Tommy Johnson, Jr. will have “Make a Wish” on the side of his race car, but in his eyes, it was his wish that came true.
Johnson already has an impressive career that began in 1993. He won the season-opening NHRA Winternationals in 2005 driving for Snake Racing, collecting with the collection of the sixth of his nine Pro wins. He’s a member of the elite 300 mph and 4-second clubs, joining Hall-of-Famers, Eddie Hill, Joe Amato, Don Prudhomme, and Kenny Bernstein as members. But the last few years have seen him driving vehicles that fail to showcase his true talents. He’s been a journeyman driver, filling in when necessary. But now, for the first time since 2008, he has a new chance to become a champ.
When Johnny Gray retired from his present ride, Gray’s sister, Terry Chandler, stepped up to sponsor Johnson’s ride endorsing the Make-A-Wish foundation with Don Schumacher Racing. Johnson was then tabbed for the driver’s seat back in October. He can’t wait to get back to the grind of NHRA drag racing. Johnson last drove a Funny Car in fall ’08 for then owner Kenny Bernstein. That’s eons in drag race time and Johnson feels a little like a beginner. Again.
“Sometimes,” smiled Johnson. “There are certain things. You feel like you fell back to your rookie day, like been there and done that. It’s brought back a little bit of memory of those days. But for the most part, you feel like a veteran rookie.”
It’s not that Johnson stopped being a part of the business; but few of his more recent rides showcased his true driving talents. He wondered if he would ever get another opportunity for a championship caliber ride and it weighed heavy on his mind.
“Yeah, every day; you wonder every day,” said a relieved Johnson, winner of nine NHRA professional nitro events. “Especially the first year, okay, it was tough times economy wise. It’s hard to put a sponsorship package together and get in a car. This second year, okay, it’s getting a little tougher, but it’s been five years since I ran full time in 2008 with Kenny Bernstein. So there was definitely some doubt along the way. But my love for the sport and just everybody asking me all the time what would you do if you didn’t drive race cars, and that isn’t an option. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done, and the will to get back here. You get tired of hearing no. But if you want to do something bad enough, you put your mind to it, and you continue to put your head down and work towards that goal, and that’s what I did.
“I just never gave up. It would have been easy to give up several times along the way. But it’s what I want to do and my desire to do that paid off and the persistence. But to answer your question, every day I wondered, I don’t know if I’m ever going to get this shot. I did a lot of part time stuff, but a full time ride, I didn’t know if we’d get back there. But I stuck around, and fought hard and did all the right things. Just stayed there and kept in front of people, and kept in the forepart of their mind. When an opportunity came available, it finally happened this year. Don Schumacher was kind enough to give me that chance again.”
“I’ve managed to be able to stay in cars off and on throughout those five years,” said Johnson. “It’s not like I got out of the car and haven’t been in one since, so that’s helped me a lot. Just to keep up to speed and the technology and some of the different things that evolve over the years in driving the cars. Different things change and little different techniques, so that I’m okay with. But it’s just getting back into the grind of the Tour and all the appearance commitments, and then when it’s time to get in the car and concentrate.
“That is one of the harder things for a driver, I believe, is keeping that focus. Your job is to drive the race car and do a great job and win races, but there is a lot that goes into that as far as appearances and other things. So keeping the focus and getting back there that when the engine starts you’re 100% focused on doing the best job you can. So I think a couple races, we’ll be back in the swing of it. It came back pretty quick in testing. As soon as they dropped the body, I felt like they dropped the body in the ’09 season after the ’08 full year. So it came back naturally.”
His longevity in the sport is attached to his ability to not only drive, but to work on all parts of a race car and tune it if necessary.
“It’s something I’ve always prided myself on–having a really good feel for the race car and what the car is doing,” said Johnson. “Driving by the seat of your pants as far as feel and sound of the engine and the car now comes naturally. Even in testing, the very first run I made in the car I said it did this, it did that. It moved here, I felt this. So that is a little bit of what I think I can bring. I feel like that will help along the way. I can’t even count how many runs I’ve made in a Nitro car over the years. I think once you gain that experience and get that feel for the car; that is something you don’t ever lose.”
Johnny Gray had four wins last year in his DSR Pitch Energy Dodge; Johnson feels he’s capable of winning right up front. But does that put any extra pressure on him to succeed this year?
“No, I mean, it’s a very good team” expressed Johnson. “Getting back full time is one thing, but to get back with an organization like Don Schumacher Racing and to know that you have the cars and the resources and the people there that are capable of winning, it gives you a great opportunity. I think you put pressure on yourself no matter what situation you’re in. But to know that you have the car that is capable of winning races and not only winning races, they’ve won championships here in the past few years. So to go out there and have that shot at a competitive car and have a shot at a championship, definitely the goal as you start the season is to win races, make the Countdown, and to strive for that championship. I don’t know that there’s anymore added pressure. But it’s certainly a lot because it is a high profile team, and that is the goal that I was shooting for. I’m going to get all the pressure I asked for. “
Certain races carry prestige and starting the season off with both is something the former Ottumwa, Iowa resident knows can point your season in the right direction.
“On the tour there are those special races,” said Johnson. “Of course, Indy and Englishtown has been a neat race because of the history there. But Pomona is the kickoff of the season. For crew guys, it’s what uniform is that guy wearing, and all the new paint schemes coming out. Like at Pomona, we’re going to debut the Make-A-Wish paint scheme, and just a neat charity to be involved with. Terry Chandler is going to fund the team this year and wanted to put a charity on the car, and to have Make A Wish on our car is such a big deal to have all that happen at Pomona and to see everybody’s cars get unveiled.
“In 2005 I was able to win Pomona Winter Nationals, and my dad was there. It’s history. Our sport has a lot of history. To be able to win one of the big ones like the Winter Nationals, to me, it’s one of the big ones. It’s one that’s on the Tour that every year you look forward to. To kick off the season with a win and you’re the guy leading the points, there is something special about that every year. It would be different if I had joined the tour maybe mid-season and I got a job driving a car. I’ve done that before. I started with Joe Gibbs Racing in the middle of the season. It wasn’t a dramatic interest; it was just another race on the Tour in the middle of summer. But to start the Tour back full time with Don Schumacher Racing, and driving for Terry Chandler, and debuting Make-A-Wish at the Winternationals, it doesn’t get any bigger than that to me.”