Houston will play host to the drag racing driver.
Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car driver Tommy Johnson Jr. has an accomplished history in the sport of drag racing, and as the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series arrives in Houston for its annual visit to Royal Purple Raceway for the 27th annual O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA SpringNationals, Johnson recalls where his successful journey began.
"The first round of racing that I ever won in a fuel car was there in Houston against Shirley Muldowney," said Johnson, recalling the first round of eliminations at the 1990 event at Royal Purple Raceway. "It was a pedalfest. We both smoked the tires and I out-pedaled her to get there – that was really gratifying. It's fun to think about, that's for sure."
Houston has always been a special track for Johnson, who has memories of growing up racing there with Don Gay Jr., whose family formerly owned the facility.
"I always looked forward to going and seeing the Gay family, and that holds a special memory in my heart. We were close friends then, and I remain friends with Don to this day," said Johnson. "The Angel family now owns it and has done a great job with that racetrack, and they have fought hard to make it a continued success. I'm sure there are many more good times ahead for all of us there."
Johnson has won nine national events in a nitro-fueled car – two in a Top Fuel dragster and seven in Funny Car. He has never, however, won the SpringNationals. In 2002, he came close but fell just short and allowed John Force to earn the 100th victory of his career. Although notable in terms of history, Johnson is still uncomfortable with the loss.
"As a driver, I don't really like being part of a stat like that," said Johnson, whose nine wins occurred in 22 final rounds. "As a fan of drag racing, though, it's neat to be part of history. I remember that day well; I don't like losing – every loss is painful – but you don't want to be a sore loser. So I went over to congratulate Force and I tell you what, I wasn't expecting that big kiss he planted on me. At the end of the day, losing is just a fact of life. You're going to lose more than you're going to win."
This weekend, Johnson is expecting a different outcome. His Make-A-Wish Funny Car has been finely tuned in recent months by new crew chief John Collins, and the team has seen their brilliant blue Dodge increase in power and speed. Johnson, now No. 6 in the Funny Car standings, was the No. 2 qualifier in Phoenix and earned a start from the No. 3 position in each of the most recent two events.
"I'm very, very excited with how our team is running," said Indianapolis-based Johnson, a native of Ottumwa, Iowa, where Collins also was born and raised. "Houston is a challenging track for the nitro teams, but I think that's something that we're good at – we should be able to rise to the challenge. In the last couple of races, we've seen this car go down the track a lot. Based on our recent performances, I think we'll be able to adapt and make the necessary changes and run really well.
"I can see it every week, how close we're getting. For the first couple of races after not having been in a car full time for a few years, I felt like I was up to about 90% as a driver. But after the last race in Charlotte, I'd say there is maybe 1% left to go. I felt so good – it was the first race all season I just drove the car and never thought about it. I just did it. I'm super excited to get to Houston. The confidence level is, by far, the highest it's been all year. I want to get there. I think we can win this race."