Nothing in NHRA drag racing can compare to the level of competition we’ve seen in the Funny Car category over the last three years. The class has had three different champions during that span, but look at a cumulative phase of who been nearest the top all that time and you’ll see only one name – Tommy Johnson, Jr. Oddly enough, he doesn’t yet have a championship of his own.
The Make-A-Wish Dodge driver finished second in 2016 and made two thirds in 2014-15. That’s an average of 2.66; right behind him is his fellow Don Schumacher Racing teammate, Matt Hagan, who averaged a third over that same period. It’s a tie for third, with current champion and DSR driver Ron Capps and John Force sharing an average of 4.33. Last year’s champ, Del Worsham, was right behind in fifth on that list with a 4.66.
“Yeah, it’s been good,” said Johnson, winner of 13 Funny Car and two Top Fuel events. “We haven’t won a championship, but I guess consistency is a pretty good thing. It definitely gives us a good base to work from each season and that is what has been the key. We haven’t had a lot of changes trying to catch up, like having a bad season, having to make some wholesale changes to gain that ground back. We keep picking at it and we keep seeing improvement each year. Having that kind of an average for three years in a row means there are only a few more small changes to make, and hopefully it will result in a higher place.”
Starting in seventh in the NHRA Mello Yello Countdown, Johnson soared to the front with three consecutive final rounds, winning in Reading, but stumbling at the next two races with a quarterfinal in Texas and first round loss in Las Vegas. He then proved his championship status by winning at the NHRA Finals at Pomona.
“It shows you just how important the Countdown and those six races are and how hard it is to put together six good races together in a row,” said Johnson. “We had a great start the first three into it, with three final round finishes. In Dallas, we had a second round loss and in Vegas, we have a first round loss.
“You just can’t afford to have a first round loss in the Countdown with only six races. If you had told me at the beginning of the Countdown we would have four final rounds and two wins and you’re not going to win it, I would have said, ‘no way.’ That’s a recipe for success. (Ron) Capps did a good job of being real consistent, not having any early exits. They didn’t win a race but they were very consistent. You know, we learn from it each season. One thing we learned this year is we have to be in a higher position at the start and that’s what basically cost us. I won more rounds (15 to 13 over Capps) than anybody in the Countdown and started seventh. You just can’t start seventh. If I would have started fourth in the Countdown, I would have probably been your champion. So, we’ll focus on that. The year we concentrated on peaking at the Countdown and we did. I think we learned something this year before the Countdown and continue to carry it because you have to start it at a higher position.”
Johnson, a veteran in the sport having won his first race in Seattle in 1993, is now more determined than ever to keep up that competitive level, but he knows it won’t be easy to duplicate what he’s built in the last three years.
“I think you learn every year,” said Johnson. “I’ve been doing it for a long time, and you make mistakes and you correct them. There’s no guarantees, there is always going to be a bad season when things just don’t seem to go right for you; even though you’re trying to do everything in a correct way, it just doesn’t happen. Sometimes you make these plans but it doesn’t work out. I think we’ve learned the last few years on what we need to do and we have gotten better at it. This team has only been together for three years. To have that kind of average in the first three is pretty impressive. If we continue to do what we’re doing and not vary too far in trying to reinvent the wheel, we’ll be all right.”
Johnson’s support on his Make-A-Wish team is possible through Terry Chandler, and her association with DSR brings together the best of two worlds by incorporating one of the best charitable organizations into the sport of the NHRA. This is all possible through her benevolent gifts in picking up the team after her brother Johnny Gray left the driver’s seat.
“I wouldn’t even be out here without Terry,” smiled Johnson. “First, of course, if we win or we lose, her support is still the same and that’s very important to not have to worry. You want to focus on trying to do the best that you can. If you worried about what happens if you don’t, then you’re probably going to make mistakes. Having her support is wonderful and she’s the biggest cheerleader we have. We were happy to finish second, but bummed at the same time. She was the first one to tell us how proud she was and what a great job we did. You can’t replace that kind of support.”
The same foundation can be found with his crew chief John Collins, who is from the same hometown of Ottumwa, Iowa as Johnson. This pair of Hawkeyes have become quite the formidable tandem up and down the dragstrip, directing the Dodge Funny Car team’s direction.
“It’s great to see him grow as a crew chief,” said Johnson, “from being there at the very first run seeing how nervous he was. Now seeing his confidence level grow and seeing him breakout as a crew chief. When you first start, you don’t want to make mistakes – you just want to try to go out there and do the best you can and not vary too far. It’s been fun to watch him now have the confidence where he can say, ‘I have an idea and I want to try it.’ To see him now venturing out trying his own ideas, not just sticking to a basic tune up; he worked with Rahn Tobler (Capps’ crew chief) for a long time and brought that process over to our team.
“Now you can see him with the confidence in the things he’s learned, trying some stuff on his own. Stuff maybe some of other crew chiefs haven’t tried and he wants to venture down this road and see where it goes. It’s been fun to watch him do that. The biggest thing I enjoy with him is he’s a racer. We may not set low ET every run, but we’re going to go out and go down the racetrack and we’re going to race really well on Sunday. There’s a big difference between crew chiefs that run the big numbers, but aren’t the most consistent. It doesn’t win you a lot of races. So, I would just as soon good numbers and be really consistent, and go down the racetrack and be tough to beat.”
The Make-A-Wish team will head into the off-season with great accomplishments and can carry their heads high coming into 2017 when the season starts on Valentine’s Day, Feb.14, for the running of the Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.