Tommy Johnson Jr. back to fulltime NHRA drag racing after five-year layoff

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A familiar name on the NHRA Top Fuel and Funny Car circuits is returning to the sport after a five-year absence from the full-time ranks, as Iowa native Tommy Johnson Jr. will compete the entire 2014 season for the Funny Car championship.

Johnson will drive the Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger R/T for Don Schumacher Racing, according to NHRA.com.

Johnson is one of only 15 drivers in NHRA history to have career wins in both the Top Fuel and Funny Car ranks, spread across nine national event wins.

During a recent NHRA teleconference, Johnson admitted that as one year away from the sport turned into another and another, he feared he’d never get back behind the wheel fulltime.

Having last competed for an entire season in 2008, Johnson had all but given up hope after his absence reached five seasons last year.

“You wonder every day, especially the first year (2009),” Johnson said. “Okay, it was tough times economy wise. It’s hard to put a sponsorship package together and get in a car.

“It’s been five years since I ran fulltime in 2008 with Kenny Bernstein, so there was definitely some doubt along the way. But my love for the sport and just everybody asking me all the time, “What would you do if you didn’t drive race cars?” And that isn’t an option. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done, and the will to get back here, you get tired of hearing no.

“But if you want to do something bad enough, you put your mind to it, and you continue to put your head down and work towards that goal, and that’s what I did. I just never gave up. It would have been easy to give up several times along the way, but it’s what I want to do, and my desire to do that paid off and the persistence. But every day I wondered, ‘I don’t know if I’m ever going to get this shot.'”

Johnson kept himself busy in recent years serving as a part-time test driver for DSR, as well as working in the race shop. And while gathering data from test runs is important for teams to build race setups upon, it was a shy substitute for the competition he thrived on in the NHRA drag racing world for nearly 20 years.

“When I went to work for Don (Schumacher) two or three years ago, he said, ‘Come to work for me. We’ll work on a deal and get you in the car.’ Maybe it didn’t happen as fast as we wanted it to, but it eventually happened, and I’ve got to thank him for the opportunity along with Terry Chandler (sister of Funny Car driver Johnny Gray and primary sponsor for Johnson’s car). She had a lot of say in who got to drive. I got to know her over the last few years as well there working at Don Schumacher Racing when Johnny was driving the car. Just a great lady. I just can’t thank them enough, both of them, for giving me the opportunity.”

Johnson is excited to shake off the rust and cobwebs and show that he hasn’t lost anything behind the wheel.

“I’ve managed to be able to stay in cars off and on throughout those five years,” he said. “It’s not like I got out of the car and haven’t been in one since, so that’s helped me a lot. Just to keep up to speed and the technology and some of the different things that evolve over the years in driving the cars.

“I think a couple races, we’ll be back in the swing of it. It came back pretty quick in testing. As soon as they dropped the body, I felt like they dropped the body in the ’09 season after the ’08 full year, so it came back naturally.”

That Johnson is resuming his fulltime career driving for arguably the best and biggest team in drag racing is an opportunity that rarely comes along. Sure, there’ll be pressure in driving for the best, but he’s ready for it.

“I think you put pressure on yourself no matter what situation you’re in,” Johnson said. “But to know that you have the car that is capable of winning races, and not only winning races, they’ve won championships here in the past few years.

“So to go out there and have that shot at a competitive car and have a shot at a championship, definitely the goal as you start the season is to win races, make the Countdown (for the Championship), and to strive for that championship. I don’t know that there’s anymore added pressure, but it’s certainly a lot because it is a high-profile team, and that is the goal that I was shooting for. I’m going to get all the pressure I asked for.”

Making Johnson’s return all the more sweeter is he begins his comeback at this weekend’s NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season-opening Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif. It was in 2005 that Johnson won that race, a feat he’d love to repeat as he begins his new comeback.

“In 2005, I was able to win the Pomona Winternationals, and my dad was there,” Johnson recalled. “It’s history, our sport has a lot of history. To be able to win one of the big ones like Winternationals, to me, it’s one of the big ones. It’s one that’s on the tour that every year you look forward to. To kick off the season with a win and you’re the guy leading the points, there is something special about that every year.

“But to start the tour back full time with Don Schumacher Racing, driving for Terry Chandler, and debuting Make-A-Wish at the Winternationals, it doesn’t get any bigger than that to me.”

Haas F1 tussling in middle of pack in 2nd season

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) For a second-year Formula One team, Haas F1 should be all smiles.

The only U.S.-based team on the grid has faster cars and has already scored more points this year behind veteran drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen than it did in all of 2016.

Yet it’s that sort of success that can both please and frustrate team principal Guenther Steiner and test the patience of industrialist owner Gene Haas: Despite the better results, Haas hasn’t moved any closer to the front of the team standings as it scraps around the middle of the pack while Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull grab all the glory.

“There are so many people fighting for the crumbs,” Steiner said ahead of the U.S. Grand Prix. “I didn’t expect the competition in the midfield to be so brutal this year.”

Still, it’s better to be in the middle of the scrap than left behind.

“It’s been an up-and-down season,” Magnussen said. “When we’re quick, we’re very quick, but our lows have been perhaps a bit too low.”

For Haas F1, this race weekend is a homecoming of sorts. While the team is based in North Carolina, the Texas race is the only one on the calendar in the U.S., making Haas F1 the home “favorite” with American fans even if it really has no chance of winning.

“It would be nice to put a whole weekend together, have good practices, good weather, not wreck your car… kind of like we did in Japan,” Haas said.

The Japanese Grand Prix two weeks ago delivered Haas F1’s best overall performance this year. It was the first time this season both cars finished in the top 10 and put them at seventh in the team standings with 42 points, one place and already 13 points better than their 2016 finish.

While Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton are closing in on another team and drivers’ championship, only 24 points separate the team standings from fifth through eighth place. The most exciting battles and daring drives over the final four races could come from the middle of the pack as teams scuffle for points and the season-ending money that comes with them.

“We’re in that tight pack that ebbs and flows from race to race,” Gene Haas said. “It’s a constant dance around each other for position.”

Haas is still getting used to a Formula One reality that only a few teams have a realistic chance of winning each week and others just dream for a shot at a podium finish. He came to Formula One from NASCAR – where he is still a partner in Stewart-Haas Racing – and a track environment where “at any race, every team has a chance to win.”

Haas F1 impressed the rest of the teams just by not finishing on the bottom in its first season in 2016. That only raised expectations the team could fight its way to the front of the second tier this year. This season began with a thud when both Haas cars failed to finish the first race in Australia. That hasn’t happened since and the team has scored in three of the last five races.

Gene Haas figures reliability problems – a failed suspension system recently knocked Magnussen out of a top-10 finish – have cost his team dearly.

“Right now I feel like our drivers are better than our cars,” he said.

Haas got into F1 with an admitted goal of boosting his commercial enterprises as a high-tech tool manufacturer and he says that’s paying off away from the track. The trick is staying long-term in a very expensive sport that sees heavyweight manufacturers like Ferrari and Mercedes sometimes double or triple the budgets of other teams.

Formula One has not been kind to small teams that join the grid only to go bust within a few years. Haas is the first American-owned team in the series in 30 years. Three other teams that tried to start from scratch since 2010 – Caterham, HRT and Manor – all collapsed and went out of business. Haas said he as a five-year plan in F1 to see if he can stay longer.

“If you do the five-year plan and you look at (those) teams from the past, their five-year plan was they went out of business. You want to avoid that one,” Haas said.

Grosjean, who signed with Haas from Lotus, said he expects the team to be on the grid for the long haul.

“He’s the best team owner I’ve ever had,” Grosjean said. “He’s passionate about racing and really loves it to a high extent. We know the gap is big right now, but that’s where the patience is.”