For NHRA Funny Car driver Tommy Johnson Jr., in a way, 50 is the new 20.
It was 30 years ago this weekend that the Ottumwa, Iowa native made his first appearance in a Top Fuel dragster in a NHRA national event at the former Firebird Raceway in Chandler, Arizona (suburban Phoenix), now known as Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park.
The now-50-year-old Johnson returns to the Grand Canyon State for this weekend’s Magic Dry Organic Absorbent NHRA Arizona Nationals, the second race on the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series national event schedule. And even though he now drives a Funny Car, he’s still looking to make it a momentous anniversary, indeed.
“You can definitely see where being a veteran and having experience pays off,” said Johnson, who has 17 career wins across both Top Fuel and Funny Car. “I want to use that now.
“I think it’s all about maintaining focus throughout the year. It’s a long season and you can’t let the lows get you down or let the highs distract you. That comes from years of experience. When you’ve been there and done that, it helps keep you on track. Being a veteran, it gives you a whole different mindset on racing.”
Johnson, who now lives in suburban Indianapolis, has had a noteworthy racing career. He comes into this weekend having made over 400 national event starts. That includes stints driving for NHRA legends Kenny Bernstein, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, NFL coach and NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs and current boss, Don Schumacher.
Johnson hopes to go one step further than he did in last year’s early-season race in Phoenix, when he finished runner-up. He also won there earlier in his career.
Now, after finishing third in the Funny Car final standings last season (and did so despite going winless in 24 races) and ending up runner-up in the final race of the 2018 season, Johnson picked up where he left off with a strong start already in 2019, reaching the semifinals in the season-opening Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals two weeks ago.
His team made very few changes during the offseason and it showed in the season-opener. Now, Johnson is ready to claim his first win since the final race of 2017.
“It speaks well to the consistency of our tune-up and we’re racing better earlier in the year than we ever have,” Johnson said. “We made minimal changes as far as what we did in the off-season and came out and ran well.
“For our confidence level, that’s tremendous. We ended the season on a really high note and to continue that after a long break, that’s pretty important.”
Having qualified No. 3 two weeks ago in Pomona, California, Johnson understands how significant it is to have as strong of a start to the season as possible – and to continue moving forward with equally strong showings or better in the next several races.
Because it’s a long 24-race season, the more ground he gain can early on, the more it may ultimately help him heading into the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
“History shows it’s hard to keep your performance all season, but it’s definitely easier if you have it right away than it is to try and find it,” Johnson said. “I’m sure there will be a point in the season where we have to get back on track, but our focus is trying to maintain this.
“To get into a flow right off the bat is big, and to have a car that runs well no matter the conditions is super encouraging.”