NHRA driver Johnny Gray refuses to reconsider this business about retiring.
On Sunday, Gray, 60, won for the second straight weekend and third time this season when he beat Robert Hight in the Funny Car finals at the NHRA Kansas Nationals at Heartland Park. The victory gave Gray the Funny Car points lead for the first time in his six full seasons in that division.
So why, when things are going so well, would he not re-think his decision to retire from racing on a full-time basis at the end of the season?
“I’ve already bought a boat,” Gray said, cracking a smile. “I’m going fishing. I love bass fishing, I have grandkids who are running in sprint cars, I’ve got my youngest son running on dirt, and I want to concentrate on getting (son) Shane a championship in Pro Stock.”
Gray, driving for Don Schumacher Racing, had faced Hight in the first round of each of the last two races, beating him at Houston and at Atlanta, and he wasn’t sure he could make it three in a row over Hight, the 2009 Funny Car champion and a two-time winner at Heartland Park.
“Robert and I talked to each other this morning in the staging lanes,” Gray said, “and I said, ‘It’s great, we don’t have to run against each other in the first round.’ So when it came down to the final, I told him, ‘I still don’t want to run you.’”
Gray blazed his Dodge Charger down the track in 4.067 seconds of elapsed time and 314.90 mph, and Hight never had a chance.
“The way it turned out, (crew chief) Rob Wendland gave me a race car that ran real hard all day,” Gray said. “You win a lot of races off the intimidation factor, and Rob had her tuned up when it was a little intimidating. Robert had a great race car, too. They missed it just a hair, and Rob didn’t.”
It’s no coincidence that Gray has three of his six career NHRA Funny Car wins in his retirement season. Gray, who also has won Top Alcohol and Top Alcohol Funny Car races in his 16-year professional career, has dedicated this farewell season to his late father, John R. Gray, whose picture adorns the side of his race car.
“There’s a whole different meaning to why we’re (winning) here this year,” said Wentland, who is from Lawrence.
“We’re here in recognition of Johnny’s father, which has given the Gray family a lot of things. It’s who Johnny is. It was instilled in what he is by his father. And hopefully I have some of that from my father. It means a lot to this team what we’re doing this year.
“Yeah, we want to win a championship, there’s no doubt about it, but for (Johnny) to step up and help us do this and have a career and do what we love to do, means everything to me and to this team. It makes you dig a little bit harder, dig a little bit deeper and maybe work a couple hours longer or stay up a little bit later at night thinking about this race car is one of the main factors.”
Gray, who began the weekend in third place in the standings, took a 10-point lead over Cruz Pedregon, who was eliminated in the first round by Gray’s DSR teammate Jack Beckman.
There would be no greater way to honor his father than by going out with a championship.
“It’s still early,” Gray said, “but if the same car keeps showing up and Rob keeps running it like she’s running, we’ve got as good a shot as anybody out there. I don’t care who you are, the better the car is, the better it makes the driver. They’re giving me a car I can’t screw up right now.”