really well all weekend in Gainesville, and that makes us think that there is no reason we can't go run really well in Vegas this weekend. I think that out of all the teams out there, this one is the most likely to go out and double-up and win the next race. We've run well in Las Vegas, we just haven't had much good luck there yet. But the car is running extremely well, so we're pretty excited to get this show on the road and see if we can carry this thing forward. We'd love to be the team to get Don his 201st win, so we'll really be digging at it.
After Vegas, we're taking the whole team, the trucks and trailers and the racecar, and we're going back to our home town of Artesia, N.M. It'll be a real special deal where we get to set everything up for the community and see all our old friends and have them check out the neat paint scheme on the car in honor of dad. We've all been looking forward to this; everybody is pretty excited and folks have been asking us about it. We'll be celebrating my dad, John R. Gray, in Artesia on the afternoon of April 10th, and I'm real pleased to bring the whole team out there for this. It should be a neat celebration.
It's awesome that we get to take the Gainesville Wally there, and we'd sure like to make it twice as nice and show up with one from Las Vegas, too. Either way, I'm extremely proud for my team, my wife Terry, and my sister Terry Chandler. The guys work so hard, and I'm honored to drive that car. We're out here having a good time, and as long as myself and the two Terrys are smiling, it's all good.
This is a really special year for the whole Don Schumacher Racing Pitch Energy Dodge team. You never know with Johnny, but he has said that it’s his last year to drive a Funny Car as a full time deal, and he and his sister, Terry Chandler, came together with their company Pitch Energy to recognize their father this season. The Pitch Energy Dodge won Best Appearing Car at the first race of the season in Pomona, and it darn well should have because that is one fine-looking race car.
The paint scheme – yes, that’s paint – recognizes Johnny and Terry’s father, John R. Gray, who was a very special person in their lives. He was a big influence on the type of people that they are now, and how they treat everyone. They’re just good people, and you can see that when you talk to them. Johnny has never ever put himself on a pedestal, he never talks down to you, he always talks to you as an equal and he is almost like a father to me. These past two and a half years that we’ve been together on this car, the advice he has given me has helped me be a better person both in terms of my job and on a personal level. I never take what he says to me lightly, and to be out here working with him and this whole team is just a pleasure.
The reason we’re even out here this year is because of Johnny – we were 99% sure that our sponsorship would continue after last year, but Johnny told us that if something were to happen for whatever reason, he wanted us to know that he would make sure that this car would race in 2013. When it came down to it, we lost our sponsorship, but Johnny Gray was a man of his word. He could easily have walked away from this and just gone racing with his kids and grandkids, but he didn’t. That tells you what kind of man he is. I speak for the whole team when I say that what he did, stepping up and funding this team, meant a lot to all of us.
It’s very, very special that we’re out here, and we don’t take it for granted. We’ve already set our goals for this year, and our main goal is to win the championship for Johnny. We’re always driven to put forth effort, but now we are even more passionate about it – and the performance of the car is getting better all the time. We were heartbroken at Phoenix because we smoked the tires to Robert Hight – seems like we always smoke the tires against him – but the thing is, it’s so important to us that the car goes down the track every round. We count qualifying sessions as rounds, too.
Every time the car is on the starting line we want to get down the track, and we want to win. Every “round” is preparing us for Sunday. Coming at it from that standpoint has given us better focus, and I think that shows in the performance of the car. Even the way Johnny is driving is better; he’s more focused than ever. With all of this in mind, I look for a lot of great things to happen this year for this team.
I have to say that I am surrounded by great people here at DSR. The wealth of knowledge is mind-boggling. I am just now starting to feel that I am contributing to the “brain trust,” and it’s still pea-sized, but on the positive side now. My assistant crew chief, Rip Reynolds, runs this team and handles the day-in/day-out team organization and planning. It’s important to me because he is such a people person, and the guys have the utmost respect for him. I don’t think there is a person who has met Rip that didn’t like him or want to have a drink with him. He allows me to plan long term, think clearly, and make decisions with confidence knowing that our team is well led and focused. Rip is also a wealth of knowledge and brings so much to this team. Our car chief, Ryan Elliott, has taken over many of Rip’s duties to help us focus more on the decision-making part of this race car. Ryan is so talented; he has worked with some very talented people and brings so much to this team. Remember, you’re only as smart as the people you surround yourself with. With that being said, this team makes me look pretty damn good!
We all devote our heart and soul to this deal. This sport requires a lot of dedication, not just from the driver, the crew chiefs, and the crew, but also from the families. Based on my own experience, I know how important family is, and I want the guys to spend as much time as possible with their loved ones. I think it makes us better and stronger as a team, and “family” is a very strong theme for us, this year more than ever.
On a personal note, I was fortunate enough to meet the woman I’m going to marry out here. Ashley is involved in the sport, so it’s really cool that we get to travel together, share common interests, and be part of each other’s lives. When you’re happy and you share your life and love with someone, it makes you a better person. You wake up with a smile every day, and that smile carries on to the workplace. It’s just a great feeling to experience that and to be able to give that back to the people who are around me. I’m a very lucky man, and I’m looking forward to our wedding in October.
This year has already been so much fun, and we’re only a couple of races into it. In Phoenix, I had the chance to meet Joe Castello from WFO Radio and we got to talking, and he asked me to be on his WFO Nitro show that airs Tuesdays. That was a blast, and it reminded me of back in the day early in my career when I used to visit high schools and talk about how to become involved in NHRA, all of the different careers out here, and how important schooling is. That was really cool, and I’d like to do that again someday.
I guess I don’t get too much anxiety about media things, and I’ve spent my whole life in this sport working to get to where I am now, so I probably could have talked all night. It was just nice to be asked, and I find it very, very humbling to be in this position.
Yeah, I’m the crew chief, but I feel like I’m just like everyone else on the team. I do find myself stuck behind the computer a lot of the time, though, and that can be frustrating on one hand because I was always very hands-on before, but I remember an experience I had a long time ago when I worked for one specific service manager at a dealership. The techs were completely swamped, and one customer was waiting and all she needed was for the radio to be replaced in her car. It was a brand new car and I had already been a master technician through Ford and Toyota, so I went and grabbed what I needed and just took care of it for her. The customer was happy, but the service manager pulled me aside and said, “While you were doing that, who was greeting the customers? Son, you can’t play the drums, the fiddle, and the violin all at the same time.” He was right. One thing I know for sure is that this is a team. We’re not just any team, we’re a GREAT team. And we’re going to do everything we can, together, to make this the best year possible.