NHRA: It took 35 years, but Tommy Johnson Jr. finally gets elusive Denver win

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From now on, whenever someone looks up the definition of the word “persistence” in a dictionary, a photo of NHRA Funny Car drag racer Tommy Johnson Jr. should be alongside.

For 35 years, Johnson has sought to get a do-over of one of the toughest losses in his career, something that gnawed at him. It was back in 1984 at Bandimere Speedway in the Denver suburb of Morrison, Colorado, that a 15-year-old fresh-faced kid from Ottumwa, Iowa, reached the final round of the Super Gas category, but fell short of victory.

It was the first final round appearance (in any of the four classes he’s raced in) in what would become a lengthy and successful drag racing career.

Still, no matter how hard he tried in all the subsequent appearances he made at Bandimere over the next 3 1/2 decades, Johnson could never avenge — nor forget — that first final round loss.

He would go on to reach the final round a total of four times over the ensuing years at Denver – including finishing runner-up in the 2017 Funny Car race there – but every time Johnson looked at his trophy case, a Bandimere winner’s trophy was still missing.

Even if he had a road map, every time Johnson – who now lives in suburban Indianapolis – tried to go through four elimination rounds at every race at the mile-high drag strip, he wound up being detoured by faster opponents.

That is, until Sunday.

Johnson, who drives the aptly appropriate Make-A-Wish Funny Car, finally saw his own wish come true, capturing the Dodge Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere.


When Johnson climbed out of his Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, 35 years of frustration, angst and disappointment was finally lifted off his shoulders.

With a face charged with emotion, Johnson had finally finished what he started and got his Rocky Mountain high in the process, you might say.

“Winning races is great, but winning the Dodge Mile-High Nationals, to me today, is my biggest victory ever,” Johnson said. “Thirty-five years ago, in 1984 when I was a kid, I got runner-up.

“I got runner-up three more times in three different categories. I wanted to win this race so bad, and I did it in my Dodge Charger Hellcat today. I knew we had a great race car and if we could control it on the track with the sun being out, we’d be good.

“The team did a great job. We’re so much of a better team than we have been in the past and we’ve really grown as a team.”

Johnson defeated, in order, Jeff Diehl, Don Schumacher Racing teammate Jack Beckman and Cruz Pedregon in the first three elimination rounds Sunday.

Then, when it counted the most, Johnson (4.102 seconds at 308.50 mph) defeated Bob Tasca III (4.158 seconds at 302.14 mph) to take home the “Wally” winner’s trophy (below) he had coveted for so long. Johnson is now 8-0 vs. Tasca in head-to-head round meetings over the years.

After recording a Denver career-best run (3.978 seconds at 317.72 mph) during Saturday’s qualifying, Johnson and his team was locked, loaded and ready for victory on Sunday.

“It wasn’t easy today, we had some close ones,” Johnson said. “Beckman was right there, Tasca was right there in the final. We struggled on Friday (first two rounds of qualifying), like a lot of teams, and we felt pretty confident that Saturday (final two qualifying rounds) would be okay.

Photo: Don Schumacher Racing

“We had a nice get-down-the-track run on Q3, but last night we made a great run (3.978 seconds, 317.72 mph), my quickest and fastest ever up on the mountain, and that gave John (Collins, crew chief), Rip (Reynolds, assistant crew chief) and the guys a ton of confidence.

“They did a great job. We’re a much better team than we have been in the past and we’ve really grown as a team.”

Not only was the win – his second of the 2019 season and 19th of his Funny Car career – personally gratifying, it also was pivotal in a big way for Johnson. He made a big jump upward in the NHRA Funny Car point standings, climbing to No. 2 in the rankings, now just 49 points behind points leader Robert Hight.

“This has been the best season ever, and I think we’re just getting started,” Johnson said.


  • Defending champion Steve Torrence won his eighth Top Fuel race of the season and tied legendary “Big Daddy” Don Garlits for No. 8 on the NHRA Top Fuel all-time national event wins list (35). Other winners were Greg Anderson in Pro Stock, who earned his first victory in a year, and Andrew Hines in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
  • 16-time champion John Force has quietly been moving up in the Funny Car standings and leaves Denver in third place. The 70-year-old Force has yet to win this season, but he’s definitely knocking on the door. When he finally knocks that door down, it will be yet another milestone in Force’s illustrious legacy: the 150th Funny Car triumph of his career.
  • With 14 races of the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule now in the books, four races remain before the start of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
  • The second of the three-race “Western Swing” is this weekend (July 26-28), with the NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway, north of San Francisco.

Here are videos of the final winning rounds in Top Fuel, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle:


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Ford unveils a new Mustang for 2024 Le Mans in motorsports ‘lifestyle brand’ retooling

Ford Mustang Le Mans
Ford Performance

LE MANS, France — Ford has planned a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans with its iconic Mustang muscle car next year under a massive rebranding of Ford Performance aimed at bringing the automotive manufacturer “into the racing business.”

The Friday unveil of the new Mustang Dark Horse-based race car follows Ford’s announcement in February (and a ballyhooed test at Sebring in March) that it will return to Formula One in 2026 in partnership with reigning world champion Red Bull.

The Mustang will enter the GT3 category next year with at least two cars in both IMSA and the World Endurance Championship, and is hopeful to earn an invitation to next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. The IMSA entries will be a factory Ford Performance program run by Multimatic, and a customer program in WEC with Proton Competition.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, also an amateur sports car racer, told The Associated Press the Mustang will be available to compete in various GT3 series across the globe to customer teams. But more important, Farley said, is the overall rebranding of Ford Performance – done by renowned motorsports designer Troy Lee – that is aimed at making Ford a lifestyle brand with a sporting mindset.

“It’s kind of like the company finding its own, and rediscovering its icons, and doubling down on them,” Farley told the AP. “And then this motorsports activity is getting serious about connecting enthusiast customers with those rediscovered icons. It’s a big switch for the company – this is really about building strong, iconic vehicles with enthusiasts at the center of our marketing.”

Ford last competed in sports car racing in 2019 as part of a three-year program with Chip Ganassi Racing. The team scored the class win at Le Mans in 2016 in a targeted performance aimed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ford snapping Ferrari’s six-year winning streak.

Ford on Friday displayed a Mustang with a Lee-designed livery that showcased the cleaner, simplified look that will soon be featured on all its racing vehicles. The traditional blue oval with Ford Performance in white lettering underneath will now be branded simply FP.

The new mark will be used across car liveries, merchandise and apparel, display assets, parts and accessories and in advertising.

Farley cited Porsche as an automaker that has successfully figured out how to sell cars to consumers and race cars in various series around the world while creating a culture of brand enthusiasts. He believes Ford’s new direction will help the company sell street cars, race cars, boost interest in driving schools, and create a merchandise line that convinces consumers that a stalwart of American automakers is a hip, cool brand.

“We’re going to build a global motorsports business off road and on road,” Farley told the AP, adding that the design of the Mustang is “unapologetically American.”

He lauded the work of Lee, who is considered the top helmet designer among race car drivers.

“We’re in the first inning of a nine inning game, and going to Le Mans is really important,” Farley said. “But for customer cars, getting the graphics right, designing race cars that win at all different levels, and then designing a racing brand for Ford Performance that gets rebranded and elevated is super important.”

He said he’s kept a close eye on how Porsche and Aston Martin have built their motorsports businesses and said Ford will be better.

“We’re going in the exact same direction. We just want to be better than them, that’s all,” Farley said. “Second is the first loser.”

Farley, an avid amateur racer himself, did not travel to Le Mans for the announcement. The race that begins Saturday features an entry from NASCAR, and Ford is the reigning Cup Series champion with Joey Logano and Team Penske.

The NASCAR “Garage 56” entry is a collaboration between Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and is being widely celebrated throughout the industry. Farley did feel left out of the party in France – a sentiment NASCAR tried to avoid by inviting many of its partners to attend the race so that it wouldn’t seem like a Chevrolet-only celebration.

“They’re going right and I’m going left – that NASCAR thing is a one-year deal, right? It’s Garage 56 and they can have their NASCAR party, but that’s a one-year party,” Farley said. “We won Le Mans outright four times, we won in the GT class, and we’re coming back with Mustang and it’s not a one-year deal.

“So they can get all excited about Garage 56. I almost see that as a marketing exercise for NASCAR, but for me, that’s a science project,” Farley continued. “I don’t live in a world of science projects. I live in the world of building a vital company that everyone is excited about. To do that, we’re not going to do a Garage 56 – I’ve got to beat Porsche and Aston Martin and Ferrari year after year after year.”

Ford’s announcement comes on the heels of General Motors changing its GT3 strategy next season and ending its factory Corvette program. GM, which unlike Ford competes in the IMSA Grand Touring Prototype division (with its Cadillac brand), will shift fully to a customer model for Corvettes in 2024 (with some factory support in the IMSA GTD Pro category).