Tommy Johnson Jr. Interview

READING, Pa. (September 10, 1999) - In June of this year, Tommy Johnson Jr. was selected to drive the Interstate Batteries Pontiac Firebird for Joe Gibbs Racing. An experienced hand at piloting nitro racecars, Johnson got his start in NHRA Drag...

READING, Pa. (September 10, 1999) - In June of this year, Tommy Johnson Jr. was selected to drive the Interstate Batteries Pontiac Firebird for Joe Gibbs Racing. An experienced hand at piloting nitro racecars, Johnson got his start in NHRA Drag Racing competing in Super Gas in 1984-85. In 1986, at the age of 17, he got his first experience driving Funny Cars competing in the Alcohol category until 1989. During his four years behind the wheel of his Alcohol Funny Car, Johnson won one NHRA national event and scored another victory in IHRA competition. In 1990, he made the move to the professional categories when he began racing part time in a Top-Fuel Dragster.

In 1992, the Johnson family-owned operation jumped into the fray full time where they battled for a Winston title until 1995. Johnson won two national events, was runner up twice and had his best points finish in 1995 when he finished eighth. He held the No. 1 ranking in driver reaction times for eight consecutive seasons, two in Alcohol Funny Car and six in Top Fuel. He is one of only four drivers who is a member of both the Crager 4-Second Club and the Slick 50 300-mph Club. This season he was the No. 1 qualifier at St. Louis and the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.

Johnson participated in the NHRA teleconference on September 8, in conjunction with the 15th annual True Value Nationals on September 16 - 19, at Maple Grove Raceway in Mohnton, Pa.

YOU HAVE SEVEN FUNNY CAR RACES UNDER YOUR BELT, HOW MUCH DOES YOUR TOP- FUEL EXPERIENCE APPLY? "I wish a little more of it would apply, but unfortunately they are two totally different animals. The only thing that does apply are the race-day experiences and being in competition. The motors and stuff, and the way the cars react as far as performance are similar, but there's also a lot of difference in the two. It's hard to describe because of the way the cars react going down course. The Funny Car darts around a lot more and it's much more critical keeping it in the groove. The Funny Car is also much less forgiving as far as performance goes and making a perfect run. With a dragster you can let it slide out of the groove a little bit and steer it back. It doesn't make violent moves. With a Funny Car, the down force is so critical that staying in the groove, getting all the down pressure on the rear spoiler and keeping the tires hooked up is so critical. Dropping cylinders is also much more critical because of the way the car moves out of the groove. I didn't believe the guys when they said that these cars moved around so much when they dropped cylinders, but it's amazing how much down force you lose out of that side of a header."

NOW YOU DO BELIEVE THEM? "Now I believe them, yeah. I mean the experience that I've gained has been tremendous. We have a little running joke with the crew that all of these things that keep happening to me are things that haven't happened to guys that have been driving Funny Cars for five years. So I've gained a lot of experience in the last few races."

HAS THE TRANSITION TO FUNNY CARS BEEN FRUSTRATING AT TIMES? "It's been very frustrating at times. I mean, I drove an Alcohol Funny Car for four years, then Top Fuel for ten, and I thought, 'well you know, going back to a Funny Car, what's the big deal?' The licensing passes for me were relatively easy. I went a 5.07 and a 5.04 shutting it off early, so I thought 'well there we go, no problem.' But like I've said many times, it's the little things. One of the comments I made to the guys was that it's easy to be a good driver in a Funny Car, but it's really hard to be a great driver, and it's all the little things that you have to put together run after run. You concentrate on mastering one thing, and the next thing you know, something else bites you. Keeping it in the groove was fighting me for awhile, but we got that problem solved and went on to something else. All of a sudden your concentration level drops just a touch and it gets out of the groove again. So that's the frustrating part. I see how you have to pay attention and concentrate so much harder in a Funny Car, and that becomes frustrating because you're not just trying to adjust to driving the thing. A lot of people say I'm still learning. That's a good excuse, but as far as I'm concerned we should have won a race, or should have been in contention to win. That's where the frustration level comes for me. The team has said 'hey don't worry about it, we're learning for next year to make the assault on the championship.' But we're such a good team, and all the ingredients are there to win, so I want to win."

IS THERE ANYTHING NEW THAT HAS HAPPENED TO YOU THAT YOU MAY HAVE NOT EXPECTED DRIVING THESE KIND OF CARS? "There are plenty of things that have happened as far as adjusting from one to the other. Not knowing a lot of the guys' routines is one thing. I've tried to pay attention, educate myself, go back and look at tapes, who stages last, who stages first, and that's something you just have to gain over time. Racing each other, and building a dislike toward somebody on the starting line helps to key up your emotions a little bit, but the crew keeps kidding me that at Bristol I had my best lights of the year and that's because I raced all dragster guys. My teammates tell me that I don't hate the Funny Car guys yet (laugh), so maybe that's part of it. But one of the things that's been really tough for me is going from a family-owned team, and being my own boss, to driving for somebody. It hasn't been very hard at all, but yet at the same time, I feel kind of lost not being able to make a call, or just having to go along with the calls that are made, and different things like that I've had to adjust to as well as driving a car. I've had to kind of adjust from being a team owner to becoming a hired driver. At times it's difficult, and then there are a lot of times that I really like it because it's a whole lot less pressure for me. I don't have to worry about paying the bills, and I don't have to worry about buying the parts, or running the team and the crew. You just do your job, and worry about yourself and it's a lot less stressful. I've had a fire in the Funny Car, I've had a blower explosion, blew the body 30-40 feet in the air, and I've had a lot of dropping the cylinders and getting out of the groove. None of it has surprised me as far as 'wow, that's really bad.' My reaction has actually been that it wasn't too bad. The only thing I didn't like was the throttle hanging open. I didn't care too much for that. But when that happens, it doesn't matter if you are in a dragster or a Funny Car."

HAS IT BEEN DIFFICULT TO EXPLAIN TO THE FANS WHY YOU'RE DRIVING THE CAR NOW? "You know, maybe the toughest part of the whole deal is trying to explain to the fans where Cruz (Pedregon) is (laugh). They look at the pictures, and then they look at me, and they look at the pictures and ask, 'do you drive this car?' That's a tough situation wherever you go. It doesn't matter who it is or what's happened, it's always difficult trying to explain what happened. Cruz (Pedregon) has done a great job for himself in getting a team going and we've talked. We've always been friendly to each other. I think it was just time for a change in the whole works. I explained to him, 'look I wasn't pursuing this job, I got a phone call after the decision was made.' So we've had a great relationship there, and actually Cruz has been over and the crew has even helped him with some different things, like headrests for his car and things like that. That's maybe been one of the harder parts is explaining to the fans and getting them to understand what happened. Some of the stuff I didn't expect, but I guess you have to figure out a way and politely tell them. Sometimes it's kind of hard for them to understand, and that's been the toughest part of my job at the back of the ropes so far."

CAN YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT HOW IT IS WORKING WITH JOE GIBBS? "I had known Joe on kind of a friendly basis, competitors in the pits type of thing, but I didn't know him on a personal level. We were friendly and we spoke at the NASCAR races once in a while. But he's been great to work for. He gives you everything you need to win. Everything is professional and first class on the team, and that's what I really enjoy. Wes Cerny and the whole team that he has assembled there, I fit right in with. The crew members are all about my age so that was great. But Joe and I don't have an opportunity to speak with each other much. He's such a busy guy running everything like the NASCAR program and the NHRA program. He does a lot of motivational speeches for different companies like MBNA and others that he is associated with, and that keeps him on the go a lot. But he's very supportive. That's what I noticed early on was that he's very supportive of anything you need. Whatever pieces need to be put in place, he gets that handled, and the people that he puts in place all seem to gel together real well. Cory (McClenathan) and I have known each other for a lot of years, and he kind of explains to me and keeps me up to speed on how things operate from time to time. Sometimes if I have any questions, there are a lot of people that I can talk to in the Gibbs organization when I need something, but I don't bother Joe too much. He gives me a call every once in a while just to see how things are going, to tell us what a great job we're doing and that we're making big progress. He keeps us informed on what's coming in the future for us or any changes that may be coming. He's a real easy guy to work for and a great person."

AS A TEAM, DO YOU PUT MORE PRESSURE ON YOURSELF TO WIN ROUNDS KNOWING THAT EXPERIENCE WILL PAY OFF NEXT YEAR? "That's right. The only pressure that's put on me to win is probably put on by myself. You want to drive yourself to be the best, and John Force has pretty much made a mockery of the Funny Car class, so it's kind of my goal to get in there and butt heads with him. The one round that we have raced with him, I've only had one round with him so far, was a good race. But it built a little fire for me to run him again. I was actually looking forward to it on Monday, and was kind of disappointed to see Frank (Pedregon) beat him first round because I was kind of wanting another shot at him. You know you want to win for your guys because they're the ones who have really struggled this year, switching drivers and kind of taking a few steps backwards getting me up to speed you know. Maybe that cost them some rounds here and there with a driver that didn't have much experience, and I feel bad once in a while when there's something that maybe I failed to do that could have won us a round. That's kind of the fire that drives me is to perform for my teammates. Like I said before, everything is in place to win. The Interstate Batteries Pontiac Firebird is definitely a contending racecar. That's what I want to prove and kind of get a few monkeys off my back when people ask how come we haven't won already. A lot of people don't expect us to win but I do. I think we should've been to at least a final round. We have three semifinal appearances, so we're close, but we just kind of got to get all the pieces put together. Some of that has to do with us testing for next season. We've been testing a lot of different parts, we have two brand new Murf McKinney cars ordered that we should have before the end of the year, and that we're going to try and run at Houston or Dallas. Everything we are going to race in 2000 we'll have already tested in 1999. Sometimes on race day that has hindered us a little bit because in qualifying we were experimenting with this or that, and maybe that's one of the reasons why we haven't gone any farther than we have in eliminations. But at the same time it's helped us on down the road a lot for next year. Even when we lost Monday in the second round, that was kind of our race to win. I look at it as more experience gained for next year, and next year that won't happen again. We'll know better how to win that round. So next year we ought to have a great season because I'm getting a lot of experience quick."

ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO RACING IN THE COOLER TEMPERATURES AND ON THE FASTER RACETRACKS? "Yeah, and the car has kind of come around as well. We've kind of hit on something tune-up wise. We were struggling around Seattle, and I was beginning to wonder about this deal. I mean I was on fire two or three runs in-a-row, throwing rods out of it, and having all kinds of problems, but each race I see the tune-ups getting better and better and better. At Indy on Friday night, we had an unbelievable pass. The Interstate Batteries Firebird ran a 4.88 at 315 mph, and that's way faster than I ever ran in my dragster. So I'm not just getting experience driving a Funny Car, I'm getting experience going fast, I mean faster that my dragster ever went. I see the consistency coming around really well and they're working on some of the things that we're going to run next year that are better. With the cooler temperatures coming, and some good tracks coming up, we kind of see a little carrot dangling out there and that's the 4.77 elapsed-time record. I don't think this car is too far away from dipping into the 4.70s. At a couple of these Friday night runs, if we could get some cool weather at a track like Topeka I wouldn't be surprised if we pulled it off. That would be a nice feather in our cap if we could do that, so we're definitely gearing up for that. I want to win a race before the end of the year and that is my main goal; to try and give these guys on the team a little boost." IF YOU WERE TO GET INTO THE TOP TEN, WHAT WOULD THAT MEAN? "That was kind of our goal when I took over driving was that maybe we could get back into the top ten. That took a little hit on the West-coast swing when we had three first-round outs. They were all real close races, but that was kind of a frustrating point because I was wanting to gain a little more experience but we kept going out. In the last few races we've made some gains toward getting into the top ten. I don't know exactly how far I am behind, but I know I am gaining on them pretty fast. It's going to take at least one win and some semifinals--you know late rounds to get in there. Some of the other guys will have to have some problems, but I don't think it's out of the question yet. That would be a great opportunity if we could gain some speed, get some momentum going and jump back in the top ten. I think when I started I was 24th in points. We've run about seven races now and I think for points we're up to 17th and just getting ready to go on a little further. We're not too far behind Capps and he's been racing all season. It would mean a lot to this team if we could get up there and compete with those guys and get in the top ten. Right now it's going to take a lot for us to do that. We're going to have to win a race and go some late rounds."

HOW MUCH HAVE YOU ENJOYED RACING WITH A TOP-FLIGHT FUNNY CAR TEAM? "I probably wouldn't have chosen to drive a Funny Car as a first choice, but with the caliber of this team, I didn't even think about it. I definitely jumped on the opportunity. I'm not saying that I wouldn't drive another Funny Car, but there are very few that I would want to drive. I drove an Alcohol Funny Car before we made the switch to nitro. We went from a Funny Car to a dragster just for the safety factor; my dad didn't want me in a Funny Car. It was about the time that Don Gay Jr. and I were racing together and he went to Fuel Funny Car and got burned. That had a lot of impact on what my dad did and why we decided to go to a dragster. It's been the same way all along. The safety part of the Funny Car has increased so much that when I had the fire at Seattle, it wasn't a huge one, but it was big enough for me-- at least it was as big a fire that I want to have. But it wasn't as bad as I expected it to be, so I guess it was something that I had to experience to see how I reacted to it. But with the caliber of this team you couldn't ask for anything better as far as resume-wise and credibility. If five years from now I need another job, on the resume you can't get much better than driving for Joe Gibbs. That helps a lot and was definitely part of my decision. The caliber of this team, and who it was, and the opportunities it presented to better my career on down the road definitely made it part of the decision."

YOU'RE OBVIOUSLY IN PLACE FOR NEXT YEAR, BUT IS THERE ANYTHING BEYOND NEXT YEAR? "We are signed through to the end of 2000 and that is the length of the Interstate Batteries contract. They've assured me that they're already negotiating with Interstate to extend that, and as soon as that is handled then I'm to go back in for negotiations for an extended period of time. The Interstate people and I have gotten along very well, they are very pleased and they've assured Joe that if they can get everything in place to extend the contract then that's who they want to drive the car. It's nice to know that you're in well with the owners and sponsors, and that's really the people that count these days in racing. You need to make sure that the people paying the bills are happy with you, so that's nice to know. Through the years with all the sponsor's dealings that I've had, there have been a lot of last- minute negotiations. So I was really kind of shocked, and happy that they were already negotiating and we still have a year left. So I was like 'wow, this is alright!' It's like 'man this is great!' I'm usually waiting till the last second trying to get something signed, and here they're talking and we still have a year left. That's great. But yeah, there's still one more year remaining on that, and then with Cory, MBNA and their people were there last Friday night and they're all set to go for next year, and I think the year after that. Joe Gibbs is real solid in drag racing."

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About this article
Series NHRA
Drivers John Force , Tommy Johnson , Tommy Johnson Jr.
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing