For the past five years, NHRA driver Tommy Johnson Jr. raced wherever he could find a seat in a hot rod.
Johnson won races in five foreign countries — Australia, England, Sweden, Finland and Abu Dhabi, where he became the first Top Fuel driver to make a pass down the new drag strip at the Yas Marina Circuit in the United Arab Emirates.
But Johnson, who lost his Funny Car ride when the legendary Kenny Bernstein shut down his team after the 2008 season, never abandoned his hopes to return full time to the NHRA.
Johnson’s wish came true, appropriately enough, when Johnny Gray retired, and Gray’s sister, Terry Chandler, put Johnson in the Don Schumacher Racing-owned Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger Funny Car.
Johnson, one of 15 NHRA drivers to win races in both the Funny Car and Top Fuel divisions over his 18-year career, will compete in this weekend’s NHRA Kansas Nationals in the same seat that Gray powered to victory last year at Heartland Park.
“I always wanted to be back,” said Johnson, 46. “It’s like everything else … sponsorship. Everybody asked, ‘Do you want to race?’ Heck yeah, it just takes something to race.
“There were tough times, and you kept putting yourself out there so people don’t forget you and do whatever it took to get back. Evidently I did the right things.”
Johnson’s arrangement with the Make-A-Wish team is unusual. Schumacher is fielding the car, but Chandler is financing it out of her pocket. Instead of selling sponsorships for the car, she is donating the entire space on the car to create awareness for the foundation, which grants the wishes of children with life-threatening conditions.
Johnson takes his role in Chandler’s mission very seriously.
“It’s unique and very rewarding,” said Johnson, who is from Ottumwa, Iowa. “We have about six to eight kids and their families out at the race every Saturday and entertain them for the day and let them have a good time, and hopefully put a smile on their faces.
They’re struggling … and to see them smile, it gives you a new appreciation. We had a bad day on the track last week. … It wasn’t that bad.”
Johnson, who is sixth in the Funny Car standings, hopes to continue Gray’s success at Topeka, which Johnson considers his home track. He’s yet to win at Heartland Park, but he was runner-up to 16-time champion John Force in 1999 and 2005. This will be his first appearance there since 2008.
“I’ve had great success over the years in Topeka,” said Johnson said. “It’s not exactly a hometown race for us, but it’s about as close as you can get.”
Johnson set the NHRA record of 307 mph in Top Fuel in 1994 at Heartland Park — “if we can imagine going that slow nowadays,” he said — and also became one of five drivers to qualify for the 300 mph Club and the 4-Second Club when he completed a quarter-mile run in less than 5 seconds (4.964), also at Topeka.
“A lot of people win races,” said Johnson, who owns two Top Fuel and seven Funny Car wins, “but to do some things that maybe others haven’t … the 4-Second Club and 300 mph Club mean more to me than actual race wins. “
Johnson is also one of 18 drivers in NHRA history to have qualified No. 1 in both Funny Car and Top Fuel, and he derives more satisfaction from racing the Funny Cars.
“The Top Fuel cars are so long and stable, you finesse them down the track. You don’t muscle the steering wheel, because if you did, you’ll roll the thing over,” he said.
“The Funny Car, you have to muscle that thing. It’s hard to keep it in the center of the race track. And the hardest thing to do is see the groove. You have to keep it in the groove, but you can hardly see it … so a good run is really gratifying. Because you did something.”
Johnson has qualified fifth or better in five of seven races this season, including three No. 3 positions and the No. 2 spot in Phoenix, where he advanced to the semifinals. He also reached the semifinals last month in the Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte. So he’s confident he can win his first NHRA race since 2007 this weekend.
“We’ve qualified so well; we’re right there,” Johnson said. “We need that one race to get over the hump on Sunday. I lost a lot of close races. If we keep doing what we’re doing, the tide will turn. We’re running too good not to win.”
NHRA KANSAS NATIONALS
The place: Heartland Park Topeka
The time/day: Friday, qualifying, 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.; Saturday, qualifying, 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. (ESPN2, 5-7 p.m.); Sunday, final eliminations, 11 a.m. (ESPN2, 9 p.m.-midnight).