Of frogs, friends and familyWednesday, April 30, 2014

Aside from racing, I’ve had a chance recently to get in some golf. I participated in the B.R.A.K.E.S. golf tournament the Thursday morning before the 4-Wide event. My team shot 59, but we couldn’t pull out the win. I’ve been working on my game a bit; I had a chance to take a lesson from a friend right before Charlotte. I’m aiming to get my game back where it was, and get that handicap down. It’s still too high!

After Charlotte, Pam and I chilled in our Florida home in Sanibel, where we spent the better part of a week right before Easter. Of course we flew back home to Greeneville to celebrate Easter Sunday with our families, both my side and Pam’s. We had the whole family at my mom and dad’s, about 30 people, so mom had her hands full in the kitchen. Gosh, the best thing she makes is mashed potatoes and homemade yeast rolls. She makes them from scratch and they rise in the fridge all night — oh man, they’re good! Then we do the same thing with Pam’s family at her grandmother’s place, eat a lot of awesome food and visit with loved ones.

Between Charlotte and Houston we didn’t do any testing, just golfed and relaxed a bit. Thankfully the Tennessee weather has been how spring weather should be, nice and and beautiful, and we were able to recharge the batteries before heading out to Houston. It seemed to pay off.

I think we had a really great weekend, taking the No. 1 spot in our Magneti Marelli Offered by Mopar Dodge Dart and finishing runner-up in a tough final round against Erica. Our cars were the best on track all weekend, so it was fitting we met her in the final. I got the best of her at Gainesville, and she paid me back at Houston. Aside from my teammate Jeg, there’s no one I would rather race in a final round than Erica. We’re great friends, and it’s not hard to keep our racing rivalry separate from our personal relationship. We’re both adults, and away from the drag strip it never even comes up. Now, at the drag strip, I want to tear her eyes out — just like she does me. It’s actually not a hard thing at all to separate. I hope she’s the driver who earns the 100th win for a female — just as long as it doesn’t come at my expense.

We can’t exactly pinpoint the difference in our Dart from Charlotte, where we exited early, to Houston. I know we never got the right balance in the Dart at Charlotte. You have that starting area there that drops — we call it the “ski slope” — and we never quite got the balance for going over the slope. At Houston, we made great runs down low, which equated into great numbers. We’re still a little perplexed about Jeggy’s Dodge Dart. We had to make some radical changes to get him up to snuff on Sunday, and we don’t really understand why. We’re planning to test in Atlanta next week before the race, and we’ll probably run some of his stuff through my car to see if we can get him back on track.

It was busy off-track as well at Houston. I made an appearance at the Helfman Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram open house on Thursday night — man, what a dealership. That place is like a Taj Mahal. Some of the big boys from the Mopar brand, like Pat Dougherty, were in attendance, which tells you how much they think of that dealership. The Helfman folks did a lot of advertising and we had a great crowd, with a lot of car enthusiasts out to meet Matt Hagan and me.

One of my best friends from high school who used to race motocross  with me lives in Houston, so he and his girlfriend took Pam and I into Houston’s Chinatown district for dinner one night — and that sure was an experience. When we walked in the front door, there was a tank filled with big ole live frogs. My friend said, “We’re going to have one of them,” and I said, “Like heck we are,” but I may have used a different word besides heck. I ate a big piece of squid, and I did end up breaking down and tried some frog — it was pretty good. It wasn’t frog legs, like we eat back in Tennessee. This was the whole a frog! It tasted great, a bit like fish.

On Friday we surprised Pam with a little birthday party in Erica and Richie’s motorhome and pits, and I treated her to a little shopping spree as well. Saturday was April 26, or 4/26, which marks HEMI Day, in reference to the famed Mopar 426 HEMI engine that is still dominant in drag racing. I really think Mopar is doing a great job of getting the word out about the 50th anniversary and about having some fun with HEMI Day. We even did a video wishing fans a Happy HEMI Day (you can see it at http://youtu.be/NcSanOT5OHI ). The racetrack announced it a bunch, and a lot fans came up to me in the pits and the first thing they would say was “Happy HEMI Day,” so that was cool.

We’re heading to Atlanta next, and not to jinx myself, but the Mopar/J&J Racing team and I are on quite a streak. We haven’t had a DNQ since 2009 at Richmond, and even that one was a freak deal. From Friday to Saturday that year at Richmond the weather changed dramatically — we were running like 6.70s on Friday, and then on Saturday the weather cooled down 30 degrees and Pro Stock was running in the 6.50s. I was No. 1 on Friday, and then ended up getting booted out on Saturday at No. 17, because I broke a lifter in the burnout and didn’t even get to make a run.

For this current streak, I think the biggest thing it speaks to is the consistency of the J&J Racing team. My crew chief Mark Ingersoll, my dad and engine builder Roy Johnson, our Mopar HEMI engines, all have been a huge help in keeping me away from those dreaded DNQs, so hats off to them. We’ll try to make it more than 100 races without a DNQ in a few weekends at Atlanta.

On a regular race track, I think we’ve got the balance of our Magneti Marelli/Mopar Dodge Dart set up real good. We won in Gainesville with it, we had a freak deal happen at Vegas, sucking up that piece of trash while making a run, and then at Charlotte we never did get the balance right going over the “ski slope.” In Houston we were back on a regular track, and it performed well.

So I’m feeling real good about the Dodge Dart heading to Atlanta. The track should be hot and humid, just like Houston, so it will be right up our alley. Atlanta was our home track for a long time before Bristol came back into being, so it’s not far from our Greeneville race shop. We’ll have a lot of friends and family in attendance cheering us on, and hopefully we can make ‘em proud.

It's been a busy start Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Is it April already? What a busy start to the 2014 season it has been for the Johnson & Johnson Mopar team!

We already have four national events under our belt and each one of them was an adventure.

After seeing the Roy Johnson HEMI-powered cars finish 1-2 in the 2013 NHRA Pro Stock World Championships, I was anxious to build on my runner-up finish last year, but the season didn’t quite start off the way I had hoped.  We had some problems in the season opener at the Winternationals in Pomona and the driver (me) didn’t do his job, losing the first round of eliminations with a terrible reaction time. I’m not going to make excuses because, while I didn’t feel well that weekend, I should have been able to suck it up and go the distance.  To be honest, it was the worst I have ever felt in my life and it was hard even getting to the racetrack on race day, but that doesn’t matter. What counts is what happens on the track and I lost us the race in the first round.

It was definitely my worst personal performance in 18 years and it p*ssed me off so much I went to Phoenix guns blazing wanting to make it right and fight to redeem myself.  On race day, I was responsible for one round-win, and my crew, the car and the HEMI engine were responsible for the other three. On the plus side I cut my reaction time in half with the runs in Phoenix! (It wasn’t hard to do!)

Winning at Phoenix was great for a number of reasons; there was a sense of relief to redeem the bad start at Pomona, and then of course it was great to retire the Mopar Express Lane Dodge Avenger on a winning note. The Avenger has been a great race car for the past several years but I knew that the new Dodge Dart was going to knock the socks off everyone!

We were flat out since February and it took weeks of tireless work by the team to get the new race car ready in time for the Gatornationals. It’s an amazing car and everyone did such a fantastic job to make it happen. Everything to do with the design of the new race car, the engineers took our input and really came up with a great vehicle. The Dodge dart was designed virtually by Chrysler engineers and then the data was validated in the wind tunnel before the car even hit the track. What a great job the Mopar engineers, everybody at Chrysler Group, Dodge and SRT did.

We tested our new Dodge Dart with the JEGS.com Dodge Avenger in Chrysler’s wind tunnel at headquarters in Michigan to get a comparison before taking out for its very first run. I took it for its very first pass at the test at Bradenton, Fla. just a week before the Gatornationals and I knew it was going to be bad to the bone right away but we couldn’t have hoped for a better result than what happened at that race weekend!

We kicked it all off with the unveiling of the new Magneti Marelli Dodge Dart at Two Tails Ranch near the race track, where we got the help of an elephant named Luke in honor of the 50th anniversary of the 426 HEMI. That was awesome. You see, the HEMI engine was nicknamed “the elephant” when it first came out in 1964 because of how big and powerful it was.

Jeg Coughlin Jr. and I took lots of photos of both new cars with Mopar CEO and President, Pietro Gorlier, and our pachyderm friend.  We were really excited to get the media’s first impression of the Dodge Dart which was overwhelmingly positive. On Friday, we covered up the both new cars and brought them through the staging lanes to the start line and unveiled them to fans just before our first run. It was very cool to feel the excitement of fans and get that first run under our belts.

Taking our new Dodge Dart to the winner’s circle at the Gatornationals was just such a thrill. To be able to do that in its first race straight out of the box is a huge accomplishment. It says a tremendous amount about our crew, and the engineering efforts behind it.

Not only did we defend last year’s Gatornationals win but to retire the old Avenger and start the era of the new Dodge Dart with victories was just incredible.

We rode that high right into Las Vegas hoping to keep our winning streak going and try to repeat what we did last year;  doubling up by winning the K&N Horsepower Challenge and the National title. But with 10 to 12 cars capable of winning every weekend, it was going to be tough and it sure was.

We gave it our all but it wasn’t meant to be this time.  It was hard enough battling each other, but Sunday we had a fierce wind and dust to deal with so we waited it out for a few hours for safety’s sake. There was so much dirt on track in the first round that with little downforce, the cars just danced around on the track. The wind would then upset the car even more when you were unstable to begin with.  Ultimately the wind affected us in a different way when, on the burnout, something went through the carburetor and closed up the gap on the spark plug.  When I staged it, then dropped the clutch, it was only on seven cylinders all the way through first gear.  In the middle of second gear, it came back to life and ran better the rest of the way down the track but by then it was too late.

So now we get set for the Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte this coming weekend which, with its unique format, is always fun for fans.  Heading there with two wins under our belt after four events so far isn’t too bad and I’d love to have another strong weekend with the Dodge Dart.

The focus in the past two months has definitely been on getting the new Magneti Marelli Dodge Dart ready for battle but there have been a few bright moments away from the track too.

I didn’t get to be there because we were so busy with the new car, but I’m happy to hear that Doug Hebert’s B.R.A.K.E.S event that I sponsored at my home track at Bristol was a success and really hope it made a positive impact with our local teens.

I’m also happy to share that Pam’s dad is recovering really well after his stroke a few months ago and we are very thankful for that. Pam and I even got a few days here and there at our favorite place in the world, our little home away from home on Sanibel Island.  We also got to spend quality time with the grandkids cheering for our Tennessee Volunteers basketball team. No matter how busy things have been and will continue to get this season, it’s important to remember your family and enjoy as much time as you can, so we do, any chance we can.


Countdown to WinternationalsMonday, January 27, 2014

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.

Season’s greetingsThursday, December 12, 2013

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!

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