Reading: Tommy Johnson Jr. interview

TOMMY JOHNSON JR. Hofmann Racing Pontiac Firebird Funny Car READING, Pa. (September 12, 2000) - No one said racing was going to be easy, but for Tommy Johnson Jr., this year's NHRA campaign has been a roller-coaster ride he'll remember...

TOMMY JOHNSON JR.
Hofmann Racing Pontiac Firebird Funny Car

READING, Pa. (September 12, 2000) - No one said racing was going to be easy, but for Tommy Johnson Jr., this year's NHRA campaign has been a roller-coaster ride he'll remember for a long, long time. The 32-year-old Funny Car driver from Ottumwa, Iowa has gone from not driving at all to being one of the busiest competitors in the sport. In June, he was named driver of Helen Hofmann's Pontiac Firebird Funny Car, and now he's racing a Super Comp car to add to his hectic schedule. He heads for Maple Grove Raceway this weekend with renewed optimism. Last year at this event he drove the Joe Gibbs Racing Pontiac Firebird to the winner's circle in the first of two wins in 1999. Two weeks later in Topeka, Kan., Johnson scored a runner-up finish, and then added the crescendo a week later with a victory at Memphis. The momentum established at Reading was enough to carry Johnson to his first career Funny Car top-10 finish.

The 16th annual Keystone Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa., on September 14 -17, is the 19th race on the 23-event Winston Championship tour. Same-day coverage of final eliminations can be seen on ESPN2 on Sunday, September 17, beginning at 9:30 p.m. Eastern.

What's been going on with you this past year? - "It's been up and down. I went from being on top of the world at the end of last season to being out of a job, trying to find something and going crazy this season. I didn't have a full-time driving position, and that was really hard on me, so I got a Super Comp car so I could compete. Just as soon as I started racing that car after one or two races, next thing I know I've got a job again driving Helen Hofmann's Pontiac Firebird. I'm keeping very busy right now."

How is it running in a Funny Car and a Super Comp car? - "Everybody gives me a rough time about it. They are so different from each other that you never get confused on which one you're in. But it's fun and it keeps my skills sharp. That is one of the reasons I got the car - to work on my skills. It is such a difficult class that you can't be off at all. If you are, you're going home. But it's fun because I'm competing with some of the guys I grew up with and it helps me remember where I came from."

Which class do you prefer? "You always like the Funny Car because there's nothing more challenging to drive. The challenge of keeping that car in the groove, and when you've got a guy named John Force to race against, it's kind of a big challenge to knock him off. It's definitely rewarding."

What is some of the work you've been doing on the Hofmann Racing Pontiac Firebird? - "The car was struggling when I got there and so was the team -- the morale was down. Pontiac is one of the main reasons why I elected to do it because they were really good to me last year. I thought I'd go and see if I could help them out. We struggled through the first couple of races just trying to get a feel for what was going on, and I was trying to get acclimated back with Funny Car and trying to feel what the car was doing. As time has gone on, we've fixed one little problem at a time, have gotten the performance to come around and it's running a lot better now. I'm kind of giving advice on what I feel during the run, and trying to tell them the difference between having an engine problem or a clutch problem. I give them suggestions on how to fix it from my experience from the past. So far it's working out pretty good. The car has gotten quicker at each race and we finally were able to pull off the No. 1 qualifying spot in Indy. I'm used to owning my own team, servicing the car, and know how to do everything from front to back on one of these things. It's helped me bringing my knowledge to this team too. I've been able to help them with different decisions. I'm not a tuner but I do know what you can change to make things happen. I think this has helped me relate to my crew chief, Andy Neering a lot better too."

Would you like to own your own team again? - "Definitely! That's not out of the question at all. This sport has gotten so expensive that we couldn't do it at the time. The enthusiasm for drag racing has grown tremendously, and hopefully that will bring back some of the sponsors to the sport and allow someone like myself, who is fairly young, to drive for someone else for awhile and gain more experience. Then down the road maybe own my own team again. I learned a lot from Joe Gibbs about ownership and I hope that will help me later as time goes on."

How has your dad's involvement in the sport helped you get to where you are? - "He has been the supporter of my racing ever since I started -- I got involved because of him. He was racing and I got involved in it growing up with him. When I started racing professionally he retired. But just a couple of years ago he bought himself another car and is out playing again. I go to him with all my decision making, and for advice and we're still very close. He comes to a lot of the events to watch me race. We will both be racing at Topeka. I will race Super Comp and he will race in Super Gas. It's been a long time since we've raced together, so it should be a lot of fun. It will give me a chance to give him advice instead of him giving me the advice. He's always been very good about letting me do my own thing. But sometimes I used to think that he was annoying me with things he would say right before my run. Now I sit back and think about those things that he used to say, and go over it in my mind. This will give me a chance to get back at him."

Do you think you will stay in the Super Comp class for awhile? -"It's very time consuming. The Funny Car in the professional ranks is so much more than just driving the car. It's a struggle sometimes to do both. I'll run it a couple more times here and there with both of them. I will not get rid of the Super Comp car that's for sure. If we get an off weekend, then I'll go to a local drag strip near my house to tune it up and have some fun."

What are your plans for the rest of the season? - "I'm going to finish out the year with Helen Hofmann and the Hofmann Racing team. We're going to the rest of the races on the schedule. We've got the performance of our car running a lot better, so now the goal is to see if we can go some rounds with it. We just need to fine-tune the car a little more. We need to work on getting the car to react a little quicker and at Reading we're going to try some stuff to get it to react quicker. It's very time consuming. Plus it's difficult when the team doesn't have a major sponsor and is a little under funded. So we've had to pick at it kind of slow and we're finally going in the right direction. I think if we can get it to react quicker, and keep the performance level high, then we should be able to go some rounds and make a good showing. It's been really good for the Hofmann team to get the car to come around, and it's been good for me to be able to showcase my talents as far as a driver. It allows other team owners to see how I can bring their program around when they're struggling a little bit."

How are your plans going for next season? - "Very good. I get frustrated sometimes because things aren't moving as fast as I would like them too. It's a very slow paced job trying to sign a long-term agreement with some people. I have three or four now that I need to go over and see -- pick the one that will suit my needs and the one that is best for me. That decision will be made by the time I get to Reading. I don't know when it will be announced but the deal should be done by this weekend."

What are some of the long-term goals you have set for yourself? - "I want to find a home and be able to compete on a consistent basis. If I can do that, that will give me a chance to run after the championship. I was disappointed because I thought that the Interstate Battery team from last year would've given John Force a run for his money this year. I want to get back to that level. I want to be involved with a competitive team and have a shot at the championship. My ultimate goal is to get with a team and have a long-term relationship with them where I get more than one year to try for that championship. A long-term goal would be to do something like (Kenny) Bernstein and win both Top Fuel and Funny Car. I want to be one of two that's won championships in both classes."

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Series NHRA
Drivers John Force , Tommy Johnson Jr.