Tommy Johnson Jr./Don Prudhomme interview

POMONA, Calif. (January 25, 2001) - The start of the 24-event NHRA championship tour is less than a week away, and Don Prudhomme's Snake Racing teams are hard at work making the final preseason preparations that they hope will help propel them...

POMONA, Calif. (January 25, 2001) - The start of the 24-event NHRA championship tour is less than a week away, and Don Prudhomme's Snake Racing teams are hard at work making the final preseason preparations that they hope will help propel them to Winston titles in both Funny Car and Top Fuel. Larry Dixon returns for his seventh season behind the wheel of the Miller Lite/Chevrolet Top Fuel Dragster and Ron Capps comes back for his fifth year driving the Skoal Racing Chevrolet Camaro Z28. Tommy Johnson Jr. is the new guy on the team in 2001 and will be driving a second Chevrolet Camaro Z28 out of the Snake Racing camp. Johnson brings over 11 years of racing experience in both Top Fuel and Funny Car and has four wins in nine final rounds over the course of his career.

Tommy Johnson Jr. and Don Prudhomme were guests on the NHRA teleconference held in conjunction with the 41st annual AutoZone Winternationals at Pomona Raceway on February 1 - 4. NHRA Heat can be seen on ESPN2 on Thursday, February 1, beginning at 6 p.m. Eastern. Qualifying highlights of the Winternationals will be televised on ESPN2 on Saturday, February 3, starting at 9:30 p.m. Eastern. Same-day coverage of final eliminations will be shown on ESPN2 on Sunday, February 4, starting at 8 p.m., and again at 11 p.m.

TOMMY JOHNSON JR.

How was testing in Phoenix?

"We ran very well in Phoenix. It came right out of the box, ran well and we finished our testing early. Everything has gone very smoothly. It's actually gone better than we ever expected. With an elapsed time of 4.86 seconds at 312 mph during my first run and then with Ron (Capps) running right behind me with a 4.87 at 312 mph is great. We're pretty happy with everything."

Were your two cars identically prepared?

"That was the whole thing going into this deal. We were going to run two cars with identically prepared tune-ups and be able to make changes if we saw something with the first car to the second car. I never dreamed that these Camaro Z28s would be so close. I didn't think you could get two cars set up so close. We ran within two-thousandths of a second of each other in less than a two-minute span on the track."

Did that surprise everyone else on the two teams as well?

"They were very surprised. They thought they could do it but two thousandths is pretty amazing. Ron and I are different as far as how much we weigh. So they added weight to his car to equal us out. They made both cars identical and it shows."

Do you think it's necessary to be successful this year since you have a two-car team?

"Well, I don't know if they've put any pressure on us to be successful, but in a certain sense they have. They basically have given us all the tools we need to play with. Ron went out last year and finished second to John Force. He shouldn't do anything else but get better -- the team should just get better. With that you add another team, and more knowledge, plus all the tools we need to finish first and second in points, so I don't know if they are putting any pressure on us, but I do know that Ron and I are putting the pressure on ourselves. And for me to have this opportunity to run with the equipment I've got and have a team owner like Don Prudhomme, the pressure is on me. It's time to perform. I've done it before with less funding and less parts. Now is the time for me to take this opportunity and take advantage of it. If there's any pressure, I've put it on myself."

Do you think it is necessary to have a two-car team with all the competitors that are doing it?

"Well, I think you can do it with a one-car team like Ron proved last year, but the wave of the future is the two-car team. The knowledge we learned in testing was so valuable and we only made a handful of runs. We've already seen the potential of the two-car team. You gain the information so quickly that you can change one car without waiting three hours. The knowledge is double. Instead of making eight runs we made sixteen in the same period of time. I think to be able to run with the front-runners you are going to have to have a two-car team. (John) Force kind of led the way with that and now we're going to see if we can take it another step forward."

Do you feel it's going to be tougher this year in Funny Car with all the competition as opposed to Top Fuel where it's kind of thin?

"You see it go back and forth a lot. You'll see the car count a little weak in one class, and some guys will jump ship, take advantage of that and go over and race. I think right now it's back to Funny Car. One of the biggest reasons for that is John Force. The first person to knock John off the top, everyone is going to know who you are. That is one thing that attracted me to Funny Car -- John Force. You mention that you beat John Force then you don't have to say anything else. That is something that draws you to the class. As far as the competition, it's going to be outstanding. There are a lot of two-car teams out there. I think there are six now with three more considering by the end of the year. You're looking at 12 qualifying spots out of 16. One of these two-car teams may not make it in the show all the time. There will be some good independent teams in there too. I think just getting qualified is going to be the biggest thing. Once you get into Sunday anybody can win. The hardest thing for us to do this year will be to make sure there are no mistakes in qualifying and getting the car down the track. That is where the two-car team is going to help out. We will have twice the information on a racetrack than a single-car team the entire weekend. You'll be able to qualify better and put yourself in the ladder better."

Do you think some of the independent Funny Car drivers out there could be pretty good challengers this season?

"There are some pretty stout independent drivers. I don't think it's going to be an easy year in any aspect. The one thing I do like in the Prudhomme camp is how they've structured the crew people. We have eight guys per car. That is more then anyone else out there. We have 16 guys working on both of our cars versus any other team that has probably 14 or less. So I'm hoping in the long run, the manpower and paying attention to detail will help keep the car consistent and help us go more rounds, where hopefully some of the other teams won't have the manpower or knowledge. I think what you will see as time goes on is the single-car teams fading out. It's going to be hard to compete as a one-car team. I'm not going to say it can't be done, because some of those one-car operations have some pretty smart guys on their team."

With there being so many more competitive cars this year, is that going to make it easier to knock off John Force?

"A lot of his domination has come because his budget is so much bigger than everyone else's. That allowed him to try a lot of different things and he's had a lot of resources that other teams didn't have. I think this year you will see a lot of guys closing the gap on him. Plus, having a lot more competitive cars to run with him should be a distraction to that team as well. They may have to start worrying a little more. Instead of one or two guys they compete against and set their program up for, they may have six or eight guys now that could be a pretty good threat to him. Hopefully that will be a distraction for him. It should make it tougher for him to go rounds. Instead of first and second rounds being easy runs, he may struggle a little more. The whole class is really going to be impressive."

What has Ron Capps shared with you that has helped you adapt to the team?

"The biggest thing Ron has been able to do is introducing me to people with Skoal and making my transition with them easier. Plus how 'Snake' runs his team. Just some of the things that you would take for granted. We get along together great. We were friends before we became teammates, so now that we get to work together it just makes things even better."

How is your relationship with Chuck Etchells?

"We're still good friends but we're also competitors now. Who knows, maybe I did do him a favor by moving to another team and letting him get the opportunity to drive again. He likes to drive. He likes the ownership deal but he really loves to drive. Maybe we just helped that opportunity happen for him quicker. When we're at the line ready to race each other, it will be a great drag race just like it will be with anyone over in the other lane. He's a great driver and has a good team. We'll go at it hard at the starting line."

DON PRUDHOMME

What is it about Pomona that makes it special for you?

"It's Southern California, where drag racing started. Plus it's the Winternationals. It's the big kickoff like the Daytona 500. It's what we've been working all winter for and people are thirsty out there for drag racing. It's a big event and one we all look forward to. The first time I won there was in 1965 so I've got a lot of great memories. I like the place a lot."

Is there anything that's going to become a major issue throughout the year the way the 90-percent rule affected everyone?

"I think there are several challenges out there for us. The 90-percent rule is a real good one. It appears to me though that everyone may be pushing the envelope again and still tearing up far too many parts. Oiling the tracks will still be a challenge as well. I think they've done a good job this year with that but there's still more to come. The biggest thing I think is going to be keeping up with the competition this year and manpower. That is going to be a struggle in itself. I think all the teams are more dialed in this year with all the past changes. The cars are getting more and more consistent. It's going to be an interesting year."

Why did you move your operation to Indianapolis and how much of it will stay in Vista, California?

"We've been using Indy for several years. It's just a central base for both of our race teams. Plus to be honest with you, the cost of living there and the cost of doing business there is far different than California. We're going to use that as our home base. As far as after the end of this year in Pomona, the cars will go back to Indy. We're still going to use the California office to run the business, among other things."

Was part of the move to Indy due to the addition of the third car?

"No, the move was already on its way even with the two-car team. We had already started the construction. Fortunately the shop is big enough to put the other team in there as well. But no, we had planned on that for awhile. I love San Diego, the weather here is the best, but it just made more sense right now to run the cars and to keep the Indy shop as our main location."

After all the rule changes that went into effect last year, did you go back and see how much that may have saved you over the year?

"We still had our fair share of damage. Getting used to the 90-percent rule, just because it's a lower percentage, doesn't mean you're not going to blow the engines up. It has certainly helped, but we're still putting more volume in the engine and we had our share of damage. Just towards the end of the year we started getting a real good handle on it. Dollar-wise it may have saved a little bit but I didn't see too much of a savings."

What is the energy level like now with three young and pretty accomplished guys interacting with each other?

"It's really amazing. Here I'm going to be 60 years old this year, and I've been doing this forever, and it's just amazing to see Capps, Dixon and now Tommy all in the same age group and the way they handle things and the enthusiasm level, which is really great. I noticed in myself that I was losing that enthusiasm as the years went on, and to watch these guys interact and drive the cars, it keeps me going. It's nice to be around it."

As the 50th anniversary of NHRA is about to begin, are there any special memories that you have from the past several years?

"Since I've been here since pretty much the beginning of it, I guess my fondest memory was Bakersfield Drag Strip. That's where it all started, and then to see how it has developed over the years is just tremendous. I have so many memories, where do I start?"

Did you think this sport would develop to what it is now?

"No, I really didn't. Not in the early stages, of course, because there were so many people that were fighting against it. But once Wally (Parks) and NHRA finally were accepted, and then Winston took over about 1975, it turned it into a World Championship. Now the sky is the limit."

-Jeff Romack

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Series NHRA
Drivers Larry Dixon , Ron Capps , John Force , Chuck Etchells , Don Prudhomme , Tommy Johnson Jr.