BRISTOL — Tommy Johnson Jr. came full circle with his trip to the winner’s circle Sunday at Bristol Dragway.
The 46-year-old driver drove his Dodge Charger to victory in the Funny Car class at the Ford NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals. For Johnson, it was his way of saying thanks to those who gave him a second chance.
After being parked by the loss of sponsorship in 2008, he had nearly given up hope he would ever get another shot to run a full season. That all changed in January when he was named to replace the retired Johnny Gray as driver of one of Don Schumacher Racing’s four Funny Cars.
“That’s why this win means so much to thank the people who had the faith in me that I could still do this, that I could still get the job done,” he said. “It’s a thank you for giving me the shot.”
Johnson is now the highest ranked of all the Schumacher drivers in the point standings. The victory moved him all the way to third in the standings, only behind Robert Hight and John Force as the teams work their way towards the “Countdown for a Championship,” the NHRA’s version of a playoff.
Although he was a 10-time national-event winner, it was nearly unfathomable for Johnson to believe he could be in that position months ago. He had done television work the last few years and had worked as a test driver for the Schumacher team. It was a role he appreciated, but at the same time, it produced some trepidation. Johnson knew the information he was passing on could be used to beat him if he ever had to race against them.
“I’m telling them what an advantage they could get on the track,” he said. “It’s like, ‘I hope to be racing against you again one day so remember this, but just for a little bit.’ It was tough. You appreciate wins like this a lot more.”
It had been a hard time for him both personally and professionally. Off the track, he was divorced from fellow racer Melanie Troxel, who was the first female Funny Car driver to win the Thunder Valley Nationals in 2008. On the track, his only appearances over the last two seasons produced less than stellar results.
He failed to qualifying for two Funny Car races in 2012 and he raced a Top Fuel dragster four times for the Rapisarda Motorsports team last season with limited success.
He had just one round win in those four appearances, reaching the quarterfinals in the NHRA Sonoma Nationals. However, he was easily beaten in the next round by Antron Brown as his car barely made it down the track.
Still, he felt in the right situation, he could get the job done. It has all come together with the Schumacher Funny Cars, which Johnson explained are even harder to get down the track than the rail cars.
“Funny Cars, you look at them wrong and they smoke the tires,” he said. “They’re very sensitive to changes. It’s just the wheelbase. The weight transfer is way better in a dragster and they hook up to the race track way better. It’s so critical to keep the Funny Car in the center of the race track, in the groove, because if they get out a little bit, they will smoke the tires.”
His win couldn’t have come on a better day either. The Iowa native got his first major drag racing win on Father’s Day 1988 in the Top Alcohol Funny Car class and his Father’s Day win in 2007 capped off a dominating weekend at Englishtown, New Jersey, where he was also No. 1 qualifier.
To even reach the final at Bristol, he had to defeat three former world champions. Cruz Pedregon, the tour’s most recent winner, was his opponent in the first round. He then took out Hight in the quarterfinals and his Schumacher Racing teammate Matt Hagan in the semifinals.
He then dispatched of Tim Wilkerson in the final, going down the track in 4.156 seconds at 302.14 mph.
Well before the racing started, Johnson had that inner voice telling him it could be a special day.
“I woke up thinking, well it’s Father’s Day, and I seem to do pretty good on Father’s Day,” he said. “The guys did a great job, and I felt good coming into the day. Knowing that it was Father’s Day did give me some confidence, and as a driver, that’s always a good thing. I thought, well I’ve done this before — why not again?”comments powered by Disqus