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.”

Indianapolis Motor Speedway can have 10,000 fans for IndyCar races

Indianapolis Motor Speedway fans
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Indianapolis Motor Speedway will have crowds for its NTT IndyCar Series race weekend next month, the first time fans are allowed at the track this year.

The track announced Friday that up to 10,000 fans will be allowed in the grandstands daily from Oct. 1-4. The IndyCar Harvest GP race doubleheader will be held on the track’s road course Oct. 2-3.

IMS has played host to several events this year without fans, including the 104th Indianapolis 500 on Aug. 23 and a NASCAR-IndyCar weekend July 4-5 that included the Brickyard 400. Plans originally were made to have fans at the Indy 500 before reversing course a few weeks ahead of the race. In a letter last month, Roger Penske vowed that fans would return for the 2021 Indy 500.

“We can’t wait to see fans come through our gates for the first time in 2020,” IMS president Doug Boles said in a release. “They’ll be greeted by a vastly improved facility, featuring significant upgrades to the spectator experience. We’re also extremely grateful to have a presenting sponsor with the expertise and resources of GMR as we look to implement our detailed and comprehensive health and safety plan.”

Fans will undergo temperature screenings upon entry and also be required to wear face coverings at all times on property. The track said each attendee will receive a mask and bottle of hand sanitizer.

The Friday, Oct. 2 race will be shown at 3:30 p.m. ET on USA, and NBC will broadcast the Saturday, Oct. 3 race at 2:30 p.m. ET.

Here’s the release from Indianapolis Motor Speedway:

INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020 – For the first time in 2020, Indianapolis Motor Speedway will welcome fans to the Racing Capital of the World for the INDYCAR Harvest GP presented by GMR weekend. Up to 10,000 spectators can be in the grandstands each day of racing action Oct. 1-4, per approval from the Marion County Public Health Department.

Tickets are available now via IMS.com and will be sold on a first-come, first-served basis.

The massive facility, which holds more than 300,000 people, will provide two spectator zones with up to 5,000 fans in each. The zones will be located in Turns 1 and 4 of the oval, offering strong sightlines of the road course. Strict health and safety rules will be in place, including the following:

  • Face coverings must be worn throughout the property at all times;
  • All fans will receive temperature screenings before gate entry;
  • Grandstand seats will be marked for distancing;
  • Attendees must use pre-assigned gates and remain in their designated zones.

Global Medical Response, the world leader in compassionate, quality emergency medical and patient relocation services, will be the presenting sponsor of the penultimate weekend of INDYCAR racing this season.

“We can’t wait to see fans come through our gates for the first time in 2020,” IMS President J. Douglas Boles said. “They’ll be greeted by a vastly improved facility, featuring significant upgrades to the spectator experience. We’re also extremely grateful to have a presenting sponsor with the expertise and resources of GMR as we look to implement our detailed and comprehensive health and safety plan.”

The plan, which includes each attendee receiving a mask and a bottle of hand sanitizer upon entering the track, was developed in consultation with state and local health officials.

This event weekend is highlighted by an NTT INDYCAR SERIES doubleheader, with races Friday, Oct. 2 and Saturday, Oct. 3. It will be the penultimate event of the series’ season as the field pursues the champion’s prestigious Astor Challenge Cup to be awarded Sunday, Oct. 25 at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The INDYCAR Harvest GP will pay tribute to a storied IMS event, the Harvest Classic in September 1916. The Harvest Classic was the only racing event held outside of May at IMS from 1911 through 1993. The event featured three races, all won by legendary driver Johnny Aitken.

Fans also will see a host of facility improvements during the event weekend, including more than 30 new LED video boards, refreshed concession stands and restrooms, and 5G wireless connectivity throughout the facility.

The first race will air at 3:30 p.m. (ET) Friday, Oct. 2 on the USA Network. NBC will broadcast the second race at 2:30 p.m. (ET) Saturday, Oct. 3, with WTHR-13 airing the action live in Central Indiana.

Also racing that weekend will be the first pairing of two major sports car series — the Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli and its North American counterpart, GT World Challenge America Powered by AWS. Former Indianapolis 500 pole winner Ryan Briscoe is among the drivers in the Indianapolis 8 Hour event held Sunday, Oct. 4.

The event also will showcase drivers in SRO America’s Pirelli GT4 America, GT Sports Club America and the TC America series.

The full on-track schedule is available at IMS.com.