JOLIET, Ill., May 30, 2001 - No one ever told John Lawson that being a professional drag racer was going to be easy, and if they had the 43-year-old driver of the Lucas Old Products Pontiac Firebird Funny Car probably would have chosen something...
JOLIET, Ill., May 30, 2001 - No one ever told John Lawson that being a professional drag racer was going to be easy, and if they had the 43-year-old driver of the Lucas Old Products Pontiac Firebird Funny Car probably would have chosen something else to do. But at the same time he may tell you that he chose one heck of a year to compete in his first full season on the NHRA Winston drag racing tour.
"Going from the Alcohol class to the Nitro class is like day and night," said Lawson. "Some people may think it's easy but it's unbelievable. It's just one step up, but it's one giant step to say the least. The work that goes into making the car fast, the crews, what they have to do, it's a big step for anybody and right now, even though we've run pretty quick, it's just not quick enough."
In a class that has set record bumps in elapsed time on five different occasions, Lawson is battling to keep pace. At three events that have produced record fields, the Joliet native has run a career-best e.t. but failed to qualify.
"Every race we've been to it seems like the Funny Car class is setting a new record from a quickest-field standpoint," said Lawson. "With the class being so tight and every car needing a 4.95 to make the show, you have to be on top of your game in every qualifying session. Once you make the race it doesn't matter where you start from you can win, the fields are that tight. But from a competition or success standpoint it's made us raise our level up a notch as well."
During qualifying at Gainesville, Lawson drove the Lucas Oil Products Pontiac to a career-best 4.975 seconds, but that was only good enough for 17th. At Atlanta, his career-best number was lowered to 4.974 placing him once again in the No. 17 qualifying position, and last weekend at Topeka a career-best 4.970 could only muster an 18th qualifying spot.
"We're running career-best numbers and unfortunately it's not good enough," said Lawson. "This class is almost like Pro Stock with the number of cars and the way everyone is so close. You would think a 4.97 was a pretty good run, and last year it was, but now it looks like that isn't even in the ballpark. It's frustrating but we're pretty confident that we can get this turned around in the right direction. There's something there that we have to find. If nothing else we're just going to keep on smiling."
It may be a frustrating season so far for Lawson, but you won't hear any complaints from a guy living a lifelong dream, a dream that began years ago in an automotive repair shop in Joliet.
"We were always out playing with cars, and having an automotive business kind of led us into it," explained Lawson. "My dad (Russ Lawson) started an automotive repair shop here in Joliet back in the late 1950s. My dad and brother (Jim Lawson) were both gear heads and the enthusiasm for cars kind of got passed down the bloodline. I've probably wanted to race since I was a small kid.
"When I was five years old I was already racing go-karts. When I was 14 I had a 12-second GTO and in 1971 12 seconds was pretty quick. Mostly dad and Jim drove the car, but every now and then I got to sneak a pass in. We'd take it up to Oswego or over to U.S. 30 Dragstrip in Indiana to put a few laps on the car. You could go to tracks like that which were just great and race and have a great time. It seems like we've been doing this forever."
Lawson started racing in the Midwest Funny Car Association in 1988. By 1993 he had won his first championship and then followed that with a runner-up season in 1994. At the end of 1995, Lawson bought an Alcohol Funny Car from Bob Newberry, raced throughout the 1996 Federal Mogul campaign and finally hit his stride by winning the Pontiac Excitement Nationals in Columbus, Ohio, in only his 11th event in the class.
"That was our first real break and things started going in our direction after that," said Lawson. "We had a good car to start with and had a lot of good help contributing to the success of our program. Newberry let us run with him the last four or five races of our first year to help us get an idea of what to expect. That's pretty much what got us rolling.
"We always had high hopes, we just didn't know exactly what would happen. We've always wanted to be able to do this and run with the big guys. Then when we won that first national event in Columbus we realized that it could actually be done. What was amazing to us was that we were running competitively with guys that had been doing this a long time that weren't winning. We were fortunate, happy, and with a good crew and a little luck, sometimes things pay off."
As a Federal Mogul Funny Car competitor, Lawson finished third in Division 3 in 1995, second in 1996-97 and again in 1999. The pinnacle of his FMFC career came in 1998 at the inaugural Route 66 Nationals at his home track in Joliet. Lawson won the race, but his Pontiac Firebird Funny Car was destroyed in a catastrophic fire after crossing the finish line.
"It may sound stupid but it was all worth it," Lawson said. "Winning the inaugural event at Joliet in front of everybody, with all the pressure in the world, to pull that off and win against all those big names was really special. We lost that car but got another one right away."
Lawson is looking forward to his trip home to Route 66 Raceway for the Lucas Oil Products Nationals, and he's hoping for the same success as a nitro Funny Car driver that he experienced as a Federal Mogul competitor.
"I still get goose bumps talking about that win at Joliet," said Lawson. "You always want to do well when you race at your home track. Last year was the first time that we qualified for a national event as a professional so this racetrack has been good to us. Plus, the whole city gives us a lot of support, and without those fans we'd be nothing. You can't blame us for getting pretty pumped up for this race.
"Obviously we'd like to win there but we're taking it one step at a time. Qualifying would be like winning for us right now, but we're going to give it everything we've got and hope for the best. We want to be competing on raceday at Joliet. If we're not, it's going to be a tremendous disappointment."
The 4th annual Lucas Oil Products NHRA Nationals on May 31 - June 3 at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill., is the tenth race on the 24-event Winston Drag Racing tour. Qualifying highlights can be seen on ESPN2 on Saturday, June 2, beginning at 9 p.m. Eastern. Final eliminations will be telecast on ESPN2 on Sunday, June 3, starting at 7 p.m. Eastern.