NHRA: Top Fuel’s Alan Johnson, Shawn Langdon have big appetite for Gainesville win

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There’s an old adage among amateur drag racers about “racing for our supper.”

In other words, if they do well during a racing session, they may earn a few bucks in winnings, just enough to buy dinner.

In a sense, that’s kind of the case for NHRA Top Fuel team owner Alan Johnson and his driver, Shawn Langdon.

Having lost their sponsorship a month before the current season began, Johnson and Langdon have not only been racing for their supper in the first two races of the 2015 season, they’re also racing for their collective professional livelihood on a race-by-race basis.

This weekend’s Amalie Gatornationals at Auto Plus Raceway in Gainesville, Fla., marks Johnson and Langdon’s next race.

If they don’t finish well, it could also be their last race.

At least for the time being, that is, barring any new sponsorship that comes their way.

Essentially, Johnson and Langdon have to win or finish strongly to go on to the next race, March 27-29, in Charlotte, N.C.

It’s a tremendous amount of pressure, but Johnson is taking things in stride.

“We’re still entertaining some funding opportunities, but nothing is certain yet,” Johnson told MotorSportsTalk. “Obviously, these things take time … companies (potential sponsors) don’t act in 30 seconds We’re just kind of moving along from race to race, hoping something happens.

“But at some point, we’re going to have to draw a line if we can’t get it done. Gainesville is our next race and we’re planning to go there and win. Hopefully, by the time the weekend is over, we’ll have some funding in place. But obviously, there’s no guarantees.”

AJR has won three of the last five NHRA Top Fuel championships (2010, 2011 and 2013) and six overall (1997, 1998 and 2000 beforehand).

And even with all the difficulty his team has already gone through with the loss of its sponsorship, Johnson is still optimistic that a seventh Top Fuel championship is attainable in 2015.

Shawn Langdon has had strong performance thus far in the NHRA season. (Photo: Ron Lewis/Alan Johnson Racing)

“Racing the entire season and competing for the 2015 NHRA Mello Yello world championship is still our goal,” Johnson said. “We are racing in Gainesville to provide a little more time to put a program together that will allow us to do that.

“We enter every race with the goal of winning it, and we are going to Gainesville with every intention of winning the Gatornationals.”

Langdon, who won the 2013 NHRA Top Fuel championship, has kept Alan Johnson Racing going with some excellent driving in the first two races.

In the season opener at Pomona, Calif., Langdon had a storybook weekend, particularly with AJR fresh off the loss of its sponsorship.

Langdon not only qualified No. 1 at Pomona, he recorded the quickest 1,000-foot pass in NHRA history (3.700 seconds) and then capped things off by winning the entire event.

In the second race of the season at Phoenix, Langdon reached the semifinals, and emerged with the Top Fuel points lead intact, leading Antron Brown by 33 points.

It goes without saying that AJR is off to a good start performance-wise.

“Without a doubt,” Johnson said. “My teams over the years have always been performance-based. That’s what we do.

“We’re obviously happy we won Pomona and hope we can do the same thing at Gainesville.”

When the sponsorship left, Johnson committed to compete in just the first two races before analyzing where to go from there.

But given how strong the team has performed – as well as efforts by renowned Food Network star Guy Fieri to seek sponsorship for the AJR dragster – it’s now on to Gainesville, where Johnson’s team has three national event wins (late brother Blaine Johnson in 1996, Larry Dixon in 2009 and Del Worsham in 2011).

Guy Fieri is helping Alan Johnson Racing find new sponsorship to continue racing in 2015. (Photo: Ron Lewis/ALan Johnson Racing)

Even though he has a successful performance business away from the racetrack, Johnson admits the last two months since sponsorship dried up have been very challenging from a personal standpoint.

“It has been frustrating and disappointing,” Johnson said. “But our employees have been wonderful through this whole thing. That’s my No. 1 attention, to make sure my employees are taken care of well.

“Things happen and sometimes they’re out of your control. You just have to make the best decision and hopefully make it work for you in a positive way. … Patience is very paramount at this point.

“Am I scared, no. … But certainly I want to be out there competing. If I’m not, that would be the one thing I’d miss, the competition.”

Even though his and the team’s future is dependent upon his dragster continuing to doing well, Langdon is really looking forward to this weekend’s event.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been this excited to get back out to a race track,” Langdon said. “With not knowing until kind of the last moment if we were going to Gainesville, getting that phone call saying we were going got all the butterflies going again and got that excitement level back up.”

Yep, that sure sounds like a guy who’s hungry about racing for his supper,

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Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi bring their storied rivalry to a new level at Rolex 24

Ganassi Penske Rolex 24
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – To measure the impact of Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi squaring off for the first time in overall sports car wins (starting at the Rolex 24), look at the auto racing titans’ lineups.

There are 12 combined drivers across four entries representing Chip Ganassi Racing (competing as Cadillac Racing) and Team Penske (as Porsche Penske Motorsport) in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona.

And with the possible exception of six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, none of those behind the wheel is as famous and accomplished as the U.S. motorsports icons who will be sitting atop the pit stands at Daytona International Speedway.

In the NTT IndyCar Series, Penske and Ganassi are synonymous with success, having combined for 23 Indy 500 victories and 30 championships. They also competed in the NASCAR Cup Series for two decades with several signature wins for each.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH IN GTPRolex 24 at Daytona kicks off new golden era for sports cars

Until now, the rivalry never extended to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where they competed in different classes from 2018-19 and have competed in the top category in differing times over the years.

But the 2023 season opener at Daytona will mark the beginning of a new era in which Ganassi and Penske will compete for sports car overall victories on two continents. A Ganassi Cadillac Racing V-LMDh and Porsche Penske Motorsports Penske 936 will run full time in both the premier prototype divisions of IMSA and the European-based World Endurance Championship – whose crown jewel is the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Having two of the world’s biggest sports car races welcome the Ganassi-Penske battle seems only fitting in a season in which IMSA’s new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class is expected to introduce a stiffer level of competition.

“We obviously like beating each other,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “I think if you beat Penske, you know you’ve beaten someone. You’ve accomplished something great. It’s going to be the same as always. Just another platform at another track, but the rivalry will be just as heated I’m sure.

“On one hand, he’s always the first guy to call us out for a penalty or something. On the other hand, he’s also the first guy to congratulate me on a win, so I think it’s a healthy rivalry, but we certainly pound each other’s heads into the ground on race day. Monday through Friday it switches to more of a good relationship.”

After starting his career in sports cars, Penske also is looking forward to having a new arena to race Ganassi.

“There is a lot of anticipation and excitement about the Rolex 24 and the upcoming sports car season overall,” Penske said in a statement to NBC Sports statement. “With the new hybrid prototype formula ready to make its debut, and some great competition expected on the track between teams, drivers and manufacturers, there is a lot of momentum building right now. Porsche Penske Motorsport is excited to compete in both the IMSA WeatherTech Championship, as well as the FIA World Endurance Championship, this season and I can’t wait to see the No. 6 and No. 7 Porsche 963s in action at Daytona this weekend. We also look forward to bringing some new rivalries and storylines to the sport.

Roger Penske confers with Chip Ganassi before the 2013 Honda Indy Toronto (Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports Images).

“In the new IMSA GTP class, there should be a good competitive balance between Porsche, Cadillac, Acura and BMW. We have seen how the rivalry between Team Penske and Ganassi Racing has developed in the NTT IndyCar Series in recent years, and that could certainly extend to sports cars as our teams and drivers continue to develop the new formula and push the production on track in both IMSA and WEC. We will see how the competition plays out, starting this weekend, as we always enjoy racing against Chip and his teams.”

Though there have been some fiery moments over the years (Dario Franchitti vs. Will Power, anyone?), Ganassi vs. Penske mostly has been a story of respect between two organizations whose main strengths are people.

“It’s just the depth of the organizations going up against each other,” Ganassi said. “It’s not just he and I. It’s at every level of the organization.

“We’re smaller. I’d like to think we’re a little more nimble. This is all I do is race cars. I don’t have 200 car dealerships or a truck rental company or a transportation company. I just have racing is all I have.”

Heading into Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, here are the thoughts of Ganassi and Penske drivers in the Rolex 24 at Daytona:

Earl Bamber, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “When I grew up as a kid, I remember watching Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske battle each other for many years, obviously following Scott Dixon and his career in IndyCar (Bamber is a New Zealand native like Dixon). And when the opportunity came up to come and race for Chip, it’s a no-brainer. It’s one of those teams you want to drive for in the world. It’s one of the biggest and most successful teams in the world. And then we’ve got Porsche, where I used to drive, with Penske. It’s going to be a phenomenal rivalry over the next couple of years and that rivalry continues between two absolute legends of our sport. Two people who have been the most successful. I hope we can get Cadillac and Chip their first Le Mans win. That’s obviously the ultimate goal for us and beat his old rival, Roger.

“Those two powerhouses of the sport, they definitely raise the bar. You’ve seen it in IndyCar for years and years. One finds something and the next pushes it forward and forward. You’ll see the same in sports car racing. We all saw what Chip Ganassi Racing did back in the day with the GT program. So no doubt we can do the same again. It’s the ultimate highest level of motorsport when it comes to sports car racing, and there’ll be no stone unturned to make sure that we’re winning these races. It will be a really great fight, great for the fans and great for the sport, because both of them love winning.”

Dane Cameron, No. 6 Porsche Penske: “I think anytime you have Chip and Roger come to town to start fighting for wins, it raises the profile of the whole thing. Hopefully it brings a few more eyes to everything. Certainly brings a lot of expectation with it as well, and I also think it reflects really strongly on the championship to show how competitive it is. They respect the championship and challenge, but when they come to town, they come to win for sure.”

Scott Dixon, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “The battle between Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske is always a fierce one. I obviously know it well from the IndyCar side. But I think it’s a lot more than that. It’s impressive to see a lot of the manufacturers that have come in for this battle. I imagine if it’s not from the first race but during the season that Penske and Ganassi will fight it out pretty hard.

“I think the rivalry between Chip Ganassi racing and Penske has always been strong and in a good way. There’s been some battles and the 2010s for me and other drivers when it gets fierce. Some disagreements here and there. But it’s always been a great pure battle, which is what I think these championships are made of and what brings the fans to the track. So I’d sum it up as a very healthy rivalry.”

Alex Lynn, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “Even as a little boy (growing up in England), you knew exactly who Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi were. You knew what their teams represented. For me to represent Chip and his team is a huge honor. I’m extremely motivated to try to add to his legacy and be part of the fabric of this team. I think having the battle between Penske and Ganassi is iconic. Also Porsche and Cadillac as brands, respectively, just adds to the occasion. Makes me smile even thinking about it knowing what we get to represent when the flag drops.”

Felipe Nasr, No. 7 Porsche Penske: “I think it’s fantastic especially because we’re merging the IMSA and WEC Series and giving the opportunity for teams like Penske and Ganassi to fight for overall victories. You look at the history of those teams, they’ve been on top. We always hear it from the IndyCar guys or the NASCAR side, you’re talking two big names in motorsports. You expect nothing but them fighting for wins. For sure Ganassi has strengths, and we have strengths as well. I’m pretty glad I have the opportunity to be representing Team Penske and continue to write history with them and Porsche is a great opportunity.”

Richard Westbrook, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “The chance for the two most famous teams in America to go head to head in the Daytona 24 Hours and also the Le Mans 24 Hours. I expect that rivalry to keep going up more notches.”

Renger van der Zande, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “Obviously, it’s such the big houses of racing in the U.S. Penske and Ganassi are taking it at each other. The rivalry is big. The best of the best. The most famous ones in the U.S.

“Ganassi is part of Cadillac. We’re the race team that runs the factory program for Cadillac. Penske is running it for Porsche, obviously a high brand as well. Those teams have their little rivalry, but they’re working for a bigger company, a bigger brand, which is Cadillac and Porsche. So those two premium brands taking on each other and then two of the best teams in America taking on each other. It’s very simple: Cadillac got the best team in the U.S. and Porsche got the best team in the U.S. So let’s see what happens. It’s going to be a cool fight.”