TOMMY JOHNSON JR. VISTA, Calif. (Jan. 25, 2005) -- Tommy Johnson Jr. has been ready to strap into the drivers seat of his Skoal RacingSM Chevy Funny Car since the conclusion of the 2004 NHRA season last November after he clocked a career-best...
TOMMY JOHNSON JR.
VISTA, Calif. (Jan. 25, 2005) -- Tommy Johnson Jr. has been ready to strap into the drivers seat of his Skoal RacingSM Chevy Funny Car since the conclusion of the 2004 NHRA season last November after he clocked a career-best run at the season-finale in Pomona, Calif. After going into driver's hibernation for two months, the five-time NHRA winner began preseason testing last weekend in Las Vegas where he recorded the fastest speed of his career (326.89 mph). Johnson and the entire Don Prudhomme Racing team head to the Valley of the Sun this weekend to continue testing at Firebird International Raceway near Phoenix Jan. 28-31. As Johnson and his Skoal Racing team carry on with three consecutive weekends of testing in preparation for the 2005 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series season, the veteran nitro pilot talks about how he stays sharp as a driver, his team's testing plans, what it's like driving for Don Prudhomme and what it will take to become a perennial title contender.
Q: How excited were you to begin preseason testing in Las Vegas last weekend?
JOHNSON JR.: I couldn't wait to begin testing. As short as the off season was for me with sponsor commitments and holiday travel, I have been ready to go for some time. You think waiting for Christmas morning is bad for a young kid, this is way worse for me.
Q: You posted a career-best E.T. (4.759-seconds) and speed (326.79-mph) during qualifying at Pomona (Calif.) Raceway in November. Is that a sign of things to come from the Skoal Racing Chevy Funny Car?
JOHNSON JR.: I think we should pick right up where we left off. We haven't changed a lot, but have tried to make some of our weaker areas a little stronger. To end the season on a high note really gives you something to build on.
Q: After four seasons as part of a two-car operation, what are your thoughts on being "the guy" in 2005?
JOHNSON JR.: It will be different for sure, but I think it will be better for me in the long run. Now all of the focus and attention is on one team. Ron (Capps) was a great teammate, but for some reason it wasn't very successful for us. It was never an advantage for us to have a two-car team and benefit from it. Maybe someday we can figure out how to make a two-car team work better for us, but as for right now, we are all ready to focus on one car.
Q: You consistently rank near the top of the list when it comes to average reaction time. How do you stay so sharp on the tree?
JOHNSON JR.: I've changed how I approach that lately. A friend of mine had me play his four-year-old daughter's 'Whack a Mole' game and I was hooked. It basically tests your reaction times to a blinking light. I guess you could say I am going back to the basics to keep sharp. I think it is more of a mental thing than anything. When you are comfortable and confident you are going to perform better. Staying in good physical condition doesn't hurt either.
Q: Indianapolis is rapidly becoming the center of NHRA drag racing. What's it like being in-and-around the Brownsburg (Ind.) area with the bustle of drag racing all the time?
JOHNSON JR.: It is really amazing how the persona of being a racer has changed. In Indy, you are treated more like a celebrity if you are a racer. It is not like that in all areas. Our friends are the people we spend our weekends with at the race track. You aren't home enough to become close friends with your neighbors or people away from the track. It is really nice now because so many of the people we race with live by us. We go out to dinner and do things with everyone that we race with when we are home. Dickie Venables, Ed McCulloch and Jimmy Prock all live down the street. Larry Dixon, Bruce Litton, Lee Beard and Marty Reid live in the development just over from ours. Bill Simpson lives across the road from me. It is just a really nice community and has a lot going on for racers.
Q: The plan entering testing is to attend all three test sessions (Las Vegas, Phoenix and Las Vegas). What is the goal?
JOHNSON JR.: To play out every possible situation we can. We are going to run two cars in testing. They are set up very similar, but with minor changes. Whatever combination shows the best results is the car we will start the season with. It is kind of like a Nextel Cup team. They take several cars to a test session and which ever one shows the best results is their primary car. We are going to do the same thing. It is a luxury that not many teams have. I will have the comfort of having the most parts, equipment and crew of any one-car team on the tour.
Q: There were no major changes on your race crew this off season. Is it comforting to be familiar with your personnel entering the year?
JOHNSON JR.: What's the famous saying, Rome wasn't built in a day. Well in drag racing the saying should be that (John) Force didn't win all those championships overnight. It is very important to have some stability to a team. I had different crew chiefs on this team every year and sometimes a couple a year, for quite awhile. This will be the third consecutive season with Mike Green as my crew chief. I have the utmost confidence in him and everyone on this team. I not only have the same crew chief, but basically four crew chiefs. Johnny West joined our team last season and was a great asset. Todd Okuahara and Phil Shuler, who where tuning the green Skoal Racing team last year, are also going to assist Mike (Green) in tuning. The core group of the crew is here as well. Chris Kulburg, Brad Morrison, Steve Zelem, and Neil Strausbaugh have all been with me for three to four years. On top of that we added several members from the green crew to the mix. Scott Okuhara, Brian MacDermott and Jimmy Higgins will bring years of experience to make a very knowledgeable team.
Q: What are your thoughts on the rules/tire package heading into 2005?
JOHNSON JR.: As long as it is a safe package I'm not really to concerned. I've never been a big fan of slowing the cars down. I am all about trying to break barriers. If the cars become unsafe, then I like the idea of controlling the speed until we can figure out how to make them safer at faster speeds.
Q: What is it like driving for an icon like Don Prudhomme and what does he offer as an owner?
JOHNSON JR.: He is the most intense competitor I've ever seen. To be one of his drivers is great. He supplies you with the best of everything to be a winner. He's very driven to make our team competitive. We test as much as we need. We have the best and latest parts and lots of them. He understands what it takes to win.
Q: How tough is the Funny Car category?
JOHNSON JR.: The class in whole has become very competitive. From 1999 when I started in Funny Car, it has gone from two or three teams who where the class of the field to 16 to 18 teams that have a shot at winning each race. Just qualifying has become a tough deal. I think John Force brought the competition level of everyone up. He and his team have set a very high bar. Now everyone is shooting to take his championship.
Q: What is it going to take for Tommy Johnson Jr. to be a championship contender?
JOHNSON JR.: It takes a whole team. As a driver you are in control of only so much. I've got to do my best, but I also have to have a great team behind me. I think we have that now. There is a chemistry that comes together with championship teams. You can't buy it, you just have to find it and build it. That is what Snake has been doing, building it.