Don Schumacher Racing is calling it Tommy Johnson Jr.’s “31st ‘Nitro-versary.’” That’s a great word – and the Funny Car racer has a great fondness for Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park. It’s where he began his professional career in 1989 in a Top Fuel dragster.
Now, 472 races later, the M.D. Anderson Dodge Charger Hellcat driver is looking for his 20th victory. He has two victories in the Top Fuel class and 17 in Funny Car, putting him in an elite group of double-nitro winners. He was the 12th of only 17 ever to do that.
Johnson credited “a lot of people who helped along the way. There’s a lot of right place / right time, a lot of luck, and a lot of work. There’s stuff I didn’t want to do, but I did it. A lot of things have to line up. People always ask, ‘How do I get into this?’ I tell them, ‘First off, it takes a little money. Secondly, it takes a ton of work and sacrifice and commitment. Otherwise, you’re never going to make it.’”
He has made it, all right, progressing from a family-owned and -operated team to a hired-driver role for NFL Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs (whose driver Denny Hamlin just won his second straight Daytona 500 last week) and NHRA legends Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and “King of Speed” Kenny Bernstein. He’s one of six drivers today for Don Schumacher’s megateam.
“You couldn’t have started off much better than Gibbs,” Johnson said. “That opened my eyes. It was only for a half a season, but it showed me the right way to do things. He definitely did it the right way.” The same is true with his other bosses.
However, Johnson said, “I feel like I’ve always flown under the radar.” Actually, for him, that’s good. He’s as low-key and underrated as his crew chief, John Collins, who, incidentally, also is from Ottumwa, Iowa. “Sometimes attention isn’t always good. Sometimes attention causes unnecessary work. Sometimes it just causes you more headaches than it gains you. I don’t mind being under the radar. That’s kind of how our race team is. A lot of times, nobody is talking about us. The next thing you know, they’re saying, ‘How did he finish second or third? Where’d he come from?!’ It’s always been that way.”
That’s probably not true any longer. Johnson is a perennial contender who has experience racing in both nitro classes and in Australia, Europe, and the Middle East, as well as in the traditional U.S.-grounded Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. He has won drag races in six countries (United States, England, Finland, Sweden, Australia, United Arab Emirates) and has competed in seven NHRA categories: Top Fuel, Funny Car, Nostalgia Funny Car, Top Alcohol Funny Car, Top Alcohol Dragster, Super Gas, and Super Comp. At age 15, Johnson became the youngest person to earn an NHRA competition license. (His sister, Wendy, who lives in North Carolina and no longer races, is the youngest female in the non-Jr. Dragster era to win a national event.)
Johnson said “it feels weird” to think he has raced professionally for more than 30 years. “I say, ‘Man, that makes me sound really old. But I’m not old. I’m just experienced.
“I have a hard time picturing myself as being my age,” Johnson, who’ll turn 52 years old April 6, said. “I don’t feel my age. I certainly don’t act like it most of the time. I don’t know how to describe it, but I guess I’ve enjoyed myself so much through my 20s and 30s and 40s that I don’t ever want to lose that. I loved that time so much. I loved racing so much and loved life so much during that time period that I’m not going to let go of it.”
No need to, he figured. He has a lot of fun memories, having worked his way through the sportsman ranks after starting his drag-racing career on a motorcycle.
“They didn’t have Jr. Dragsters – that’s how long ago it was!” Johnson said, referring to the program that allows youngsters to race as early as age five. “I started drag racing with mini-bikes. It’s actually cool that the track was forward-thinking enough that when several of us kids started getting mini-bikes, they said, ‘Why don’t we set up a class and let ’em race?’ What if they’d never done that? Then I wouldn’t have started until I was old enough to drive a car. As it was, I was starting on motorcycles and I started bracket racing at 14, in a Nova. In Iowa, you could get a driver’s license early. So the track helped. I might not have advanced as fast, but I would have had the desire, even if I had to wait that long.
“I understood the sport, what it took to win. It doesn’t matter what class you’re in. There are basics. And I already had the basics [by the time he could drive a car]. Then you learn each class and what that class takes. But the basics are same in all of them. When kids get out of [the Jr. Dragster program], I understand their mindset, what they’ve learned. They already know the sport. They already know about cutting a light. They already know about working the finish line. If you don’t, you’re not going to win anything. The ones that are winning, they’ve got it figured out,” Johnson said. “I started when I was eight years old, just like they did. Just happened to be on mini-bikes instead of a dragster.”
Now he’s focused on winning at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park for the second time overall and the first time since 2006: “The Arizona Nationals is a race I enjoy. I’ve won it in the past and have done well here. Now that all the rust is knocked off for everyone, I’m excited to get going and see if we can add some more round wins and match our teammate Jack [Beckman] by getting a win in Phoenix. We had a really good weekend in Pomona. We didn’t get the results we were looking for, but our MD Anderson Dodge Hellcat ran really well all weekend, with the exception of round two on Sunday. I feel confident. We had a car that was competitive right from the start with that first qualifying run. It was very consistent. And running low E.T. of first-round gives me a lot of confidence.”
Oh, and of course, Johnson has his eye on that Funny Car title. That will give DSR at least one championship for every one of his drivers. So he is hoping this will be the season he earns that long-awaited first series championship.
“Everybody fixates on the championships,” he said. “OK, I didn’t win a championship – yet. But my entire life, I’ve done what I love to do. I came from Iowa, grew up on an eighth-mile dragstrip, and kept saying, ‘That’s what I want to do for a living.’ And I did it. You know what the odds of that are? They’re pretty slim.”