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.

NOTES:

  • 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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The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”


Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”


Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500