Johnny Gray has truly saved his best for last.
In what has been announced as his last season on the NHRA tour, the veteran Funny Car driver has a career-best three wins this season.
Coming into this weekend’s Ford Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway, the Dodge Charger pilot is currently second in the Mello Yello point standings, 44 points behind his Don Schumacher Racing teammate Matt Hagan.
“Of course, it’s my last year to drive. I’m not telling you the guys are trying any harder than they ever tried, but maybe they’re a hair more driven,” said Gray, a 60-year-old from New Mexico. “They’ve given me a great race car. All we have to do is just keep running like we’re running and if we can pull that off, we’re going to have as good a shot as anybody else.”
He doesn’t have to look far to see some of his toughest competition. Besides Hagan, other teammates in the Schumacher camp include defending Funny Car points champion Jack Beckman and Ron Capps, the defending champion of this weekend’s Thunder Valley Nationals.
“They’re all running really good right now,” he said. “All the Dodge stuff, all the resources Don gives us to run with and the camraderie between the crew chiefs, I’d rather run anyone out there than one of my teammates because I know what they’re capable of doing at any second. It’s great to have all those resources. I wish they wouldn’t use it against me when we run.”
Still, Gray said it’s a great working atmosphere within the Schumacher team. While no two cars are set-up the same way, there is a willingness to work together for the common good.
“None of these cars are tuned exactly alike because each driver is a little different and we do different things in the car,” he said. “The crew chiefs have a basic what they’re doing, but then they’ll go off on their own to a certain extent. That’s how we try to beat each other.
“The beauty of it is, if one of you get lost, you can talk to one of the other crew chiefs and they will look the stuff over. When you have that at your disposal, it shortens up the period of being lost.”
Gray, who has raced Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car as well as Pro Stock, said every team loses its way on occasion.
“Every crew chief gets lost every once in a while because everything runs on the ragged edge,” he said. “Something just a hair out of kilter, it can take you 2-3 races to get it back. The great thing about Don’s organization with all these brilliant crew chiefs, they will say, ‘Right here is where I think you’re off.’ So, it brings everybody back together quick.”
The veteran driver knows what it’s like being a crew chief, as he tuned his own cars when he ran the Top Alcohol classes. It also led to him meeting his current crew chief Rob Wendland.
“We’ve been friends and acquaintances for a lot of years,” Gray said. “When Rob stepped in, he’s seen what I’ve done, and I’ve seen what he’s done. We have the utmost respect for each other. When you start out like that, it makes it very good. We have a lot of faith in each other so it makes it good on race day. It’s like I can get in, sit down, shut up and hold on.”
This race day is obviously more special than most with it a celebration of Father’s Day. All of Gray’s sons are involved in racing, although none are driving Funny Cars. His son Shane will also be at Bristol in the Pro Stock division. Johnny Gray, who has raced dirt Late Models and sprint cars outside of drag racing, explained his family’s love for racing and why his role as Shane’s team owner pushed along the decision to retire.
“We have a blast racing, and my other son Jonathan came out and ran (Super) Comp for a little bit,” Gray said. “He was like, ‘Dad, I really like dirt cars.’ So I told him to go run them because I ran dirt cars for years. Two of my grandsons are running 600 cc sprint cars on dirt. It’s just great to have the whole family pulling together to do something.
“We’re getting the Pro Stock car to come around the last couple of years. It’s another reason I’m stepping out to make that program go forward. You can’t spend any time messing with it when you’re running a Funny Car.”