Tommy Johnson Jr. has been waiting for this moment for a very long time. This weekend's 54th annual Circle K Winternationals, NHRA's 2014 Mello Yello Series season-opener at Auto Club Raceway Pomona, will mark Johnson's eagerly anticipated return to full-time drag racing as well as the opportunity to finally show the world the eye-catching Don Schumacher Racing Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger R/T sponsored by Terry Chandler.
"This team is very excited to get to Pomona," said Ottumwa, Iowa, native Johnson. "It will be the first time that we've had the opportunity to show off our Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger in person, and it's a beautiful car. For me, it will also be the first time I will be starting the year in the driver's seat in a long time. I don't know that, as a group, we could be any more excited than we are right now."
The Make-A-Wish team and Johnson, whose last full season of Funny Car competition was in 2008, will arrive in Pomona fresh off of one final test session, held earlier in the week at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Although the team hasn't yet had an extremely productive test and a new crew chief has yet to be appointed – DSR and tuner Rob Wendland parted ways last month – Johnson and company are optimistic and enthusiastic.
"Sure, we've got a little bit of an uphill battle ahead of us, but we're in a very fortunate position right now, if you think about it," said Johnson, a nine-time NHRA winner in the nitro categories. "Instead of just having one crew chief, we have the entire Don Schumacher Racing team of Funny Car crew chiefs looking out for us – Todd Okuhara, Dickie Venables, Rahn Tobler, and Rob Flynn. Not only that, but almost every single one of the guys on this Make-A-Wish Funny Car were on this team last year, so we've got a great group that knows this car inside and out. I feel very confident with a team like this behind me. And who knows, maybe struggling a little bit in the off-season will give us the opportunity to have a Cinderella Story when we get to Pomona. With the talent and resources we have, that is certainly possible."
For Johnson, the season-opener is the perfect place to lay the groundwork for an exceptional season. In 2005, he accomplished what many have only dreamed of when he topped his career best elapsed time to eclipse the surging Funny Car driven by Phil Burkart in the final round. The win was made even more memorable by the fact that his father and biggest supporter, veteran drag racer Tommy Johnson Sr., was in attendance.
"There are certain NHRA races that are the 'big' races, and the first race of the year is definitely one of them," said Johnson. "That win in 2005 is a really special memory for me for several reasons, and to be able to start the year with a win is always a good thing. I would like to be able to go back and repeat so that we can start the year off on a high note and really show everyone what this team is capable of. It's been a long time since I've seen the inside of the winner's circle, and I'm looking forward to trying to do it again. This is where it all begins."
The event in Pomona will begin a decidedly extraordinary year for every member of the Make-A-Wish team, and particularly for Chandler, who carefully selected the foundation that would grace the side of the Funny Car.
"We can't thank Terry Chandler enough for her role in this. When we first announced that we would be bringing awareness to Make-A-Wish with the Dodge Charger Funny Car that she is sponsoring, I couldn't believe the amount of people who came forward to share their stories with us about this great foundation," said Johnson. "It's been really neat, and it's such a great organization. I can't wait to support them, and I think it's going to put a lot of smiles on a lot of faces.
"I can't wait to get to Pomona and see what we can do."
,Don Schumacher Racing