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.

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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).

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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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Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).